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14 September 2022

Why China won’t ditch Vladimir Putin

The first meeting between the Russian and Chinese leaders since the start of the war in Ukraine will be closely watched for signs of tension.

By Katie Stallard

On 4 February, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met for talks in Beijing and declared that their friendship had “no limits”. When the Russian and Chinese presidents meet again this week at a regional summit in Uzbekistan, the encounter will be scrutinised for signs that Xi is now distancing himself from Putin as Russian forces lose ground in Ukraine.

A volte-face is unlikely.

There are numerous reasons why Xi might have wished for Putin not to have launched his calamitous invasion of Ukraine. The conflict has caused global energy and food prices to spike, and has upended China’s plans to make Ukraine a key transit hub of the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s signature foreign policy project. The war has also strengthened Western unity and reinvigorated Nato, which has designated China a “systemic challenge”, as well as focusing attention in Washington on the need to accelerate arms sales to Taiwan, the self-governing island Beijing claims as its own. On 2 September the US announced more than $1 billion in new weapons sales to Taiwan, including anti-ship missiles and radar support.

None of this means that Xi will turn his back on Putin, whom he has called his “best and bosom friend”. The faster Russia’s offensive unravels, and the greater the domestic pressure Putin faces as a result, the more steadfast Xi is likely to be in his support. There are several reasons for this. First, Xi values Putin as an essential strategic partner in their shared, existential contest with the US and the US-led international order. Beijing would not welcome a humiliating military loss for Russia that could be viewed as a victory for Western unity, sanctions and armed aid, tactics that could later be used against China. When Li Zhanshu, one of China’s most senior officials, met Putin at an economic forum in Vladivostok on 7 September, he was reported to have praised his leadership, noting that Russia had not been “crushed by the severe sanctions of the United States and the West, but rather in a short period achieved stability and showed resilience”.

[See also: Where does Putin go from here?]

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Then, there is the complementary, if increasingly unequal, economic relationship between the two countries. Russia provides a reliable source of energy and advanced weaponry to China, while China provides an essential stream of revenue for Russia. In February, during Putin’s visit to Beijing, the two countries signed a 30-year contract for Russia to supply natural gas to China (although by Putin’s own admission Beijing negotiated hard on gas prices). Work on a second pipeline via Mongolia is reportedly due to begin in 2024, carrying gas from Siberian fields that have previously been used to supply European customers to China. But it will take at least another six years before the pipeline is operational and China’s slowing economy is unlikely to fully compensate for the loss of sales to Europe.

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While the balance of trade between the two countries has become lopsided, with Russia accounting for just 2 per cent of China’s overall trade in 2020 (compared with at least 18 percent the other way around), both countries have a strong incentive to manage any frictions that arise from this growing asymmetry. They also both benefit from maintaining good relations along their 4,200km border and being able to focus their attention and their forces on territorial disputes elsewhere. Neither country would welcome a return to the deadly border clashes that took place between China and the Soviet Union in 1969, in which dozens of troops on both sides are thought to have been killed.

Finally, there is the personal relationship between Xi and Putin. Their 38 meetings in person since Xi became president in 2013 have been characterised by warm declarations of friendship. Having proclaimed their ties “superior” to a formal alliance, Xi is unlikely to announce that he is now cutting them, especially approaching an important Chinese Communist Party congress in October at which Xi is expected to secure a third five-year term in power and will want to show that his strategic acumen is unsurpassed.

This does not mean that the partnership between the two leaders is as limitless as they claim. While the value of Russian exports to China has surged since the start of 2022 – up more than 50 percent from 2021 – trade in the other direction has decreased. Chinese companies appear to be abiding by export controls and avoiding openly breaching international sanctions. Beijing has similarly avoided supplying direct military aid to Moscow. China has taken a comparable approach to Russia’s military offensives in recent years, vehemently condemning Western sanctions in public but quietly abiding by them, and declining to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the claimed independence of the separatist-controlled territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. There are clear limits to how far China is prepared to go to support Russia despite the hyperbole.

Still, it is significant that Xi will use his first trip abroad since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 to meet Putin and to reaffirm the importance he attaches to their relationship. We can expect another display of mutual affection and bonhomie in front of cameras, regardless of any reservations they might harbour privately. Those looking for an indication that Xi has decided to ditch his erstwhile friend and withdraw his support are liable to be disappointed.

[See also: The perils of autocracy]

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