China-Russia ties: as the West forces them together, Xi and Putin show up for each other
- The relationship may be the closest the two nations have been since 1950s honeymoon that followed China’s fight against US and allied forces in the Korean war
- As the second-largest economy, China could provide Russia with some immunity against possible US sanctions over Ukraine
While US President Joe Biden got personal and threatened sanctions on Vladimir Putin if he invaded Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping tendered a warm welcome to the Russian leader as a guest of honour at the grand Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing on Friday.
And while Biden and his allied Western leaders announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games because of human rights concerns, the Russian leader will be among a limited number of foreign VIPs turning up to the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in support of the Chinese hosts.
It mirrors the situation in 2014 when Xi made a high-profile appearance at the Winter Olympics in Sochi as Putin was criticised by some Western leaders for Russia’s human rights record. In the following years, the two met nearly 30 times and became “best friends to heart”, as Xi described their relationship.
Russia and China have clearly built a de facto alliance “without limit, restriction or ceiling”, observers said, with frequent in-depth joint military exercises, joint space programmes and even potential cooperation in missile defence systems as well as regular exchanges between the presidents. This phase of their ties is so solid it possibly comes only second to the comradeship of the 1950s honeymoon that followed China’s fight against the Americans and allied forces in the Korean war.
Over the past seven decades, the two former communist brothers went through an ideological split, border conflicts and years of hostile military confrontation, and China’s development of ties with the US, until the end of the Cold War.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia initially wanted to establish a fully Western, separation-of-powers democracy, but during the Boris Yeltsin era Russia became disillusioned with “Western democracy” in both its domestic and foreign affairs, said Chen Jun, an associate professor at Mudanjiang Normal University.
“Russia’s Westernisation did not relieve Nato’s expansion and the US’ economic repression,” Chen said. “The US’ promised political and economic reform assistance during the Soviet era was also not fully realised.”
Chen also said that in the early Yeltsin era, Russia was extremely unstable politically, with numerous rotations of prime ministers and top government officials. The development of a market economy did not have the desired effect, either.
“As a result, in the late Yeltsin era, Russia had begun to gradually centralise power,” he said, adding that “with the gradual recovery of Russia’s economic strength, Putin’s Russia began to see moves to de-westernise and increase its geopolitical initiative”.
Artyom Lukin, an associate professor at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University, said: “If the US continues its current policy of dual containment against both Russia and China, there are no obvious limits to how far and deep the Sino-Russian quasi-alliance could develop in the future.”
Moscow began to move closer towards Beijing from 1996 with a “strategic partnership” implicitly aimed against US global predominance.
The two neighbours resolved their territorial disputes and signed a friendship treaty in 2001. Based on that they eventually established strategic collaboration mechanisms and projects, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) political, security and economic pact to integrate central Asia. In September, the SCO also started the procedure of raising Iran’s status to a full member state.
The leaders of five Central Asian nations have announced they will show up at the Olympic opening ceremony next week.
The friendship between Putin and Xi – or the trend of the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai teaming up – has become much more pronounced since 2014 in particular.
After the Sochi Olympics, Russia’s relations with the West dramatically deteriorated over Crimea. The Trump administration also named China a strategic rival to the US and waged a trade war on them – now escalated into a full-on competition in almost all aspects.
The two nations are not only getting closer to each other, but also uniting in their views on Iran, the Middle East and Central Asia.
On Iran, both China and Russia said they opposed US sanctions towards the Middle East nation. Last week, China, Iran and Russia carried out three days of joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman, their second such exercise since 2019.
On Central Asia, Beijing supported the deployment of Russian troops to tackle the unrest in Kazakhstan. Xi Jinping had said China supported measures taken by Kazakhstan to restore security, and opposed external forces instigating a “colour revolution” in the Central Asian nation.
Now, facing Washington’s continuously increasing pressure in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, China and Russia are cornered into a “back-to-back” position in Eurasia.
The uncertainty over US security commitments in the region – reflected by America’s withdrawal from a nuclear agreement between major powers and Iran in 2018 and troop pullback from Afghanistan last year – allowed China and Russia a moment to step up engagement.
“For China, Russia is not only a stable strategic rearguard and a reliable supplier of resources, but also can consolidate the struggle against the United States with the help of its own political and military resources,” said Wan Qingsong, an associate professor at the Centre for Russian Studies at East China Normal University.
“Especially as the US-China game is entering a stalemate phase, it will inevitably attract more third-party input of political and military resources. Russia’s value is obvious,” Wan added, referring to US moves to strengthen its alliances with Asia and Europe, which will prompt China to be more eager to build a united front with Russia.
For Russia, China is an indispensable partner in the ongoing diplomatic crisis.
“Russia may want to have an extra gesture of verbal support from China to drive out of political isolation induced by a nearly united flurry of accusation from the Western community,” said Danil Bochkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council.
As the second-largest economy, China could give Russia some immunity against possible US sanctions, according to Yang Cheng, executive president of the Shanghai Academy of Global Governance and Area Studies at Shanghai International Studies University.
“The two sides have been expanding their local currency settlements in recent years which … even if the United States does impose ‘sanctions from hell’ on Russia, China will conduct normal economic and trade relations with Russia in a reasonable and compliant manner as far as possible,” Yang said.
With Iran, there are discussions on forming an international front against the US sanctions.
Wan said China would aid Russia – which may come under most severe US sanctions – more proactively, because China had experienced its own “real pain, threats and challenges” in the deterioration of US-China relations, particularly after Beijing passed the national security law on Hong Kong in 2020.
With over 100,000 Russian troops and military hardware stationed along the border with Ukraine, fears loom that Russia could invade at any minute – given that Russia and Georgia had a “five-day Olympic war” during the 2008 Summer Games hosted by Beijing. Biden has warned he would consider sanctioning Russia if Moscow invaded Ukraine.
The United Nations has appealed to its member states to observe an Olympic Truce from Thursday until March 20 and China joined the International Olympic Committee in that calling.
In a show of direct support to Moscow, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday that Russia’s security concerns over Ukraine should be respected.
Wang said the security of one country should not be at the expense of the security of others, and regional security could not be guaranteed by strengthening or expanding military blocs.
“Russia’s reasonable security concerns should be taken seriously and resolved,” he said.
“We call on all parties to remain calm and refrain from doing things that stimulate tension and hype up the crisis.”
Wan said China had taken a neutral position between Russia and Ukraine, and called for peaceful dialogue and consultation.
“In terms of Russia’s geopolitical concerns, such as Ukraine, Nato expansion and joint security guarantees, China will maintain the same diplomatic and political stance as before, but will also clearly oppose United States and its allies’ provocation,” he said.
The leaders’ meeting at the Winter Olympics is likely to focus their conversation on security, the issue around which the two countries have the most common interests, according to Bochkov.
“Security and military cooperation will play one of the leading roles in the talks, since both states seem, for now, to prioritise those two areas as the most crucial ones because of the increased instability on the bordering regions [at risk of spilling over] and threatening destabilisation of domestic political and security milieus,” he said.
Wan added that the traditional military, political and ideological security issues would be addressed but economic security, energy security, food security, biosecurity, which were increasingly important, would also be touched upon.
Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, cybersecurity, Western financial sanctions and technological blockades, the green transition, carbon taxes, food supplies due to epidemics are examples of risk factors that threaten China and Russia.
Xi and Putin were likely to clarify their shared stance on some issues relating to regional peace and stability and each other’s core concerns, and to send a message of solidarity in response to the West’s attempt to divide and put a wedge in their ties, he said.
Authors: Liu Zhen, Ben Zhao, SCMP