Xi Maintains Close Ties with Russia as War in Ukraine Enters a New Year

As Russia’s war against Ukraine spills into 2023, China continues its policy of “pro-Russian neutrality”—a balancing act that affords China enough diplomatic and economic cover to tacitly support Russian aggression, but not so much as to incur Western sanctions. At the turn of the new year, analysts took stock of the evolving dynamic between the two countries. Despite China and Russia’s divergent interests and uncertain futures, Xi Jinping has refused to distance himself from Vladimir Putin, and has increasingly become the dominant force in their stated “no-limits” partnership

Experts argue that China has the upper hand. Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Atlantic, “The asymmetry that was built into this relationship even before the war has been galvanized by the war,” and the relationship is now “more beneficial to China than for Russia.” Summarizing the main takeaways from their relationship in 2022, Joseph Webster argued in The Diplomat that Russia’s invasion rendered it even more dependent on China

Russia’s dependency on China was pronounced before the invasion and will likely worsen. In 2021, Russian exports to China accounted for 4.4 percent of Russian GDP; this year the figure could easily exceed 5 percent, as Russian GDP falls and trade with the West contracts. Russia is shut out of Western technology markets and has little-to-no capacity to innovate on its own. Some surveys suggest more than 30 percent of Russian IT professionals have fled the country; the former CEO of Yandex, arguably Russia’s most successful tech company, now lives in Israel. Unwilling to import technology from the West, and unable to innovate on its own, Russia will be forced to turn to China for semiconductors, 5G, and more. China’s increasingly dominant economic and technological influence in Russia will continue to constrain Moscow’s freedom of maneuver.

How much dependency Russia can tolerate? With Russian comprehensive national power extremely likely to attenuate, Moscow must continue to accept Beijing’s priorities over its own.

[…] With China’s economic and military capabilities likely to rise relative to Moscow’s in the years to come, the relationship is becoming ever more imbalanced. Moreover, if China is able to phase out imports of Russian commodities such as oil, gas, and coal, it will have even less need for an unreliable, weak partner. Moscow and Beijing are set to draw closer in 2023, but the relationship’s sustainability remains an open question. [Source]

Some analysts perceive a subtle shift in China’s attitude toward Russia since the war has tilted more in favor of Ukraine, reflecting Beijing’s implicit disapproval of Moscow’s military actions, as well as a desire to protect China’s global image. During a meeting with Xi in September, Putin admitted that Xi had “concerns” about the situation in Ukraine, and later at the G20 summit, Xi did not object to the joint statement that “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation.” Last week, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV described the situation in Ukraine as a “crisis,” marking a departure from the government’s usual references to the “Ukraine situation,” according to the AP. In a recent policy brief on Sino-Russian relations, the Brookings Institution described the two countries’ “irreconcilable” visions:

Even with China and Russia’s current partnership and antagonism toward the United States, the two countries’ visions for world order diverge. China’s notion of a “post-West” order is one where there are still rules but China has a greater say in making those rules and maintains the right and ability to flout the rules as a great power in the Indo-Pacific. By contrast, Putin’s Russia prefers a disrupted world order with no rules, where Russia can flex its muscle. Ultimately, these two visions are irreconcilable. [Source]

Differences and asymmetry aside, cooperation between the two countries has continued across various sectors, notably the media. Chinese state media has consistently amplified Russian-government narratives and censored anti-war content on social media since the start of the war. This week, Mara Hvistendahl and Alexey Kovalev from The Intercept uncovered a propaganda agreement between Russian and Chinese government officials and media executives to exchange news and social media content:

A bilateral agreement signed July 2021 makes clear that cooperating on news coverage and narratives is a big goal for both governments. At a virtual summit that month, leading Russian and Chinese government and media figures discussed dozens of news products and cooperative ventures, including exchanging news content, trading digital media strategies, and co-producing television shows. The effort was led by Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communication and Mass Media, and by China’s National Radio and Television Administration.

In the propaganda agreement, the two sides pledged to “further cooperate in the field of information exchange, promoting objective, comprehensive and accurate coverage of the most important world events.” They also laid out plans to cooperate on online and social media, a space that both countries have used to seed disinformation, pledging to strengthen “mutually beneficial cooperation in such issues as integration, the application of new technologies, and industry regulation.” 

[…] The signatories to the 2021 agreement include large state media outlets as well as online media companies and businesses in the private sector. Among those who signed were the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which has a streaming service; Migu Video, a gaming company under the state-run China Mobile; and SPB TV, a streaming service headquartered in Switzerland and owned by a Russian national. [Source]

Over the past few months, China and Russia have also stepped up military cooperation. Complementing joint naval exercises in the East China Sea, Chinese and Russian bombers recently conducted unprecedented joint patrols from one another’s airfields. The U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies released a new report analyzing Sino-Russian military alignment, noting how the widening gap between their technological capabilities may increase the asymmetry in their relationship. 

Reporting last month on China’s growing trade and energy partnerships with Russia, Lingling Wei and Marcus Walker from The Wall Street Journal described how “Xi is deepening his long-term bet on Russia”:

In recent weeks, he has instructed his government to forge stronger economic ties with Russia, according to policy advisers to Beijing, building on a trade relationship that has strengthened this year and become a lifeline to Moscow in the face of Western pressure.

The plan includes increasing Chinese imports of Russian oil, gas and farm goods, more joint energy partnerships in the Arctic and increased Chinese investment in Russian infrastructure, such as railways and ports, the advisers say.

Russia and China are also conducting more financial transactions in the ruble and yuan, rather than the euro or dollar, a move that helps insulate the two against future sanctions and put the Chinese currency into wider circulation.

[…] “Xi has been strengthening China’s relations with Russia largely independent of the Russian invasion,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. “The relationship may well be becoming ever closer.” [Source]

Statements and meetings by high-level diplomats over the past two weeks have also demonstrated the close ties between Beijing and Moscow. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (now promoted to director of the general office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission) stated that China would “deepen strategic mutual trust and mutually beneficial cooperation” with Russia. In a virtual meeting later that week, Putin stated that Russia’s ties with China are the “best in history,” and Xi urged both countries to “enhance strategic coordination [and] continue to be each other’s development opportunity and global partner.”

One week earlier, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev made a surprise trip to Beijing to visit Xi. Joseph Webster, author of the China-Russia Report newsletter, highlighted the context of their meeting: “Xi is hosting a national security official from a country that, by most accounts, is poised to escalate an ongoing invasion. Xi’s calls for peace talks are, most likely, designed to pre-emptively deflect responsibility in the event of another Russian escalation.” Russia indeed renewed its attacks in the weeks that followed. Victoria Kim and Anton Troianovski from The New York Times described Medvedev’s close ties to Putin and trust in durable cooperation with China:

Mr. Medvedev is a longtime Putin ally and has emerged as one of the government’s most hawkish voices advocating a hard line against Ukraine and its allies, primarily the United States. He is the deputy chairman of Mr. Putin’s security council and the head of Mr. Putin’s ruling party, United Russia

[…] In Beijing, Mr. Xi told Mr. Medvedev that relations between the two countries had “stood the test of international changes” and that their partnership was a “long-term strategic choice made by both sides,” according to the state broadcaster, China Central Television. [Source]

Analysts in Europe have also assessed China’s partnership with Russia as being fairly stable. In his latest Watching China in Europe newsletter, Noah Barkin cautioned: “It is not wrong of European leaders to urge Xi to use his influence with Putin to end the war, as they have been doing since the invasion began nearly a year ago. But they should not assume that he will do so or that Beijing can be pried away from Moscow.” MERICS fellow Alicja Bachulska predicted that “China’s media offensive will surely continue” in 2023, despite having had little success in its past efforts to convince Europe of China’s “neutrality.” Kyiv-based analyst Yurii Poita described how Xi’s “pro-Russian neutrality” has made many in Ukraine more critical of China, but due to China’s close ties to Moscow, the Ukrainian government remains wary of attempting to pressure Beijing. 

At RFE/RL, Reid Standish shared other analysts’ views on the evolution of Sino-Russian relations at the onset of the new year:

“The military ineptness of Russia has somewhat diminished [its standing], but China remains committed to Russia as a strategic partner,” Steve Tsang, director of SOAS University London’s China Institute, told RFE/RL. “Russia may have proved itself less valuable, but [Beijing] continues to see the United States as a strategic competitor and will want to have Russia on its side.”

[…] “China seems likely to continue offering strong rhetorical support for Russia, but practical military and economic support is less likely,” Charles Dunst, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of Defeating The Dictators, told RFE/RL. “The United States has repeatedly warned China that military and economic support for Russia would prompt U.S. sanctions — a situation that China, with its economy in a somewhat precarious position, wants to avoid.”

[…“Chinese strategists] know that Russia wants respect, and if they give that, then this is a cheap trade for Beijing,” added [Andew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund]. “If they treat Russia as an equal — even if they don’t think they are — then this will pay dividends for China, and that’s been a growing part of how Xi has approached this entire relationship.” ​[Source]

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