The relationship between China and Russia seems to grow closer as the U.S. and China look at each other with hostile eyes. At what point does this become scary?

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping click champagne glasses at a dinner.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, toasts with Chinese President Xi Jinping prior to the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in June 2019.  (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, may soon be heading to Moscow to visit his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin if the hints emerging from Russian officials are to be believed.

Such a meeting would be heavy with symbolism given Putin’s pariah status in the West, but whether China is ready to offer Moscow more concrete evidence of its friendship in the form of material support is quite another matter.

President Xi was more than happy to hail his “no limits” friendship with Putin when he played host in early 2022 to his Russian counterpart  — one of the few world leaders to endorse China’s controversial staging of the Winter Olympics.

The Russian leader may have felt that some limits did exist, however, because he failed to mention to Xi that he would invade Ukraine three weeks later. Xi was taken by surprise. He was unlikely to have been pleased.

When the two next met, at a September regional summit in Uzbekistan, Putin acknowledged that China had “questions and concerns” about what he was doing in Ukraine. Not a ringing endorsement from Xi for Russia’s invasion. But their very meeting was a signal that Xi was nevertheless still willing to stand with his friend in the face of Western backing for Kiev.

It is typical of China’s approach, a mix of caution and support.

Friction between global superpowers

China has seized on the opportunity to burnish its credentials as a counterbalance to U.S. power, particularly as their relationship has cooled sharply since Donald Trump first introduced sanctions and Joe Biden expanded them. Xi regards Putin as an important ally in standing up to U.S. global influence.

Xi certainly does not want to see his friend defeated on the battlefield.

If Russia were to lose the war and Putin fell from power, then China could face the prospect of an unknown leadership in Moscow — possibly even a pro-Western liberal — where at present it is certain of a firm and similarly autocratic ally.

With Russia’s army bogged down by Ukraine’s fierce defence of its territory, the overarching question for China must be whether it should move away from its pro-Moscow neutrality and actually supply Russia with weapons.

U.S. intelligence, apparently based primarily on Russian sources, has said that Beijing is indeed actively considering whether to help Putin with much-needed shipments of such munitions as artillery shells and drones. China has repeatedly denied that it has any such intentions.

But the decision is not a simple one.

Could China cool the Ukraine conflict?

One view in Beijing is that if it signals to the U.S. that it won’t allow Russia to lose the war then that could encourage the U.S. to push Ukraine towards a peace settlement.

China would much prefer a negotiated solution that would keep Russia as a strong ally. Indeed, it has proposed a 12-point peace plan so vague that it was dismissed at once by the U.S. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was more positive and suggested a meeting with Xi. So far, China has not responded.

Beijing must also be anxious that a Russian defeat would only strengthen the U.S. and the West, which might then turn their attention towards ways to weaken China. This is already a real concern for Xi.

 “It (the U.S.) regards China as its primary rival and the most consequential geopolitical challenge,” said Foreign Minister Qin Gang last week. “This is like the first button in the shirt being put wrong. If the U.S. does not put on the brakes and continues to roar down the wrong road, no amount of guardrails can stop the derailment and overturning, and it is bound to fall into conflict and confrontation. Who will bear its disastrous consequences?”

But Chinese analysts are also aware that the dispatch of armaments to Russia could provoke a furious reaction from Washington.

As Zhou Bo, a former colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wrote in the Financial Times: “If Beijing takes Moscow’s side in the conflict then we are already in the dawn of the third world war.”

A new cold war heats up.

A cold war would be more likely than armed open conflict between China and the U.S., and still have significant ramifications for China. Rage in Washington, where suspicions about China’s rise and the nature of its ambitions are already intense, could convert easily from current limits on technological exports into much broader penalties on trade.

A hit to economic growth could fuel unemployment and stir up the popular unrest that is Beijing’s greatest fear.

Meanwhile, China is scrutinising reactions to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine for hints as to the global response if and when it decides to retake the self-ruled island of Taiwan. China has seen the unity of the West in backing Ukraine and must have drawn lessons in relation to Taiwan.

And the PLA, having seen Putin’s army struggle to subdue a country with which Russia shares a border, will surely be reconsidering the military difficulty of launching an amphibious invasion of an island 100 miles from the Chinese mainland.

These are the considerations that will be at the forefront of Xi’s mind should he proceed to meet with Putin in Moscow.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What would prompt China to supply Russia with weapons?
  2. How likely is it that Beijing would try to recover Taiwan?
  3. Why does China want to see peace talks over Ukraine?
Jane Macartney

Jane Macartney worked as a journalist for nearly four decades, with United Press International, followed by Reuters and The Times. She worked for most of her career in Asia, principally in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan after studying Sinology at university. She also undertook several assignments in Pakistan and Afghanistan with roles as correspondent, news editor and bureau chief.  

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