China-Russia relations: Before the invasion of Ukraine

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, analysts looked at the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) – or rather the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP), since, as Xi Jinping, General Secretary, frequently declares: ‘the party leads everything’ – abstention in the United Nations Security Council as evidence of its disquiet or support for Russia. It is therefore a propitious time to review the PRC’s interests in its relations with Russia before and after the invasion of Ukraine.

Those interests are not conditioned by any political or ideological sympathies for either Russia or Ukraine: the CCP is rigorous in attending only to its own advantage, even if it dresses its solipsism in the rhetoric of fraternal friendship. On balance, the CCP’s interests gain more than they lose. That is not, however, to diminish the downsides.

While the CCP will be following closely the reactions of liberal democracies and feeding conclusions into its calculations on the forceful unification of Taiwan, the invasion of the island is no more likely[↗] than it was before the Ukraine crisis.

PRC-Russia relations before the Ukraine invasion: rhetoric and underlying reality

On 4th February following the meeting of Vladimir Putin and Xi, the PRC and Russia put out a Joint Statement describing their relations. Its contents expand on a Joint Statement[↗] of 28th June and comments in December 2021. 

On the face of it, the joint statement is a renewal of marriage vows. Towards the end it declares:

There is no limit to the friendship between the two countries, and there is no restricted area for cooperation.

Many of those areas are listed, some representing substance, others aspiration. But below the surface, the statement conveys a different picture of the happy couple.

There is no doubt who is the senior partner: the PRC. The topics and wording are overwhelmingly Chinese (diplomatic protocol gives the task of drawing up the first draft to the PRC as host of the Xi-Putin meeting). Examples include non-interference in other countries; the UN as the core of the international system; ‘democracy [as] the common value of all mankind’; and opposing the politicisation of the issue of tracing Covid-19’s origin.

Moreover, the marriage is underpinned by disappointment in their relationships with the United States (US). The overall tone – and much content – is more anti-American than pro-each other. In addition, the strength of relations is more about mutual help for dictators remaining in power, about Putin’s and the CCP’s worries about threats to their regimes than about a genuine coincidence of affection and interest between Russia and the PRC. As Xi said[↗] in the December video meeting with Putin: ‘Certain international forces under the guise of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ are interfering in the internal affairs of the PRC and Russia…the PRC and Russia should carry out more joint actions to more effectively safeguard the security interests of both parties.’

In light of the invasion of Ukraine, there is heavy irony, or perhaps jaw-dropping cynicism, in the statement’s declaration that:

A small number of international forces continue to stubbornly pursue unilateralism, resort to power politics, interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, harm the legitimate rights and interests of other countries, create contradictions, differences and confrontations, and hinder the development and progress of human society.

The gap between rhetoric and reality should never surprise.

The underlying pluses and minuses of Sino-Russian relations

Xi insists[↗] that ‘Chinese socialism must gain the dominant position over Western capitalism’ and that[↗] the CPP ‘…must rely on struggle to win the future. On the new journey, the risk test we face will only become more and more complicated, and we will even encounter unimaginable stormy waves.’

With such a backdrop, in which the struggle is primarily with the US, the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

Other positive areas of the bilateral relationship for the PRC include:

  • Greater security of energy resources. In 2021, Russia’s oil and gas made up 15.5% and 6.7% respectively of the PRC’s imports[↗]. They are less vulnerable to potential American interference than seaborne imports. Recent agreements foresee big increases in gas exports. As Russia turns necessarily from European markets more to the PRC, the latter will have greater leverage over price.
  • A coincidence of views on governance, in areas such as internet governance, human rights, media freedoms, and potentially in new areas such as space and polar regions.
  • Shared views on the control of society, particularly managing internal threats to their regimes.
  • Enhanced military cooperation. While the PRC has now overtaken Russia in military technology and no longer needs to buy advanced weaponry, it lacks Russian experience in combat and joint operations. Hence involvement in joint exercises.
  • A long shared border which no longer needs to be defended against a potential enemy, thus releasing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to concentrate resources on other areas, notably the South China Sea and development of the navy.

Areas of potential or actual friction include:

  • Divisions on the nature of the global order. Russia is destructive of a world order which has served the PRC’s rise well. The CCP would like to see a world continuing with much the same order as at present, although with acceptance of its right to a greater say in global governance. Putin’s disruptive behaviour, not least in Ukraine, threatens this.
  • Low and unbalanced trade levels. On imports, apart from energy and timber, increasingly there will be little to interest in the PRC. Exports to Russia at US$50 billion in 2019-2020 represented[↗] 2.2% of the PRC’s total.
  • Potential clashes of geopolitical aspirations. Three areas of Russian interests may be at risk. In Russia’s far east, even if border disputes are settled, the Chinese presence in and exploitation of eastern Siberia are resented. In Central Asia, the Joint Statement’s[↗] mention of linkage between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative covers Russian nervousness of Chinese sway over Russia’s previous satrapies, which it still regards in much the same way that it regards Ukraine. The Arctic merited a very terse entry into the Joint Statement. Russia will be unwilling to allow the PRC free rein there.
  • Sparse people-to-people contacts. Russians feel European and look west (they buy flats in London and Paris, not Beijing). They resent the Chinese, who for their part despise Russian failure and decline, while seeing far less to admire than compared to the US or Europe.

Conclusion

As the PRC rises and Russia declines, the balance of advantage tips further in the former’s favour. Russia’s dependency (in 2021, 65.3% of the PRC’s imports[↗] from Russia were energy products) is set to increase, while its importance to the Chinese will drop. This will not be a marriage between equals, and often a recipe for unhappiness. PRC-Russia relations are not in a good shape.

Tomorrow, in the second part of the series, Charles Parton will explain how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will affect relations with the PRC. Click here to read it.

Charles Parton is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He spent 22 years of his 37-year diplomatic career in the British Diplomatic Service working in or on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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