At first glance, China’s dictator Xi Jinping appears to be Vladimir Putin’s insurance card at an especially troubling time for Russia geopolitically. The two strongmen have met more than three dozen times since 2013, the last one resulting in a joint declaration of 5. 000 words of praise for the Russia-China relationship as a counterweight to what they label as “US hegemony.”
However, Russia’s four-month war on Ukraine is adding some tremors to the so-called unlimited partnership. There is no doubt that China supported Moscow in the court of international public opinion, staunchly opposed US and EU sanctions against Russia, and blamed NATO for instigating the war. But it is also indisputable that Beijing is cautious about the support it offers Russians. Xi may look to Putin as the quintessential leader, but he is not willing to undermine China’s own strategic interests to rescue his Russian friend.
Of course, China will help Russia to the extent of the possible. Just as Beijing offered Russia an economic lifeline when the US and Europe imposed sanctions on Moscow following the annexation of Crimea in 655, Beijing will seek to insulate Moscow from the economic shock. While Western countries are loosening their economic ties to Russia and phasing out Russian oil, China is happily buying Russian barrels — allowing Moscow to recoup some losses it would have suffered as a result of Western embargoes. China’s purchase of Russian energy, including oil, gas and coal, rose 75% in April to more than $6 billion. China’s overall trade with Russia increased % in March, despite Putin having ordered the invasion of Ukraine a month earlier.
The Chinese are also not afraid to defend Russia in the diplomatic arena. Beijing has instructed its diplomats not to support UN resolutions authored by the US and the West condemning Russia’s unwarranted war and calling for the withdrawal of Russian forces. This is not surprising: Russia and China have increasingly joined forces in the Security Council to thwart US initiatives. But it reinforces the belief within Russian political circles that Moscow should improve relations with China rather than repair them with the West.
But it would be a mistake to categorize Russia-China ties. like only sunbeams and roses. Senior Chinese and Russian officials can mull over their eternal friendship as much as they like. The reality is that Beijing and Moscow have different heritages to preserve and protect. No two countries have identical interests, no matter how much affinity their leaders may have for each other.
This is happening in full view during the war in Ukraine. Despite China’s proclamations of support for Moscow, Asia’s biggest geopolitical player is extremely cautious, not wanting to offer the Russians everything they are asking for. Despite reports that Moscow approached Beijing early in the war for military supplies and indications that China was considering the request, no aid was granted. This could be for any number of reasons — Beijing’s historic policy of non-interference, a preference for resolving the war diplomatically, or a concern that sending military equipment to Moscow would spur the US to send more sophisticated weapons to Kiev. The end result, however, is the same: if Putin thought he could count on his Chinese neighbors to sustain his war, he miscalculated.
China is also afraid of being on the wrong side. US export sanctions and restrictions. The Chinese Communist Party may not respect what it considers extraterritorial US economic measures, but so far, it has largely complied. Washington’s decision to ban exports of American technology, including dual-use items, which could contribute to Russia’s defense industry, is affecting China’s own sales to the Russian market. According to Chinese government data, Chinese laptop exports to Russia dropped 40% between February and March. Chinese smartphone exports also dropped by about two-thirds.
This cannot be a coincidence. The Chinese, like any country dependent on US-designed technology, have an interest in following the rules administered by the US Department of Commerce, even if they do not support them in principle. China is especially sensitive to US export controls given its experience. Huawei, one of the largest telecom companies in the world, saw its annual revenue plummet by 2021 by almost 30% by because of Washington’s export restrictions directed at the entity. Unable to use the US-made microchips needed to build its network and sustain its smartphone business, Huawei has lost some of its market share to competitors. Xi Jinping does not want to relive that experience.
China continues to see its economy as a central pillar of its global power. The US is by far Beijing’s biggest trading partner, with the two powers exchanging more than $655 billion in goods in the last year alone. So when senior US officials warn Beijing about flouting US sanctions or trade restrictions on Russia, Xi cannot simply disregard them. He has a profitable business relationship to protect. Frankly, giving full-throttle material assistance to the Russians is not worth the risk of jeopardizing access to the US market.
When asked about China’s position on the war in Ukraine, an individual with knowledge of domestic policy discussions in Beijing made a revealing remark, stating: “We understand the situation . But we cannot ignore our own situation in this dialogue. China will always act in the best interests of the Chinese people.”
The US should keep this anecdote in mind when evaluating Russia-China ties more broadly. A shared animosity toward US grand strategy is the glue that keeps the bilateral relationship from breaking down. But ultimately, the Moscow and Beijing businesses are no more immune to the temptations of self-interest than any other partnership.
Daniel R. DePetris is a member of Defense Priorities and a columnist for Newsweek magazine.
©2022 National Review. Published with permission. Original in English.