At the moment, Sino-Russian interaction, especially regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war, looks more or less predictable. For more than a year since Russia’s full-scale invasion, China has maintained its so-called pro-Russian neutrality, not transferring lethal weapons to Russia but providing economic, financial, technological, diplomatic, and informational assistance. This format appears to be relatively stable. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement in February 2023, that China was considering providing lethal aid to Russia in its war against Ukraine, did not become a reality for one reason or another.
Obviously, China is still wary of Western sanctions, and the ideological component of its policy of opposing the West has not yet exceeded rational economic interests. In addition, repeated clear statements by Washington, Brussels and many European capitals that lethal aid to Russia would destroy China’s relations with the West, are still a major deterrent to Chinese arms transfers. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in 2023, with his words that “changes are taking place that haven’t happened in a hundred years,” did not seem to bring breakthroughs in development of the Russian-Chinese partnership. Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s visit to Beijing in May 2023 with the signing of only five contracts also looks modest.
For now, it can be stated that the Russian-Chinese partnership looks strong from the point of view of ideological anti-Western beliefs, so China will not do anything that could spoil its relations with an important ally—Russia. However, Beijing is still not ready to act in a united front with Moscow to challenge the West.
Opinions of observers about how Russian-Chinese relations look now vary. Some say that Russia has not achieved the expected help from Beijing in its war against Ukraine, and is de facto turning into an economic vassal and raw material appendage of China. Others argue that Russia has become China’s proxy, creating a long-term security and economic problem for Europe and the US, and diverting Western resources from containing China. A third view holds that China and Russia are actually acting in concert to undermine Western dominance and the rules-based international order.
Against the first version is the fact that trade in resources, even if they are cheaper, is primarily beneficial to Russia, as it ensures the survival of the Russian regime and the waging of war against Ukraine. Against the second version is the importance for Russia of strategic autonomy in foreign policy. Therefore, despite its growing economic dependence on China, Moscow still remains a fairly independent player and is unlikely to accept the role of Beijing’s puppet. In addition, the Russian war in Ukraine hardly diverted the West’s resources from containing China, but strengthened US efforts to build regional military coalitions, including in the Indo-Pacific. The third opinion looks realistic from the point of view of the mutual interests of Moscow and Beijing to undermine the positions of the West and change the world order, but the lack of trust between Russia and China does not yet allow for alliance. This is especially so since a potential leak of information that Beijing has formed a “Molotov-Ribbentrop pact” with Moscow (and the intelligence capabilities of the US should not be underestimated) would undermine China’s position in Europe.
In addition, the situation still looks dynamic, since the results and consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian war are difficult to predict. So, Beijing is currently taking a wait-and-see position and will probably make decisions about its cooperation with Russia based on the results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In this case, in the short term, China will face a dilemma: if the Ukrainian counteroffensive is successful, and the Russian army is defeated in Ukraine, how to support the Russian regime to prevent its collapse, and at the same time not to fall under Western sanctions?
“Iranization” of China’s Russian Ties
Answering this question, the Sino-Iranian model of cooperation may seem the most appropriate for Beijing: Beijing provides significant economic support to Tehran, buying its resources and supplying equipment and technology while the Iranian regime retains independence in its policy in the Middle East. Relatively limited aid to Iran from China, on the one hand, does not enable Tehran to turn into a formidable threat to regional and global stability (for which Beijing could be blamed). On the other hand, such support leaves Iran as a friendly player for China to counter the US. In such a model of cooperation, the risks for China of falling under Western sanctions for cooperation with Tehran are relatively low.
The described “Iranian model” of cooperation between China and Russia looks logical from the point of view of cost-benefits for Beijing, and generally tolerable for the West, for which a Russian-Chinese military-political alliance would be a nightmare scenario.
The “Iranization” of Russian-Chinese relations allows China to continue to balance, simultaneously benefiting from both Russian cheap resources and cooperation with the West, but it does not provide an opportunity to win strategic competition with the United States. Because Russia, in the event of a military defeat, will cease to play the role of a serious challenger to the West.
Of course, we do not know the strategic calculations of the Chinese leadership, especially since the situation still looks dynamic and has many variables that will influence China’s decision to partner with Russia. At the same time, what exists now can be described by the model “Russia is on the front line, China is a strategic rear.”
China as Russia’s “Strategic Depth”
This format of relations means that in the Russian-Ukrainian war (and in general in post-Soviet politics) Moscow makes decisions, while China provides necessary (currently limited) economic and (partial) technological support.
The advantages of this arrangement for China are that its relations with Russia do not constitute a classic alliance with both partners actually on the front line. This means the connection allows China to maintain the appearance of neutrality, saying that the Russian-Chinese partnership is normal and not aimed at third parties. It gives Beijing the opportunity not to enter an open confrontation with the West.
In addition, such a model, which in Beijing is called unique and complementary cooperation, makes it possible to blur the boundaries between “own-strangers,” just as Russia did at one time, saying that there was no intention to attack Ukraine and in this way carried out successful strategic disinformation. This led to the complete unpreparedness of Europe for the invasion. Likewise, China is trying to prevent the crystallization of the opponents’ camp by not calling the partnership with Russia an alliance. This inhibits the division of the world between democracies and autocracies, a division stimulated by Moscow and Beijing’s expansionism.
It appears that this format is not planned and stipulated in advance by both sides. The situation is still dynamic and does not support long-term forecasts and strategies. Moreover, the lack of trust between China and Russia does not yet make it possible to establish a hidden but robust alliance. At the same time, “Russia—frontline, China—rear,” is the approximate formula of relations today.
Russia and China’s Interests
Of course, Russia understands China’s unwillingness to be a full-fledged military and political partner and to stand side-by-side against the West, or to provide significant military and technical assistance. Therefore, Moscow will probably try to increase China’s “strategic depth” capabilities. This may include, for example, the construction of Chinese industrial sites in Russia and the production of initially civilian and dual-use products. In addition, it may include the construction of oil and gas infrastructure for the transportation of energy resources from Russia to China. Also, it seems logical to strengthen the railway and road infrastructure between the western and eastern parts of Russia. This would make it possible to increase logistical transfer of material and ensure closer communication along the “strategic rear-frontline.”
For China, this development also looks attractive. In addition to the issue of misleading the West by maintaining formal neutrality as described above, China is increasing its autonomy from the West. This allows it to diversify the supply of vital resources through the Malacca Strait. So, at some point, “frontline and strategic depth” can switch places. If China is preparing to seize Taiwan in the medium- or long-term, it is obvious that American and allied fleets would cut the supply of oil to China from the Middle East and agricultural products from Latin America. Therefore, the developed logistics network between China and Russia (if fully built) would make it possible to create a self-sufficient and closed system that could provide China with the necessary gas, oil, and food. This could include the logistical and transport capabilities of the Central Asian countries, which would also be used in this system.
This possibility appears to be confirmed by the analysis of Zhao Huasheng, one of China’s most renowned Russia experts, former director of the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Fudan University. “With China’s greatest strategic pressure coming from the sea,” he says, “good Sino-Russian relations can ensure that China has … a relatively stable strategic rear … This has enormous strategic benefits for China. The significance of this is invisible and seemingly unremarkable in times of peace, but its strategic relevance to China will be revealed were our country to be faced with a major upheaval coming from abroad.” He adds that “in the event of a major international crisis, Russia would be the most important foreign source of energy—and [perhaps] even the only foreign source of oil—that China could conceivably continue to preserve.”
At the moment, it is impossible to assess whether this scenario will be implemented and to what degree. However, the indicators described above probably will be signs of its formation: the construction of extensive energy, transportation, and food logistics between China and Russia, possibly with the participation of the countries of Central Asia. Since the construction of logistical pathways, and especially pipelines, is a long process, this model (if adopted in Beijing) will probably crystallize over years, under the guise of “normal cooperation that is not directed against third parties.”
Challenges for the West
For the West, the Sino-Russian “frontline-strategic rear” model looks more or less acceptable in the short term, but problematic in the long term. In the short term, it means China will not provide lethal aid to Russia for the war against Ukraine, but will ensure the survival of the Russian regime, which will be a permanent direct military threat to Europe. In addition, Russia, as a nuclear power and a member of the UN Security Council, is necessary for China as an extremely important partner.
In the long term, China will be able to form its “strategic rear” in Russia and become independent of foreign supplies in its struggle for Taiwan. The Russian-Ukrainian war, in which Ukraine is the “frontline” and the EU and NATO partners are the “strategic rear,” demonstrated an interesting feature—Russia does not strike at the “strategic rear,” which, being under the umbrella of NATO, provides assistance to Ukraine, but does not send troops. Based on this logic, in the event that China launches an operation against Taiwan, the formally neutral “strategic rear” in the form of Russia (with its own nuclear umbrella) and Central Asia would also be protected from strikes by the US and its allies.
In connection with the above, if driving a wedge between China and Russia seems unrealistic, then the West must prevent the strengthening of ties within the framework of the “frontline-rear” and the transformation of the Russian-Chinese partnership into a self-sufficient system. In other words, the existing “rear” should not turn into a “strategic rear.” To this end, with the help of the sanctions regime, the West should prevent or hinder the creation of new energy and transport and food ties between China and Russia as much as possible. China must remain critically dependent on energy imports from the Middle East and agricultural products from Latin America.
Second, it is necessary to prevent or significantly weaken the transfer of production from China to Russia and Belarus, which will reduce the mutual integration and dispersion of output, which means the stability of the production and supply chains of China and Russia.
Third, it is necessary to weaken trust between China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow, despite having a common interest in undermining US dominance, must always have problematic aspects of the relationship to exploit. This can be done, for example, by publicizing the transfer of Chinese sanctioned equipment and technologies to Russia, especially in the case of the construction of new pipelines. Beijing must understand that supplies to Russia will be detected, and China cannot rely on Russia to keep sensitive information.
In general, the efforts of Western countries on these issues should be coordinated, which will make it possible to achieve a synergistic effect and prevent a serious deepening of Russian-Chinese relations and their transformation into a de facto alliance with distributed tasks.
Yurii Poita is Europe-China Policy Fellow at Mercator Institute of China Studies (MERICS). He specializes in China’s influence in the post-Soviet space, Ukrainian-Chinese relations, regional security issues and hybrid methods of influence.