On the face of things, Sino-Russian relations have never been better. At their Beijing summit in February 2022, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin announced a friendship without limits, while China has adhered mainly to the Kremlin line on the invasion of Ukraine.
Yet appearances are deceptive. The Chinese response to Putin’s war reveals actual limits to their friendship. It raises questions about the future direction of the Sino-Russian partnership.
Had the war met Putin’s expectations of a quick victory, the impression of seamless progress in the Sino-Russian partnership might have been maintained. Beijing would have been a prime beneficiary. China would no longer have been public enemy No. 1 in Washington. The Europeans would have been too distracted to offer meaningful support to America in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration would have been further humiliated. And the very notion of a U.S.-led international order would have been discredited.
Except things turned out differently. The Russian military has performed poorly. Putin, Xi’s “best friend,” has been exposed as barbaric and inept. Western unity is stronger than in two decades. America has shown that it is willing and able to lead. And China has been tainted by association with an international delinquent.
Russian actions have squeezed Beijing’s options on Taiwan, while the knock-on effects on the global economy — including soaring energy and food prices and the disruption of supply chains — have harmed Chinese interests.
Beijing is attempting to balance geopolitical and economic imperatives. On the one hand, it wants to preserve the strategic partnership with Russia. On the other hand, Chinese growth — and regime legitimacy — remains hugely dependent on the U.S.-dominated global economy.
Thus far, the Chinese are gambling that Putin will be content with their moral and political support and that their lack of material assistance to Russia will protect them from Western sanctions. But as the war continues, this tightrope act will be harder to sustain.
Putin could ratchet up the pressure on Beijing to deliver substantive support and facilitate sanctions-busting aid. Such assistance, however, could trigger the sanctions that China is striving to avoid. Meanwhile, Beijing faces growing opprobrium from the West for turning a blind eye to Putin’s brutal actions.
Whatever happens in Ukraine, the Sino-Russian partnership will continue to exist. It is too important to both sides to be allowed to fail. Beijing knows that once the war in Ukraine is over, it will again become the principal object of Washington’s attention. Best, then, to have a still powerful Russia in play so that China will not be left isolated in its strategic confrontation with America.
Russia’s choices are even more constrained. It is now more dependent on China than at any time in their relationship. Relations with the United States and Europe will be damaged for decades, and other non-Western countries will be unable to pick up the slack. Any prospect of pursuing a less Sino-centric approach has gone out the window.
But if the Sino-Russian partnership is likely to hold firm, its quality is set to erode. An already unbalanced relationship will tilt further toward Beijing. In time, it may resemble China’s interaction with North Korea — asymmetrical, dysfunctional and increasingly uneasy. The strategic partnership would be defined by its limits and anxieties.
Much of Western policy toward the Sino-Russian partnership has been sorely misjudged. It is time to come to grips with reality.
First, China and Russia do not constitute a mythical “axis of authoritarians.” Theirs is a relationship of strategic convenience founded in geopolitical calculus. Ukraine has shown that Chinese and Russian interests are not the same.
Second, Russia represents a far greater threat to international order than China. Whereas China remains a system player, Russia has a vested interest in disorder.
Third, the capacity of the West to shape the Sino-Russian partnership is negligible. Flattery, incentives or threats will not persuade Beijing and Moscow to distance themselves from each other, but instead encourage them to play on Western nerves.
Ukraine’s remarkable resistance has reminded us of what is ultimately at stake — the future of liberal norms, values and institutions. But it is not enough to condemn the actions of others. Western democracies must raise their own game. That means improving governance, addressing global challenges such as climate change, and demonstrating that a liberal international order benefits more than just the West.