A state visit to Moscow in late March signaled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s enduring commitment to the close relationship he’s developed with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Early last year, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Xi and Putin met in Beijing, announcing that their countries’ partnership was now at a level with “no limits” and “no forbidden zones.”
Since the invasion, the alliance has appeared unshaken—despite Moscow’s military failures, its isolation by the West, and the damage the war has brought to the Russian economy from international sanctions and the loss of major export markets for natural gas. The remarkable resilience of the partnership is significant, potentially not least as the foundation of a bloc opposing the West in a new Cold War between democracies and autocracies. Still, China continues to refuse Russia any military assistance against Ukraine, and just last week Beijing’s ambassador to the EU insisted that China wasn’t on Putin’s side in the war at all—and that the phrase “no limits” was just rhetorical. So what’s the status of the relationship, exactly?
Eyck Freymann is the author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World. To Freymann, the close connection between Xi and Putin, and the close alignment between Beijing and Moscow in the years and months leading up to the war, have taken very complicated turns now. Russia is overextended and isolated, needing all the support it can get from its most powerful ally in the world. And China is anxious, needing for its own sake to ensure Putin remains in power while managing increasingly fraught relations around the world—which Russia’s blunder in Ukraine continues to make only more difficult. Meanwhile, neither Beijing nor Ukraine’s allies in the capitals of the West want China to get directly involved in the war—but depending on what happens on the battlefield, none of them may be able to prevent it.
Sean Nangle: How’s the relationship between China and Russia changed since the invasion of Ukraine?
Eyck Freymann: This now-infamous meeting prior to the invasion, where Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin agreed on their countries’ “no limits” friendship, was a pivotal moment.
Before that, relations between China and Russia had been improving since the mid-1980s—and that had accelerated since 2013, mainly thanks to the unusually close personal relationship between Xi and Putin. The two have met more than 30 times. They know one another better than any other world leaders of similarly sized countries do.
But the proclamation of a “no limits” partnership was important, because China and Russia have been divided, historically, by some real conflicts of interest—as much as Beijing and Moscow have tried to downplay these conflicts and project solidarity to the West.
They have serious clashes of interest in Central Asia. They have a 2,600-mile border and a history of conflict along it. The Chinese leadership has long believed it was the victim of bad Russian-brokered treaties that led to them losing lot of land—in Manchuria, modern-day Mongolia, and Siberia. The two countries almost came to blows in the 1960s. And the Chinese have never forgotten any of it.
So it’s meaningful that Xi was willing to get behind the “no limits” language. But it’s also pretty clear that when did, he wasn’t expecting Putin to go ahead with an invasion of Ukraine. And when that happened, Putin put Xi in an extremely awkward position.
Xi has made it clear that, with the way he sees the world redividing into blocs—what he calls the “great change unseen in a century”—China can’t do without Russia. Among other reasons: If there were to be a war with the United States in the Pacific, China would need land corridors to access energy and rare minerals, in order to keep its economy functioning. China doesn’t have many other close partners—apart from Pakistan, North Korea, Laos, and Cambodia. So when Putin invaded Ukraine, Xi couldn’t just abandon him.
At the same time, the U.S. has threatened credibly that, if China provided Russia with any lethal aid or formal support, China would become subject to direct sanctions—and probably indirect sanctions as well. Depending on how U.S. retaliation were designed, it could badly set back China’s tech sector and potentially even destabilize the Chinese banking system. And Washington could threaten to send more weapons to Taiwan.
It’s meaningful that Xi was willing to get behind the “no limits” language. But it’s also pretty clear that when did, he wasn’t expecting Putin to go ahead with an invasion of Ukraine. And when that happened, Putin put Xi in an extremely awkward position.
So China has tried to play both sides of the conflict, maintaining an ambiguous position that leans toward Russia. In the meantime, the relationship between China and Russia has deepened, with Russia becoming more dependent on China as a buyer of Russian energy and a supplier of Chinese microchip technology.
Still, we shouldn’t overstate China’s willingness to follow Russia into the Ukraine sinkhole. China has other considerations to attend to, including managing its relationship with Europe. And so far—while it’s provided Russia with all kinds of assistance short of lethal aid—there’s a threshold Beijing has refused to cross.
Nangle: What’s at stake for China in managing its relationship with Europe?
Freymann: It’s an ambivalent relationship. On the one hand, there’s a deep assumption in China’s diplomatic and strategic thinking that European countries, and NATO countries more broadly, are just a bunch of U.S. vassal states—and will ultimately do as Washington directs. On the other hand, China appreciates that Europe is an extremely important trading partner. It’s an increasingly important technological partner. And it might eventually become a coherent strategic counterweight to the United States, with its own interests when it comes to China. French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China last week was a reminder that Europe isn’t entirely lining up with the United States in an emerging “Cold War II.”
Beijing is realistic: It’s studied its Cold War history; it understands the centrality of NATO in the transatlantic relationship; and it will doubt that it can prevent a transatlantic consortium against it in the long run. That means a need to treat Europe warily. But Beijing is also aware that it has to keep up diplomatic outreach to the Europeans and drive wedges, wherever it can, between them and the Americans.
In a way, the Ukraine war has exposed the contradiction between these two impulses. Macron visited Beijing along with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Xi did everything he could to charm them. At one of the facilities Macron visited, they even ripped out the squat toilets and replaced them with Western-style ones. At the same time, Xi made exactly zero concessions on Ukraine—and was even reportedly annoyed when the issue came up.
Beijing’s strategy with Europe is, in a sense, to play for time. Beijing is extremely concerned about the implications of tech decoupling—the Americans’ and their partners increasing independence from Chinese supply chains in strategic high-tech sectors—for China’s longer-term economic growth. Beijing recognizes that decoupling will happen much faster if European firms comply with American export controls—as the Dutch are already doing with photolithography machines, which are the key component in the microchip supply chain. If the Europeans and the Americans coordinate on outbound investment restrictions into China, as seems to be the next item on the agenda, that would be a disaster for Chinese tech.
Beijing is realistic: It will doubt that it can prevent a transatlantic consortium against it in the long run. But Beijing is also aware that it has to keep up diplomatic outreach to the Europeans and drive wedges, wherever it can, between them and the Americans.
So, starting from the premise that he can’t just abandon Putin, Xi would like to do whatever he can to stall and keep the Europeans hedging. And that means charming Macron and von der Leyen just enough that they can return home and continue to resist the more ardent anti-China elements in the European community.
Nangle: What do you see China and Russia wanting most from their relationship looking ahead?
Freymann: I’d say the war in Ukraine and all the events of the last 13 months have dispelled the fiction that Putin is a master strategist who plays eleven-dimensional chess. His strategic horizon is actually quite short. He’s trying to prevent a collapse on the frontline and maintain his coalition of support within Russia.
Part of that involves maintaining access to Chinese microchips. Without them, his war machine can’t function. I’m talking about not only missiles but low-tech stuff like quadcopter drones, as well as higher-end drones like the Shahed series that the Russians have been buying from Iran. These are all operated with dual-use Chinese chips—chips with both civilian and military applications. As Katrina Northrop of The Wire has shown with some amazing reporting last week, China has been able to get around U.S. export controls on its dual-use chips. It’s been essential to the Russian war effort.
That may be the most immediate way Putin is reliant on Beijing right now. But he’s also reliant for diplomatic cover, because Chinese support has made it much easier for a lot of developing countries, including India, to stake out a neutral position on sanctions at the United Nations.
This isn’t ideal for Putin. Obviously, he’d like more from the Chinese. But after Xi visited him in Moscow and did the photo op with him, Putin doesn’t really have the leverage to ask for more substantive assistance.
From the Chinese perspective, the quandary is that Putin can’t be allowed to lose in so humiliating a way that there’d then be a significant risk of Russia cracking up. China is very concerned about the prospect of failed nuclear states on its border. It has enough experience dealing with erratic nuclear-armed characters in neighboring states, North Korea and Pakistan. It also knows that a Russian breakup would be bad for its interests in Central Asia and potentially bad for its own internal security—not to mention bad for Xi’s domestic position, because he’s put so much political capital into his relationship with Putin.
From the Chinese perspective, the quandary is that Putin can’t be allowed to lose in so humiliating a way that there’d then be a significant risk of Russia cracking up. China is very concerned about the prospect of failed nuclear states on its border.
Ideally, Beijing would like to see a China-brokered peace that freezes the Russian-Ukrainian lines in their current position. I don’t reckon anyone familiar with Ukrainian thinking believes that’s a serious possibility right now. So China’s second-best outcome is an ongoing, lower-tempo war: The Russians and the Ukrainians both run low on ammunition; the conflict becomes frozen, neither side makes gains, Ukraine doesn’t join NATO or the EU, and there’s no peace treaty. And then, over a year or two, things more or less fall into a low-level, unofficial stalemate.
If there’s a big Ukrainian breakthrough on one of the two major battle lines during the counteroffensive likely to start later this month—the Svatove line in the North or the Zaporizhzhia line in the South—and the Russian position starts to crumble, it will be a huge problem for China.
We know from public sources that China is very concerned about a Russian battlefield collapse endangering Putin’s domestic position—and so, Beijing’s interests. In that scenario, the Chinese might feel compelled to enter the conflict openly by providing Russia with lethal aid. So far, they’ve been deterred by U.S. threats of sanctions. But a real prospect of Russia falling apart would be just too pressing for Chinese security interests for the threat of sanctions to outweigh it.
So there’s a scenario in which by, say, mid-summer, China is funneling missiles, howitzers, and artillery to Russia. And that’s a very dark scenario. It would make it extremely hard to see the possibility of a negotiated resolution to the war, because at that point, it would be a proxy conflict between the U.S. and China.
It would be bloody; it would be unstable; it would be terrible for U.S.-China relations; and it would greatly accelerate tech decoupling, which would in turn be terrible for the Chinese economy. It would lead to more calls in Asia—particularly in South Korea, but also increasingly in Japan—to develop nuclear deterrence. It would probably be bad for nuclear counter-proliferation in the Middle East. It would just be all around a nightmare outcome.
The quandary that Ukraine’s Western supporters face, meanwhile, is that they want Ukraine to succeed, but they also know that Ukraine can only succeed up to a point before China decides it has to get involved. And they know the outcome of that is, in the long run, probably not good for Ukraine.
There’s a scenario in which by, say, mid-summer, China is funneling missiles, howitzers, and artillery to Russia. And that’s a very dark scenario. It would make it extremely hard to see the possibility of a negotiated resolution to the war, because at that point, it would be a proxy conflict between the U.S. and China.
Nangle: What do you see this all meaning for China’s position in the world?
Freymann: There is a lively debate about this. My own view is that Ukraine has been a disaster for China. What it’s gained tactically, with slightly more preferential access to Russian commodities, doesn’t come close to outweighing what it’s lost strategically. Ukraine has united the European and Asian theaters of conflict to an extent that hasn’t been seen since the Cold War.
You have the Japanese prime minister visiting and providing lethal aid to Ukraine. You have the new Korean president attending a NATO summit for the first time, putting Korean defense manufacturers forward as alternatives that can rapidly backfill NATO militaries that have been sending equipment to Ukraine. There’s a lot more that's now happening in the Pacific—very quickly, organized just as much by Japan as the U.S.—to align standards and specifications, so that say the military systems Japan and Australia are using are interoperable with the ones that Britain and France are using.
At the same time, there’s been a public-opinion shift across Europe—notably in Germany, which was long the major European power most in favor of doing business with China. Just last month, the German Federation of Industries, along with the German Christian Democrats, called for a soft version of tech decoupling. This would have been unthinkable two or three years ago, under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, when these same people were calling for a landmark deal to enable more Chinese investment in Europe. It’s an extraordinary reversal, and China’s support for Putin clearly has a lot to do with it.
The war has also shown the West’s ability to pull together and impose sanctions that have some bite—and to maintain unity and sustain aid. But the U.S. government’s unwillingness to put boots on the ground, despite its support for Ukraine, suggests that it’s prioritizing the Indo-Pacific theatre over the European theatre. The Russian invasion has actually helped spur a consensus between Democrats and Republicans on supporting Taiwan. U.S. policy on the issue is still formally ambiguous, but it would be a lot more politically embarrassing now for the U.S. simply to abandon Taiwan than it would have been just a couple of years ago. That’s a major change.
Meanwhile, the speed of military preparation across the Indo-Pacific region has accelerated a lot. The People’s Liberation Army, China’s military, is at best five years away from being ready to pull off a proper amphibious invasion of Taiwan. And China has good reason to fear that the PLA, which has never been battle tested, isn’t really prepared to go up against a tested opponent. The Japanese are re-arming as fast as they can; the British and Australians are collaborating on AUKUS, their security pact with the U.S.; and the South Koreans are finally trying to work together with the Japanese and Americans on security issues, as well. All around, this is a strategic mess for the Chinese.
And I don’t see how China can get out of it—other than brokering peace between Russia and Ukraine. I do believe Xi Jinping is serious about that. Unfortunately for him, I just don’t see why the Ukrainians would be interested—especially when they think they’ve got so much fight left in them.