Comment: China & Russia might have pledged ‘no limits’ in their friendship, but limits exist

No such thing as forever friends in international relations.

Nigel Li | September 21, 2022, 07:28 PM

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On Sep. 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping held their first face-to-face meeting since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

The meeting took place on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit.

Putin praised Beijing for taking a “well-balanced approach” to the Ukrainian crisis, and reaffirmed Beijing’s claims over Taiwan. Xi called Putin an “old friend”, and expressed his support for Russia’s “core interests”.

Long-standing allies

It is difficult to describe such statements as empty words. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has not applied any sanctions on Russia, although it has not violated Western sanctions either.

It has, in fact, increased cooperation in notable areas. For instance, they have agreed to carry out more joint military exercises and patrols, and deepen their strategic coordination.

Russia’s Energy Minister Alexander Novak also shared that the “Asian Force Siberia 2” gas pipeline will replace the now abandoned Nord Stream 2. It is expected that the pipeline will deliver 50 billion cubic metres of gas annually to China. According to The Moscow Times, construction is expected to begin in 2024.

In the financial sphere, Russia has moved to de-dollarise its reserves and is considering moving towards purchasing as much as US$70 billion in yuan in the near future. Beijing has also agreed to pay for Russian gas in rubles and yuan.

Both Moscow and Beijing recognise that their greatest competitor in achieving “great power” status is Washington. It is, in their view, the U.S. that stands in their way of regaining their past grandeur.

Putin, who labelled Washington's allies as "satellites", perhaps believes that it is the Americans who are withholding Russia and China from greatness by arming Ukrainians and the Taiwanese.

Moreover, as the regimes of Putin and Xi continue to become increasingly personalistic, the need to integrate a “national destiny” into their leadership narratives will strengthen their rule.

The friendship between China and Russia “has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” This was the language of the Feb. 4 joint statement issued by Putin and Xi earlier this year in Beijing. 20 days after, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put this “limitless” partnership to the test.

Cracks in “limitless” Sino-Russian partnership?

However, Putin’s acknowledgement of China’s “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine at the Samarkand Summit – followed by a week of heavy losses by Russian forces – as well as Xi’s pointed remarks saying that China would work with Russia to “inject stability… to a world in chaos”, appear to indicate that the partnership between both countries is not exactly without limitations.

Beijing, essentially, was stuck in a dilemma with regard to Russia’s invasion.

“If China backed Russia, it could expose itself to sanctions and lose access to Western technology and markets,” wrote Alexander Gabuev, a Sino-Russia expert, for Foreign Affairs. “But if China decried Putin’s actions, it could jeopardise its ties to Russia.”

While neither giving its outright support nor condemnation of the invasion, China has leaned in favour of its northern neighbour and pushed the responsibility to the U.S. “As the initiator of this crisis and a contracting party, the U.S. should reflect on the role it has played so far,” noted China Daily, a publication of the Chinese Communist Party, quoting a Chinese official.

Yet, recent developments also indicate Beijing’s hedging away from its “limitless” partnership with Moscow.

In early September, China’s Huawei moved its Russian staff to Central Asia. China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, on the sidelines of the SCO summit, signed an agreement to initiate the construction of a railroad linking the three countries aimed at bypassing Russia. Meanwhile, border clashes have flared up again between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which have so far claimed around 100 lives.

Whereas prior to the war in Ukraine, the Sino-Russian dynamic in Central Asia was described as Russia providing the “gun” and China the “wallet”. Such instability in the region of Russia’s “near abroad” (independent republics that emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union) brings into question whether Russia can effectively be a regional leader as its energies are spent in Ukraine. The regional equilibrium is changing.

Nevertheless, Xi is unlikely to abandon his ally, even if Russia’s actions are indirectly isolating him on the world stage and also hurting the Chinese economy. Russia is simply too important a partner for China to stand up against the U.S. and its allies.

At the Samarkand SCO summit, Xi stressed the importance of upholding the “Shanghai Spirit” of trust, mutual benefits, and the pursuit of common development, among others. To respond to the unstable situations in Russia’s “near abroad”, China, perhaps, will work closely within the framework of the SCO rather than bilaterally with the Central Asian countries in question to avoid stepping on Moscow’s toes.

Both Putin and Xi looking to stay in office

Putin and Xi are both leaders awaiting judgement. Russia will hold its next presidential election in 2024.

Putin, who had his presidential term limits “reset” after the 2020 referendum to amend the constitution, will be seeking his third consecutive term in office. He would have held executive office for a total of 20 years by 2024. For this reason, it was expected that he would keep the Russian population insulated from the ongoing war in Ukraine. His recent declaration for partial mobilisation, however, may test the Russian population’s acceptance of, what the Kremlin calls, a “Special Military Operation”.

But victory for Russia remains far from reach. It has been losing the territorial gains it made in the past months to Ukraine’s swift counter-offensive, although the outcome of the war remains inconclusive.

As for Xi, he will be facing the 20th Party Congress in November, where he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as the country’s leader. This marks a distinction from his immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Besides Xi, the late paramount leader Mao Zedong held power for more than three decades, while the Party’s other transformational leader, Deng Xiaoping, ruled for about 15 years.

Despite the sabre-rattling that took place in August over U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Xi did not follow his friend in the Kremlin and initiate an outright invasion. Though more hawkish Chinese citizens were disappointed with Xi’s response, his withheld posturing might in fact play in his favour to stand apart from Putin’s aggressive strategy of confrontation.

Top image via Getty Images