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This week, China hosted the highest-ranking Russian official to visit the country since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine began last year. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin led a delegation of Russian business elites that toured through Beijing and Shanghai, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and boosting ties between the powers at a time of sharpened confrontation with the United States and its allies.
Trade between the two countries reached a record $190 billion last year, and it’s set to surpass that in 2023 as Russia tries to offset the toll of U.S. and European sanctions. Russian energy shipments to China are expected to rise 40 percent this year.
“Today, relations between Russia and China are at an unprecedented high level,” Mishustin told Chinese Premier Li Qiang in the Chinese capital on Wednesday. He pointed to both countries’ mutual interest in responding to “the pattern of sensational pressure from the collective West.”
In his meeting with Mishustin, a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi gestured to shared geopolitical projects, including the greater integration of their countries and neighbors into a “bigger regional market.” According to a readout from China’s Xinhua news service, Mishustin responded that his government was “ready to work with China to promote multipolarization in the world and consolidate the international order based on international law.”
That’s jargon that communicates Moscow and Beijing’s joint view of the United States as a would-be imperial hegemon, a shared party line that casts the United States as a Cold Warring bully that doesn’t realize the world has changed and so should its role in the world. (Never mind who the governments in Moscow and Beijing may be bullying at the same time.)
“The Biden administration appears to be fully committed to bringing humankind back to the unipolar world that existed right after the end of the Cold War some 30 years ago, but the White House no longer has enough resources at its disposal to sustain such an undertaking,” wrote Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council — a state-funded Russian think tank that is close to the Foreign Ministry — in China’s state-run Global Times on Thursday. “As they say in America: You cannot have champagne on a beer budget.”
Xi’s Russia trip marks the arrival of a more ambitious ‘Global China’
Mishustin’s China sojourn precedes a visit Friday to Moscow by Li Hui, Beijing’s envoy for Eurasian affairs. Li will meet with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, among other officials. The wave of diplomacy comes on the heels of the leaders summit last weekend in Japan of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies, where the United States and some of its close allies issued a lengthy statement where they called out China’s record of “economic coercion” on the world stage, its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and its aggressive actions in the South China Sea and over the Taiwan Strait.
Combined with full-throated support for Ukraine and the presence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the summit, the G-7 seemed to have both Moscow and Beijing firmly in its crosshairs. The summit’s statements “underlined the deepening geopolitical die between China and Russia on one side and the U.S. and its allies on the other,” Ben Bland, director of the Asia-Pacific program at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, told the Guardian.
“China is ready to double down on its relationship with Russia following the G7 summit because the central theme of that summit comprised not only Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but also China and how the West should deal with it,” Alexander Korolev, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told the New York Times.
China was particularly angry with Japan, which played G-7 host and is reworking its post-World War II pacifist constitution to reckon with the perceived Chinese threat. News that NATO — the transatlantic military alliance designed to contain and thwart the Kremlin’s ambitions — is planning to open a liaison office in Tokyo only stoked Beijing’s ire further.
Key nations sit out U.S. standoff with Russia, China, leaks show
Chinese officials and analysts openly warn against the “NATO-ization” of the Asia-Pacific — the term they invoke for growing security cooperation and coordination between a host of regional powers and the United States. Lyle Goldstein, an expert on both China and Russia at the Defense Priorities think tank, told me that the engagement of NATO in Asia “feeds into China’s possible paranoia and serves Russia’s agenda of bringing [the two countries] closer together.”
The irony is that, despite Washington’s embrace of great power competition with the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing, China and Russia aren’t ironclad allies. Goldstein recently conducted a research mission in China, interviewing numerous Chinese experts on international affairs at multiple leading scholarly and policy-focused institutions. The impression he came away with of the Chinese view was one of pessimism: Many of his interlocutors were disappointed, even surprised by the clumsiness and overt aggression shown by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, but also recognized that total Russian failure and the collapse of Putin’s regime may not be in China’s interest.
While Russia, squeezed by Western sanctions, wants to make good on its supposed “no limits” friendship with Beijing, Chinese officials and analysts speak of the ties between the two countries as not a full-fledged alliance. Even over the course of the war in Ukraine, China, to a certain extent, has kept Russia at arm’s length and won’t send finished arms and weapons to buttress the deeply depleted Russian war machine.
“We have to realize that China is acting with restraint and moderation, and I don’t think that’s appreciated in the West,” Goldstein said.
That restraint may fade as tensions with the West ratchet up, or if Ukraine makes major headway in its spring counteroffensive on territories lost to Russia. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, Moscow has had to come to grips with its “junior partner” status to China, dependent on Chinese purchasers for its natural resources and the Chinese market for a thinning roster of advanced technological goods. It’s an uncomfortable historical shift long in the tail that may lead to new uncomfortable dynamics.
“Russia’s size and power may give the Kremlin a false sense of security as it locks itself into an asymmetrical relationship with Beijing,” wrote Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, last month in Foreign Affairs. “But the durability of this relationship, absent major unforeseeable disruptions, will depend on China’s ability to manage a weakening Russia. In the years to come, Putin’s regime will have to learn the skill that junior partners the world over depend on for survival: how to manage upward.”