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05 Apr 2023

UK in the world

Stefan Wolff analyses the Russia-China relationship in light of Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, highlighting Russia’s increasing dependence on China across a number of areas.

President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow from 20 to 22 March 2023 has cemented Russia’s status as an important tool for Chinese foreign policy and as a junior partner in a relationship heavily skewed towards Beijing. Despite the emphasis on partnership in the final communique, this is a relationship of dependence rather than interdependence. But even then, China’s leverage over Russia is not unlimited.

When Putin and Xi had their last bilateral meeting in early February 2022, less than three weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, their joint statement at the time emphasized that ‘Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.’

This year, the language is less exuberant. Bilateral relations between Russia and China are described as ‘comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction’ which ‘have reached the highest level in their history and continue to develop steadily.’ Like last year, both sides note that this is not a Cold War-like military political alliance.

The language of partnership and equality notwithstanding, Russia’s dependence on China has significantly grown over the past year, continuing a trend that goes back to 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Between 2014 and 2021, trade between the two countries grew by around 50%, reaching almost $150 billion in 2021. Last year, it increased again to almost $190 billion. The imbalance in the relationship becomes clear from the fact that this figure represents just around 3% of China’s global trade, but around 25% of Russia’s.

China is particularly important for Russia as a market for its energy exports, but it cannot quickly or completely replace an ever-shrinking European market. The yet-to-be-completed Power of Siberia II pipeline, for example, would carry slightly less gas to China than Nord Stream I and only begin doing so by 2030. Logistical difficulties aside, China is also unlikely to tie its energy needs entirely to Russia. On the contrary, Chinese gas deals with Turkmenistan are likely to continue to be of a similar value as those with Russia. In the long term, however, more Eurasian overland supply lines will likely ease China’s ‘Malacca dilemma’ – its vulnerability to a potential blockade of the Malacca Strait through which China conducts approximately 60% of all its trade.

Nor is China likely to be able to replace the West as a source of satisfying Russian technology needs. For example, Russia has been able to continue to import crucial semi-conductor technology from China, but only at lower volumes. This is unlikely to change in the near future as China struggles to become less dependent on imports, especially of high-end semi-conductors.

That said, as US pressure to isolate China technologically grows, Moscow and Beijing may be forced into closer cooperation. Similar to growing energy ties, this will require a long-term reorientation, including of China’s private sector. But unlike energy cooperation, China’s economy stands to lose more from this than it can possibly gain, given its deep integration with both the United States and the EU. The US and the EU, and the global economy more generally, also have much to lose from recent trends towards friend-shoring and near-shoring (sourcing from countries with shared values and those close by).

Over the past decade, China has become more assertive in its foreign policy and is likely to continue this combative approach under Xi who urged delegates at the recent National People’s Congress to “dare to fight”. Yet, China’s ability to do so will depend on its relative power vis-à-vis the West. Russia, and its war in Ukraine, is, therefore, useful to China in draining western resources and pushing ahead with its attempts to de-dollarise the global economy.

However, the war has also destabilised the global economy and disrupted crucial supply chains. Moreover, if western support for Ukraine proves sustainable, China may need to invest more to prop up Russia which would likely contribute to further deterioration of its relations with the United States and limit any hope for Beijing to improve relations with the EU.

Thus, Russia’s dependence on China cuts both ways. Xi needs Putin on his side in the geopolitical competition with the United States. Russian weakness, therefore, is only useful to an extent – it locks Russia into an alliance with China, but at the same time creates a potentially costly liability. As a result, China needs Russia not to lose the war in Ukraine and Xi’s visit to Moscow, despite its limited concrete outcomes, has signalled China’s clear commitment to this minimal outcome. For now, securing this outcome will not require much on China’s part. Cooperation in the defence sector between Moscow and Beijing, for example, has not visibly increased since the beginning of the war, despite western concerns.

China’s commitment to Russia, and Xi’s personal commitment to Putin, will, at best, mean that the conflict will at some point be frozen along a volatile ceasefire line. At worst, fighting will continue for years to come as relations between China and the West further deteriorate.

In either scenario, Beijing will eventually have to decide whether its long-term bet on Moscow is worth the cost. To prevent a potentially disastrous outcome of this decision, the West may have to start thinking about an off-ramp for Xi, rather than for Putin –  and soon. The outcome of a visit this week by French President Emmanuel Macron and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will be an important indication of whether this dynamic has been fully grasped in Brussels.

By Stefan Wolff, Professor of International Security, University of Birmingham. 


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