At a time of heightened global polarization, and right after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin for war crimes, Chinese President Xi Jinping headed seven and a half hours west to Moscow for three days of talks with the Russian President personally. In Kremlin practice, this highest form of bilateral talks is reserved for the closest allies. For Xi, it was his first state visit since beginning an unprecedented third term as Chinese president, signifying his commitment to Russia amidst a deteriorating relationship and increasing stand-offs with “the West.” Yet the (big) brotherly relations could potentially turn toxic for junior partner Russia – they risk sliding into an unbalanced dependency. For Europe, the challenge remains serious.

Boundless friendship before the invasion, even deeper relations after one year of war

Xi called China and Russia “great neighbouring powers” and “strategic partners.” Putin hailed China’s “colossal leap forward in its development” as a role model. In a joint statement, both presidents announced that their countries’ “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” was entering a “new era”.

In the jointly praised partnership, Russia is clearly the junior partner. The meeting demonstrated that there is a significant power hierarchy between the two countries. Russian-Chinese relations have fundamentally turned around since Russia invaded China in the 19th century, or military border conflicts in the late 1960s nearly brought them to a general war. Russia is increasingly dependent on China for technology imports, and on exports of its oil and gas that it cannot trade with Europe anymore but needs to fill its war chest.

China has the means, but not the intention, to influence Russia to end the war

China presents itself as neutral but supports Russia politically and economically (at least). And in its latest initiative for a political settlement, China refers to the war as “the Ukraine crisis.” Both involuntarily remind one of the ways Russia used to present itself as a “neutral mediator” in 2014 vis-à-vis the war in the Donbas region.

China moreover repeats the Kremlin’s claims that the war was provoked by NATO and the United States, citing “encirclement and suppression,” and criticizes sanctions against Russia as if it were not itself familiar with exercising economic coercion.

China’s 12-point plan

Apart from the fact that China, in its so-called peace plan (first announced prominently at the Munich Security Conference) opposes the threat of and the use of nuclear weapons and condemns attacks on nuclear power plants (points 7 and 8), the 12-point document does not give cause for hope, as it does not indicate a way out of the war.

While referring to the UN principles in its first point, “Respect the sovereignty of all countries,” the plan completely undercuts the prohibition of the use of force enshrined in the very beginning of the UN Charter (Art. 2 No. 4). Not surprisingly, Moscow welcomed the paper, others met it with scepticism for its focus on Kyiv to compromise, over finding a way for Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory.

The fact is that the plan does not mention a Russian withdrawal of troops from Ukraine at all. And when on 23 February, with the war going into its 2nd year, the UN General Assembly voted in a new resolution for Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine” (para. 5), China was among the few that abstained.

Ukraine, too, sees China as the potentially transformative power

Before the war, China and Ukraine had good relations with growing trade in raw materials and even arms sales. China took an interest in Ukraine’s agricultural potential and in its rare earth minerals. Moreover, the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of 2013 raises the question: did Xi, who signed this treaty together with then-President Yanukovych, commit to support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty, security, [and] territorial integrity?” (Besides the fact that along with France, China, in a bilateral format, pledged similar security assurances as Russia, the U.S. and the UK in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.)

With the war, President Zelensky, encouraged by Washington, has been trying to hold talks with Xi for months – to no avail. He even equipped his wife, Olena Zelenska, at the World Economic Summit in Davos with a letter for the Chinese delegation. Ukraine is careful to criticize China’s tacit support of Russia, knowing that it is China who has the means to decisively affect events.

Zelensky: “I really want to believe that China will not supply weapons to Russia.

The Ukrainian President’s reaction to the Chinese position paper was cautious and diplomatic. Of utmost concern to Ukraine are indications that Chinese companies have supplied components and technology suitable for military use to Russian defence companies, thereby supporting Russia’s war machine and possibly undermining Western sanctions. Russia has repeatedly asked China for weapons, which China has so far refused.

The U.S. has warned that any material support by China to the Russian military would lead to “serious consequences” for Chinese relations with the U.S. As of now, there is no evidence of substantial flows of weaponry between the countries. And Xi did not mention military support to Russia during the joint statement with Putin in Moscow.

Recent messaging with another addressee in mind: Europe

To date, there have only been three personal meetings of China’s highest-ranking diplomate Wang Yi and Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Kuleba and with China not reaching out to the Ukrainian president in the aftermath of his visit to Russia – the recent Chinese messaging seems intended for a different addressee: Europe.

With the Chinese economy struggling, China wants to maximise its economic profit from the war. Beijing, moreover, has reason to worry about Europeans taking a cue from the U.S. and decoupling trade and investment. Divisions within the EU over cutting reliance on China might be useful for China – to avoid Europeans rallying behind such an approach. (That would be more difficult for Europe than for the U.S., anyway).

Not unlike Putin, Xi has consolidated his power. And not unlike in Russia, if the economy weakens permanently, the pact between the party and the people might become fragile in China, too.

Putin wants to demonstrate that Russia is not isolated

Since 2013 at least, Russia has increasingly turned to China, Putin personally, as well as politically and strategically. In the current situation, from Russia’s perspective, China can not only replenish strained ammunition stocks but, as an export destination, keep Moscow’s war chest stable.

Trade with China has given the Kremlin a lifeline

With the Western sanctions limiting Russia’s trading options, Moscow massively expanded on the already important trade relationship it steadily built with China. As the Chinese General Administration for Customs announced, Chinese trade with Russia reached a record $190bn in 2022.

A growing share of that trade is paid for in Chinese Yuan instead of Euros or Dollars, to which Russia’s access is limited due to the sanctions. Moscow has thus been able to increase its oil and gas exports to China, while Beijing supplied sanction-hit Russia with crucial components such as microchips and industrial machinery, which Russia lost access to due to the harsh sanctions Europe and the U.S. imposed on it.

But: Talks on the major project “Power of Siberia 2” did not yield a decisive agreement

Surprisingly, talks during the state visit did not lead to a decisive agreement on economic issues as Xi was hesitant to confirm plans for a pipeline that would reroute Russian gas from Europe to Asia, crossing through Mongolia.

Putin said that Russia would supply China with at least 98 billion cubic metres of gas, a number only attainable with the construction of the pipeline. Xi, however, remained silent on the topic. Their joint statement only said that the two countries would “make efforts to advance works on studying and agreeing to plans to build the pipeline.”

This shows that the pipeline is of much higher importance to Putin than it is to Xi. Russia relies on China’s political and economic backing, not only in trade but also as a partner that gives it political clout. This is a reversal of the relations Putin normally shares – where he shapes from the side of power – such as in Belarus, where non-recognised President Alexander Lukashenko changed Belarus’s constitution to allow for the stationing of Russian nuclear weapons against the will of its exiled leader and public.

Both China and Russia see their relationship as a priority in the coming years, but for different reasons. Xi already extended an invitation to Putin to visit Beijing, however, not for a state visit but as a participant in the third Belt and Road Forum. China wants to use Russia to strengthen its counterweight to the U.S., but it does not depend on Russia. This growing power asymmetry will make it interesting to closely observe the form the “new era” of the Chinese-Russian “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” will take.

The obvious restated – Europe must stay its course and seize its strength

The next of China’s invitees to Beijing is Spanish leader Pedro Sánchez. Spain will hold the upcoming EU presidency as of July 2023. China continues to present itself as a serious mediator but repeats its accusations that the U.S. prevents peace between Russia and Ukraine while Russia demands annexations recognised before talks. Thus, it will be important for the head of government of a strong EU country to set an example during his visit that the EU sticks together and that no one can be manipulated.

It will be crucial to keep three goals in focus and to communicate them clearly.

  • First, weigh and agree on concrete consequences among member states now to deter China from supplying weapons to Russia in the future;
  • Second, uphold and defend the integrity of the global financial system while China is a part of it;
  • Third, develop and protect own technologies instead of helping China become independent.

A drawn-out war could favour Russia, as it is straining Ukraine tremendously. The stakes for Ukraine (and Europe) are particularly high in the coming months. Whether Ukraine can once again seize the initiative and reclaim more territory from Russian control depends significantly on “the West.”

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov recalls in a German newspaper the “most beautiful essay about Europe” of Czech-French writer Milan Kundera: Un occident kidnappé or The Tragedy of Central Europe. It begins with the last desperate telegram sent by the director of the Hungarian Telegraph Agency in 1956, the building already under fire: “We are dying for Hungary and for Europe.” Meaning: React!

Europe understood that message when Russia invaded Ukraine. Now it is crucial to continue to take the threat seriously, to respond in the context of international power shifts and to keep current lessons learned in mind.

About the authors

Anneke Grosskreutz currently works as an intern for the Bertelsmann Stiftung, where she supports the Project “Sovereign Europe: Strategic Management of Global Interdependence”. She recently graduated from the University of Groningen, where she studied International Relations and International Organizations with a specialization in International Development Studies.

Miriam Kosmehl has been Senior Expert Eastern Europe with the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s “Europe’s Future” Program since 2017. From Berlin, she works primarily on the Eastern Partnership region, since 2022 with a particular focus on the strategic management of global interdependence.

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