Xi and Putin: The marriage of convenience that is reshaping the world order

Russia and China are not the most natural of allies, but today, they possess a rare sense of shared purpose
Russia and China are not the most natural of allies, but today, they possess a rare sense of shared purpose

Vladimir Putin began the second day of his trip to China on Friday by laying a wreath at the memorial to Soviet soldiers who kicked the Japanese out of Manchuria in 1945. Then he went to Harbin, the Chinese terminus of the trans-Siberian railway, to address an industry forum.

It was not hard to spot the symbolism. Defence and trade have been at the heart of Putin’s ambitious visit to China this week, and it is easy to understand why.

Russia is more than two years into a costly war of attrition. Putin’s political survival is pinned on military victory, and military victory now depends on long-term economic stability and trade that only China is in a position to underwrite. “It’s mainly about regime survival,” says Philipp Ivanov, a China-Russia analyst and the founder of the advisory Geopolitical Risks & Strategy Practice.

China, for its part, is explicit about its interests: Russia’s confrontation with the West is part of Beijing’s own struggle against the United States’ “hegemonic” attempts to “violate the strategic balance”. Or, as the two countries put it in a joint statement: “The United States still thinks in terms of the Cold War and is guided by the logic of bloc confrontation… which creates a security threat for all countries in the region. The US must abandon this behaviour.”

America’s global missile defence systems, its development of high-precision non-nuclear weapons, “extended nuclear deterrence” covering its allies, and deployment of intermediate and shorter-range weapons to its allies in Europe and the Pacific are among their grievances.

The irony, of course, is that Russia and China together form their own “logic of bloc confrontation” across a vast swath of the planet. For the West, it is they who have the potential to threaten global security and stability.

“The West is in a full spectrum, adversarial era of competition with not just one power, but with Russia and China at the same time,” says Michael Auslin, an American writer, policy analyst, historian and scholar of Asia. “We are in probably the most strategically complex and strategically confusing environment since the 1930s. The Cold War seems more predictable than what we have today. There are so many shifting parts… at a time when the West is exhausted.” So what is really going on between Moscow and Beijing? Will their alliance survive? And do they really want to upend the world order?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Beijing on May 16
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing on May 16 - AP

An uneasy history

Russia and China are not the most natural of allies. For centuries they have been suspicious of one another’s territorial claims in east Asia. Even as Communist fellow travellers during the Cold War, they could be as antagonistic towards one another as to the West.

But today, as the world once again divides into geopolitical camps, there is a rare sense of shared purpose. “I think the miscalculation that is made, particularly in Europe, is that Russia is only a junior partner and China is taking all the advantage by getting cheap commodities, oil and whatnot, and access to the Russian market. But Russia is also important to China,” says Sari Arho Havrén, an associate fellow and specialist in China’s foreign relations at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence and security think tank. “Together they want to change the global order… and particularly China is obsessed with displacing the US – it needs Russia to do that. Russia is a very useful partner for China in achieving its own goals.”

The importance of the alliance to Russia is reflected in the large size of its delegation to China this week. Putin took two sets of top officials with him. On defence, there was Andrei Belousov, newly appointed as Russian defence minister. Alongside him across the table from Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, was Sergei Shoigu, the former defence minister newly promoted to head Russia’s National Security Council. As for trade, Elvira Nabiullina, the governor of Russia’s Central bank, was flanked by Anton Siluanov, the finance minister, and Maxim Oreshkin, Putin’s senior economics adviser.

As if that team were not statement enough of the strategic importance of the visit, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and the heads of Russia’s nuclear and space exploration monopolies were also in attendance. In short, a significant proportion of the most important figures from the Russian government made the trip.

The new “limitless” partnership

The current Sino-Russian alliance formally began two years ago. In February 2022, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping announced a new pact: a “no limits” partnership directed largely at challenging American dominance. “There are no forbidden areas of co-operation,” it said.

Exactly 20 days later, Russia invaded Ukraine in what Putin openly described as an effort to overturn an unjust post-Cold War settlement. The timing added another layer of shock to the geopolitical earthquake of the invasion.

Had Xi written Putin a blank cheque for conquest? Or had Putin misled his ally, dragging China into a war it had no appetite for? Xi’s public rhetoric was vague. He refused to condemn the invasion or join the Western sanctions regime, but Chinese companies were also unsentimental in decoupling from Russia to reduce their own exposure.

China refused to supply Russia with weapons or other explicit military aid. And late in 2022, Xi appeared to lean on Putin after the Russian president began to make thinly veiled threats about using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. That raised hopes among some Western officials and commentators that Xi might be persuaded to rein in his clearly deranged ally.

After all, the global energy and food crisis produced by the war hurt China as much as anyone else. But some influential Western observers were sceptical that the invasion had caused a frost between Beijing and Moscow.

“‘No limits’ is a ringing phrase,” Sir Richard Moore, the head of MI6, remarked at the Aspen Security Forum in 2022, just a few months into the war. “When President Xi says these things, he means them, and we ought to listen hard.”

Two years on, Sir Richard appears vindicated. Bilateral trade between Russia and China has surged, up 26 per cent to reach a record $240 billion last year. Much of that was Russian importers looking to replace Western suppliers of goods and materials that were choked off by sanctions, and China buying more Russian coal and oil.

And while, to the best of our knowledge, China is still not sending guns, a Telegraph investigation in August last year found it was supplying Russia with “dual use” goods including helicopters, drones, optical sights and crucial metals used by the defence industry.

Last month, American officials said that support had been expanded to include scopes for armoured vehicles, tank components, rocket fuel and satellite images to help Russia meet its “most ambitious defence expansion since the Soviet era and on a faster timeline than we believed possible early on in this conflict”. Chinese supplies, the Americans claimed, accounted for about 90 per cent of the microelectronics used to make Russian missiles, tanks and aircraft. “Russia would struggle to sustain its war effort without Chinese input,” one US official told Reuters.

Such support may be risky, says Havrén, given China’s continued dependence on exporting to the West. “China needs to be careful,” she says. “But the bigger risk is seeing Russia lose the war. If Putin loses, he would lose, in China’s thinking, to the West and to the US. And China does not want that.”

For China there are other benefits to helping Russia continue the Ukraine war, especially in the lessons it can learn.

“For China, the war in Ukraine is almost like a giant laboratory experiment,” says Ivanov. “It can see what would happen if conflict over Taiwan leads to its global isolation. I think the Chinese military is definitely learning lessons from Russia and its campaign in Ukraine, but it’s also the Chinese economic policymakers [who are learning] what happens when a major power is globally isolated and sanctioned the way that Russia has been.”

The West’s response

If China has been clear that it sees Russia as a key ally in its confrontation with the West, many Western governments fully reciprocate – increasingly seeing China and Russia as part of the same threat.

Last week, British police charged three men, including a former Royal Marine, with spying for China under the National Security Act. Meanwhile, China has grown increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, sending coast guard and naval vessels to engage in water-cannon duels with Filipino vessels over disputed shoals.

As Russia chains its economy to China, the collective West – including the US and Europe – is trying its best to break any bonds. The European Union has urged its members to “derisk” their economic relations with China over the next three years. The US talks about “uncoupling”.

Microsoft is reportedly asking up to 800 employees in China if they’d consider leaving the country as tensions between the US and China continue to grow, notably over the key technology of artificial intelligence.

“If you look across the board, there is an espionage war, a full-on economic war in which the theft of intellectual property continues essentially unabated, a full-on technology war, a full-on political war, with China proposing a completely alternative world system, and of course, a war for allies and proxies,” says Auslin.

For some analysts, such as Ivanov, the outcome of that war is inevitable: “What we’re going through at the moment is the transition to the multipolar world, and it’s a very chaotic transition. Whether we like it or not, the dominance of that sort of US-led, Western order is over. We are moving into an era of multipower competition, which will be quite chaotic for years to come.”

Limits to the “limitless friendship”

Even so, Xi has been reluctant to give Moscow everything it wants. Notably absent from the Russian delegation in China this week was Alexei Miller, the chief executive of Gazprom – a sign that rifts remain over the “Friendship of Siberia” gas pipeline that Russia desperately wants to build but which China is reluctant to pay for.

Nor has Chinese ambivalence about the wisdom of Putin’s Ukrainian adventure gone away. Last month, one of China’s most prominent Russia experts published an essay saying the Kremlin was almost certain to lose the war. Russian military-industrial backwardness, Ukrainian heroism, Western unity, and Vladimir Putin’s refusal to listen to accurate intelligence make Russia’s defeat all-but inevitable, argued Feng Yujun, a professor at Peking University.

Disquiet about the outcome of the war had seen Beijing quietly downgrade the alliance with Russia from “no limits” to “non-alignment, non-confrontation and non-targeting of third parties”, he argued.

That is difficult to square with reports of steadily increasing economic support, and directly contradicts the tone of the joint statement released by Russia and China on Thursday.

But Prof Feng himself has said opinions on the Ukraine war in China are plentiful and varied – a sign, perhaps, of the unspoken contradictions within the “unlimited” partnership.

And it is possible the view he was airing reflects a warning from Xi to Putin: if you want us to invest in you, get your house in order. In other words, China will not back a losing horse.

Xi would never say anything so blunt in public. But it was notable that Putin has recently taken dramatic steps to rationalise his war machine. Hence the firing of the old soldier Shoigu (with one of Shoigu’s deputies arrested on bribery charges) just before the trip.

Belousov, by contrast, is a civilian economist with a mandate to sort out procurement issues. It was a recognition that wars of attrition are won with factories and spreadsheets; with bulk efficiency more than military heroism.

Whose multipolar world is it anyway?

All of which leads to the fundamental rift within the Sino-Russian camp. While both want to end America’s monopoly on global power, they have very different plans for doing so.

For his part, Putin seems happy to take an axe to the tree of the international world order. Xi, on the other hand, seems more doubtful about burning the global house down.

And why shouldn’t he be? If he plays his cards right, China stands to inherit much of the existing system and bend it to China’s convenience.

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Both China and Russia 'want to end America's monopoly on global power,' write Child and Oliphant - Getty

“I think that the Chinese vision for a new world order is much more sophisticated and developed than the Russian vision. Because the Chinese are a much more important player globally, in terms of economics and technology,” says Auslin. “So their view of the world order is not anarchy, it is a world order dominated by China but using, I would argue, many of the same mechanisms that the US has used, such as international organisations, multilateral organisations and international funding, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Belt and Road Initiative.

“Russia hasn’t thought through any of this. Russia offers no constructive alternatives to the existing order. China offers alternatives.

“Even if it doesn’t become the single dominant power, China will be one of the great powers and Russia really is a fading legacy of a once great power. The trajectories that the two countries are on are completely different,” says Auslin. “Over the long run, they simply cannot have a partnership of equality. That’s impossible. And it’s very galling to the Russians to be the junior partner, which is what they are, the way that the Chinese were the junior partner back in the Cold War.”

While China is Russia’s largest trading partner, it also claims to be the biggest trading partner of 119 other countries - well over half the membership of the United Nations. Those relationships go well beyond the handful of countries – North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Venezuela – that have aligned with Russia over Ukraine.

In its immediate neighbourhood, it has sought new trade routes across Eurasia and the eastern Pacific. Investments in Africa are well documented. Europe is not off limits. During his trip to Europe last week, Xi unveiled massive investment in Hungary, where prime minister Viktor Orban has pushed back against an EU effort to “derisk” trade ties with Beijing.

Xi also made sure to pass through Serbia, where China claims to be the biggest single investor. China is rebuilding the Belgrade-Budapest railway line and selling high-speed locomotives to run on it.

So while Russia is an important and useful ally in China’s rivalry with the US and the West, Putin is only one of many allies Xi is seeking to cultivate. True, if Russia wins in Ukraine, it will have helped to deal a significant blow to American power and influence globally. And a Russian victory might give Xi the confidence to launch his own war of conquest against Taiwan. That leads Auslin to conclude that “for the next critical five to 15-year period, they will stay very united.” Ultimately, however, he suggests that we are witnessing no more than a “transactional marriage of convenience”.

For if – together – these two vast countries do realise their common goal of a “multipolar world,” there will only be one pole of power in the Russo-Chinese camp. And it will not be in Moscow.

“I think short term, maybe medium term, they are aligned, they are both talking about the multipolar world order and establishing a new global governance,” says Havrén. “But after that, for China particularly, this multipolarity is a sort of a stepping stone towards a more China-led world order. And then, of course, comes the question: what is Russia’s role in that?”