Russia and China are being driven together as the chasm with the West deepens

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin as leaders gather for a family photo during the Belt and Road Forum on Yanqi Lake, outside Beijing, China, May 15, 2017.
Damir Sagolj | Reuters

China and Russia are taking center stage this week as both countries look to deepen ties just as a chasm with the West, on a geopolitical and economic as well as military front, appears to be getting deeper, according to analysts.

A three-day state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow this week, which began Monday, was hailed by China and Russia’s presidents as the result of solid and cooperative relations between the two leaders and their respective nations, and comes after a determined drive over the last decade to strengthen diplomatic, defense and trade ties.

Ahead of the visit, President Vladimir Putin said in an article that “unlike some countries claiming hegemony and bringing discord to the global harmony, Russia and China are literally and figuratively building bridges” while his Chinese counterpart returned the favor, telling AFP he is “confident the visit will be fruitful and give new momentum to the healthy and stable development of Chinese-Russian relations.”

Xi’s visit to Moscow is something of a political coup for Russia given that it comes at a time when Russia has few high-powered friends left on the international stage, and little to show for its invasion of Ukraine.

Russian forces have made little tangible progress despite a year of fighting, and a largely isolated Moscow continues to labor under the weight of international sanctions. To add insult to injury, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin on Friday, alleging that he is responsible for war crimes committed in Ukraine during the war.

Nonetheless, China and Russia have long shared similar geopolitical aims, such as a desire to see what they call a “multi-polar world” and the curbing of NATO’s military might, that unite them. And perhaps the most significant shared viewpoint of all is their mutual, long-standing distrust of the West.

A confluence of recent events — from the war in Ukraine to Western restrictions on semiconductor tech exports to China and, lately, a nuclear submarines deal between the U.S., U.K. and Australia that irked Beijing — has only served to bring the countries even closer together, according to analysts.

“If you look at the trajectory of China-Russia relations within the last decade, bilateral ties between the two countries have really developed tremendously,” Alicja Bachulska, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told CNBC, saying that the process of developing ties had begun back in the 1990s.

“It’s basically about certain strategic interests, that are very close to both Beijing and Moscow at this point,” she added. “For both Russia and China, the main interest is to weaken the U.S.-led international order, that’s their primary goal, long term and short term.”

The Ukraine factor

For both China and Russia, the war in Ukraine is both a challenge to that U.S.-led world order and a way to undermine it, analysts note.

China has held back from openly supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine but it has also refused to condemn the invasion. Instead, it has echoed Moscow in criticizing the U.S. and NATO for what it sees as “fueling the fire” over Ukraine. It has also sought to carve out a niche for itself as peacemaker, calling on both sides to agree a cease-fire and come to the negotiating table for talks.

Behind the scenes, the West is concerned that Beijing could provide lethal weaponry to Russia to enable it to gain the upper hand in Ukraine, as U.S. intelligence suggested last month. Ukraine’s Western allies have signaled that any move to do so would be a red line and that, should Beijing cross it, there would be “consequences” in the form of sanctions placed on China.

Beijing has vehemently denied it is planning on supplying Russia with any military hardware. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Monday, reiterating previous comments, that the West was supplying weapons to Ukraine, not China, telling reporters that “the U.S. side should stop fueling the fires and fanning the flames … and play a constructive role for a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine, not the other way around.”

China’s President Xi Jinping waves as he disembarks off his aircraft upon arrival at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport on March 20, 2023.
Anatoliy Zhdanov | Afp | Getty Images

China has denied it is planning to help Moscow militarily but analysts say Beijing is concerned over the war in Ukraine, noting that China views a Russian failure in Ukraine as a threat, given that it carries the risk of a potentially seismic political fallout back in Russia that in turn could harm Beijing.

“The worst case scenario for Beijing now is Russia’s complete failure in this war,” the ECFR’s Bachulska said.

“If they begin to think that Russia might fail — and that in the really worst-case nightmare scenario that there [could be then] a pro-democratic government in Moscow — for China, this would be a very threatening scenario,” she noted, seen as both a “direct threat to Beijing, and the stability of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].”

This fear, she said, could sway China when it considers whether to offer Putin help in Ukraine. “They will probably be able to provide more support if they realize that the balance of power on the battlefield is against Russia,” Bachulska noted.

It’s highly likely that, should China help Russia in terms of weaponry or military technology, however, it will look to do it in a very covert way, analysts including Bachulska and those at the Institute for the Study of War have noted, such as using Belarus or other countries.

“Xi likely plans to discuss sanctions evasion schemes with Putin and Russian officials to support the sale and provision of Chinese equipment to Russia,” the ISW said in analysis ahead of the Xi-Putin summit, noting that it had previously assessed that during a recent meeting between the presidents of Belarus and China, agreements may have been signed that “facilitate Russian sanctions evasion by channeling Chinese products through Belarus.”

The ISW said Xi and Putin are “likely to discuss sanctions evasion schemes and Chinese interest in mediating a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine.”  CNBC contacted China’s Foreign Ministry for a response to the comments and is yet to receive a response.

Tech and trade wars

While possible military aid for China is something the West needs to watch closely, the depth and breadth of China’s loyalty toward Moscow is seen to be finite, with Beijing likely reluctant to risk major sanctions on its own economy just to help Russia.

On the other hand, analysts note that China, like Russia, has a vested interested in seeing the U.S. and wider West weakened, both geopolitically and diplomatically — for instance, if China can step in as a mediator in the conflict in Ukraine — and on an economic level, if the two nations can forge closer trade ties. This would come as the U.S. and Europe challenge China’s economic power, most recently with the introduction of sweeping export control rules aimed at restricting China’s ability to access advanced computing chips.

“Export controls on Chinese high tech — which reflect a policy of targeted containment — brings Xi closer to Putin in worldview and orientation,” Ian Bremmer,  founder and president of the Eurasia Group, told CNBC, adding: “I think that’s likely to be reflected in Xi’s statements when he … visits Putin in Moscow, and that’s going to be a big deal geopolitically,” Bremmer noted.

While Russia might offer China a convenient trading and diplomatic partnership as other routes to Western markets look increasingly vulnerable, analysts note that the relationship between China and Russia is an imbalanced one.

“China doesn’t really need Russia,” Christopher Granville, managing director of global political research at TS Lombard, told CNBC. “Russia is a very tiny economy compared to China’s with the exception of some very specific things, such as its hydrocarbon exports and some aspects of its military industries,” he noted.

“What I would say though is that the U.S. pressing on China, especially in these trade wars and now tech wars, is a clear zero-sum project by the U.S. government to prevent China from reaching the frontier of key technologies, notably semiconductors,” he noted.

“It seems to me that as a result of the U.S. government’s zero-sum campaign to pull back China, to stop it getting ahead and keep it behind, is that suddenly the relationship with Russia becomes more valuable to China.”