Three weeks before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine last year, President Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping – an event shunned by Western leaders.
In a 5,300-word joint statement issued the same day, Xi and Putin said their friendship had “no limits” – a declaration that caused a wave of unease in the West. It signaled that the world’s two preeminent authoritarian powers were making common cause.
Beijing was also Putin’s first overseas visit outside the former Soviet Union in October since an arrest warrant was issued by the International Criminal Court against him for war crimes in Ukraine.
In recent years, the China-Russia relationship has deepened as the two nations have sought a new world order against their common rival, the United States. However, since the war began, China has avoided providing direct military aid to Russia.
Bilateral ties between the two powers are more complex and nuanced than meets the eye. Moscow’s association with China has a long and storied past that pre-dates the rise of the Chinese Communist Party to power in Beijing seven decades ago.
Kuomintang’s Soviet bride
In the early afternoon on Dec. 15, 2004, Chiang Fang-liang – widow of former Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo – died of respiratory and cardiac failure at a hospital in Taipei at age 88. She had lived a quiet, lonely life as a member of Taiwan’s first family. Her husband and three sons all passed before her.
Born Faina Vakhreva in the Russian Empire, she was a member of the Soviet Union’s Communist Youth League and met her future husband when they both worked at a factory in Siberia. They married in 1935.
A few years before that, Chiang’s father, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, led the Chinese nationalist party Kuomintang to power in mainland China. Yet in 1949, the victory of the Communists drove the Chiang family and their government to retreat to the island of Taiwan, where Fang-liang lived and died.
The Soviet Union, and Russia afterwards, have had little contact with Taiwan, but the Chiang family’s Russian connection served as a reminder of how much influence the Soviets once had over the politics across the Taiwan Strait.
Chiang Ching-kuo arrived in the USSR aged 15 and spent 12 years there. He embraced the life of a Soviet Marxist, even adopted a Russian name – Nikolai Vladimirovich – after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the first leader of the USSR.
The Kuomintang, founded in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen, for a long time received support and aid from the Soviet Union. However, during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) the Soviets turned to support the Communists who defeated the Nationalists and established the People’s Republic of China.
In his memoir “My Days in Soviet Russia,” Chiang Ching-kuo recalled his time as being “completely isolated from China, I was not even allowed to mail a letter,” and those long years were “the most difficult” of his life. All his requests to return to the mainland were rejected by the authorities, according to Russian historians Alexander Larin and Alexander Lukin, as Chiang was virtually held hostage by Lenin’s successor as Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.
Chiang and his small family were allowed to leave the USSR in 1937 when in China the Kuomintang and the Communists formed a new alliance to fight against a Japanese invasion that presaged World War II. That was a lucky escape for them as the Soviet country was undergoing a period of extreme political repression known as the Great Purge, during which hundreds of thousands of Stalin’s political opponents were removed and eliminated.
From then until her final days, Chiang’s Russian wife would never set foot in her motherland again.
The years in the Soviet Union led Chiang Ching-kuo “to examine socialism with a more critical eye, and contributed to his evolution towards anti-communism,” argued Larin and Lukin, who said that the failure of the Soviet economic system played a part in Taiwan’s transition to market reforms under Chiang’s premiership during the 1970s.
And not only in Taiwan, “eventually, the Chinese communists in mainland China arrived at the same conclusion” about the Soviet economic model, according to the Russian authors.
“Deng Xiaoping, the architect of mainland Chinese economic reforms, was a classmate of Chiang … and had a similar although much shorter experience in the USSR,” they wrote.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Sino-USSR relationship was marked by turbulence, including a seven-month border conflict in 1969. Mao Zedong’s China condemned Moscow for “betraying communism” while the Soviet Union withdrew all economic assistance to Beijing.
It only warmed up after Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the USSR Communist Party and initiated the political and social reform called perestroika. After the Soviet Union dissolved, China recognized the Russian Federation as its legal successor on Dec. 24, 1991. Moscow and Beijing signed a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation 10 years later, paving the way for a new chapter in their special partnership.
A joint statement on the 20th anniversary of the treaty in 2021 said that Russian-Chinese relations “have reached the highest level in their history.”
“The Russian-Chinese relations are based on equality, deep mutual trust, commitment to international law, support in defending each other’s core interests, the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said.
Officially, Sino-Russia ties are described as a “comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction in the new era,” according to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
China has been Russia’s largest trading partner since 2010, with two-way trade reaching US$140.7 billion in 2021 and $134.1 billion in the first seven months of 2023. The target is $200 billion or more in 2023.
Russia is the second-largest oil supplier to China, after Saudi Arabia, with 86.3 million tons sold in 2022. China also bought 68.1 million tons of coal from Russia last year.
And China is one of the largest foreign investors in Russia. The head of the Russian government, Mikhail Mishutin, told Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a visit in May that there are currently 79 joint projects in both countries totaling more than $165 billion.
“Russia is interested in a stable and prosperous China, and China is interested in a strong and successful Russia,” official documents from both sides said.
But mutual economic interests aside, “shared threat perceptions” lie at the core of their bilateral relations, according to Ian Storey, a scholar at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
“Moscow and Beijing view the United States’ primacy as contrary to their national interests and a threat to regime survival,” Storey said. In his opinion, the Russian and Chinese leaderships believe the U.S. is pursuing a containment strategy against them and is “determined to overthrow their authoritarian political systems by orchestrating ‘color revolutions.’”
Alliance or not?
In response, Moscow and Beijing have been boosting their military cooperation, raising questions about whether it amounts to a kind of military alliance.
In 2020, Putin was asked at a meeting if such an alliance was conceivable. He responded that both Russia and China “have always believed that our relations have reached such a level of cooperation and trust that it is not necessary.”
“We have achieved a high level of cooperation in the defense industry – I am not only talking about the exchange or the purchase and sale of military products, but the sharing of technologies, which is perhaps most important,” Putin said.
Analysts say that disparities in power between them may prevent the formation of an alliance.
Alexander Gabuev, a Russian expert from the Carnegie Endowment think tank, wrote that “if for Russia, under sanctions from the West, China is becoming an increasingly important partner that would be hard to replace.” But he added that for Beijing, “Moscow could easily be supplanted, since most of what it supplies China with could be bought elsewhere.”
“In addition, U.S. and EU sanctions are gradually making Russia depend on China for strategic civilian technology, such as 5G systems,” the Russian expert said, referring to a type of high-speed mobile internet network.
“Moscow and Beijing are well aware that their interests don’t always coincide,” Gabuev said, “Neither side wishes to risk getting drawn into a major conflict over the interests of its partner.”
However, the joint statement on the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2021 stated: “While not being a military and political alliance, such as those formed during the Cold War, the Russian-Chinese relations exceed this form of interstate interaction.”
Even without a formal alliance, military and military-technical cooperation between the two countries have strengthened in recent years, although the limits of that cooperation have become apparent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Putin and Xi have met a whopping 42 times in the last 10 years.
Putin has visited China 22 times, more often than any other world leader. For his part, Xi has visited Russia nine times, more than any other country. The last time Xi was in Moscow was in March, on his first foreign trip since being re-elected for a rare third term.
A year before that and just before Moscow invaded Ukraine, Xi and Putin announced the “friendship without limits” between the two countries. There would be “no forbidden areas” of bilateral cooperation.
But since the Ukraine war began in February 2022, China has provided almost no material support to Russia’s military campaign.
Beijing has, however, supported Moscow rhetorically, echoing its description of the invasion as a “special military operation,” provoked by NATO expansion. China also abstained from a U.N. resolution that condemned Russia’s action.
Earlier this year, Beijing released a 12-point “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” which is said to aim at mediating a peace. The paper neither condemns Russia’s aggression against Ukraine nor regards Russia’s withdrawal as a precondition for peace, and has not brought any tangible success.
Vassily Kashin, a Russian expert on the Chinese military, said there were no signs that China wanted to change its long-standing position of not arming Russia during the Ukraine war.
The U.S has warned China of severe sanctions if it were to supply weapons to Russia.
“If China sees that it will lose more than gain from some actions to support Russia, such actions are never taken,” Kashin said. “This is why China has refrained from selling Russia weapons, even in spite of the fact that Chinese weapons would likely be a complete game changer on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
While sitting on the fence about the war and claiming impartiality, Beijing seems to be in a unique position to benefit from the gap in the global arms market left by Russia, which has to divert its weapons production to the battlefield.
“Since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine in February 2022 fewer and fewer countries will be interested in buying Russian equipment,” Ian Storey from the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, who has studied the Russia-China military ties for many years, said.
China’s defense industry could stand to benefit. Six of the 15 largest defense companies in the world now are from China, according to a list compiled by Defense News, a website focusing on the defense industry.
“Many sophisticated Chinese systems are derived from Russian counterparts, and mid- and long-range air defense systems are among the most sought-after capabilities by Russia’s customers,” Defense News said.
Ian Chong, a political scientist from the National University of Singapore, said that there is a debate over China’s strategic calculations.
“Some claim that Beijing wants a junior partner in Russia that can distract the United States and its allies while providing energy and key minerals. Others see a weak Russia as a potential liability to China,” Chong said.
Whichever claim proves to be true, it seems that the roles in the Moscow-Beijing tryst have now reversed.
Putin may want to read a memorandum of a meeting at the White House in June 1980, where the then-U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Thomas J. Watson, Jr. told President Jimmy Carter that in his opinion “the Chinese have a tendency to jump around from bed to bed,” warning him about Beijing’s propensity for strategic and political calculus.