Fragile alliance between China and Russia

After the invasion of Ukraine, Russia became highly dependent on China, so Putin had high expectations from the recent meeting with Xi. There are, however, clear limits to what Beijing is willing to sacrifice for Moscow

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

In December 1949, Mao Zedong flew to Moscow to meet with Joseph Stalin. The leader of the People's Republic of China, created only a few months earlier, was very keen to celebrate the victory of communism in China and the 71st birthday of the Soviet leader together with the leader of the world proletariat. Stalin, however, did not consider Mao his equal. How times have changed since then.

Stalin's perspective

From Stalin's perspective, Mao was useful because he contributed to the spread of communism in Asia. Therefore, in February 1950, the two leaders signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance. Mao wanted more than that—security guarantees in case of attack by the United States and direct military support—but Stalin was unwilling to commit. In his view, Mao was not only below his level - a greedy neighbor with delusions of grandeur - but also a burden. Closer ties with China, he feared, could threaten Soviet gains in Asia and lead to American intervention.

Today, it is Chinese President Xi Jinping who looks down on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Moreover, Putin's recent trip to Beijing - his first trip abroad since he began his fifth presidential term - was practically a mirror image of the meeting between Stalin and Mao 75 years ago.

Xi welcomed Putin in Tiananmen Square with an expectedly pompous ceremony. When the motorcade carrying Putin stopped in front of the Great Hall of the People, a deafening cannon platoon rang out. The orchestra of the Chinese People's Liberation Army performed not only the Russian national anthem, but also the Moscow Evening, a tune that older generations of Chinese people adore. The crowd cheered.

Si's view from above

During the visit, no symbolism was spared - or propaganda. In addition to marking the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations, the visit also marked the beginning of the China-Russia Years of Culture, a manifestation during which 230 "cultural and artistic" events will be organized in a large number of cities in both countries. Insisting on such a bond between the two nations, Putin declared the Russians and Chinese "brothers forever" - a reference to a song composed on the occasion of Mao's visit to Moscow - claiming that it has become a kind of proverb in Russia.

Even by the standards of the Kremlin propagandists, this claim has no relation to reality. The mentioned song actually served as a mockery in Russia for a long time, especially considering the frequent problems in Sino-Russian relations, starting with the Sino-Soviet breakup. Some might say that Nikita Khrushchev, my great-grandfather, was responsible for the collapse of bilateral relations because in 1956 he declared a break with the Stalin era. But Stalin was never a loyal ally of China. As Khrushchev knew how to remind, in 1951, when a stalemate was reached in the Korean War, the Soviet dictator looked down on Mao as an untalented guerrilla.

In any case, Putin did not travel to Beijing just for the spectacle. Since it launched an invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago, and the West retaliated with an unprecedented scale of sanctions, Russia has become highly dependent on China. Therefore, the moment he landed in Beijing, he was already ready to fall into Xiu's arms.

Like Stalin 75 years ago, however, Si has certain reservations. It is true that China has some benefits from Russia. As he stated during the meeting, Xi views bilateral relations with Russia as "a factor in maintaining global strategic stability and the democratization of international relations." This helps explain why, as Putin pointed out, the two countries have opened a "massive portfolio" of 80 major investment projects. There are, however, clear limits to what China is willing to sacrifice for Russia.

Let's start with the economy. In recent months, Xi has met with a number of senior Western officials, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. They all conveyed the same message: if China continues to supply Russia with "dual use" (civilian and military) materials and technologies that can contribute to its war effort, Chinese firms will face secondary sanctions.

Si tried to give the impression of someone who was not upset by this. But it is probably not a coincidence that Chinese exports to Russia are declining, by 14 percent in March alone. In addition, since the beginning of the year, China has been continuously reducing direct deliveries of machinery, equipment (including electronic equipment), mechanical parts and other equipment to Russia. Given that China is the main source of Russian imports - it accounted for about 45 percent of total imports last year - this is a serious reason for the Kremlin's concern.

No full alliance

It should be added that Beijing is delaying the construction of the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline that would transport Russian gas to China. Fully aware that it is his last, Xi expects Russia to pay all the costs of building the multibillion-dollar pipeline, while at the same time continuing to supply China with energy at drastically cut prices. This year, China paid only $300 for 1.000 cubic meters of gas passed through the Power of Siberia 1 gas pipeline, while Europe pays Turkey $500 for the same amount of gas.

Progress in the construction of the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline is of such importance to Putin that he also brought the Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Novak, responsible for energy issues, to Beijing. But after the meeting with the Chinese partners, all Novak could offer was a general assurance that the contract would be signed "in the near future."

It could be said that Putin's effort to create a full military alliance, including the commitment to mutual defense, like Mao's, did not bear fruit either. Although China maintains joint maneuvers with Russia, it looks to position itself as an advocate of "win-win cooperation", as opposed to the "Cold War mentality" which implies the division of the world into mutually opposing blocs. Why would Xi question his position as a kind of mediator between Russia and the West?

Xi is not interested in starting a fight, at least apparently, while Putin's agenda contains nothing but fights. With the interests of the two leaders diverging so dramatically, the question arises whether Sino-Russian relations are doomed to collapse again. Maybe China and Russia really could be "brothers forever".

The author is a professor of international affairs at the New School of New York University

(Project Syndicate, 2024;

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