China’s Russia Risk

How Beijing manages its relations with Moscow will help define it as a great power.

A Ukrainian flag with images of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin
Getty / The Atlantic

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping was likely adding up the benefits of his warming relationship with Vladimir Putin. His Russian counterpart was pushing back against U.S. power, straining American alliances in Europe, and harassing a young democracy next door in Kyiv—all at almost no cost to China. Maybe, just maybe, Putin would even pave the way for Xi to achieve his paramount foreign-policy objective: claiming Taiwan.

Since the war began, however, the pitfalls of China’s partnership with Putin have revealed themselves all too clearly. A revitalized U.S. alliance network has collectively imposed damaging sanctions on Russia. Beijing has tried to do what it usually does—tap dance between all sides and pretend to be neutral—but finds itself an outlier among the world’s major powers. No one’s fooled about where Xi’s sympathies lie, and his stand is further alienating a strengthened transatlantic alliance.

These contradictions should come as no surprise. Ever since the Communist Party’s earliest days in China a century ago, its relations with Russia have held tremendous promise, but are too often plunged into peril. So they may be today.

In Washington, ostensibly improving ties between China and Russia have security experts worried that the U.S. will need to contend with an unholy alliance of the world’s two most powerful authoritarian states determined to reshape the global order in their favor. The cabal potentially presents an enormous strategic challenge: Facing off against one at a time would be difficult enough, as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine tragically shows; a dual, and possibly coordinated, assault on American global power would be even more complex. Beijing and Moscow could help each other evade U.S. sanctions and thus deprive Washington of leverage. The anti-American possibilities are endless.

But far from assured. China and Russia blew their opportunity to gang up against the U.S. during the Cold War, as ideological tussles, personal rivalries, and conflicting ambitions brought them to blows themselves. Today, the interests of China and Russia are not entirely aligned either—in fact, the pair are very likely headed into divergent futures.

Most of all, China’s relations with Russia are becoming a test case for what role Beijing’s leaders want to play in the world. They repeatedly claim to favor “peaceful coexistence” and an end to a divisive “Cold War mentality.” But by siding with Putin—even passively—in his anachronistic quest to re-create the Soviet empire, Xi appears to be just another dictator on the make. How Beijing manages its relations with Moscow, then, will help define China as a great power.

In recent decades, China’s position in the world was determined, to a great degree, by its relationship with the United States. But in many respects, Russia is as crucial to the story of modern China, for both good and bad reasons.

Relations between the two Communist regimes had an inauspicious beginning. In December 1949, just two months after he founded the People’s Republic following the Chinese civil war, Mao Zedong boarded an armored railway car to meet Joseph Stalin in Russia. Arriving hat in hand, the destitute supplicant before the undisputed don of the Communist world, Mao was the inheritor of a poverty-stricken, war-ravaged country desperate for money, technology, and international support. Russian help would be essential for his regime’s survival. When the two leaders met, Mao asked Stalin for just about everything: a treaty of alliance, financial aid, military assistance, even help editing his own writings. Stalin was encouraging but noncommittal, parking Mao in a dacha outside Moscow while hard bargaining dragged on for weeks. Mao eventually got his friendship pact, signed in February 1950, but on humiliating terms that evoked the hated “unequal treaties” imposed on China by imperial powers in the 19th century.

Still, the Russian came through with a gargantuan amount of aid, “the biggest such program undertaken by any country anywhere, including the U.S. Marshall Plan for Europe,” the historian Odd Arne Westad wrote in his book The Cold War: A World History. Soviet advisers trained Chinese army officers and helped plan Chinese cities. Moscow’s enthusiasm grew after Stalin’s death: The Soviet dictator’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, believed that China was key to Communism’s ultimate victory over the West.

But relations began unraveling in the late 1950s. Mao came to resent his subordinate status in the Communist hierarchy and broke with Moscow on economic and foreign policy. To Mao, the Soviets suffered from “right-deviationist thinking”—fighting words in Communist lingo. In 1969, border skirmishes nearly escalated into full-on war. The Soviets threatened to use nuclear weapons, and Mao feared they just might. Tensions were defused through negotiations, but the intense rivalry between Beijing and Moscow propelled Mao to make a history-altering decision: to meet with President Richard Nixon in 1972 and reconcile with China’s supposed imperialist tormentor, the United States.

In recent years, history has reversed. As tensions with Washington have risen, relations with Moscow have strengthened. Xi has referred to Putin as his “best friend,” and after their most recent meeting, in February, ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, they affirmed that the friendship between the two countries “has no limits.” Many factors are drawing them closer. Economically, for example, the two are complementary partners. For China, Russia is a supplier of important raw materials, while Russia needs Chinese investment and high-tech products. Trade between the two grew by 36 percent last year alone, to $147 billion, and they have joined up on projects such as developing a commercial jetliner to rival Boeing and Airbus.

Yet “anti-Americanism is the secret sauce” of the new friendship, Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me. Xi and Putin share a common goal to nudge American influence farther from their borders and unravel U.S. alliances in their respective neighborhoods. Just as Putin frets about NATO encroaching closer and closer on his Russia, Xi stresses about being ring-fenced by a network of U.S. partners across Asia. In this quest to remake the global geostrategic map, a joint effort to increase pressure on the U.S. in Europe and Asia would strain Washington’s attention and resources, and spread doubt about U.S. global commitments. The more the two can trade and invest with each other, the less vulnerable they become to U.S. economic sanctions. If they use their own currencies for that business—as they have pledged to do—perhaps they can even throw off the yoke of the almighty dollar.

But there are plenty of reasons to believe that little of this will happen. Most fundamentally, the two countries are heading in opposite directions. Putin presides over a declining power that lacks the economic vitality to sustain its political clout. He can afford to toss a grenade into the U.S.-led global system. China instead sees itself as a rising power, and that ascent remains tied (at least for now) to that very same world order. Xi, like Putin, wishes to alter the system, but he can’t afford too much disruption. The Chinese economy is so entwined with the rest of the world that any turmoil Xi might cause could boomerang right back at him.

The Chinese “want to benefit as much from participation in the global economy and supply chains as they can,” Gabuev said. For China, he added, “the description of what ‘great power’ actually means is much more pragmatic, is less emotional, and is far more visionary, long term, than Putin’s obsession with dominating Ukraine.”

As China grows more powerful, the gap in their interests may widen. Xi “wants to really dominate Russia’s economy through technology, integrate Russia into Pax Sinica as a junior partner, with formal respect to its sovereignty, but making its foreign policy and economy much more subdued to Chinese foreign-policy goals,” Gabuev said. “China is, so far, not in the position to force Russia to do it. But 10, 15 years down the road, [that’s] totally possible, and that’s the risk [for Russia].”

In that sense, the Putin-Xi friendship might be as dangerous to each of them as it is to Washington. They may be figuring that out as events in Ukraine unfold.

In certain respects their partnership is paying dividends. Putin has received valuable diplomatic support from Xi, and from Beijing’s perspective, Moscow is doing yeoman’s work in pushing back democracy.

Yet Xi is willing to go only so far to aid his “best friend.” Beijing has drawn a line between Putin’s security concerns, which it has called “legitimate,” and his war—which it has not condemned, but not clearly endorsed either. In a vote at the United Nations Security Council on a measure to deplore Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China abstained.

Part of the reason is ideological. China preaches that international relations should be based on the principle of “noninterference” in the affairs of other states. There is no greater form of interference than invasion, so Putin’s aggression places Xi in an awkward diplomatic position. Chinese officials have repeatedly stressed in their comments about Ukraine the importance they place on respect for state sovereignty.

More than that, China’s own national interests will cap how much support Xi can provide. For instance, even though Beijing has opposed the sanctions imposed on Russia and will probably find ways to help Putin evade them, China is too integrated into the global economy to risk being sanctioned itself. After the announcement of sanctions, Chinese state banks began restricting credit for purchases of Russian commodities, and the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank suspended its activities related to Russia. “Most likely, China will support Russia financially and through trade as much as any Western sanctions allow,” Mark Williams, the chief Asia economist at the research firm Capital Economics, wrote in a February report. “Larger firms and the government won’t risk a further rupture in relations with the West.”

Here’s where the tank tread hits the road. Ultimately, China’s priority is always China. Thus far, Beijing has insisted that its friendship with Moscow is “rock solid,” but it will aid Putin (or for that matter, anyone else) only as long as that doesn’t compromise its own agenda. That means the marriage between Xi and Putin is likely to remain one of convenience. The duo can still cause a lot of trouble for the U.S. and its friends, but may struggle to achieve a true alliance, of the kind the U.S. has with Japan or Britain, in which each side has a willingness to coordinate action and policy.

Putin has done Xi one huge favor: revealing what might happen if China starts its own war. Putin’s invasion has shown that—contrary to what Beijing’s leadership seems to believe—the U.S. alliance system is alive, well, and still potent. The Chinese Communist Party, obsessed with domestic stability, is probably looking on with some discomfort at the extent of the sanctions slapped on Russia and calculating the cost of enduring the same. Many commentators predicted that the Ukraine crisis would act as a precursor to a Chinese military assault on Taiwan. So far, it may have done the opposite.

The question now is: How does Xi react? The Ukrainian government has appealed directly to China to use its influence with Putin to end the hostilities. As far as we know, Beijing has remained noncommittal. So Xi faces a weighty choice: He could grasp this golden opportunity to be the global good guy and step into the crisis on Ukraine’s behalf, helping ease China’s confrontation with the U.S. in the process, and positioning his government as a constructive player in international affairs. Or he could remain in bed with Putin and pursue his long-term goal of undermining American power.

Perhaps the most lasting outcome of Putin’s war will be defining China’s role in the world.