How China Is Using Vladimir Putin

Xi Jinping said his country and Putin’s Russia are friends with “no limits.” The reality is more complicated.

A photomontage of many Xi Jinping faces and one Vladimir Putin face
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

Back in the 1960s, China and Russia squandered their chance to defeat the West when they became bitter rivals during the Cold War. Today, their presidents—who are expected to confer again this week—are trying to correct that fateful error. The world’s most powerful autocracies have joined forces for an assault on the liberal order led by the United States and its allies—a threat made all too real when Russia invaded democratic Ukraine in February with Chinese support. Authoritarianism was again on the march, and the world’s major democracies faced a grave challenge to their unity and resolve.

As 2022 has unfolded and the true nature of the Russia-China relationship has become more apparent, the danger it poses seems less acute. What has emerged is nothing like an axis of autocrats, but a lopsided partnership in which the terms are defined by its alpha member, Xi Jinping, primarily to serve China’s interests. This tells us a lot about the foreign-policy principles of China’s leaders and how those ideas may hamper Beijing’s quest to reshape the world order.

Historically, relations between China and Russia have been fraught with distrust and confrontation. The two came frighteningly close to nuclear war in the late 1960s, at the height of their Cold War schism. More recently, though, Beijing and Moscow have found common cause. Economically, they are mutually beneficial trading partners, with China’s industrial machine importing Russian oil, gas, coal, and other raw materials in exchange for high-tech Chinese goods.

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have also forged a close personal connection. In 2019, Xi described Putin as a “best friend.” The glue of their friendship is a shared frustration with American global primacy. Each sees Washington as the main impediment to the achievement of their international ambitions. That’s why alarms rang more loudly in democratic capitals when Putin visited Xi in Beijing in early February and they issued a joint statement saying that “friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

Fears rose in the U.S. and Europe that the two authoritarian states were embarking on a coordinated attack in Asia and Europe against the dominance of the West. Those fears seemed justified when, later that month, Putin launched his war against Ukraine.

The Sino-Russian partnership seemed to pay instant dividends. From Xi’s perspective, Putin’s invasion rolled back Western influence (or so it appeared) at little cost to China. Moscow, for its part, gained important political support from Beijing at a moment when the U.S. was aiming to isolate Russia on the world stage. Beijing has consistently blamed NATO for causing the war and supported Putin’s security concerns in Europe, which China’s top diplomat described earlier this year as “legitimate.”

Xi has also rebuffed calls to use his influence with Putin to help end the war or mediate between the Russian leader and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Although Xi told President Joe Biden in their November meeting that he was “highly concerned” about the Ukraine crisis, he also appeared to wash his hands of any responsibility to play a more active role in reaching a settlement. The official Chinese readout of the conversation stated that Beijing will encourage peace talks but looked forward to a dialogue between the U.S., NATO, and Russia.

Beijing’s diplomatic backing of Moscow’s position on Ukraine, as well as of Russia’s role in the world as a major power, has been of significant value to Putin. So has China’s more tangible assistance. As Russia’s financial and business ties to the West crumble under the weight of sanctions, trade with China has replaced some of the lost income. Total trade between China and Russia surged by nearly a third, to $172 billion so far this year. (By contrast, Russia’s trade with the U.S. plunged by about half, according to the latest available data.)

“For Russia, the key task for now is to generate enough revenue stream to pump money into the war machine, the budget, to feed all of the people who carry guns and support domestic security,” Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me. “As the relationship between Russia and the West is being destroyed by both sides … the key revenue flows … are turning to the East, and China is the major player.”

Aside from the Ukraine war, and whatever its outcome, the China-Russia relationship is likely to deepen. Xi and Putin share a strong interest in reducing their economic reliance on the U.S. and its European and Asian partners, and both have a clear incentive to expand trade and investment between their economies. In a recent paper in the Naval War College Review, the scholars Andrew Erickson and Gabriel Collins foresee the potential for greater military cooperation between Russia and China as well. Moscow could enhance China’s naval capabilities by giving its fleet access to Russian ports in the Far East and by sharing technology, especially for undersea warfare. “Russian military pinnacle technologies,” they wrote, “could be coupled with China’s financial resources and industry to tip the Indo-Pacific security balance in favor of a Sino-Russian axis of autocracy at the expense of the United States and its allies and partners.”

Still, the events of the past year have shown that the “no limits” relationship does, in fact, have its limits. Beijing has not provided material support for Putin’s war effort, nor helped his government and banks evade the tough sanctions imposed by the West after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Self-interest is certainly at work here. In a March conversation, Biden warned Xi that China would face “consequences” if the Chinese leader directly aided Russia. That would likely entail sanctions on China—which the country, still heavily dependent on American and European trade, technology, and investment, can ill afford. And although Xi has backed Putin’s security concerns in Europe, he has shown some discomfort with Putin’s war. In their November meeting, Biden and Xi jointly criticized the Russian leader’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to Washington’s summary of the conversation.

Some analysts have interpreted a degree of waffling by Xi in that encounter as a signal that he is having second thoughts about his bet on Russia. Revealingly, perhaps, the bit about nukes was omitted from the account of the meeting released by China’s foreign ministry. But Chinese-Russian ties continue to develop. The same day that Zelensky was in Washington addressing Congress, Xi hosted former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Beijing.

Most likely, Xi’s diplomatic two-step is an indication of Beijing’s continuing attempts to play all sides. In that sense, it’s typical Chinese foreign policy. Beijing eschews the sort of commitments Washington has made to its close allies. China’s leaders prefer to maintain their own freedom of action, both at home and abroad, unfettered by promises made to other countries. Xi has enshrined this practice into his chief diplomatic program, the Global Security Initiative, a framework for reshaping the global order. Outlining its tenets, Xi declared that countries should “say no to group politics and bloc confrontation.” Attempts to form “small circles,” he said, are “doomed to fail.”

That means China will resist the formation of a new, authoritarian bloc with Russia (or any other countries) like the old Communist bloc that the Soviet Union once formed. Beijing’s commitment to such ideas suggests that it will never forge a true alliance with Russia that would require China’s leaders to coordinate policy more closely or that would bind them to mutual defense. Despite its current troubles, the Russian leadership may prefer it that way. Moscow may be wary of becoming too tied to—and too dependent on—China as well. The relationship between Xi and Putin is not equal. The Ukraine war has exposed Russia as a declining power, and its isolation from the West has left Putin little choice but to turn to Beijing. Xi is taking advantage.

For instance, China has been purchasing Russian oil at steep discounts. With access to dollar transactions curtailed by U.S. sanctions, Russian businesses are turning instead to the Chinese yuan, advancing Beijing’s longtime goal of promoting its currency as a rival to the greenback.  The relationship is “more beneficial to China than for Russia,” Gabuev told me. “The asymmetry that was built into this relationship even before the war has been galvanized by the war.”

The stronger China becomes, the greater that imbalance grows, and the more Beijing may prod Moscow to align its interests with China’s—and the more nervous Russian leaders may become. “A Russia whose motives for aggressive military action in Europe likely include regaining the fear-based ‘respect’ accorded the Soviet Union in the past may tire of being viewed—and perhaps treated—as a vassal of China,” Erickson and Collins wrote. “Popular resentment at national subservience may prompt Putin or his ultimate successor to reset relations symbolically, and even substantively, away from Beijing’s preferences.”

The dynamics of Xi’s relations with Russia tell us that China isn’t a very good friend, and this will surely have consequences for Beijing’s quest for greater global influence. The U.S. has extended and entrenched its power through a network of close alliances and defense arrangements with nations that share values and foreign-policy objectives. China will do nothing of the sort. Beijing will more likely operate through bilateral ties, loose international groups (such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and initiatives it can control (such as its Belt and Road development program). It will engage with other countries only so far as such arrangements directly benefit it, as the partnership with Russia shows.

The question is whether such a strategy is sufficient for Beijing to achieve its foreign-policy ambitions. The U.S. certainly pursues its national priorities in its foreign affairs, sometimes ruthlessly, but it has also been willing to make sacrifices to promote its agenda—by, for instance, absorbing the costs of other countries’ defense. China has not always shunned such a practice. In historical periods when China was the unrivaled power in East Asia, the emperors of imperial dynasties often spent heavily on gifts and assistance for foreign states and dignitaries from the region. The display of generosity was designed to uphold the dynasties’ diplomatic system. Today’s Chinese leaders, however, seem much less willing to sacrifice wealth or make concessions in order to realize greater goals. Other countries, including Russia, may choose to respond in kind, limiting Beijing’s ability to exert its influence in a global struggle with the U.S. and its allies.

All the same, the China-Russia relationship could remain dangerous to the U.S. and democracy more broadly. Whatever differences or points of distrust they may have, Beijing and Moscow still share an objective of altering the world order, and they will continue to pursue that, within the constraints of their relations. “This is not an alliance,” Yun Sun, a director of the China program at the Stimson Center, told me. “Partners is a much-qualified word in terms of what each side will do for the other.” But Chinese leaders, she went on, “do see Russia as a useful partner—or useful instrument—in confronting the United States. That has not changed, and that is not going to change.”