China and Russia have developed closer ties in recent years due to their shared desire to challenge and undermine what they regard as the West’s (or, to them, the U.S.’) supremacy in world affairs.
However, the power asymmetries and conflicts of interest between Beijing and Moscow are more complex than they first appear, especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which threw a wrench in the works of the world economic order.
Some experts have compared the relationship to the story of “Goldilocks” in which a happy medium is sought. China wants its friend Russia to be neither too strong where it could confront Beijing nor too weak where it would leave China ideologically isolated against the West.
Beijing has been careful not to criticize Russia during the war and has continued to be an ally, but it has also been able to take advantage of its privileged relationship with Moscow because it is aware that Russia needs a strong ally and trading partner for its heavily discounted commodity exports, like oil and metals, whose sales are essential to maintaining Russia’s economy and the war.
However, political analysts claim that China has no interest in seeing Russia significantly weakened and does not want Russia to lose the conflict as this would also make China’s own position appear weaker. It might also be argued that this gives the West more confidence and fuels political unrest in Russia, effectively China’s neighbor.
According to Etienne Soula, a research analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy within the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., “China needs to strike a balance between keeping Russia as weak as possible to ensure that it doesn’t pose a threat to China, while also ensuring that Russia can still be an irritant to their common rivals, Western democracies led by the United States.”
“China’s narrative about its own ascent to the center of world governance depends on the corresponding notion that Western democracies, and the United States in particular, are irrevocably deteriorating. It would be a major setback for China’s narrative to have those nations defeat one of the biggest autocracies in the world—a Security Council member with nuclear weapons—by proxy without even having boots on the ground
International experts believe that China is one of the few nations that may use its influence to persuade Russia to cease the conflict in Ukraine. Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met and praised their growing political and economic connections as well as their “friendship” as leaders.
Later, China sent representatives to Ukraine in an effort to promote its own, ambitious but superficial, peace plan for the region. At the time, analysts believed Beijing was more focused in projecting itself as a global peacemaker than on really putting a stop to the conflict.
However, some political analysts contend that China’s covert backing of Russia during its invasion of Ukraine really demonstrates Beijing’s willingness to compromise its own geopolitical and economic standing up to a point, indicating that the relationship between China and Russia is less straightforward than previously thought. They also dispute China’s ability to influence Russia’s economy in either a positive or negative way.
The “Goldilocks” theory, which holds that China aims to carefully balance its support for Russia while also keeping it at arm’s length, is generally accepted by Yurii Poita, head of the Asia section at the Kyiv-based New Geopolitics Research Network. However, he questioned the extent to which China could strengthen Moscow in any case.
According to him, China cannot truly strengthen Russia without endangering Chinese interests.
He claimed that China could provide Russia with advanced military technology or dual-use components like semiconductors, but expressed concern over possible Western sanctions against Chinese companies: “Let’s imagine how they could make Russia stronger, [for example] by supplying Russia with advanced military technology.
Since the start of the war, a conflict that has impacted global trade as well as energy and food security, Beijing has reportedly supported Moscow more than expected.
According to one observer, China has already gone far enough with Russia to put its own reputation at danger, demonstrating that Beijing is willing to take a risk with geopolitical capital to support its partner.
According to Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “I just don’t see any evidence that China is looking to extend its power lead over Russia, to make it a junior partner” since the war started.
“It appears to me that China has been the one willing to pay a diplomatic, economic, and reputational price with Europe and the United States in order to continue supporting Russia,” said the author.
So, if you were to examine Russia and how China has positioned itself in relation to Russia since the start of the war, I would say that Putin has primarily been successful in getting China to give in and make concessions in opposition to China’s other interests.
In contrast to the rational course of action for Beijing, which would be to distance itself from Russia “given that it is a toxic asset,” Blanchette said he failed to find evidence that China was turning Russia into a “client state.”
“I don’t see a lot of evidence that China is resigning from the discussion. They are careful with penalties and don’t want Chinese companies to be subject to retaliatory measures. However, that just means that there is a limit to how much China will support Russia. I’m looking for the floor, and it strikes me that Beijing is willing to go to some pretty significant lengths to support Moscow while it is fighting in this extremely expensive and risky war.