Brothers Forever? Ukraine and the Future of China-Russia Relations
NEW YORK, OCTOBER 19, 2023 — Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Beijing this week. To discuss the future of the China-Russia relationship, Philipp Ivanov led a conversation with Lyle Morris and Guoguang Wu of Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis (ASPI CCA) and Elizabeth Wishnick of the Center for Naval Analyses. The panel was part of the launch of "Brothers Forever: Unpacking the Conundrum of China-Russia Relations" at ASPI CCA, which will examine the rapidly evolving relationship between these two countries through analysis, programs, and conversations with experts.
Both Xi and Putin have sought to demonstrate the strength of their “no limits” partnership in challenging the Western-dominated global order. However, Morris believes that the China-Russia relationship is more fragile than people realize. A recent paper outlines his theory that China is cozying up to Russia not because of genuine interest in a partnership, but as a function of a lack of policy alternatives. “The bottom line is, as I said before, Russia is the only power geopolitically to align and influence the world order. China knows that, so China, for better or worse, needs Russia,” says Morris.
China’s response to the invasion of Ukraine is a potent example of how this relationship is fueled by necessity. According to Wu, Beijing's immediate support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was driven by two main factors: grand strategy and regime security “As Xi Jinping repeatedly declares, he speaks to bringing China back to the center of the world stage, basically to unseat international order led by Western countries,” says Wu. “Regime security is always a consideration for the Communist Party of China. These two factors could be consistent because the grand strategy of attacking western democracy is naturally a defensive strategy for protecting regime security.” Beijing and Moscow share a fear of their regime being overthrown by democratization and a willingness to challenge the west — this is the basic ground for their alliance with each other.
One nuance in China’s support for Russia’s war against Ukraine is the nuclear issue. Russia has been making nuclear threats and moving weapons to Belarus, but China has made it clear that they will not condone the use of nuclear weapons. “The international community does credit China as well as India for restraining the use of nuclear weapons, and saying that is a no go for their continued support,” shares Wishnick. Another limit to the China-Russia partnership is Putin's hope that Russia will be seen as both a European power and an Asian power — they don’t only want a world where the status quo associates them exclusively with China. Wishnick states: “Even now, when Russia’s options are limited, you see Russia making overtures to the Middle East, and that explains to a large degree Russia has moved away from Israel and gone more closely to support the Arab world in the current conflict.”
Despite these differences and challenges, it is a resilient partnership. Military cooperation between Russia and China is deepening — Russia has promised to help China develop its ballistic missile defense system and there is now talk about joint weapons production. While the lack of a formal alliance means that there is no technical requirement for each side to provide military aid to the other, China has found ways to get around Western sanctions and provide aid to Russia in Ukraine. According to Wishnick, “They each have a stake in the survival of the other regime, and that keeps them together. A lot will depend on what happens in Ukraine with regards to the balance of power between the two countries.”