China-Russia relations: A quantum leap?

Briefing 26-05-2023

Hours before the Beijing Winter Olympics officially opened on 4 February 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a long meeting with Russian President Putin. In the joint statement issued after the meeting – which referred to the bilateral relationship as a 'no-limits friendship' – the Chinese leader for the first time voiced his country's outright opposition to NATO enlargement and support for Russia's 'proposals to create long-term legally binding security guarantees' in Europe. It remains, however, unclear whether Putin informed Xi of his intention to invade Ukraine. On 24 February, 4 days after the end of the Winter Olympics, Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The China-Russia relationship has seen major shifts since 1992. At the outset, China's population was greater than Russia's and the two countries had very similar level of total gross domestic product. Nowadays, thanks to China's exceptional growth performance and the impact of Russia's war on Ukraine, China's economy is estimated to be up to 10 times bigger than Russia's. Similarly, trade with Russia is not of major importance to China in terms of value. However, the high share of raw materials (including food) in Russian exports and the transfer of Russian military technology are of strategic importance to China. Since 2012 – when Xi was first made General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – the relationship has evolved into an informal alliance in the face of what both countries consider a rising threat from the West to their regimes. China's response to Russia's war on Ukraine – a balancing act sometimes referred to as 'pro-Russia neutrality' – has so far been much closer to Russia than it was in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. At the same time, developments since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have increased Russia's dependency on China, which some now qualify as a rising 'vassalisation' of Russia. This is an update of a briefing originally published in March 2022.