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China has a Russia problem

Matthias von Hein
March 13, 2022

They are neighbors, partners in trade and nuclear powers united in opposition to the United States. But Russia's invasion of Ukraine could become a problem for Beijing.

Vladimir Putin und Xi Jinping
Russian and Chinese leaders met in Beijing in early FebruaryImage: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP/picture alliance

China's parliamentary body, the National People's Congress, was in session in Beijing last week. When the country's Premier Li Keqiang eventually met with media last Friday after the session, journalists asked how Chinese officials were feeling about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"On Ukraine, indeed the current situation there is grave, and China is deeply concerned and grieved," the senior politician said. "The pressing task now is preventing tensions from escalating or even getting out of control."

However he did not criticize the actual Russian invasion and also said that China's relations with Russia were "rock solid." Li also complained about the international sanctions against Russia, saying they could hurt the world economy.

 China and Russia share a border more than 4,000 kilometers (circa 2,485 miles) long. Their economies complement one another, with energy and raw materials going into China, and industrial products moving from China to Russia. Both are ruled by authoritarian regimes that take pride in their tales of historical greatness. And both countries are united in their rivalry with the US.

Forming a new front

"For China, geopolitics is crucial when it comes to its relations with Russia," explained Maximilian Mayer, a junior professor of international relations at the University of Bonn in western Germany.

In fact, that is what is at the heart of the two countries' partnership, Mayer told DW. It is "a form of strategic cooperation that seeks to push against what Moscow and Beijing see as American hegemony, and to push for the formation of another, oppositional pole in a multi-polar world order," Mayer said.

Russian and Chinese warships take part in the Russian-Chinese naval exercises Joint Sea in 2021
Russia and China took part in joint naval exercises in October last yearImage: Vitaliy Ankov/Sputnik/dpa/picture alliance

This "strategic cooperation" was outlined in a joint statement from both nations, issued on February 4 of this year. It spoke of a friendship with "no limits."

The statement was published three weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping used the opening ceremony of the winter Olympics in China to demonstrate unity. In the statement, China supported  Russian demands that Ukraine should not be admitted to the military NATO alliance.

The two countries were also critical of the "AUKUS" alliance — between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US — saying it was counterproductive to security policy. They also called upon NATO to abandon its "Cold War" approach. The two countries said they sought a different world order.

The Chinese-Russian joint statement also talked about universal values, human rights, peace, equality and justice.

Whose side is China on?

Beijing is engaged in a tricky balancing act. On one hand, China is emphasizing the territorial integrity of all states, as it usually does. On the other, it says that Russia's legitimate security concerns about NATO expanding eastwards are "legitimate."

War on Ukraine has called out China: DW's Clifford Coonan

And if that weren't clear enough, then China's abstention from a vote in the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine demonstrated what was happening: Beijing is on Russia's side.

This decision reflects how China's political elites see themselves. Mayer explains that, to them, China is also a "normative power" with its own values. These values may be different from those of the West, but they form the basis of Chinese global coordination and diplomacy.

"In contrast, we are now seeing politics based purely on hard power from the Russians," Mayer continued. "Despite that, President Xi has clearly decided to sit in the same boat as Russia."

Andrew Small, an expert on China at the German Marshall Fund, told DW that this has consequences for how China is seen by the rest of the world. "They know they're being seen as culpable for this. They know that they're starting to be treated essentially as part of a continuum of threat with Russia."

That could cause problems in the future because politicians are re-evaluating foreign policy overall, Small said. It could mean that Western nations "have to start addressing economic dependencies with China, preparing for scenarios that involve Chinese invasions, particularly the [Taiwan] scenario."

A military helicopter carrying a Taiwan flag conducts a flyby-rehearsal ahead of the national day celebration, near Taipei in 2021
China claims Taiwan is part of China Image: Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/picture alliance

Other Chinese interests could also be negatively impacted by the Russian friendship. There could be economic fallout and there is geo-political strategy to think of, Mayer said.

"NATO is likely to emerge from this conflict stronger," he argued. "The US' focus will remain on Asia Pacific. And the Europeans might even play a greater role in the Asia Pacific region in the future."

No real affection

The new fast friendship between Russia and China doesn't have much of a history. At the end of the 1960s, soldiers from the two Communist nuclear powers were still fighting one another along the Ussuri River, which forms a rough border between the then-Soviet Union and China.

As part of its colonial expansion in the 19th century, Russia had taken over much territory to the east, including Chinese-dominated areas. In 1969, China was still complaining it had been forced to give up 1.5 million square kilometers of its own terrain thanks to unjust treaties. That's an area three times the size of France.

Right now, China's relationship with Russia is too important to broach that kind of subject, Small said.

"On the military side, that is evidenced by the fact that the Russians pulled so many troops away from the districts bordering on Mongolia and China, because they're so comfortable with the situation there, and they're not really worried about Chinese encroachments on the Far East anymore," Small told DW.

In the end, Chinese-Russian relations are like all relations between nation states: They are based on expediency and self-interest, not sympathy or affection.

A video screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping during the opening session of the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress in Beijing on Saturday, March 5, 2022
China's National People's Congress, the world's largest parliamentary body, meets in full once a yearImage: Sam McNeil/AP/picture alliance

Putin has been turning East for a while now because of economic sanctions that began to be imposed in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea in eastern Ukraine, Mayer said.

"The question now is whether this ongoing process will affect all economic and strategic sectors so profoundly at some point that Russia will have no other option but to align itself with China," he pointed out.

Russia could become increasingly bound to China — but potentially as the more dependent, junior partner in the relationship.

"Although that idea of [Russia being] the junior partner is a little misleading," Mayer continued. "Because even as a junior partner, Russia's status as a nuclear power will help maintain its autonomy and will also make it unpredictable for Beijing." 

China is becoming ever more indispensable to Russia. And for China, its neighbor to the north might be occasionally inconvenient but is also proving useful in many ways. At least for now.

This story was originally written in German.

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A satellite image shows smoke billowing from a Russian Black Sea Navy HQ after a missile strike, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Sevastopol, Crimea, September 22.
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