Moscow, March 2023. On the steps of the Kremlin, Xi Jinping bade farewell to Vladimir Putin after a three-day visit.
Xi's parting words were just within earshot of the cameras. But they echoed around the world.
"Right now there are changes the likes of which we haven't seen for 100 years," he said. "And we are the ones driving these changes together."
Far from shunning Putin as a warmonger as some in the West had hoped, Xi seemed to be declaring common cause – in a joint mission to reshape the world.
It wasn't always this way. During the Cold War, China and the Soviet Union clashed over ideology and territory – even breaking into open conflict along their border in 1969.
But as the Cold War came to an end, an opening came. "China was under sanctions following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989," said Alexander Gabuev, Director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin. "Russia was the only source of sophisticated military technology."
These were the beginnings of a vital relationship.
"China's military has benefited tremendously from Russian imports ever since the 1990s," said Zhou Bo, a retired Senior Colonel in China's military. "Without Russia's assistance," he added, "probably the Chinese military would not be as strong as it is today."
'Match made in heaven'
When Vladimir Putin took over in the Kremlin, he quickly moved to build on the relationship – signing the 'Treaty of good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation' with his counterpart Jiang Zemin in 2001.
Months later China joined the World Trade Organization – its ticket to becoming the economic giant we know today. Russia would play a key part in that transformation.
"This is just a natural match made in heaven," Gabuev said. "Russia has abundance of natural resources, needs capital and technology. China is the exact opposite."
The China-Russia marriage was taking shape. The mission was still to come.
Munich and Bucharest
Bavaria, February 2007. Leaders gathered for the Munich Security Conference, with Vladimir Putin the most eagerly awaited speaker.
His address would go on to be seen as a turning point: a tirade against a "unipolar world" dominated by "one master:" The United States.
Putin railed against almost every aspect of US power, but at the heart of his complaint was the enlargement of NATO – which had gained ten members since the end of the Cold War.
NATO's new members had clamored to join, seeking to cement their democracies in the ultimate security alliance. At the NATO Summit in 2008, Georgia and Ukraine lined up hoping to be next, defying objections from Putin, who himself attended the gathering.
"The emergence of a powerful military bloc on our borders," Putin warned, "will be perceived by Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country."
The US was in favor, France and Germany wary. The result: a vague promise that both countries would one day join.
Four months later, Russia was at war with Georgia. This was the first manifestation of a fundamental conflict between the right of self-determination of Russia's neighboring states and Putin's insistence that their choices posed a threat.
Ukraine would become his greatest fixation.
"Putin is obsessed over control of Ukraine," said Gabuev. "He believes that without control over Ukraine, Russia is not a great power."
These obsessions – with Ukraine, with the US and with Russia's status – set Putin on a journey to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and on to the full-scale war we are witnessing today.
It's a journey that drove him deeper into China's embrace.
'The great rejuvenation'
Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 after a period of dazzling growth in China. But the Communist Party was under pressure, beset by scandals and a sense of drift.
Xi's response: a crackdown on high-profile corruption cases, doubling down on repression, and talking up a patriotic quest – the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." With ambitious goals focused on the centennial of communist China in 2049.
"By that time the party strives to turn China into the #1 global power," said Gabuev: ending "centuries of global dominance of the collective West."
The US is pushing back, with a growing consensus in Washington that China is a rival on trade, a risk on technology, and an outright threat on security.
This is hardening Xi's position further. "Western countries led by the US have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China," Xi said in March 2023, two weeks before his visit to the Kremlin.
Increasingly, Xi's journey is converging with Putin's. Setting them on the mission Xi hinted at on the Kremlin steps.
The two powers coordinate routinely in the UN Security Council and other international arenas – whether expanding the BRICS, building influence across Africa, pushing China's RMB as an alternative to the US dollar, or working to redefine democracy and human rights at the UN Human Rights Council.
This reflects an underlying fear in both regimes that western powers see them as illegitimate – and that regime change is the US ultimate goal.
"The Russian view is that the US wants to bring down Russia first and then address to China," said Gabuev. "It might not be true, but that's unfortunately what's driving a lot of their calculations, also including the war in Ukraine."
"Dawn of the Third World War"
The Ukraine war is binding the two sides even closer, with Putin's planned visit to Beijing this October the next expression of this. China is Russia's most essential supporter, stopping just short of red lines that could trigger Western sanctions.
This highlights that there are some limits to the China-Russia relationship – contrary to the "no limits" Putin and Xi famously hailed on the eve of the invasion. Crucially, this is not a formal military alliance like NATO.
For the former PLA Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, this is evidence of China's responsible position. "If China provided military assistance to Russia, then we probably were going to have the dawn of the Third World War," Zhou said. "This is the worst nightmare."
But there are other ways in which Russia and China could coordinate their militaries more closely.
"Imagine that Russia escalates in Ukraine at the time where China wants to make a move on Taiwan," Gabuev said. "That would put a lot of US defense planners into a tough spot."
Even short of such scenarios, it's increasingly clear that China will play a key role in any endgame to the Ukraine war.
A central question will be whether Ukraine can join NATO as part of any potential settlement.
It would be a victory for Kyiv's self-determination. And precisely the outcome Putin railed against in Munich back in 2007.
The signs are that China would be equally opposed.
"China certainly doesn't favor any NATO expansion," said Wang Huiyao, head of the Center for China and Globalization think tank in Beijing. "If Ukraine stayed out of NATO, probably things could be easier to reach a peace."
For now, Putin is betting on a long war. "He feels pretty confident that time is on his side," said Gabuev.
It's a bet that his joint mission with Xi Jinping will prove more resilient than Western support for Ukraine.
Edited by: Andreas Illmer