It was only six weeks ago that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, met shortly before the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics and released a sweeping 5,000-word statement that reaffirmed their no-limits relationship.
As Moscow massed tens of thousands of soldiers on the border of Ukraine, together the pair in their 38th in-person meeting in nine years disavowed NATO, the United States-European military alliance forged in the Cold War and now grappling with a resurgent Russia.
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And on February 24, Russia did what many thought was unthinkable by invading neighbouring Ukraine.
Whether Putin told Xi about the planned invasion is not known, but US officials say Russia has asked China for economic and military aid as it faces unprecedented sanctions from Western countries and their allies, a mass corporate exodus and an unexpectedly resistant Ukraine.
China is now facing its own public relations challenge to avoid being pulled into the conflict. Its ambassador to Ukraine was dispatched to perform damage control in Europe while its US ambassador wrote a lengthy op-ed in The Washington Post disavowing prior knowledge of the invasion.
Xi prepares to speak on Friday with US President Joe Biden for the first time since the war began. Biden is expected to “make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression”, according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and there will be “costs” to further support.
Elizabeth Wishnick, a senior research scientist at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organisation outside Washington, DC, notes the closer ties between Beijing and Moscow partly reflect the warm relationship between Xi and Putin, making it unlikely that China will abandon Russia.
In 2019, the two countries upgraded their ties to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for a New Era”, complemented by deeper military cooperation and a new gas pipeline through Siberia – but Wishnick says the depth of the connection is clear from Putin and Xi’s frequent interactions over the past decade.
“This is not a marriage of convenience – the two countries do see eye to eye in their opposition to US alliances and what they view as interference by democracies in authoritarian governance,” she said, adding that dozens of meetings between the two leaders imply “a personal commitment to the partnership”.
“Despite the reputational costs, it’s unlikely China will make any major changes to the Sino-Russian partnership in the near term. Xi Jinping has a delicate balancing act – he’s trying to steer clear of counter-sanctions but if he decouples from the Sino-Russian partnership, this will be an admission that his Russia policy has failed,” she said.
Born less than a year apart in 1953 and 1952, respectively, Xi and Putin may have found common cause in world views that were shaped by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A famous Putin anecdote recounts how as a young KGB agent stationed in East Germany, he watched helplessly in December 1989 as protesters tried to break into the local headquarters of the feared Stasi secret police.
The Berlin Wall had fallen, but he was still shocked by the response of his comrades who declined to act without military backup. According to biographers, a young Putin was told: “We cannot do anything without the orders of Moscow. And Moscow is silent.”
Writing later, Putin said he knew then that the Soviet Union was in terminal decline.
“I got the feeling the country no longer existed. That it disappeared,” Putin said.
As a new Russia struggled to emerge politically and economically from the remnants of the Soviet Union, Putin rose through the ranks of the intelligence services and took over the presidency – helped by the failing health of President Boris Yeltsin and brutal war in Chechnya – in 1999.
Putin was initially hailed by Western leaders for bringing a measure of stability to what had been a tumultuous decade, but the honeymoon period was short-lived.
“It seems Putin wanted to give the West, and the US in particular, a false sense of security about his intentions. Putin tried, for one thing, to align his attempts to quell the rebellion in Chechnya and neighbouring areas with the US’s own War on Terror in the early 2000s,” said Anthony Rinna, a senior editor with the Sino-NK research group.
Looking back, he argues, Putin – with no intention of advancing democracy in Russia – might have been trying to lull the US into complacency.
Since then, the 69-year-old has continued to accumulate personal power, cracking down on any potential threats to his position.
Under revised laws, he may now be able to stay in power until 2036, which has led critics like jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny to call the Russian president a new kind of “czar” who is unafraid to seize Crimea from Ukraine and now invade it.
China’s paramount leader
Like Putin, Xi, who has previously described the Russian leader as his “best friend”, has also sought to centralise power since first taking office in March 2013.
The son of a purged and then rehabilitated revolutionary, who spent years as a “sent down youth” in the provinces during China’s Cultural Revolution, Xi was at first seen as an “unremarkable administrator” whose greatest skill was not making enemies, according to historian Joseph Torigian.
Xi was also careful to conceal his ambitions, Torigian says – something he probably learned watching his father’s persecution and the political upheaval that engulfed China in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Over the past decade, Xi has consolidated power to a far greater degree than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, solidifying his grip over institutions such as the People’s Liberation Army while also purging millions of Communist Party cadres and officials on charges of corruption.
He has also overseen crackdowns in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, while Chinese civil society has also been decimated by strict internet censorship and ongoing clampdowns on activists and human rights lawyers.
Now, like Putin, Xi is set to extend his rule later this year by securing an unprecedented third term in office as president of China and chairman of the Communist Party.
While not a modern “czar”, Xi appears to be fashioning himself a place in the Chinese historical canon alongside Mao, with writings such as the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, while demoting other figures like Deng Xiaoping, who played a pivotal role in China’s economic opening up after Mao’s death in 1976.
Xi’s sense of historical “mission” is seen by some inside China as something that sets him apart from his predecessors such as former President Hu Jintao and former Premier Wen Jiabao, according to Torigian.
That sense of history – and their place in it – is an obsession for both Xi and Putin.
But while Xi’s ideology still draws from the legacy of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism, Putin has been described as a “Chekist” – someone who idolises an era when state security services were pre-eminent in the Soviet Union.
“People often claim that Vladimir Putin is trying to re-establish the Soviet Union, and he did famously say that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century – an event was certainly wrenching for a young Putin. He also feels nostalgic about the Soviet victory in World War II, and he views attacks on Russian history as dangerous,” Torigian said.
While Putin and Xi both dislike radicalism, Xi “absolutely feels dedicated to the Chinese revolution and believes it is necessary for other people to believe that too for the regime to survive”, he added. Putin, by contrast, has no affinity for Communist ideology like Bolshevism.
They have also found in each other an ally that opposes a US-led world order that emerged after World War II based on principles like “liberal democracy” – although China has frequently expressed its commitment to the United Nations Charter and both countries have benefitted from embracing elements of a capitalist economy.
The two leaders share overlapping but at times contradictory territorial ambitions. Putin has attempted to reassert control over former Russian and Soviet territory. Xi, meanwhile, has made unification with Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy of 23.5 million, a major goal whether through peaceful means or force.
The Chinese president, however, has yet to act overtly on that ambition. Instead, Beijing has relied on less overt methods to harass Taiwan and attempt to break down its resistance.
China has also never recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, as Beijing has disavowed suspected “separatists” within its own borders and maintains strong economic ties with Ukraine.
Moving forward in uncertainty
Where Xi and Putin’s relationship is headed is far from certain, but analysts expect it to not differ much in the short term even if Beijing distances itself from the invasion of Ukraine.
Despite the bad PR from maintaining close ties with Russia, China still has something to gain from the relationship and perhaps even more so as Russia grows more isolated and economically dependent.
Following the annexation of Crimea, China’s development banks were able to secure major investments in the Arctic, notes CNA’s Wishnick. They may be able to secure something similar as Western energy companies pull out of Russia, although it will also “be harder this time for [China] to aim for a seat at the table in global governance while engaging with Russia as before”.
Raji Pillai, director of the Observer Research Foundation, an independent think-tank in India, agreed. She said while the two sides still maintain philosophical “congruence”, there are still limits on how much material support China will extend to Russia. The war, however, may empower China in its relationship with Russia as it rises to become the stronger of the two countries, she said.
“Today’s equation has completely changed where Russia needs China more than ever, and not the other way around. China doesn’t need Russia, as much as it is in terms of technology, or political power, strategy, power on any of those various parameters. So, Russia is a junior partner in this equation. And I don’t think the Russians are in a position to be angered if China is not willing to extend them the kind of support that Russia seeks from the state,” Pillai said.
Despite his personal ties with Putin, analysts say Xi will ultimately act according to what is best for China.
Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said while Russia is still an important partner “facing down a hostile West”, the Ukraine war was not part of “China’s strategic plan for 2022”.
“China’s top leaders are unsentimental in acting in accord with China’s strategic interests. China’s long-term interests are not perfectly aligned with Russia’s. Putin is an arsonist of the international system presiding over a country in terminal decline. China sees itself as a country on the rise with more to lose than gain by global volatility,” he said.