Sino-Russian alliance has ‘concrete, tangible’ goals, analysts say

Future Chinese support for Russia's war in Ukraine may be hampered by US financial sanctions.
By Kitty Wang for RFA Mandarin
2024.05.16
Sino-Russian alliance has ‘concrete, tangible’ goals, analysts say Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a signing ceremony in Beijing, China, on Thursday, May 16, 2024.
Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits China for the first time since beginning a new term, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping have been at pains to underline their "long and strong" friendship, and a strategic partnership that has been described as having "no upper limits."

"I have emphasized on many occasions that our peoples are bound by a long and strong tradition of friendship and cooperation," Putin told China's state news agency Xinhua in an interview published ahead of his trip.

"We remember and value the contribution of the Chinese people to the common Victory. It was China that held back major forces of Japanese militarists, making it possible for the Soviet Union to focus on defeating Nazism in Europe," Putin said.

As the two leaders issued a joint statement in Beijing on Thursday that framed their relationship as a stabilizing force in a chaotic world, Xi described the China-Russia relationship today as "hard-earned, and the two sides need to cherish and nurture it."

"China is willing to ... jointly achieve the development and rejuvenation of our respective countries, and work together to uphold fairness and justice in the world," Xi said.

Not merely symbolic

Analysts told Radio Free Asia that the symbolic statements about upholding global peace and stability are actually closely linked to the two countries' shared and concrete military and economic goals, having a common cause in counterbalancing the global power of the United States with what they term a "multipolar global order."

"I don't think what Russia and China are doing together is symbolic," Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund, told RFA Mandarin.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, attends a wreath laying ceremony at the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

"They are working together in concrete, tangible ways. So there may be agreements that are announced, there may be agreements that are not announced," Glaser said of the Xi-Putin summit, which resulted in a lengthy joint statement about "deepening" their strategic partnership on Thursday.

An important part of bilateral cooperation has been seen in skyrocketing Chinese exports to Russia, with a recent analysis of Chinese customs data by Nathaniel Sher, a senior research analyst at Carnegie China, revealing that in 2023, some 90% of "high priority" dual-use use goods used to produce Russian weapons was imported from China.

While China has repeatedly denied sending weapons or military equipment to aid Putin's war effort, Ukrainian forces on the ground have reported finding a growing number of components from China in Russian weapons.

"Assistance and support to Russia ... is not just [about] tanks made in Beijing rumbling across the plains of Ukraine; it's also about a lot of the dual-use commercial technologies that can be used as inputs to military systems and to weapons that are absolutely essential for Russia, facing sanctions from the West, to be able to prosecute this war in Ukraine in the way that it has," said Peter Rough, senior fellow and director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia at Hudson Institute.

"It's an absolutely decisive factor in the way we think about the war in Ukraine," he said.

George Magnus, independent economist and Associate at the China Centre, Oxford University agreed.

"China’s support for Russia’s access to export markets, and military and capital goods is vitally important," he said in written comments to RFA Mandarin. "Also China’s functional ability to get money and financing to Russia is important too." 

"You could argue -- though many Russians might dispute this -- that Russia is a vassal state of China, for without Chinese support, much in Russia would falter or stop working," Magnus said.

‘Highest level ever’

As Putin put it in his Xinhua interview, he chose to make China his first state visit of his new presidential term because ties with China "have reached the highest level ever," describing the relationship as "an informed, strategic choice."

Negotiations are also expected around Xi's Belt and Road global influence, supply line and infrastructure project, as well as negotiations over whether China will support Putin's The Power of Siberia 2 natural gas pipeline.

"While the Kremlin has made no secret of its eagerness to expedite the project, its fate remains uncertain, largely because China has refrained from committing to it," according to a May 15 commentary from the University of Columbia's Center on Global Energy Policy by Erica Downs, Akos Losz and Tatiana Mitrova.

According to Rough, while there are obvious differences between Beijing and the Kremlin regarding energy policy -- particularly over pricing -- the "anti-Americanism, anti-Western attitudes overwhelmingly override" those differences.

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A security guard stands in front of a giant screen at a shopping mall as it shows a news report about the state visit of Russiaís President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on May 16, 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Another piece of the puzzle is Russia's role in China's regional ambitions, including its support for Beijing's territorial claim on democratic Taiwan.

Putin told Xinhua that both sides had "learned lessons" from rough patches in the relationship, a possible reference to the Sino-Soviet split that began in the late 1960s, at least partly fueled by China's shelling of Taiwan's Kinmen island in 1958 without prior consultation with Moscow.

"I think the Sino-Russian relationship has moved from one of friction many years ago ... to outright alignment, now nearing qualities of alliance," Rough said. "Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have signed a 'no limits' partnership, and that partnership is unfolding before our very eyes."

Supporting each other

Putin has been at pains to support Beijing over its claim on Taiwan, while Beijing has refrained from direct criticism of Russia's war in Ukraine, even brokering a peace plan as part of Xi's diplomatic buzzword, "a shared future for humanity." 

Analysts say that phrase means Beijing will be looking to forge stronger alliances with other authoritarian regimes to counter "U.S. hegemony" and export China's model of party-state governance around the world.

Putin has also obliged Beijing by going after practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement – which China has outlawed as an “evil cult” – on Russian soil.

On May 3, special forces raided the private homes of several Falun Gong practitioners in Moscow, arresting Natalia Minenkova as the alleged leader of an “undesirable” organization, holding another three people as witnesses, state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported. 

While Falun Gong practitioners have been targeted in Russia before, this time they were accused of "attempting to organize color revolutions in Russia and China with the direct support of the US State Department."

"Over the last number of decades, there's been a lot of pressure on practitioners of Falun Gong in Russia," Florida-based Falun Gong practitioner Alexander Meltzer, who has been following the situation. told RFA. "But there were never arrests. Criminalizing it actually hasn't occurred until this time."

"Basically Russia, in following coercion by China because of the closer ties between Russia and China, they are more and more trampling over the rights of their own citizens," he said.

Financial sanctions

Then there's the issue of financial sanctions on "non-U.S. financial institutions" that maintain accounts and transfer funds or provide other financial services for transactions deemed to facilitate the sale, supply or transfer of forbidden items to Russia -- including those that collude with attempts to hide such transactions.

"The policy intent appears to be to discourage the use of intermediaries or third countries to facilitate the trade of dual-use goods to Russia that the United States deems to be unacceptable," according to a recent analysis of a December 2023 Executive Order from U.S. President Joe Biden by global law firm Clyde & Co.

China's banks already have an alternate international payments system in development since 2012, known as CIPS, but they are caught between wanting to keep a foothold in the international financial system dominated by the United States and China's own "anti-sanctions" laws that bar them from paying attention to foreign sanctions.

According to Glaser, Biden's executive order "signaled a willingness" to sanction Chinese banks, and has already had an impact despite the fact that no sanctions have yet been implemented.

"China's major banks have already reacted to the possibility of sanctions being imposed on them," Glaser said. "Those large banks that have a high level of exposure to the U.S. dollar do not want to be barred from the international financial community."

"They will, and already have, cut back on their transactions with Russian banks," she said, citing recent media reports.

China’s exports to Russia fell by nearly 16% in March compared with March 2023, according to Chinese customs data, with analysts citing the impact of potential sanctions on international payments.

U.S. historian Miles Yu, a former adviser to the Trump administration, said he didn't see how the Sino-Russian alliance could survive for long.

"These two countries have different strategic goals, and both want to be the boss," Yu said. "In reality, neither of them can achieve that, and they only wind up hampering each other."

"I don't see much future for the Sino-Russian alliance," he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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