Xi Jinping ‘is watching with pleasure’ says Sir Tony Brenton
China and Russia have been moving toward one another at an unprecedented rate in recent months. On February 4 – the opening day of the 2022 Winter Olympics – the two countries declared that their friendship had “no limits” and “no forbidden areas of cooperation”. The agreement included a new 30-year oil and gas deal that would ramp up Russia’s gas supply to China, worth an estimated $117.5billion (£92.5billion).
Just 20 days later, President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
With global sanctions biting, Putin has said he will “redirect” Russia’s energy exports — which make up a great deal of Europe’s supply — to “rapidly growing markets” elsewhere, likely including China.
China has remained neutral on the conflict — it has called for a peaceful solution — but has failed to outright condemn the invasion.
It only criticised Russia when evidence of mass civilian killings was found at Bucha.
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Beijing has even hit out against western sanctions imposed on Russia, despite itself being warned by the US and EU that similar restrictions could be imposed if China helps Russia circumvent the sanctions.
Yet, while China has signalled its desire to forge a closer bond with Russia, Putin may be wrong to assume he can rely on President Xi Jinping for support.
Andrew Small, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, suggests that China may be using Russia in order to achieve a treaty-like relationship without the strings attached.
He told Express.co.uk: “China has been reluctant to have formal alliances that would essentially be treaty obligations — the only formal alliance it has is with North Korea but even that it treats as an aberrational case that it’s slightly embarrassed about.
“It has been looking for new models that are kind of military relationships that fall short of an alliance, looking at forms of partnership and relationships needed as it becomes a global power.
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“China sees the values of more partners and allies, and it sees the values of more networks, but it doesn’t necessarily want to have the treaty obligations, and so I think the Russia relationship was intended to be an exemplification of that — Russia was the highest value partner, in a sense, that China could get.
“When Chinese analysts go down the list of potential partners, Russia brings a certain amount to the table, and that was spelled out in the joint statement between the two sides [in February], that this is a no-limit partnership, better than an alliance.
“I still don’t think you end up with an alliance between the two, but you do get a lot of the substance of political cooperation, military cooperation, neutral support, coordination in third areas — there’s all sorts of things that don’t have to be simply treaty obligations.
“China still wants to retain some level of choice when it gets embroiled in something that its partners are doing, particularly when its partners are prone to ill-judged strategic gambits.”
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Bilateral trade between China and Russia surged in the first quarter of the year, rising by 30 percent on the previous year.
And in March, overall trade between the two countries rose over one percent from a year earlier.
In 2021, China accounted for around 18 percent of Russia’s overall trade — almost $147billion (£110billion).
When Putin visited Xi at the Winter Olympics, they agreed that the two countries would boost trade to $250billion (£197billion) by 2024.
However, as a bloc, the EU remains by far the biggest overall trading partner with Russia.
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In 2021, total trade between the two was worth almost twice as much as China’s trade with Russia.
But, as Putin has hinted at, Russia will now likely look to diversify its trade sources.
China will be vital for the future of Russia’s gas and oil exports.
The two countries are aiming to build a new gas pipeline (the Power of Siberia 2) alongside an existing one that began operating in 2019.
Much has been said about whether China will support Russia militarily.
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According to US officials, Russia has asked China for military equipment in support of its invasion of Ukraine.
But China says this is untrue and called the reports disinformation.
In recent years, most of the movement has been the other way, with Russia supplying China with military equipment.
About 80 percent of China’s total arms imports were from Russia between 2017 and 2021, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
These purchases make up 21 percent of Russia’s total arms exports, its second largest global customer.