This feature is part of a series on China-Russia relations. Click here to see other content in this series.
China has largely eschewed formal alliances, but over the years Beijing has increasingly courted close ties with Russia. On February 4, 2022, just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Beijing and issued a historic joint statement emphasizing that the bilateral relationship has “no limits,” and that “there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” between them.
Why did China commit to the relationship at such a pivotal moment? Why did Beijing double down on the relationship by refusing to criticize the Russian invasion of Ukraine? This ChinaPower feature explores how the relationship came to be so close, up until the time of the invasion. This analysis centers on five key ways in which China benefits from the relationship, each of which is examined in detail:
- Russia supports China’s core interests;
- Vladimir Putin personally supports Xi Jinping and his key initiatives;
- Russia helps to magnify China’s global reach at the expense of Western influence;
- Russia enhances China’s military power through arms sales and joint military exercises; and
- Russia assists China in meeting important economic and energy needs.
Supporting China’s Core Interests
The China-Russia relationship is founded, first and foremost, on mutual respect and accommodation of each side’s core interests. For China, this means accepting China’s authoritarian political system, supporting (or not opposing) China’s sovereignty and territorial claims, and aiding China in maintaining stability on its periphery. Without these preconditions, the relationship would not be as close as it is.
While the Chinese and Russian political systems are meaningfully different, they share similar tendencies toward authoritarianism. Moscow’s acceptance and support of China’s basic political system, and its attempts to legitimize alternative, non-Western visions of democracy and human rights, made it possible for Russia to deepen relations with China as Western countries criticized Beijing on human rights issues.
Also crucial to Beijing’s core interests is Russia’s support or acceptance of Chinese sovereignty claims. During the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, Moscow blamed Taiwan and the United States for heightened tensions and refrained from criticizing China for conducting military exercises and missile launches near Taiwan. In the 2001 China-Russia Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, Russia endorsed Beijing’s One-China Principle and stated that it “opposes any form of Taiwan’s independence.” Russia has continued to support Beijing’s stance on Taiwan, including in the February 4, 2022, joint statement.
Beyond Taiwan, Moscow has supported Beijing’s draconian policies toward Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, and it has even appeared to signal support for Chinese claims over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that Japan also claims—most notably through a joint China-Russia bomber patrol near the islands in 2019. Russia has remained officially neutral on disputed Chinese claims in the South China Sea, but it has tacitly supported China by criticizing “non-regional powers” (i.e., the United States) for involving themselves in the region, and Russia even joined China in a naval exercise in the South China Sea in 2016 after an international tribunal sided with the Philippines and ruled against Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
China has reciprocated by supporting or not opposing Russian activities and claims. Beijing has largely avoided criticizing Russian military activities in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine, and it has tacitly sided with Russian claims over the Kuril Islands, which Japan disputes.
Russia has further supported Beijing’s core interests by cooperating with China to shape favorable security dynamics along their shared periphery. The two countries cooperated in the 1990s and 2000s to resolve their decades-old border dispute, which eliminated a long-existing irritant in the bilateral relationship and set the stage for the two nuclear neighbors to view each other as strategic partners instead of rivals. It also freed up Beijing’s political attention and military resources to focus on other pressing concerns along China’s periphery.
Russia is a core member of the China-headquartered Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which comprises eight Member States (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), as well as four Observer States and six Dialogue Partners.1 The SCO has provided a platform for China and Russia to coordinate their interests and manage competition in Central Asia and connected regions. The two countries have also used the SCO as a platform to cooperate on anti-terrorism and countering separatist activities, including through multilateral military exercises.
China and Russia both seek security and stability in Central Asia and are wary of what they perceive to be potential western “interference.” Chinese officials have voiced support for cooperating with Russia to fight against potential “color revolutions” in neighboring countries, which Beijing worries could lead to instability spilling over into its western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. From Beijing’s perspective, Russia plays a crucial role in shaping regional security dynamics thanks to its close relationships with former Soviet states in the region. Russia demonstrated its ability to shape the region in January 2022 when it deployed troops to Kazakhstan to quell violent protests that erupted over high energy prices. China and Russia also both see shared interests in working with the Taliban in Afghanistan to reduce the risk of terrorist activity there and throughout the region.
Elsewhere in the region, Beijing has pursued cooperation with Moscow in managing the North Korean nuclear issue. Both countries have pushed back against calls by the United States and its partners to impose additional sanctions on North Korea, and they have recommended lifting certain sanctions. At the same time, Beijing is aware of Pyongyang’s desire to maneuver between its two large neighbors, as it has at times sought to pit Beijing against Moscow. To sustain any major policies toward North Korea, China needs Russian support or to at least ensure that Moscow does not play a spoiler role.
Supporting Xi Jinping’s Priorities
Russia is not unique in being willing to accept or support China’s core interests. Many countries are willing to do so. A key factor that differentiates Russia is high-level political support from Beijing, which stems from the close personal relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Their personal ties help to drive high-level strategic convergence and overcome any distrust or differences at lower levels.
Xi has repeatedly heaped praise on Putin, calling him his “best friend and colleague” and his “bosom buddy.” This has been reflected in Xi’s diplomatic agenda. As of May 2022, Xi had met one-on-one with Putin 39 times—more than twice as many times as he has met with the leader of any other country. Xi has also traveled to Russia eight times since 2013, which is more than double the number of trips he made to his second most frequented country (the United States).
The personal ties between the two leaders have brought their countries closer across several key areas. Under Putin, Russia has supported virtually all of Xi Jinping’s most important priorities on the world stage. Russia has at least rhetorically supported the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi’s signature foreign policy aimed at expanding China’s global economic and political influence through heightened economic and physical connectivity. Russian and Chinese leaders have repeatedly voiced joint calls for linking up the BRI with its Russian counterpart, the Eurasian Economic Union; however, progress on synching the two initiatives has been lackluster.
Russia joined the Chinese-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral bank headquartered in China that provides an alternative to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Russia has also supported China’s Global Development Initiative, which Xi proposed amid the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic to focus on issues such as poverty alleviation, food security, Covid-19 response, and other areas. Additionally, Xi Jinping likely saw Putin’s visit to China to attend the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics as a gesture of good will, especially given that most Western leaders chose not to attend or instituted diplomatic boycotts of the games due to concerns about human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Amplifying China's Global Reach
The third major force driving closer ties is a shared desire by Beijing and Moscow to expand their influence on the world stage at the expense of the United States and its democratic allies. While Russian power is stagnating in crucial areas, many in China see Moscow as being capable of “playing a weak hand well.” Beijing sees significant benefits in Russia’s capacity and willingness to wield its political, economic, military, and discourse power in ways that align with Chinese interests.
China and Russia are both wary of a U.S.-dominated international order that they believe undermines their interests. The two maintain convergent threat assessments that Washington, with support from its allies, seeks to encircle and isolate them militarily while undermining their political systems and promoting “color revolutions.” They view Western economic sanctions, technological decoupling, and other efforts as being aimed at undermining their development.
The two countries have frequently criticized the United States and its partners in their joint statements. Their February 4, 2022, joint statement—which highlighted their closeness on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—criticized the United States nine times, including complaints about the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, the trilateral AUKUS security partnership, and U.S. developments related to missile deployments, missile defense, and biological and chemical weapons.
In pushing back against Western influence, Beijing benefits from Russia’s ability to shape international developments and leverage its power over countries—especially within the developing world.
On the political front, Russia holds significant positions within international organizations such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where it (like China) enjoys veto power as a permanent member. Through the UNSC, China and Russia have sought to steer international developments in their favor. China and Russia jointly condemned NATO’s use of force in Yugoslavia and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In 2020, China and Russia spearheaded a successful campaign within the UNSC to stop U.S.-led efforts to re-impose UN sanctions on Iran in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
China’s 13 most recent vetoes within the UNSC have all aligned with Russian vetoes. Ten of these have been related to opposing U.S. and allied efforts to address the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria. China has also abstained from voting on UNSC resolutions that run counter to Russian interests, including a 2014 resolution declaring invalid a referendum that led to Crimea’s independence and a resolution condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Beijing and Moscow have specifically sought to cooperate within international organizations to undermine Western norms around democracy and human rights. Since the late 1990s, China and Russia have been involved in the informal Like-Minded Group, a coalition of largely authoritarian countries that have worked together in the United Nations to weaken the international human rights regime and redefine human rights. The two countries have jointly signed over 40 statements in the UN Human Rights Council to endorse alternative views on human rights.2
Beyond the United Nations, China and Russia have worked together in other important multilateral settings to offset Western influence. In 2009, Russia advocated that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expand the basket of Special Drawing Rights to include the Russian ruble and Chinese yuan as part of reforming the IMF to be more inclusive. The two countries have also advocated for their shared interests within BRICS Summits—annual meetings of the world’s leading developing economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa)—and they continue to call for further cooperation within the BRICS framework.
On the economic front, Russia wields significant leverage over several countries through its provision of energy resources. In 2020, 10 European and Central Asian countries purchased more than 60 percent of their crude oil imports from Russia, with Estonia, Kyrgyzstan, Slovakia, and Kazakhstan buying virtually all of their imported crude oil from Russia. These countries, and others, are also heavily reliant on imports of Russian refined oil, gas, and coal.
Russia has a track record of using its prominence in energy markets to its advantage. In 2014, Russian energy giant Gazprom cut off gas deliveries to Slovakia, Austria, Poland, and Romania to disrupt diversions of oil to Ukraine. The European Union scrambled to find alternative sources of energy, but it was forced to pay a higher price in doing so. Many of these same dynamics played out in Europe amid Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, with Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline being a major source of contention. For Beijing, Russia’s ability to use such influence is an important asset for constraining and countering countries on key issues.
Moscow also exerts significant influence in much of the developing world through its military power, especially its weapons sales. Particularly important for Beijing is Russia’s influence over Vietnam and India, both of which have tense relations with China. Since 2010, Vietnam has received some 80 percent of its weapons imports from Russia. India likewise ordered 62 percent of its arms imports from Russia during that period, and today nearly 70 percent of India’s military equipment is Russian-made. Moscow may be able to use its leverage over these two countries to discourage them from aligning closer to the West (and against Russian and Chinese interests).
Russia’s international influence in the military realm does not just stem from arms sales. Moscow holds sway in developing countries through military deployments. Over the last few decades, Russia has amassed a substantial military footprint around the world, including within the Caucuses and Syria, but also further afield in the Central African Republic, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and even Venezuela. More recently, Russia has sought to expand its influence in the African country of Mali through the deployment of Russian private military contractors.
Finally, China sees benefits in Russia’s ability and willingness to shape global discourse through disinformation and propaganda that converges with China’s own anti-Western messaging. The Russian government has long used online tools to spread pro-Russian, anti-Western narratives. The government-funded organization Russia Today, for example, regularly spreads divisive, anti-Western disinformation to its nearly 7.5 million Facebook followers and 3 million Twitter followers from around the world.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia and China have used their state-linked online platforms in complementary efforts to shape global discourse and spread disinformation. Russia, has focused intently on undermining confidence in Western vaccines and flaming internal divisions within Western countries over issues like vaccine mandates. Early on in the pandemic, China marshalled its diplomats and state-linked media to spread propaganda defending China’s response to the pandemic, but over time it focused more heavily on criticizing the West’s handling of Covid-19. Studies suggest the two countries learned from each other in spreading disinformation and that they benefited from shared efforts to undercut the image of the United States and its allies.
Advancing China's Military Power
Military cooperation has been a crucial element of the China-Russia relationship over the years. The two sides have demonstrated a high level of cooperation on military technology—most notably through arms sales—as well as military-to-military cooperation through joint exercises.
Following the 1989 normalization of relations between Beijing and Moscow, Soviet and Russian arms sales to China were critical to China’s push to modernize and equip the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as Western countries limited their provision of weapons to China. In the 1990s, China spent billions of dollars ordering dozens of Russian Su-27 and Su-30 aircraft and securing the licenses to produce hundreds more of the planes within China. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, China ordered other major systems from Russia, including a dozen Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines, four Sovremenny-class destroyers, and S300 PMU2 anti-aircraft missiles, as well as numerous additional aircraft. Altogether, between 1990 and 2005, China purchased more than 83 percent of its arms imports from Russia.
The years that followed saw a marked decline in Chinese arms purchases—from both Russia and other countries. This stemmed in part from Russian concerns about Chinese copying and IP theft of Russian military technologies as well as the Chinese defense industry’s growing ability to produce more equipment indigenously. China’s arms purchases from 2011 to 2021 fell 46 percent from the 2000-2010 period, and purchases from Russia as a percent of China’s total arms imports slipped to around 67 percent.
Under Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, China and Russia made efforts to arrest this trend and revive arms sales as an important part of the relationship. A series of deals in 2015 saw China purchase some $5 billion worth of Su-35 combat aircraft and S-400 air defense systems. In 2019, President Putin also announced that Russia was helping China to create a missile attack warning system, suggesting a continued high degree of military technological cooperation.
In addition to arms sales, China and Russia have achieved substantial progress on cooperation through joint military exercises. The two countries conducted their first bilateral joint exercise in 2005. Known as “Peace Mission 2005,” the exercise saw 10,000 Chinese and Russian troops take part in land, sea, and air operations in Vladivostok in Russia and on the Shandong peninsula in China. Like many joint China-Russia military exercises that have followed, it was described as being largely aimed at counterterrorism operations; however, the inclusion of major military assets like strategic bombers was seen by many as an indication that it was broader in scope and also intended as a warning to the United States and Taiwan.
The next several years saw the two countries participate in a handful of joint exercises, averaging approximately one to two exercises per year. Starting in 2013, however, China and Russia significantly ramped up their bilateral and multilateral exercises with each other. Through mid-2022, they have held at least 78 military (and paramilitary) exercises.
Want to learn more about China-Russia military ties? Explore this ChinaPower page, which features a unique dataset on China-Russia joint military exercises and more.
These military exercises have not only grown in number but also in complexity. In October 2021, China and Russia completed joint naval drills in the Sea of Japan, followed immediately by their first joint naval patrol in the western Pacific. The joint naval patrol consisted of 10 Chinese and Russian warships as well as six carrier-based helicopters and featured joint maneuvers and live-fire drills.
These frequent exercises present several benefits for China. Earlier on, they provided an opportunity for the PLA to learn from the more experienced and technologically advanced Russian military. In more recent exercises, Chinese defense experts have noted that the PLA now plays an equal or more senior role in planning and operations. The exercises also serve as an important means of institutionalizing bilateral military ties, promoting interoperability and confidence building, and sending deterrent signals to third parties such as the United States.
Economic and Resource Complementarity
Finally, China’s ties with Russia generate notable benefits on the economic front. The last two decades have witnessed enormous growth in trade between the two countries. Between 2000 and 2021, China’s annual trade with Russia grew more than 18-fold, from just $8 billion to more than $147 billion.
While this only represents about 2 percent of China’s total trade with the world, it is the content of the trade relationship—not the size—that is crucial to China. Major energy products, such as oil, coal, and gas, comprise approximately two-thirds of China’s imports from Russia. Crude oil alone accounts for over half of China’s imports from Russia. In 2021, China imported some $40.5 billion worth of Russian crude oil—roughly 16 percent of its total oil imports—making Russia its second largest oil supplier after Saudi Arabia.
Russian trade with China also has a disproportionate impact on certain local economies within China. Trade with Russia is particularly important among northeastern provinces that border Russia. According to Chinese customs data, 24 percent of exports out of China’s Heilongjiang Province went to Russia in 2021, and a massive 78 percent of the province’s imports came from Russia. Jilin and Inner Mongolia—both of which border Russia—are likewise more dependent on Russian trade than other provinces (though to a lesser extent than Heilongjiang).
From Beijing’s perspective, Russia plays a crucial role in promoting economic growth in a lagging region. Both Jilin and Heilongjiang form part of China’s northeastern “rust belt,” an area of the country that has struggled to overcome the impacts of de-industrialization. China has sought to maximize the benefits of Russian trade to the region by forming pilot free trade zones in Heilongjiang and enabling Jilin export access to a Russian port. Additionally, two land ports within Hunchun, a city in Jilin, were approved as official seafood import ports from Russia, allowing Russian seafood exports to directly reach Hunchun, lowering costs and improving quality.