Are China and Russia allies? Key takeaways from the Xi-Putin summit

The nations share a 2,672-mile border, one of the longest in the world, as well as the legacy of having been the 20th century’s two communist superpowers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during the signing ceremony at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow in March.
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When Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Moscow on Monday, it was for what would be his astonishing 40th meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The two nations share a 2,672-mile border, one of the longest in the world, as well as the legacy of having been the 20th century’s two communist superpowers.

The relationship has long been one of two neighbors whose mutual needs are checked by mutual suspicions. Close allies at the start of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China eventually became rivals, with Beijing moving closer to the American camp after President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Today they are again both friend and foe, united by an overarching common purpose: weakening the United States or at least checking American ambitions in their respective spheres of influence.

The meeting in Moscow was billed as a peace summit intended to end the fighting in Ukraine. But most observers agree that efforts at peace were superficial. Instead, the leaders seemed to envision a power center to rival Washington.

Each leader has his own grievances with the United States, which has been leading the pro-Ukraine coalition in Eastern Europe while also building alliances on the Pacific Rim in a preemptive move to curb expected Chinese expansion.

It may well be that the entente between Moscow and Beijing is a “marriage of convenience,” as National Security Council spokesman John Kirby put it at a White House briefing this week.

That does not make the marriage any less consequential.

Xi seemed to hint at that very point on Wednesday, as he prepared to return to Beijing. “Right now there are changes — the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years — and we are the ones driving these changes together,” he told Putin before leaving Moscow.

To understand the implications of the summit, consider both what was said and what was promised — but also what wasn’t.

1. China isn’t serious about ending the war in Ukraine

People standing near a Ukrainian national flag watch as dark smoke billows following an airstrike in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv last year.
People standing near a Ukrainian national flag watch as smoke billows following an airstrike in the Ukrainian city of Lviv last year. (Aleksey Filippov/AFP via Getty Images)

From the start of the war, the United States has warned China not to interfere on Russia’s behalf. As the Russian military position has become more desperate, those warnings have become more firm. There are some signs that Xi has provided Putin with modest military assistance — but not enough to trigger sanctions from the West.

Yet even as China has mostly refrained from offering Russia military aid, it has arguably thrown an even more valuable lifeline to Moscow in the form of increased trade. Western banks, investors and corporations swiftly pulled out of Russia in the spring of 2022; China was all too happy to take their place.

“Trade in 2022 between China and Russia rose nearly 30%. Those billions of dollars of extra energy purchases were far more helpful to Russia’s war effort than selling it weapons would have been,” China analyst Isaac Stone Fish told Yahoo News.

Those deepening economic ties alone made Xi’s paeans to peace difficult to take at face value.

On Wednesday, he and Putin issued a joint communiqué that called for the “stopping all moves that lead to tensions and the protraction of fighting to prevent the crisis from getting worse or even out of control.”

There was no recognition in the memorandum that it was Russia that invaded Ukraine, that it is Putin who blusters about nuclear war. “We know now that Chinese Chairman Xi doesn’t want peace in Ukraine — unless it’s on Russia’s terms,” Stone Fish says.

2. Russia’s desperation leads to great deal for China

China's President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin make a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow in March.
Xi and Putin toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin. (Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

In the 1990s, Russia was seen as — and, for a few years, genuinely appeared to be — a thrilling experiment in democracy, its freedom-starved citizens emerging from the long Soviet twilight eager for American-style democracy, as well as American goods.

But the unchecked “gangster capitalism” of the 1990s eventually returned an authoritarian — Putin, of course — to the Kremlin. If the Chinese economic reforms were more gradual, they have also been more successful, at least from the perspective of Beijing’s communist leaders.

The same can be said of China’s efforts at military modernization, which Russia had also promised after the Soviet collapse — but were never seriously undertaken, as its recent battlefield losses have made perfectly evident.

Xi thus arrived in Moscow as the far more powerful of the two leaders.

“The pecking order in that relationship clearly has flipped,” says Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “The upper hand is China’s.”

The war in Ukraine has proved an expensive enterprise for the Kremlin, which has seen Russian businesses and individuals sanctioned by the United States, the European Union, Japan and other nations. That has forced Putin to rely on his remaining allies: China and India for trade, Iran and North Korea for military needs.

In the crudest terms, Russia as seen from China is a store that, after a slew of bad decisions, is desperate to simply stay in business by selling its goods to any customer intrepid enough to walk through the door. And with China’s own economy slowing, saving billions of dollars by buying cheap Russian oil is an obviously attractive prospect for Beijing.

A Power of Siberia natural gas pipelines facility in China.
A Power of Siberia natural gas pipeline facility in China. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Xi and Putin announced that they will build a new pipeline, Power of Siberia 2, that will carry billions of cubic feet of natural gas from Siberia to China (through Mongolia) each year. China agreed to buy more agricultural products from Russia as well.

And since the dollar is no longer accessible to the Russian economy, it was all but inevitable that Putin would agree to use China’s yuan when conducting dealings with other countries, accelerating the de-dollarization that both countries seek.

In all, Xi and Putin signed 14 agreements during the Moscow meeting. The two countries are now engaged in 79 joint projects totaling some $165 billion in estimated value, according to Russian news agency Tass.

Many of the new agreements appear highly favorable to China. After all, there are few other options for Putin as he seeks to sustain Russia’s isolated, war-strained economy. He could continue to press China for military aid, the NSC’s Kirby suggested this week, even though Xi gave no sign in Moscow that he was especially enthusiastic about funding the war.

In other words, the dynamics were highly unfavorable to Putin, but they were also the best he could hope for.

“While there were undoubtedly agreements we are not meant to know about, there is no indication here of a significant increase in military support for Russia — nor even of a willingness on Xi's part to ramp up diplomatic support. A swing and a miss for Putin,” Russia expert Samuel Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis wrote on Twitter.

By sustaining the economy, Putin can keep most Russians — at least in the western, Europe-oriented part of the country — living in relative comfort, free of the deprivations some thought would arrive with heavy Western sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Russia-Africa International Parliamentary Conference in Moscow in March.
Putin at the Russia-Africa International Parliamentary Conference in Moscow on Monday. (Getty Images)

Such is the Kremlin’s implicit contract with ordinary Russians. Even as Putin’s rule had become increasingly autocratic and imperialistic in recent years, most Russians were content to allow him to engage in pan-Slavic fantasies, provided that iPhones and Turkish vacations were readily available.

Sustained economic hardship has not been felt by most Russians since the final, vodka-drenched days of Boris Yeltsin’s tenure as the country's leader, which spanned most of the 1990s. It was his bungling of democratic, free-market reforms that allowed Putin, then an unknown Kremlin functionary, to ascend to power in 1999. Stability has been his promise since then.

Never has that promise been shakier than it is today. Nor have speculations about Putin’s political longevity ever been so public.

Already weakened by the length and devastation of the war in Ukraine, the modern-day czar must now do what he can to convince ordinary Russians that even if things are going poorly on the battlefield, they have no reason to worry about their supermarkets or internet connections.

“Most Russians, at least in major metropolitan areas, have adjusted,” says Aaron David Miller, a former American diplomat with close ties to the Washington foreign policy establishment. He told Yahoo News that internal revolt in Russia is unlikely anytime soon, a view most experts share. The Kremlin simply cannot allow it.

“Mr Putin and his entourage have staked so much on this campaign that the war has become existential,” Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre wrote recently in the Economist.

“Losing it, in the dark minds of the hard men in the Kremlin, means losing power, the country, and maybe even their own freedom and lives.”

3. Their true foe is American hegemony

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House Conservation in Action Summit at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., in March.
President Biden speaks at the Department of the Interior on Tuesday. (Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President Biden has repeatedly said that he seeks “competition” and not “confrontation” with China. But whether his administration is shooting down Chinese surveillance balloons or moving to ban the social media platform TikTok, the tensions between Washington and Beijing are clearly deepening.

Those tensions were the prevailing subtext of the Moscow summit.

“The U.S. posture of saying ‘we're containing China’ pushes them to cooperate more with Russia, or at least to make a show of doing so,” says Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank that tends to support a cautious approach to diplomatic and military affairs.

“It’s surely a negative development when your two major rivals strengthen ties,” Friedman told Yahoo News.

Antipathy to American power is ultimately what brings Russia and China together. Xi believes that the U.S. is embarking on an “encirclement” of China, while Putin regularly describes the war in Ukraine as a proxy conflict against American imperialism.

For all their differences, the two leaders share this conviction wholeheartedly. They are discovering that so do many other nations across the world, outside of Europe and North America in particular.

Xi has been burning his diplomatic credentials, using an approach that has been described as “assertive pragmatism.”

Saudi Arabia's national security adviser Musaad al-Aiban, Chinese diplomat Wang Yi and Iran's top security official Ali Shamkhani.
From left: Saudi national security adviser Musaad al-Aiban, Chinese diplomat Wang Yi and Iranian security official Ali Shamkhani in Beijing on March 10. (Chinese Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a surprising reestablishment of normal diplomatic relations. Just as surprising was news that the deal had been brokered by China.

Or, perhaps, there should have been no surprise. China tends to conduct international affairs without criticizing other nations’ human rights records or promising to export democracy. For many countries, that is a welcome respite from what is seen in parts of the world as undue American interference.

The Xi-Putin summit in Moscow took place — pointedly, if also coincidentally — on the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a war now seen as having been launched under false pretenses and having produced dubious results.

In helping broker the peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Xi showed that China could be more nimble than the United States. The deal was also a rebuke to Western skeptics of China’s commitment to playing the role of major geopolitical broker.

“Beijing is now preparing to challenge Washington for influence in the Middle East,” the international relations scholars Maria Fantappie and Vali Nasr recently wrote in Foreign Affairs.

China’s influence is expanding elsewhere too. Taiwan recently recalled its ambassador from Honduras after the Central American nation announced it was establishing ties with China.

Qin Gang, China's foreign minister, speaks while holding a copy of the constitution during a news conference in Beijing in March.
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang speaks while holding a copy of the constitution during a news conference in Beijing on March 7. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

New Foreign Minister Qin Gang recently visited several nations in Africa, where China is deeply invested in resource mining and infrastructure projects.

Beijing could also have ambitions closer to home: Some analysts believe China has designs on Siberia, a vast and resource-rich region that Russia has been slow to develop. China has been eager to pick up the slack.

Allowing Putin to continue his misbegotten Ukrainian adventure may also allow Xi to call on the Kremlin in the future, should tensions with the West deepen.

“For now, China is content simply to monetise its growing geoeconomic leverage over Russia by securing discounts on its hydrocarbon exports and conquering its consumer market,” Gabuev of Carnegie writes. “But it is probably only a matter of time before China demands more political loyalty for its help in keeping Mr Putin’s regime afloat.”