For years, the West has made every effort to predict the fall of Russia-China ties. The frenzy reached its climax when Russia began its military operation in Ukraine in late February 2022. Many in the West – both politicians and the media – saw this war as the beginning of the end of Sino-Russia ties. A New York Times report said that China has a “Russia problem.” The report emphasised that China and Russia “compete for influence in Asia and elsewhere and have fundamentally different diplomatic strategies.” A Foreign Affairs article similarly outlined how China’s ties with Russia were all set to deteriorate in the wake of the war in Ukraine, because, as a report of the Council of Foreign Relations said, the war in Ukraine has put China in an “awkward” position. These reports have mostly relied on Chinese statements as a complex interplay between neither endorsing nor condemning the war. The conclusion that these reports drew, therefore, predicated an ultimate unravelling of China-Russia ties.
As it stands today, this conclusion has proven wrong, as it failed to take into account that Russia-China ties, just like the US-Europe ties, are underpinned by a shared worldview – a view that has been buttressed by constant US projections about Russia and China as two “revisionist” powers bent upon undoing the US-led global system. Why, then, their ties would deteriorate if China is in complete agreement with Russia on the necessity of resisting, militarily or otherwise, US expansionism via globalising NATO?
In fact, while many political and media pundits in the US continue to predict deterioration, Washington continues to supply the fuel for further cementing these ties. NATO’s new strategic vision refers to China as a threat. While European nations have long viewed Beijing as an “adversary”, this will be the first time that China will be upgraded to the level of an enemy state. Thanks to Washington’s efforts to build a global alliance against China, Europe is now in full sync with the US. If Europe and the US, despite their own differences, have found a common ground vis-à-vis both Russia and China, why can’t the latter do the same? Most western pundits found it hard to digest, but China and Russia have already found a common ground that seems both durable and enduring – and even “permanent” in the words of Henry Kissinger – vis-à-vis the western alliance.
A major manifestation of the Russia-China alliance gaining a permanent character came via the June 15, 2022, telephonic conversation between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. As both leaders spoke, a relationship founded upon a common strategic vision of the world and shared goals become clearer, leaving the West wondering about the depth and scope of this alliance.
Besides agreeing that Russia-China ties are at “an all-time high”, they agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation in, apart from other sectors, finance (to tackle western financial/banking sanctions on Moscow) and energy (to tackle western sanctions on Russian sales of oil and gas). Both leaders also agreed on working jointly towards creating a “multipolar” world. The Chinese version of this conversation also underscored Beijing’s willingness “to work with Russia to continue supporting each other on their respective core interests concerning sovereignty and security, as well as on their major concerns, deepening their strategic coordination, and strengthening communication and coordination” in other areas of mutual concern.
That mutuality is not confined to their shared anti-US disposition. China and Russia complement each other in other ways as well. For example, while China is a major production house, economically, it needs Russian energy supplies, supplies that form a crucial part of the Russian economy. In May 2022, China’s oil imports from Russia soared to an all-time high, hitting a 55 per cent increase and reaching 1.98 million barrels per day. Similarly, Russian gas supplies to China have also increased by almost 60 per cent in the first four months of 2022.
The geopolitics surrounding energy serves as much Russia and China as their joint resistance against the West. Therefore, against western predictions that the Russia-Ukraine war will unravel Russia-China ties, the war has had the opposite impact on their ties. China’s continuous purchase of Russian oil and gas shows how Beijing is actually, albeit indirectly, helping Russia fight the US war of sanctions and military supplies worth billions of dollars to Ukraine.
The reason for this continued Chinese support is Beijing’s belief that the war in Ukraine is dragging on because of US supplies to Ukraine and its resistance to recognising and giving due regard to Russia’s legitimate security concerns vis-à-vis NATO expansion. China is also buying Russian oil and gas because China considers US sanctions as a tool of foreign policy and coercive diplomacy.
At the latest BRICS meeting, Xi specifically called for opposing US unilateral sanctions. To quote him,
“Some countries attempt to expand military alliances to seek absolute security, stoke bloc-based confrontation by coercing other countries into picking sides, and pursue unilateral dominance at the expense of others’ rights and interests. If such dangerous trends are allowed to continue, the world will witness even more turbulence and insecurity.”
This is a classic definition of defiance – a geopolitical act that has global ramifications beyond the Ukraine war. China’s continuous support for Russia and its opposition to US unilateralism is a manifestation of the new, alternative global order that the world most certainly needs. Russia’s Putin yet again endorsed Xi’s enthusiasm, as he said that BRICS’ influence globally is “steadily increasing” as the member countries deepened their cooperation and worked towards “a truly multipolar system of inter-state relations.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.