Russia and China keep the West guessing

China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attend the opening ceremony of the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 18, 2023.

Pedro Pardo | Afp | Getty Images

Russia’s close relationship with superpower China is under close scrutiny as Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Thursday.

As both countries’ ties with the West become fractured amid the war in Ukraine and global trade disputes, the latest meeting between is being closely followed for signs that the leaders will deepen their own economic, military and geopolitical cooperation.

Ahead of the two-day meeting, Putin told Chinese state media that “Russia-China relations have reached an all-time high, and even in the face of severe international situations, relations between the two countries continue to strengthen,” news agency Xinhua reported.

The Russia-China relationship is “inescapable,” Sam Greene, director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), told CNBC.

“It would be probably too much to call them strategic partners, but they are strategically aligned in a lot of respects, maybe not entirely within their own making and maybe not entirely to their own liking, but inevitably as a result of decisions they’ve made and decisions that Western governments have made that really have pushed them together,” Greene said Wednesday.

“Neither Putin nor Xi can achieve what they want to achieve, both domestically and internationally, without the support of the other. Having said that, it’s not symmetrical and China has many, many more options and much, much more flexibility than Russia does,” he added.

‘Not an alliance’ or ‘marriage of convenience’

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping leave after a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.

Pavel Byrkin | Afp | Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Oct. 17, 2023.

Sergei Savostyanov | Afp | Getty Images

CEPA analyst Greene agreed that it was wrong to mischaracterize the relationship as one of unequal parties, with both Russia and China getting a lot out of the partnership.

“China gets a lot, materially, out of this relationship,” he said, enabling it to purchase Russian hydrocarbons at preferential prices and access investment opportunities. Russia also offers it a way into the Arctic, a region it covets from a strategic and trading perspective, Greene said.

Russia, on the other hand, gets “a lot of rhetoric” and trade from the relationship “that allows it to keep money flowing into its economy and that’s really mission critical for Putin.”

“But it’s not getting that on what we would think of as preferential or friendly terms and China continues to drive very hard bargains in all of its trading relationships,” he noted.

Caution prevails for China

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcome ceremony before Russia-China talks in Moscow, Russia, on March 21, 2023.

Mikhail Tereshchenko | Sputnik | via Reuters

Unlike Russia, which appears to have accepted and outwardly embraced its economic and political isolation from the West, frequently lauding the fact that its economy has overcome challenges posed by international sanctions, China is — for now — not so ready to “decouple” from the West.

“Russia has for a while come to China with a proposition which is that ‘neither of us like Western structural power in the world … so why don’t we break that, right?’ … But China, at this point, has not accepted that proposition,” CEPA’s Greene said.

“China is not rhetorically where the West would like it to be, but it’s not fully rhetorically and politically where Russia would like it to be either.”

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