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

Putin and Xi have made much of a close friendship that they’ve formed over their respective 24 and 11 years in power, but analysts stress that the relationship is more nuanced than meets the eye.

“Essentially, it’s not an alliance — it’s a very multifaceted, multi dimensional relationship that’s been building and evolving for about 30 years now,” Natasha Kuhrt, senior lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London, told CNBC Wednesday.

“It can seem as if the only basis for the relationship is animosity towards the West, and that is one component, but there are a number of other factors that bring them together,” she added.

Russia was benefitting from continuing Chinese trade, particularly in the energy sphere, Kuhrt noted, but Beijing was also benefitting from Russia’s shared interest in maintaining security and stability in Central Asia, as well as its military experience and rapid development in the field of defense technology.

“I think it’s a mistake to just think of it as a marriage of convenience, because that’s how people have been looking at it for quite a long time in the West, which means that we have basically underestimated the strength of the relationship,” Kuhrt said.

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

Despite the united front presented by Russia and China, there are points of divergence and discomfort between the allies.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, for example, has not been openly criticized by Beijing but has disrupted global alliances and supply chains, making China uneasy at a time when its own economy is vulnerable to sluggish growth and demand.

Its support for Russia during the war has also made China a target for the U.S. as it looks to punish countries it believes are helping Moscow circumvent sanctions and trade restrictions.

At the start of May, the U.S. imposed sanctions on more than a dozen Chinese companies that it accused of supplying Russia with dual-use components that could be used in Russian military hardware against Ukraine.

China has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, with Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington, stating “the Chinese side firmly opposes the U.S.’s illegal unilateral sanctions,” in comments reported by Reuters. Russia has previously denied asking China for military equipment and financial aid.

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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