China Calls the Shots with Russia and Europe

Image by Ricardo.

Putin the Supplicant

Xi Jinping’s balancing act with Russia and the West took on a new challenge with Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Beijing on May 16. It was roughly the 40th such meeting of these supposedly old friends.

Once again Xi had to demonstrate loyalty to Russia in its war in Ukraine while also showing sensitivity to European commercial interests and US pressure on China to limit its military support of Putin’s war. At least on the surface, Xi came through for Putin: He promised to expand all manner of China-Russia ties, fully support the “comprehensive strategic partnership,” increase “strategic coordination,” and support Russia’s “special military operation” (not war) in Ukraine.

The joint statement condemned US “dual containment” of China and Russia. It gave no indication of differences on either global strategy or specific issues, though this time there was no mention of “no limits” to the partnership, as there had been when Putin visited in February 2022.

Too much attention has been paid to “no limits” and not enough to the upper hand Xi has with Putin. In a word, Russia needs China far more than the reverse.

The Chinese determine how much and what kind of assistance to provide to Russia, whether as a customer or an exporter. So far, China has stepped up, though not to the extent of challenging US and European sanctions.

One specialist, Alexander Gabuev at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, underscores the extent of Russian dependence on China:

“China has emerged as Russia’s single most important partner, providing a lifeline not only for Mr. Putin’s war machine but also for the entire embattled economy. In 2023, Russia’s trade with China hit a record $240.1 billion, up by more than 60 percent from prewar levels, as China accounted for 30 percent of Russia’s exports and nearly 40 percent of its imports. Before the war, Russia’s trade with the European Union was double that with China; now it’s less than half. The Chinese yuan, not the dollar or the euro, is now the main currency used for trade between the two countries, making it the most traded currency on the Moscow stock exchange and the go-to instrument for savings.”

As for military aid to Russia, China is again the key provider. As the New York Times reports:

“Last year, some 89 percent of the ‘high-priority’ imports necessary for Russian weapons production came from China, according to a customs data analysis by Nathaniel Sher, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Those include everything from machine tools used to build military equipment to optical devices, electronic sensors and telecommunications gear, the analysis found.”

US and European Union (EU) efforts to get Beijing to cut back on dual-use items that support Russia’s military industry have gone nowhere, as became plain from Xi’s visit to Europe.

Xi in Europe: Complaints but No Progress

Xi got an earful from Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, when Xi visited Europe in mid-May—his first visit in five years–prior to hosting Putin in Beijing. “More effort is needed to curtail delivery of dual-use goods to Russia that find their way to the battlefield,” von der Leyen told Xi. “This does affect EU-China relations.”

So far there is little evidence that it does. To be sure, Europeans are increasingly vocal about the downside of relations with China, and they more frequently show their displeasure over Chinese trade practices as well as over China’s support of Russia’s war.

Protesting China’s increasing domination of the EV market, von der Leyen said: “These subsidized products, such as electric vehicles or, for example, steel, are flooding the European market,” she said. “At the same time China continues to massively support its manufacturing sector, and this is combined with domestic demand that is not increasing. The world,” she declared, “cannot absorb China’s surplus production.” The Chinese respectfully disagree.

Likewise on getting Xi to persuade Putin to end the war in Ukraine. Xi has been able to use the EU’s dependence on Chinese trade and investment to nod yes on peace and do nothing to promote it.

China’s line on the war has not changed since the start: calls for a peace settlement, defense of the principle of respect for territorial integrity (a nod to Ukraine), support of a country’s legitimate security interests (a nod to Russia), and willingness to take part in a peace conference when both sides agree.

These are evasions, not positive interventions, as China’s leadership clearly believes the Ukraine war has more benefits than costs.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.