When they last met, in February in Beijing during the Winter Olympics, they proclaimed their friendship had “no limits.” Since then, Russia has sought ever closer ties with China as Europe and the United States responded to the invasion with wave after wave of sanctions.
Beijing has carefully avoided violating Western sanctions or providing direct military support to Moscow. This balancing act, experts say, is a sign that Xi won’t sacrifice China’s economic interests to rescue Putin, who arrived at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan this week with his army retreating from large swathes of Ukrainian territory.
But the trading relationship is booming, in a lopsided way, as Russia desperately seeks new markets and China — an economy 10 times the size — scrambles for cheap commodities.
China’s spending on Russian goods soared 60% in August from a year ago, hitting $11.2 billion, according to Chinese customs statistics, surpassing July’s 49% gain.
Its shipments to Russia, meanwhile, jumped 26% to $8 billion in August, also accelerating from the previous month.
For the first eight months of this year, total goods trade between China and Russia surged 31% to $117.2 billion. That’s already 80% of last year’s total — which stood at a record $147 billion.
“Russia needs China more than China needs Russia,” said Keith Krach, former Under Secretary of State for Economic growth, Energy and the Environment in the United States.
“As the war in Ukraine drags on, Putin’s losing friends fast and increasingly becoming more and more dependent on China, whose economy is 10 times the size of Russia’s,” he added.
For China, Russia now accounts for 2.8% of its total trade volume, slightly higher than the 2.5% share at the end of last year. The European Union and United States have much bigger shares.
The Russian central bank stopped publishing detailed trade data when the war in Ukraine started. But Bruegel, a European economic think tank, analyzed statistics from Russia’s top 34 trading partners recently and estimated that China accounted for roughly 24% of Russia’s exports in June.
“China-Russia trade is booming because China is taking advantage of the Ukraine crisis to buy Russian energy at a discount and replace Western firms that have exited the market,” said Neil Thomas, a senior analyst on China at Eurasia Group.
Yuan the new dollar in Russia?
Russian companies and banks are also increasingly turning to the yuan for international payments.
For Beijing, it’s a boost to its ambitions to make the yuan a global currency.
“Increased Russian use of the yuan also helps to inch forward China’s long-term goals to make the redback a global currency, to insulate itself from Western financial sanctions, and to enhance its institutional power in international finance,” said Thomas from Eurasia Group.
For Russia, this partnership with China “is born of desperation,” said Krach.
“Because Russia has been severely weakened, in part by sanctions, Putin is willing to do a deal with a predatory power so long as it gains access to capital,” he added.
Chinese companies fill the vacuum
Chinese companies are also filling the vacuum after Western brands left Russia.
Chinese cars have also flooded Russia.
Limits in ‘no limits’ partnership
But there are also significant limits in the China-Russia partnership, analysts said.
China is not providing military, commercial, or technological support that would “risk significant US sanctions on China,” said Thomas at Eurasia Group.
“Beijing will not sacrifice its own economic interests to support Moscow,” he said.
Fearing a US backlash, China has so far “steadfastly” refused to violate international sanctions against Russia, forcing Moscow to request military support from North Korea, said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Beijing’s refusal to violate US and international sanctions reflects its begrudging acceptance that China remains reliant on Western capital and technology to sustain its ongoing development, even though Xi is personally inclined to assist Putin’s war effort,” he said.
Moreover, China’s rapid economic slowdown this year will further constrain Xi’s willingness to help Putin. The Chinese president won’t want to risk anything that further destabilizes the economy mere weeks before he’s poised to secure an historic third term at the Communist Party’s congress.
What the future holds
Future relations will likely remained strained, and China will want to keep its options open, analysts said.
“There’s always been mistrust between the two regimes, which historically treated each other as rivals,” Krach noted.
The current Sino-Russia partnership is mainly a “defensive” one, enhanced by Beijing and Moscow’s shared view that NATO and the United States pose a “palpable national security threat,” said Susan Thornton, senior fellow and visiting lecturer at Yale Law School.
“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not in China’s interest, but given Western hostility, China will not oppose Russia,” she added.