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China In Eurasia Briefing: Can The China-Russia Partnership Outlast Xi And Putin?

After a high-profile state visit to Beijing that had few concrete takeaways, can Putin and Xi lay the foundations for a partnership that will last for “generations to come”?
After a high-profile state visit to Beijing that had few concrete takeaways, can Putin and Xi lay the foundations for a partnership that will last for “generations to come”?

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Can The China-Russia Partnership Outlast Xi And Putin?

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently wrapped up a two-day state visit to China.

Here’s what you need to know.

Finding Perspective: Putin’s May 16-17 visit got plenty of attention but was light on deliverables.

There was pomp and pageantry in Beijing when Putin met with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, as both leaders sought to showcase that their partnership is growing stronger against sustained Western – mostly American – pressure.

The optics of that shared bond were on display as both Xi and Putin took aim at the United States as a threat to the global order and praised what their shared autocratic world view has to offer.

In their joint statement, they said that Washington is pursuing a policy of “dual containment” aimed at Russia and China and of “hegemonic” behavior. In contrast, Putin said that the China-Russia relationship is “one of the main stabilizing factors in the international arena.”

Beyond the favorable optics and strategic rhetoric, the pair also said they discussed the war in Ukraine during their official meeting and later during a state dinner and unofficial talks together.

Behind The Scenes: As I reported ahead of Putin’s trip, deepening defense ties and finding new ways to circumvent U.S. sanctions and trade restrictions in order to keep fueling Russia’s war machine were the unofficial focus of this visit.

Putin touched down in Beijing with a heavyweight team of advisers, ministers, and business leaders – including newly appointed Defense Minister Andrei Belousov. Many analysts saw this as part of an effort to build more rapport between high-ranking Chinese and Russian officials, but also a sign that Putin is shifting Russia into a war economy.

Various analyses of Chinese customs data show that in 2023 some 90 percent of “high priority” dual-use goods used in Russian weapons production was imported from China. But data for February, March, and April shows that those same exports to Russia are declining, reportedly due to concerns by Chinese banks of being hit by secondary sanctions by the United States.

Why It Matters: We don’t know what those conversations looked like, but it’s clear that despite all the talk about eternal friendship, there are still some limits to this “no limits” partnership.

Beijing has so far drawn a red line at supplying Russia with lethal aid for its war, and negotiations over the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline to China are believed to be increasingly tense, with not much progress reported.

Even each country’s official state-run news agencies acknowledged the other as a complicated partner in their coverage and that Beijing and Moscow do not see eye-to-eye on every issue.

But still, it seems clear that Xi and Putin want to lay the foundations for a partnership that can outlast them. Putin used his second day to go to Harbin, a city in northeastern China once known as “Little Moscow” that has deep cultural and historic ties to Russia and where Putin played up the two countries’ lasting ties.

Xi, too, hit a similar note while speaking beside Putin in Beijing, where he said that China was prepared “to consolidate the friendship between the two peoples for generations to come.”

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Preparing For The SCO Summit

Ahead of a leaders summit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) this July in Kazakhstan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently visited the capital, Astana, where he said Beijing was ready to support the Central Asian country’s independence and sovereignty.

What It Means: Speaking after a meeting with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in Astana on May 20, Wang echoed several similar statements made by China's Xi in recent years, including when he visited Kazakhstan in 2022.

"China will support a series of strategies for development and important measures initiated by President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev [and] oppose with resolve against any external forces that are trying to interfere in the internal affairs of that country," Wang said.

Kazakhstan remains a close partner with Russia but has walked a tightrope with Moscow since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Kazakhstan has faced threats from pro-Kremlin politicians and political commentators in Russia for taking a middle ground on the war.

Toqaev, speaking alongside Wang, praised Chinese-Kazakh ties and emphasized that his country's giant neighbor “will remain Kazakhstan's reliable partner.”

Wang also held talks with the foreign ministers of Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan while in Astana.

Leaders from SCO member states – China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – will gather in Astana on July 3-4 for a summit.

2. A New President In Taiwan And An Eye On Ukraine

Lai Ching-te took office as Taiwan’s new president on May 20. While focus was centered on Taipei’s relationship with Beijing and tensions across the Taiwan Strait, his incoming national-security adviser had some words about Russia and Ukraine.

The Details: Joseph Wu is Taiwan’s outgoing foreign minister and has been tapped by Lai as secretary-general of the country’s National Security Council.

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, the 69-year old Wu said that Beijing and Moscow are “supporting each other’s expansionism” around the world, referencing spots like Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Wu called on democracies to align in countering Russia and China’s assertiveness and to do more to support Ukraine.

“If Ukraine is defeated at the end, I think China is going to get inspired, and they might take even more ambitious steps in expanding their power in the Indo-Pacific, and it will be disastrous for the international community,” he said.

The interview follows similar arguments outlined by Wu in an article for Foreign Affairs magazine.

3. Surveillance Cameras And Security Concerns

Central and Eastern European countries have purchased millions of Chinese-made surveillance cameras over the last five years, despite the devices’ security vulnerabilities and the manufacturers’ lax data practices and ties to the Chinese state, an RFE/RL survey of nine countries shows.

What You Need To Know: While public national databases for surveillance cameras do not exist for most countries, available data and reporting by a team of my colleagues and myself shows Dahua and Hikvision -- two partially state-owned Chinese companies that are among the world's leading providers of closed-circuit television and surveillance systems -- dominating markets in Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Bulgaria, and Georgia.

RFE/RL reporting shows that despite escalating scrutiny in Western capitals about an overreliance on Chinese technology in critical infrastructure, Dahua and Hikvision cameras are also in use at sensitive sites, including military bases in Romania and special police headquarters in Hungary, which experts say exposes them to hackers and foreign adversaries.

My colleague Manas Qaiyrtaiuly from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service also took a look at the expansion of cameras and tech from both companies in Kazakhstan.

Across The Supercontinent

China In Kosovo: What is China’s office in Pristina focused on? My colleagues Valona Tel and Arton Konushevci from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service looked into this in a recent article in light of Xi’s high-profile visit to Belgrade.

CPEC Concerns: After praising ties with Pakistan during a May 15 visit to Islamabad, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang urged his Pakistani counterparts to do more to address security concerns over militant groups targeting Chinese workers in the country.

Bratislava To Beijing: Matej Simalcik, the executive director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, a Bratislava-based think tank, looks at how some far-right media figures in Slovakia known for spreading disinformation are courting cooperation with Chinese media companies.

Nationalism Vs. Nationalism: Aleksander Dugin, a Russian nationalist ideologue known for his staunch support of Putin, was attacked and mocked online for his expansionist views that once included dismembering parts of China after he signed up on Chinese social media.

One Thing To Watch

While Xi and Putin’s recent state visit in Beijing was about showcasing the durability of the China-Russia partnership, there’s one area that could lead to mounting friction: Moscow’s warming ties with North Korea.

North Korea has supplied Russia with millions of artillery shells for the Ukraine war and transferred ballistic missiles and other weapons in exchange for food and raw materials to manufacture weapons. South Korea and the United States have since accused North Korea and Russia of trading arms in violation of UN sanctions and expressed concern that Moscow could supply Pyongyang with more advanced military technology.

Those concerns are also shared by Beijing, who is North Korea’s closest partner but is also cautious about Pyongyang’s erratic and destabilizing moves.

Putin could visit the reclusive country this year. He was invited in January by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and the Kremlin has said that talks are under way.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.