As Russian tanks rolled into neighboring Georgia under the cover of darkness in August 2008, Beijing’s initial reaction was one of quiet irritation.
Then-Chinese leader Hu Jintao was reportedly frustrated and embarrassed that Moscow had chosen the opening day of the Summer Olympics in Beijing to launch its invasion, with China even moving to block Russian diplomatic attempts to legitimize the war in various multilateral organizations and neighboring regions, such as Central Asia.
Fast forward to February 2022 and a very different picture of the evolving China-Russia relationship -- defined by a growing ideological affinity to rewrite the global order and a shared opposition to the United States on the global stage -- begins to come into focus.
With the drumbeats of a Russian invasion growing louder once again earlier this year as another Chinese-hosted Olympics approached, President Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing to meet with his counterpart, Xi Jinping, where the two leaders marked a new era in their countries’ ties by announcing the start of a “no-limits” strategic partnership.
In a sign of how much China and Russia’s relationship had transformed in the 14 years between the events, the two leaders signed a 5,300-word joint statement on February 4 before the Olympics' opening ceremony that offered a blueprint for further political, economic, and military cooperation while showcasing a common front against the West.
But that newly declared unlimited partnership would soon be put to the test.
On February 24, Russian tanks once again rolled into a former Soviet neighbor, this time sparking the largest war in Europe since World War II. Unlike Georgia, however, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a swift economic and political response from the West, and Ukrainian forces -- equipped with a steady stream of Western arms -- have managed to push back Russian troops and derail the Kremlin’s war goals in a series of embarrassing setbacks.
Since then, Beijing has walked an awkward line with Moscow: speaking out against Western sanctions against Russia and often boosting the Kremlin’s narrative on the war, while at the same time distancing itself diplomatically from Putin and sometimes offering veiled criticism of the invasion.
After a year that has shattered many expectations and dissolved several myths about China and Russia’s relationship, what does 2023 have in store?
“The military ineptness of Russia has somewhat diminished [its standing], but China remains committed to Russia as a strategic partner,” Steve Tsang, director of SOAS University London's China Institute, told RFE/RL. “Russia may have proved itself less valuable, but [Beijing] continues to see the United States as a strategic competitor and will want to have Russia on its side.”
A Strategic Prize
Despite the many problems that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed at home and abroad, Chinese strategists still view Moscow’s growing attachment to China as an advantage as Beijing deepens its global competition with the United States.
“The relationship is still understood as a real asset and prize for Xi, even if there will be a weaker Russia emerging from this war,” Andew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the author of No Limits: The Inside Story Of China's War With The West, told RFE/RL.
Analysts contend that the war has left Beijing uneasy and, at times, Chinese officials have signaled their displeasure, such as backing a statement in November at the G20 summit in Indonesia taking aim at Moscow for the global political and economic fallout caused by its invasion.
But the war has also left Russia more dependent on China -- both politically and economically -- than ever before, and Putin’s willingness to openly challenge the United States still holds great appeal for Beijing as it continues to rise on the global stage.
“A weaker Russia is still a better partner than any other option China has, especially in terms of its military, economic, and political value,” Small said. “The strategic landscape is still the same for Xi. Beijing expects to be embarking on a [period of] struggle, and it isn't willing to bend.”
Brokering this partnership has been a long-term goal for Chinese policymakers, said Small. While both Beijing and Moscow often found overlapping interests at international bodies like the United Nations, their relationship was still defined by deep distrust, especially on the Russian side.
For many years, Moscow had essentially closed the Russian market to Chinese investment.
The Kremlin remained cautious over gas-pipeline deals that could augment Chinese energy security and held back when it came to arms sales for advanced weapons like the S-400 missile-defense system and Su-35 fighter jets, which Russian officials thought would allow Chinese arms companies to reverse engineer the products.
But much of that changed following Russia’s forceful annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the outbreak of fighting in the eastern part of the country. Moscow found itself grappling with Western sanctions, including from the European Union -- its largest energy customer -- and, in May of that year, Putin departed for Shanghai, where he sought to kickstart Moscow’s pivot to the East with a massive $400 billion gas deal in the form of the long-stalled Power of Siberia pipeline bringing energy to China.
Further restrictions were lifted in the months that followed as Russia sold advanced fighter aircraft and missile systems to the Chinese, at the same time changing its tune about Beijing’s Belt And Road Initiative (BRI) investment project, which had previously been seen as a way to encroach on Russian influence in areas like Central Asia that the Kremlin views as its sphere of influence.
“The interesting part of this [Ukraine] war and its consequences for China is whether these risks that it has seen Russia take are worth it,” Small said, in reference to Chinese ambitions to claim self-governing Taiwan, which Beijing views as a rogue province. “It clearly showed them how damaging this can be if poorly calculated.”
Looking ahead into a new year, a central question remains about how China will navigate the evolving nature of its ties with Russia following its gambit in Ukraine.
While experts say it remains clear that Beijing has no intentions of dropping Moscow as a partner, there are clearly limits to the extent of any political or economic lifeline that China would offer Russia.
“China seems likely to continue offering strong rhetorical support for Russia, but practical military and economic support is less likely,” Charles Dunst, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of Defeating The Dictators, told RFE/RL. “The United States has repeatedly warned China that military and economic support for Russia would prompt U.S. sanctions -- a situation that China, with its economy in a somewhat precarious position, wants to avoid.”
With that in mind, China looks set to continue buying discounted Russian energy and aiming to make transactions in rubles or Chinese renminbi as part of a broader effort to insulate itself from sanctions blowback.
China seems unlikely to become a major financial backer of Russia in the near future, says Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director for Economist Intelligence and the author of Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape The World Against U.S. Interests.
“Russia will try to do anything it can to boost energy exports to China,” she told RFE/RL. “That shouldn’t be hard for oil, but the problem will be gas, which is the lifeline of the Russian regime. Nearly all Russian pipelines are geared to Europe, and building new ones is costly, requires advanced technology, and takes time and money.”
Uncertainty also exists over any form of Chinese moves to help Russia avoid the biting U.S. sanctions on its economy.
Beijing has in the past helped other partners like Iran navigate multilateral sanctions, where it aimed to soften the financial blow and buy cheap oil. But Demarais said China also inflamed its ties with Tehran during this period by pushing too hard on Iran during negotiations and taking advantage of the country's economic desperation.
With Russia, Beijing will be looking to learn from that experience and find a balance between pursuing its own energy and financial interests while also keeping Russia firmly in its corner.
“China knows that it will be able to get concessions from a desperate and cash-strapped Russia,” Demarais said. “Also, Chinese firms aren't too excited about stepping up business with Russia as they fear that secondary sanctions could be applied, and Chinese firms don't want to take risks. This means that the relationship will be very unbalanced, and China has the upper hand.”
With an eye on 2023, the German Marshall Fund’s Small said the key task for Chinese strategists is keeping Moscow close while still keeping ties with the West intact, which Beijing appears to be successful in doing following a new wave of outreach with European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel.
“They know that Russia wants respect, and if they give that, then this is a cheap trade for Beijing,” Small added. “If they treat Russia as an equal -- even if they don't think they are -- then this will pay dividends for China, and that’s been a growing part of how Xi has approached this entire relationship.”