BEIJING — International pressure may have pushed China and Russia closer together, but not enough for the two countries to send military support to each other, U.S.-based analysts said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin virtually for the second time this year on Wednesday. It came just days after the U.S. and the other Group of 7 major economies condemned Russia’s military build-up and “aggressive rhetoric towards Ukraine.”
“Beijing and Moscow are forging closer ties because both governments view deeper bilateral cooperation as beneficial to their respective national interests, and not primarily because of an ideological affinity between Xi and Putin,” said Neil Thomas, analyst for China and northeast Asia at consulting firm Eurasia Group.
China and Russia would rather “divide Washington’s political attention between strategic hotspots in Europe and the Indo-Pacific,” he said in an email.
It’s not clear what Beijing’s position on Ukraine is, but China has come under similar international scrutiny over human rights issues, and territorial claims on the democratically self-ruled island of Taiwan.
This year, while Moscow has sent troops to the border with Ukraine, Beijing has increased military activity near Taiwan. U.S. President Joe Biden recently made confusing statements on whether Washington would defend Taiwan upon attack.
Beijing likely wants to ensure that if it were to take military action against Taiwan, “the Russians wouldn’t do anything,” said Angela Stent, professor emerita and director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.
“I think both sides recognize, Putin knows, that if he invaded Ukraine, China [isn’t] going to send military help,” she said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Thursday. “But they’ll remain completely neutral and that allows them to do whatever they want in what they consider to be their sphere of influence.”
Official reports from both Beijing and Moscow portrayed the two leaders’ virtual meeting Wednesday as a yet another friendly conversation that strengthened the countries’ relationship.
Analysts highlighted the rare and more personal use of “you” in Xi’s address of Putin, as released by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
However, “neither of them specifically endorsed the position of the other with regard to their points of sensitivity, so I think they both want to preserve some sort of flexibility,” William Courtney, adjunct senior fellow at the Rand Corp. said on CNBC’s “Capital Connection” on Thursday. He is a former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan.
In the video call, Xi said he looked forward to meeting the Russian leader in person at the Olympics in Beijing in February. The Chinese leader also “reaffirmed China’s commitment to firmly support Russia in maintaining long-term stability,” according to a release from China’s foreign ministry.
Russia talks up China’s goodwill
Moscow struck an even more optimistic tone.
In the video call, Putin said Russia’s relations with China were at their best level ever, according to statements from both countries.
A Kremlin aide also claimed to reporters after the meeting that Xi said the bilateral relationship was stronger and more effective than that of allies, although the two sides do not have such a formal alliance.
“President Xi stressed that he understands Russian concerns and fully supports our initiative to develop appropriate security guarantees for Russia,” said Yury Ushakov, Russian presidential aide on foreign policy.
Putin has said Washington should not allow Ukraine to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in return for assurances that Russia would not invade. But Biden told Putin in a virtual meeting last week that Washington would not accept such a demand.
An attack on one member of NATO — a powerful military alliance — is considered an attack on all member countries. Ukraine has wanted to join NATO since 2002, but Russia has objected on grounds that such a move would be a direct threat to its borders.
China’s diplomatic self-interest
Releases from China’s foreign ministry did not describe the relationship with Russia as a kind of alliance. The two countries are major trading partners, with China buying significant amounts of energy products from Russia.
“China does not want a formal military alliance with Russia, because it wants to avoid direct involvement in the messy international politics of Moscow’s destabilizing moves in Eastern Europe, and has an ‘independent foreign policy of peace’ that opposes military conflict and emphasizes the importance of dialogue,” Eurasia Group’s Thomas said.
“Russia is very much the junior partner in the bilateral relationship,” Thomas said. “And Moscow’s ambition in Ukraine [is] not nearly important enough to Beijing for it to abandon its longstanding opposition to formal alliances in international affairs.”
While looking out for its own interests, Beijing claims a core principle of “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” is “building a community with a shared future for mankind with a view to defending world peace and promoting common development.”
Earlier this week, China’s foreign ministry said Xi sent a message of condolence to Biden over the deaths and other destruction from strong tornadoes in the U.S.