Only weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chinese President XI Jinping said that the relationship between Russia and China "even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness." And yet, since the Russian invasion, China has seemed remarkably quiet and restrained. Has the relationship proven to be a paper relationship whose words are stronger than its reality?
The very close, comprehensive strategic relationship between the two countries has edged towards a quasi-alliance in which "Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation. . . ." By August, 2021, Russia and China had carried out exercises that, for the first time, employed a joint command and control system with Russian troops fully integrated into larger Chinese formations. The two countries gave each other levels of access that are unprecedented for either country.
But, though the relationship exceeds an alliance, it is not an alliance. Alexander Lukin of HSE University in Moscow said in a personal correspondence that "Russian-Chinese relations are very close with a high level of strategic and military coordination. But there are no mutual defense obligations."
China has provided diplomatic support. It twice abstained from siding with the U.S. against Russia at the United Nations, has refused to call Russia’s actions a "war" or an "invasion" and has steadfastly reiterated that “The friendship between the two peoples is iron clad."
But, as the West has poured more and more advanced weapons into Ukraine, China has not done the same for Russia. Are there, despite the assurances, limits to the relationship?
Before China enjoyed a close relationship with Russia, it enjoyed a very close partnership with Pakistan. On several occasions, Pakistan has been at war with India. But on no occasion has China intervened with troops.
In the 1971 war, according to Andrew Small in The China-Pakistan Axis, China promised to "continue to support Pakistan morally, economically, and politically," but they offered no possibility of inserting their armed forces. They did, however, send weapons and money while providing diplomatic support at the U.N.
In the 1965 war, China also did not intervene militarily. But Mao did say that they could. China could intervene if India attacked Pakistan, according to a source interviewed by Small.
Though China has never fought for Pakistan, it has said that "China will not cease supporting Pakistan in her struggle against aggression." They have assured that that "stand of ours will never change" even if India is supported by the US But, in 1999, when Pakistan invaded Kashmir, China refused Pakistan any kind of support.
Does that history indicate that China can’t be counted on to stand by its strategic partners?
In each case, China denied Pakistan the military help it hoped for for one main reason. China would not, Small says, rescue Pakistan from conflicts it brought on itself. Instead, in 1999, though China would continue to support Pakistan’s long-term security situation, it would not support the immediate one. Small cites the Chinese leadership telling Pakistan "to exercise self control . . . and avoid worsening the situation." China would not rescue Pakistan militarily from crises Pakistan caused.
But China has pointedly not blamed Russia for causing the current situation. Xi told Biden personally that "the crux of the Ukraine crisis" included "the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine." He told Biden that, US provocation had caused the problem. On June 23, XI, again, stressed the need to "reject the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation" as well as "hegemonism."
And China has continued to stand by Russia and provide essential non-military support. It has allowed Russian banks to issue cards on China’s UnionPay financial system when the West cut Russia off from VISA and MasterCard. The New York Times reports that "In May, China’s imports of Russian oil rose 28 percent from the previous month, hitting a record high and helping Russia overtake Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier, according to Chinese statistics." China is now importing 1.98 million barrels a day of Russian oil: a 55% increase over this time last year. "Chinese purchases," The Times says, "underscored the support Mr. Putin enjoys from his Chinese counterpart, XI Jinping."
And that support is not declining. On June 15, Chinese President XI Jinping spoke to Putin by phone and said that "The Chinese side stands ready to work with the Russian side to push for steady and long-term development of practical bilateral cooperation." XI stated that "China is willing to work with Russia to continue supporting each other on their respective core interests concerning sovereignty and security, as well as on their major concerns, deepening their strategic coordination. . .". A week later, he criticized "unilateral sanctions and abuse of sanctions."
That is no mere paper partnership. Given the nuclear threat and the pursuit of its own national interests permitted by the strategic partnership, it is, perhaps, not surprising that China has remained, and will likely continue to remain, restrained in its military support of Russia.
China has said in the past that it would only come to Pakistan’s rescue militarily if Pakistan’s existence was threatened. A Chinese expert once told Andrew Small that "If India invades Pakistan, we would be willing to respond. If India launches air strikes on Pakistan, we would be willing to respond." China acting in its own interest could include preventing the defeat of Russia, a defeat that would leave China vulnerable in the threatened conflict between China and the US
Though China has not come to Russia’s assistance militarily in Ukraine, it has not abandoned the promise of the strategic relationship that "even exceeds an alliance." The current crisis has not revealed the partnership to be a paper one. China has provided lifesaving diplomatic and economic support and promises to continue to grow that partnership.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.