Xi Xinping and Vladimir Putin have said that their "relationship even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness." They have said that the "friendship between the two States has no limits" and that it is "a relationship that probably cannot be compared with anything in the world."
But China has seemed very restrained in its support of Russia during the war in Ukraine, and some have observed that China’s recent comments have actually been critical of Russia. But China’s restraint is consistent with its foreign policy in general and its relationship with Russia in particular. And its comments have continued to refuse to criticize Russia while continuing to support it.
Expecting China to abandon restraint and come to Russia’s aid militarily is unrealistic. Neither China nor Russia believes in Cold War style alliances. Though their extraordinarily close strategic partnership approaches a quasi militarily alliances, it falls importantly short of a military alliance: there are no mutual defense obligations. China would come to Russia’s aid only if China’s security interests were threatened. That could happen if China sees an existential threat to its strategic partner. But its restraint so far, is consistent with the relationship.
XI’s remarks following a recent meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have been seen as shift in China’s position and as a criticism of Russia. XI said that the international community should "oppose the threat or use of nuclear weapons, advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used and that nuclear wars must not be fought, and prevent a nuclear crisis in Eurasia." But that safe statement was made after Putin clarified that Russia would not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. And it is consistent with China’s policy against nuclear first strikes and its commitment to "not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states."
China’s true position on the war was made clear in the less reported sentence that preceded that one. XI"reaffirmed China’s support for Germany and Europe to play an important role in facilitating peace talks and to build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture in Europe."
That statement reiterated China’s opposition to the US policy of rejecting a diplomatic track while pursuing solely a military solution to the war. It reinforced that China was in the world’s dominant camp in supporting a push for a diplomatic solution.
But it went further than that. XI’s statement invoked a formulation that supports Russia’s position and reflects the proposal on mutual security guarantees that Putin urgently requested the Biden administration negotiate prior to the war. XI’s reference to "a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture in Europe" harkens all the way back to Russia’s position at the end of the Cold War when it hoped to be incorporated into a new security system that embraced all of Europe – including Russia – and all of Europe’s – including Russia’s – security concerns. XI’ formulation is a condemnation of NATO’s expansion east to Russia’s borders, including its presence in Ukraine, and its dismissal of Russia’s legitimate security concerns. XI has consistently blamed that dismissal for the war in Ukraine.
XI’s comments about "questions and concerns" at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit were also taken by some as criticism of Russia. But at that time, too, China made its true position known. According to a readout from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, XI said that "since the beginning of this year, China and Russia have maintained effective strategic communication.” XI stressed that China and Russia “have maintained close coordination on the international stage to uphold basic norms of international relations," and promised China would “work with Russia to fulfill their responsibilities as major countries and play a leading role in injecting stability into a world of change and disorder." Importantly, XI added that China “will work with Russia to extend strong mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests, and deepen practical cooperation in trade, agriculture, connectivity and other areas."
China’s support for Russia can again be seen by the timing of these comments. They came only days after Russia escalated its air and missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.
And those high level statements of support have continued. On October 27, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on the phone. Wang said that "China will firmly support the Russian side, with the leadership of President Putin, to unify Russian people to overcome difficulties and interruptions, to realize the strategic goal of development, and to further reinforce the status of Russia as a major power." He insisted that "China and Russia have legitimate rights to realize their own development and revitalization, which is in line with the trend of the times" and that "Any attempt to stop China and Russia from marching forward is doomed to fail." He then promised that "China and Russia will deepen exchanges at all levels, and promote China-Russia relations and cooperation in all areas to a higher level, to better benefit the peoples of the two countries, and to bring more stability to the world facing turbulence."
China has also refused to abandon Russia diplomatically at the UN. Even after Russia’s most controversial move since the war started, China continued its pattern of not voting against Russia. On September 29, the Security Council voted on a resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of the eastern regions of the Donbas, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. China, as it had done on all earlier UN votes, refused to side with the US against Russia and abstained despite its strong and consistent policy of respecting the principle of not violating countries’ borders.
Again, China’s support for Russia can be seen by the timing. The announcement of the referendums on the annexation of the eastern provinces came only days after Putin met with XI at the SCO. It is very unlikely that Putin did not discuss the major move with XI.
Statements coming out of China from the highest levels as well as economic support and diplomatic support at the UN suggest that the China-Russia strategic partnership is still strong.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.