Phone Call Re-Affirms Chinese Support For Russia

A recent phone call between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping signals China’s re-affirmed support for Russia. Specifically, the Chinese President re-emphasized his understanding of Russia’s current security concerns. This phone call, which occurred on Xi’s birthday, is the second since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Somewhat due to the personal friendship between these two leaders, Russia and China have reached the closest partnership the two have enjoyed since the beginning of the Cold War.

China’s readout of the conversation supports the idea that Beijing neither endorses nor criticizes Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. According to a Wall Street Journal interview with China’s Foreign Ministry, Xi stated that China “is willing to continue mutual support with Russia on issues related to core interests and major concerns such as sovereignty and security.” Russia’s interpretation of the call is different, however, in that the Kremlin perceives Xi’s language to suggest China’s backing of the war. The statement from the Kremlin explains that Xi “noted the legitimacy of the actions taken by Russia to protect the fundamental national interests in the face of challenges to its security created by external forces.”

Regardless of the two countries’ differing perceptions, an objective takeaway from this phone call is that China has no intention of pulling back on its political alignment with Russia.

In applying this to the political tension within the entire international stage, the strengthening of China-Russian relations aims to counter Western influence, which has a major role not only in Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but also in China’s aggression in Southeast Asia. “Xi has concluded that he’s in a long-term, ideologically driven competition with the U.S. and Western liberalism,” Evan Medeiros, a former senior national security official in the Obama administration, told the Wall Street Journal.

While it is clear that China and Russia, both world superpowers, are teaming up against the global West, it is important to consider China’s stakes and reasonable next steps with its existing alliances. By strengthening its partnership with Russia, China puts itself in a difficult diplomatic position. More specifically, China’s economic interests are much more dependent on its partnerships with the U.S. and with Europe than with Russia. As a rational actor, China would not jeopardize its trade and economic partnerships with Western countries to take an ideological stand by unwaveringly supporting Putin. “Xi reiterated his support for Russia in terms of security and sovereignty,” Yun Sun, Director of the China program at the Stimson Center, said, “but it’s just as important what he didn’t list as areas he supports, namely military, economic and financial aid to Russia.” Thus, for the time being at least, Beijing’s support for Moscow is merely political.

While noteworthy, this phone call does not mark an initial step for China in its partnership with Russia. China’s grievances with the U.S. have been brewing for years, and the foreign policy efforts for the past few U.S. presidents have been focused on containing China’s growing power in Southeast Asia, as exemplified by China’s Belt and Road Initiative and illegal activities in the South China Sea. In the past year, Xi has described the U.S. as the largest threat to China’s interests. Hence, its focus has shifted towards increasing ties with Russia. In fact, Beijing has accused the U.S. of instigating the war in Ukraine, and has expressed empathy for Russian “threats to national security.”

Because the war in Ukraine has become a foreign policy priority for the U.S. as well as N.A.T.O. members, one should consider how China perceives this in terms of its own interests. From Beijing’s point of view, as Russia continues to be weakened by sanctions, the U.S. may re-focus its attention on further containing China. This could potentially explain Xi’s recent steps to reinforce the relationship between China and Russia.

As the conflict in Ukraine persists, the West should not take its eyes off of China’s initiatives in its sphere of influence.