Xi Jinping Goes to Moscow

A ChinaFile Conversation

On Wednesday, Xi Jinping returned to Beijing from Moscow following a three-day state visit at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the pair have met dozens of times in the past decade, this week’s talks have drawn unprecedented global attention. Xi’s first visit to Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 came mere days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin on allegations of war crimes. For a globally isolated Moscow, Beijing’s support has been critical. Battered by sanctions and frozen assets, Russia’s economy has been bolstered by China—which now imports more oil from there than anywhere else. Some U.S. government officials have estimated China is spending billions to amplify Russian propaganda justifying the invasion. The days of talks resulted in a lengthy joint statement, which highlights China’s “willingness to play an active role in resolving” the war and lays the blame firmly at NATO’s feet. It also asserts broader alignment on issues ranging from Taiwan to fighting “color revolutions” to technological partnership as part of a “new era” of cooperation. How has much changed during this meeting and what does it mean for the Russia-China relationship going forward? —The Editors


Over the past year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has not been neutral in the conflict. Beijing has not exercised its unparalleled leverage with Moscow to restrain Russian atrocities in Ukraine. To date, Xi Jinping has not even accepted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s private and public appeals to speak.

Instead, China has deepened its relations with Russia. Beijing has provided a financial lifeline to Russia at a time when many of Moscow’s major trading partners have turned away. In fact, bilateral trade broke a new record in 2022. China-Russia leader-level engagements have continued without interruption. So, too, have bilateral military exercises. China has amplified Russian propaganda blaming the United States and NATO for instigating Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

China’s strategic interests inform its unapologetic embrace of Russia. For Beijing, it is vital that Russia remain locked in for the long-term as China’s junior partner. A benign land border with Russia will help Chinese leaders concentrate focus and resources on dealing with the principal challenge to their rise: the United States and its partners.

China’s leaders clearly are aware that their deepening relations with Moscow come at a cost in their relations with European countries and other leading democracies. This appears to be a price they are willing to pay.

Even so, it would be an overstatement to suggest that China’s relationships around the world are suffering because of its embrace of Russia. China’s leaders instead are working to shift the blame for the consequences of the war to the United States and its partners.

For many developing countries, the war in Ukraine is felt most acutely for its impacts on energy security, food security, and debt distress. China is working to tap into those frustrations by accusing the United States and its partners of inflaming the war and fighting “till the last Ukrainian.”

In Beijing’s preferred narrative, the United States is prolonging the war by equipping Ukrainian forces with hardware to degrade Russia’s national power. China, by contrast, is striving for peace and putting forward proposals to bring fighting to an end. Therefore, in Beijing’s telling, the United States is hostile to China’s peace efforts because it wants Ukrainian forces to continue bleeding Russian troops on the battlefield.

As preposterous as such arguments sound to observers of Russia’s barbarism in Ukraine, the uncomfortable truth is that they have purchase in many parts of the developing world. In response, U.S. officials have cried foul and warned the world not to fall for China’s doublespeak. A more effective approach would be for the United States to take the initiative of setting the bar for what a credible Chinese effort to promote peace would look like and then rally countries to push China to play such a role.

In the unlikely event that China exercises its leverage to push Putin to yield on Ukraine, then the world would be a better place. If Beijing demurs, then its inaction would speak louder than any condemnation Washington could muster.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow this week is another milestone in the rapidly deepening relationship between Russia and China. The relationship, which dates back centuries, is full of contradictions, divergent foreign policy agendas, mutual suspicion, and often a lack of trust.

But this relationship is also based on natural complementarities, pragmatism, and convergent interests. Values alone do not sustain alliances between nation-states. Interests and pressures do. The war in Ukraine and confrontation with the United States have dramatically accelerated China-Russia entente, but have also put an enormous stress on their relationship, especially as Russia becomes increasingly isolated and besieged. While the relationship is clearly unequal (the Chinese economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s) and Moscow’s dependency on China is rapidly growing, it’s too early to call Russia a vassal state. Dependency does not equal serfdom. Even small and mid-sized powers have agency, let alone militantly independent ones like Russia. Xi’s visit to Moscow should be viewed within this context.

The visit itself—Xi’s 40th meeting with Putin—has delivered for both Moscow and Beijing. China has guaranteed an economic lifeline to an isolated Russia. The two countries have ramped up their economic engagement across energy, transport, food, and agriculture, as well as the use of renminbi in Russia’s transactions with third countries. Russia has given its tacit approval to China’s “position paper” on the Ukraine conflict—which does not entice either China or Russia to do anything concrete to stop the bloodshed while giving China a diplomatic “win.” Xi’s potential upcoming call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is unlikely to produce anything substantive. It is conceivable that China is truly interested in ending the war, but at this stage of the conflict when its main protagonists, Moscow and Kiev, are not interested in peace, China can only achieve very little. As expected, Xi has clearly and decisively put his relationship with Russia above Ukraine, and both Xi and Putin have doubled down in their commitment to upend the U.S.-led global order.

Finally, while Washington is common adversary and competitor to both Moscow and Beijing, China and Russia’s relationship is not all about America. Russia and China share a substantial land border. They are major nuclear powers and global economies and both are populous, continent-size nations. Their relationship is neither fragile nor static. While their history is checkered and full of contradictions, the ebb and flow of the Russia-China relationship continues, and the combination of natural complementarities, long-term trends, and momentous events have put the wind in their sails.