September 16, 2022 - 5:00pm

Earlier this month, China’s third-highest official signalled explicit support for Russia. Rather than being “crushed” by western sanctions, Russia had instead “achieved stability and showed resilience.” The official added

“We see that the United States and its NATO allies are expanding their presence near the Russian borders, seriously threatening national security and the lives of Russian citizens. We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests; we are providing coordinated support.’’

But whilst the Russian State Duma published photographs and videos from these talks, and translated the comments into an official English-language press release, they barely featured in Chinese media. And a few days later, when Eurasian state leaders gathered this week in Uzbekistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, it appeared as though relations between the two countries had cooled. Videos from Xi Jinping’s discussion with Vladimir Putin in Samarkand following the Russian humiliation in north-east Ukraine showed a visibly distressed president attempting to assuage the “concerns” of his Chinese counterpart. 

But we should be careful not to read too much into these comments. Although recent Russian humiliations have left Xi Jinping visibly uneasy, Chinese leaders remain supportive of Russia’s strategic aims and benefit from an alliance in the face of shared Western hostilities. Indeed, as recently as February this year, the head of the Chinese Communist party stated that the two countries’ friendship had “no limits”. 

China desires a weak and disunited West, and it has been making use of rising European gas prices as part of its evening propaganda. The CCP hopes to shift the European gas narrative from a noble sacrifice in the West to one of unfair exploitation, and China hopes that a brutal winter will ensure that Europeans consider themselves ‘used’ by a powerful America insulated from the energy crisis through domestic reserves.

But, more fundamentally, Russia remains useful to China. The Middle Kingdom is enjoying record levels of oil trade over the summer with Russia, and has led a strong PR offensive against American-led western unity. Especially important for Beijing is Russia’s influence over Vietnam and India, both of which have fraught relations with China. Since 2010, Vietnam has received approximately 80% of its weapons imports from Russia while India has imported 62% of its arms from Russia during the same period. Today nearly 70% of India’s military equipment is Russian-made. Were Jinping to drift too far from Putin, Moscow could use its influence over these two countries to discourage them from aligning closer to the West.

China can bear a lack of outright success in Ukraine, but not a loss. Whilst it is true that China has ‘concerns’ regarding the course of the invasion, they have much less to lose from a stagnation in Ukraine than Putin’s internal allies do. If Russia is weakened by the war, but does not outright lose, then China becomes an increasingly dominant partner in the alliance. If Russia achieves its aims in Ukraine, the West is weakened on both economic and geopolitical fronts. China is allowing Russia to take the brunt of losses, buying unprecedented levels of its oil and gas, and learning from Russia’s tactical and strategic mistakes. Xi Jinping is warning Putin that, if fortunes were to turn much more against Russia, China’s benevolent attitude might, too.

Katherine Bayford is a doctoral researcher in politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham.