The Ambivalence in Russian-Chinese "Friendship"

The war in Ukraine has clarified the international process of realignment or repositioning of all countries along the fault line that divides the two blocs: the US and NATO on the one hand, and Russia and its allies on the other. In this context, it is legitimate to ask whether the progressive rapprochement between China and Russia, which we have witnessed in recent years, is destined to become a long-term strategic alliance or whether it is just an immediate reaction of common defence against increasing American aggression targeting both countries.

Let's start with an event that almost all commentators remember: at the beginning of February, that is a few weeks before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Xi Jinping and Putin celebrated the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing together with a joint declaration (1) addressed to the whole world symbolically communicating "the beginning of a new era in international relations".

Not much new has actually been said in this joint declaration, but it should be recognised that the two countries felt obliged to officially declare that they have a friendship "that has no limits, and no forbidden areas". Reading between the lines this means that they are willing to form a common anti-American front, and intend to collaborate more and more, including military technologies and coordination between their armed forces.

It is very difficult to believe that the Chinese leaders were not informed at the time of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Among other things it was no accident that the invasion began immediately after the end of the Olympics themselves, although it is possible that the Russians did not explain their plans in detail.

We say this because the conflict in Ukraine has certainly posed a series of critical issues and contradictions for China that explain its extremely prudent attitude thus far. Let's try to list them briefly below.

The Problems of Chinese Imperialism

So far the conflict has driven up the prices of raw materials, not just for energy – and we know that China imports almost 70% of its oil and 40% of its gas (2) – but also for food, especially in a year like this when heavy rains have caused problems for Chinese crops so the country will find itself importing more cereals than usual. If the first factor will have an impact on the growth of businesses and gross domestic product, estimated at just over 4% for 2022 – the lowest for at least thirty years – the second could make itself felt in the management of internal consensus, which is an obsession of the Chinese leadership. Up to now, the Communist Party has managed to keep in the saddle despite an epochal economic and social transformation in the last 40 years because it has had the wind in its sails from an economic point of view, with growth rates that have always been in double digits. This has helped to largely contain internal tensions, but what would happen the day a recession were to arrive? Furthermore, in the autumn there will be the Party Congress that should renew the mandate of President Xi Jinping, and nobody in the current political leadership wants to fuel outbreaks of crisis and discontent after the problems connected with the housing bubble and the new wave of the pandemic.

A second aspect is inherent in the soft power strategy that has always characterised Chinese foreign policy: officially China has always declared itself opposed to any violation of the territorial integrity of a country, and this is probably because it wants to accompany its vast initiative of commercial penetration through the Silk routes with an approach in international relations that does not appear too predatory, both because Beijing has two sensitive areas, the island of Taiwan on one side and Xinjiang on the other, which it considers integral parts of its territory and in no way does it want anyone to intervene to promote aspirations for autonomy. This is also why China abstained in the UN vote condemning Russia and until now has never wanted to recognise the separatist republics of Donbass or the annexation of Crimea.

We must not forget that there are also historical reasons why China cannot accept blatant territorial violations: in the second half of the nineteenth century, at the end of the Qing dynasty, China was plundered through the famous "unequal treaties" not only by the European colonial powers, which profoundly humiliated it, but also by Russia, which stole from the Northeast, in so-called Outer Manchuria, about 1.3 million square kilometres, in practice an area equivalent to half of Europe. The memory of these humiliations is still present in the dominant narrative and it would be inconsistent now to openly support the military occupation of a country like Ukraine with which China had, and in part still has, close economic and commercial relations, being one of the landing points in Europe for the land-based Silk Road. For example, COFCO, a large Chinese state-owned company in the food sector, is deeply rooted in the country(3), the Ukrainian stock exchange is in Chinese hands, and China Merchant Bank Group has bought a part of the port of Odessa; perhaps one of the reasons why this city has so far been spared the treatment reserved for Mariupol.

Then there is a final aspect, but not in order of importance, which is the strong economic interdependence that China has with the Western world. While it is true that in recent years there has been a significant increase in trade with Russia, which rose by 35% in 2021 alone, and it is also true that China is trying to diversify its trading partners and increase the size of the internal market, however the fact remains that trade with Europe is worth more than $800 billion a year and that with the United States a little less (4), while that with Russia in 2021 stood at $146 billion, most of which is linked to imports of energy because Russia – arms sales apart – can export very little else. Not only that, China depends on, or in any case, is closely interconnected with the West via financial markets.

China’s Cautious Response

It is clear that in such a situation the so-called "secondary" sanctions that the US are threatening, aimed at targeting companies from other countries that do business with Moscow, are a rather important deterrent and for the moment Beijing does not want to risk suffering the backlash. In this sense, except in rare cases, up to now Chinese companies have not made a real rush to replace the Western ones that were leaving the Russian markets, and indeed some projects supported by the Asian Investment Bank, the Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, have been blocked (5). The agreements that had already been reached before the start of hostilities have instead been honoured, for example for the import of wheat and barley, or for an increase in the price of gas. The new contracts in addition to those already in place bring the share of Russian gas imports to China to 48 billion cubic metres, not even enough to match the share that Beijing imports from Kazakhstan which is currently 55 billion cubic meters, and in any case, less than a third of the quantity that Russia exports to Europe every year, a quota that fluctuates between 150 and 190 billion cubic metres.

This does not mean, however, that China is not helping Russia under the table. Its economy is exhausted by sanctions and the war effort and absolutely could not resist without external help. The war in Ukraine is likely to pose another problem for Beijing because it paralyses some of its trade and temporarily stops its penetration into the Eurasian continent. On the other hand it is an opportunity to emerge as the leader of a group of countries not subject to the will of the United States and the law of the dollar, and in fact the share of trade with Russia denominated in yuan is significantly increasing and other countries may also follow suit, for example Saudi Arabia is considering selling oil to China in its currency.

In this sense, the US decision to freeze Russian dollar-denominated financial reserves though a formidable blow to Russia's financial strength, is also likely to lead to a significant backlash against dollar hegemony, since all countries that are not close allies of the US now know that it is not convenient for them to maintain a large share of greenback reserves, since overnight these reserves can be neutralised and rendered unusable at Washington's discretion.

In this situation, China won’t want outright military victory for Russia. Such an outcome would strengthen the Russian position on its western borders and make it a potentially awkward competitor along what are China’s own strategic development lines. These are oriented towards Europe passing through Central Asia, another traditional area that Russia considers its backyard, suffice it to mention its direct intervention in Kazakhstan to quell the riots and protests last January. On the other hand, China cannot even consider defeat and humiliation of Russia as desirable, because this would greatly strengthen the United States and the uni-polar world order it is trying to maintain, the same order that penalises China and forces it to be politically, economically and financially subordinate. Once Russia is cut down to size, the United States could concentrate on restricting Beijing, primarily by supporting Taiwan and continuing to forge anti-Chinese alliances with many of the countries of the Indo-Pacific area. Probably a continuation of the war that stretches Russia to the limit thus making it a more malleable ally, and in practice a subordinate partner, could prove to be an opportunity for Beijing to dictate new laws tailored to its interests in Asia. The two economies are already extraordinarily complementary and new areas of collaboration are set to open up in the coming years.

Arctic Allies

One of these potential areas for collaboration is the Arctic. The melting of the ice is destined to open a new trade route, the so-called Northeast one. In practice, if global warming proceeds at this rate, by 2040 the Arctic seas will be completely free of ice during the summer and China is planning to exploit this route to connect its ports to those in northern European like Rotterdam and Hamburg. The route is not only shorter than that via the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, but also has the advantage of not being garrisoned by the United States or its allies, as is the case with the current route which passes through the bottlenecks like the Malacca Straits and the Suez Canal.

Not only that, the melting of ice in the Arctic is making areas whose subsoil is rich in rare minerals, precious metals, gas and oil, accessible. According to estimates by the United States Geological Institute (6), the Arctic hosts 22% of the global reserves of oil and gas, uranium, rare earths, gold, diamonds, zinc, nickel, coal, graphite, palladium, iron. Already 90% of Russian gas and 60% of its oil production comes from the Arctic (7). China has defined itself as a "State near the Arctic" and could compensate for Russia's inferiority with its political and economic presence in the area, but it would do so on its own terms. Since the Arctic Council was created in 1996 which includes, in addition to Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Norway and the United States, Moscow has never been so isolated, especially now that Finland and Sweden have also requested to join NATO. This Council has practically become a forum of US military allies, even though Russia alone contains half the territories and inhabitants of the areas bordering the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic is certainly another of the future areas of military confrontation with the West, and in fact Russia has made a huge effort to equip itself with adequate military infrastructures and capabilities, setting up, among other things, a fleet of about forty nuclear-powered icebreakers. On the other hand, NATO carried out the largest military exercise since the 1980s in Norway last March, with the participation of Finland and Sweden.

That's not all: with the melting of the permafrost, once completely uninhabited and inhospitable areas of Siberia are potentially becoming arable for wheat, corn or soy. Rivers are becoming navigable and cities are now accessible for much of the year, and China has always been worried about feeding an immense population, ten times the size of Russia’s, concentrated in a much smaller territory.

There are therefore valid reasons why the Russian-Chinese friendship – which, however, the spokesman of the Chinese foreign minister has been careful to specify is "a friendship" and not an "alliance" (8) will continue to develop in the near future, but this process will probably not be linear or without setbacks, especially as it becomes clear that Chinese interests are destined to impose themselves on Russia due to the economic asymmetry between the two countries, particularly in Central Asia and in the projection towards Europe and towards part of the African continent.

An Internationalist Conclusion

It is also very likely, given the nature of the governments in the two Asian countries, that, in the years to come, we will be subject to increasingly strident propaganda comparing the freedom and democracy of Western societies with the authoritarianism or the alleged communism, or former communism, of the two great countries of the East. Nothing could be more false, on both sides the ideological reasons will be nothing more than blatant falsifications that will be just fig leaves to cover for the economic interests of one or the other capitalistically dominant class. The overwhelming majority of the population in all countries do not belong to these ruling classes, not even in the role, as they say, of "junior partner". These bourgeoisies are destroying the whole world with their mentality and their interests and, as the war in Ukraine is teaching us once again, the rest of the population will have nothing to gain in following their flags, while they would have much to gain in ousting them from. power. For this reason we consider it necessary and urgent to work on a social alternative no longer based on profit and the bourgeois exploitation of the proletariat. An alternative that, unlike capitalism, does not have as a necessary consequence, war, the deaths of those who fight for interests that are not their own, environmental devastation: in a word, an alternative that definitely comes to terms with the anachronistic barbarism of capitalism.

Battaglia Comunista


Translated from Prometeo Series VII Number 27 (June 2022)


(1) You can find the text of the document in this link

(2) Mitchell T. et al The rising costs of China’s friendship with Russia, March 10 2022, see Financial Times 16 May 2022 at the link

(3) See

(4) Mitchell (see Note 2)

(5) Quasi amici: le relazioni tra Cina e Russia durante la guerra in Ucraina, 5 April 2022, available on the site, consulted on 16 May 2022 at the link

(6) Mecarozzi P. La febbre dell'Artico nello scacchiere della guerra: così si ferma la scienza, 5 April 2022, consulted on 16 May 2022 at the link For our earlier comment on the struggle in the Arctic (written by our Canadian affiliate Klasbatalo for the ICT North American journal 1919) see

(7) Mecarozzi ibidem

(8) Amighini A., Russia-Cina: (quasi) amici per sempre?, 18 March 2022, consulted on the site on 16 May 2022

Friday, June 10, 2022