Toward a China-Russia axis?

China and Russia spent the last decade strengthening their mutual trade, political and military ties, developing energy infrastructure in Russian territory and uninterruptedly consolidating their strategic partnership. The Beijing-Moscow relationship was then reinforced last February 4—just three weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine—, by means of a joint statement asserting that the “friendship between the two States has no limits.” This being so, when the war started, many wondered whether China would preserve its ties with Moscow and actually become a source of support for the Russian economy, even while a large proportion of the international community enacted sanctions and boycotts on Russia. So far, and to this very day, that is precisely what China’s been doing.

Even though it has called for a peace settlement in Ukraine, Beijing has never condemned Russia for the invasion, it voted for Moscow in a couple of international votes, and even criticized sanctions against Russia as being unilateral” and “illegal.” Just two weeks into the invasion, Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister (FM), stated that Russia is China’s “most important strategic partner” and that the two powers would maintain “strategic focus and promote the development of a comprehensive China-Russia partnership”. This commitment was clearly reaffirmed later on, by means of the joint military exercise of May 24—coinciding with President Biden’s visit to Japan—, which was a clear statement that the partnership between both countries has not been compromised by the offensive against Ukraine.

Even in the early days of the war, Beijing announced it wouldcontinue to carry out normal trade cooperation” with Russia. From then on, mutual trade between the two economies has grown, with China expanding its imports of Russian coal and gas, and becoming, along with India and Turkey, a key destination for Russian oil. China has already declared it will cooperate with Russia in energy, finance, science and technology, and also in the technical-military sector. And, according to the Washington Post, Beijing has been working to facilitate Russian business activity in Chinese territory, and even went to the point of commanding a number of provincial and municipal governments to expand trade and financial ties with Russia. But there’s more. The two countries recently signed new trade arrangements in energy and food, with the Global Times, of China, quoting experts to mention that China and Russia are moving toward cooperation across the entire industrial chain, and also that Chinese companies are in a position to fill the void left by the Europeans in the Russian import market. The infrastructural ties between both countries are being reinforced as well, with the construction of a cross-border bridge over the Amur/Heilong river, and also with the plans for two more Russia-China gas pipelines in the Far East, including the Soyuz Vostok pipeline (read more about this here.)
Lavrov has recently come forth to mention that Russia and China are now cooperating in energy, industry, agriculture and transportation, and that “we intend to develop an independent financial infrastructure” and “increase the use of the ruble and the yuan” in bilateral transactions. The dedollarization of mutual trade has, in recent years, been a recurring theme of cooperation between Russia and China, and now that dedollarization process seems to be on the rise, with a hike in yuan-ruble trading, apparently reflecting an increased use of those currencies in bilateral trade.

In mid-June, Chinese President Xi Jinping talked with Putin to note that China intends not only to intensify ties with Russia, but also to deepen mutual strategic coordination and to cooperate in matters of sovereignty and security. In his stead, Putin offered Russia’s support to the Global Security Initiative (GSI), which was recently put forth by China. The purpose of the GSI is to establish an alternative international security architecture, in opposition to U.S. global hegemony. Besides Russia, the GSI already has the backing of Indonesia and Pakistan, among other states.

It’s quite plausible that we’re now witnessing the rise of a China-Russia axis: an economic and geopolitical alignment elevating the Sino-Russian strategic partnership to entirely new heights. While such a context would not ensure Chinese military assistance to Moscow for the duration of the war in Ukraine, it would nonetheless tend to sustain Russia’s economy, while granting China privileged access to Russia’s abundant natural wealth. Additionally, such an alignment would give Beijing, which is a rising nuclear actor itself, an intimate relationship with the world’s second thermonuclear power.
A Sino-Russian axis would inevitably foster authoritarian standards across the globe, while striving for the autocratic and multipolar transformation of the international order. It would also commit itself to a wholesale harmonization of interests across Asia and other regions of the world, under the Sino-Russian aegis. And, in case it ever managed to achieve such a purpose, then the West’s global influence would, in essence, come out dramatically weakened.

Here, it is of note that, over the years, China has come to build a vast relations network across the Global South—which, in a general sense, is the Developing World. In his recent talk with Putin, Xi said that China-Russia cooperation ought to include the promotion of solidarity and cooperation among emerging market countries and developing nations. Then, some time later, Wang Yi, the Chinese FM, met with Lavrov, and to quote Chinese state news agency Xinhua, he said that Beijing and Moscow should work together to safeguard the common interests of developing countries, which, he alleged, nurture the shared aspiration to oppose hegemony. Lavrov himself had already talked about those regions of the world, when he alluded to the importance of the ties with which, according to him, Russia counts on across Africa, Latin America and Asia. Then, in his turn, Putin came forth to say that Moscow intends to build partnerships across those regions, and in early June he met with the Chairman of the African Union to discuss, among other matters, the future of Russia-Africa relations. Deepening ties with Africa seems to be one of the Kremlin’s strategic purposes, as evinced by Lavrov’s visit to the continent.
It thus seems certain that a potential Sino-Russian axis would direct a fair share of its appeal to most of the Global South, so as to ensure those countries’ loyalty and solidarity. Of additional relevance here, the fact that, ever since Moscow invaded Ukraine, the Global South has been steadily targeted by Russian disinformation campaigns—echoed and amplified by China itself—, rationalizing Russian aggression and inciting anti-Western sentiment.

Regardless of what steps China and Russia might take next, it seems to be clear that the West must do what it’s rarely been doing over recent decades, and that is to present the Developing World with consistent options for development and commerce.

Miguel Garrido
Miguel Garrido
Portuguese columnist and independent researcher