At their meeting, Russia's Vladimir Putin appeared to nod towards Chinese discomfort over the invasion

China-Russia: unequal and fragile relations

At their meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to nod his Chinese concerns about the invasion – Copyright POOL/AFP/File Brendan Smialowski

Fabien ZAMORA

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have spoken of relations between Beijing and Moscow as the new center of a multipolar world, but their alliance is unequal and its future is far from clear.

Xi and Putin on Thursday held a bilateral meeting in Uzbekistan on the sidelines of a regional security summit in what was a highly symbolic meeting in the shadow of Moscow’s war with Ukraine, which has turned Russia into a near pariah state in the West.

China is also seeing a surge in tensions with the West as its treatment of the Uyghur minority intensifies and fears persist that it may try to retake the island of Taiwan in the future.

In Samarkand, a city forever linked to one of history’s greatest conquerors, medieval ruler Timur the Great, Putin was eager to talk about the importance of relationships.

“The world is changing rapidly, but one thing remains the same: the friendship between China and Russia,” Putin said, describing the relationship as a “full-scale strategic partnership.”

But with a GDP and population about 10 times that of its neighbor, Beijing has every reason to claim the role of senior partner in an unbalanced relationship.

“China is a stronger power than Russia. And his interests are more global — and more multifaceted,” said Evan Feigenbaum, vice president of research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Beijing’s goal, of course, is to keep the alliance with Russia at a strategic level in order to balance American power and the growing economic pressure on China from the West. But she wants to do this without supporting Moscow at a tactical level,” he added.

– ‘Marriage of convenience’? –

China has remained relatively silent on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, never condemning the attack but expressing no support either.

At their meeting, Putin appeared to nod at China’s discomfort with the invasion, saying that while he appreciates Beijing’s “balanced stance”, he also understands “your questions and concerns.”

However, both sides share similarities in ideology, economic, strategic and military interests, and a desire to transcend the Western-dominated world order.

“This is not just a marriage of convenience,” said Alice Ekman, an Asian analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). “There are many points of contact” between them, especially with regard to tensions with the West and NATO.

“With very strong and prolonged tensions between Beijing and Washington,” China “believes it has an interest in accelerating rapprochement with Russia,” she added.

The meeting between Putin and Xi took place on the sidelines of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security group whose main figures are China and Russia, but which also includes some Central Asian states, India and Pakistan, and which is called NATO’s eastern response.

Xi Jinping urged the leaders of the SCO to “work together to promote the development of the international order in a more just and rational direction.”

Beyond the formal symbolism of the Putin-Xi meeting, “there is a strategic reality to this rapprochement,” including an increase in joint military exercises, said Emmanuel Dupuis, president of the IPSE Institute for Peace in Paris.

– “Turn to the East” –

But analysts warn that it would be wrong to call the two countries allies, as both sides have well-defined interests that don’t always overlap.

China’s main foreign policy concern is to prevent full international recognition of the self-governing island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers its own territory and has vowed to take over one day.

In an effort to reassure Beijing, Putin, at a meeting with Xi, went out of his way to declare Russia’s adherence to the “one China” principle and condemned the “provocations of the United States and its satellites” around Taiwan.

But relations between the two countries are bound to be complicated, as they share a 4,300-kilometer (2,670-mile) border that separates the sparsely populated regions of Russia’s Far East from fast-growing Chinese fast-growing cities to the east.

There was tension during the Soviet era when both Beijing and Moscow were supposed to be communist allies, and a border dispute over islands in the Amur River brought both sides to the brink of war in 1969.

Isolated and sanctioned by the West, “Russia has to turn to the east and it doesn’t have a thousand options,” said Cyril Bret of the Jacques Delors Institute.

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