Xi Goes to Moscow: A Marriage of Inconvenience?

Chinese president Xi Jinping has traveled to Russia eight times over the past decade and met with Russian president Vladimir Putin 40 times within different bilateral and multilateral frameworks. But the significance of last week’s meeting between the two leaders lies in its timing: Despite Russia’s rapidly diminishing international power, prestige, and economic might, Moscow has been gearing up for a further military offensive this spring. Meanwhile, U.S.-China relations seem to be entering a new phase, characterized by heightened tension even in comparison with the past few years.

At this critical juncture, Beijing and Moscow have reaffirmed their strategic partnership. Beijing’s strong ties with Moscow and economic and diplomatic support of its war effort have caused a stir in Europe. But China appears careful not to overstep its bounds—it is willing to continue tacitly supporting Russia, but only to the extent that remains beneficial for Beijing, keeps Europe in play, and does not provoke more sanctions from the West. This will hardly be enough for Putin, given the economic and political conundrum Moscow finds itself in.

Russia: China as the Last Resort

The outcome of Xi’s trip to Moscow does not appear like a striking success for Putin. A definite gain for the Kremlin was the fact that Xi visited right after the Russian president was designated as a de facto international pariah on March 17 by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which accused Putin of committing war crimes in Ukraine and issued an arrest warrant against him. China is not part of the ICC, and the Chinese leader’s visit demonstrated that there are limits to Western efforts to isolate Russia.

While this symbolic gesture sends a signal to both the West and the Global South, Putin—in desperate need of gaining enthusiastic support from third countries—does not appear to have secured anything substantively new from China at this time. The official results of the meeting are scarce: not a single important new agreement has been signed, while parts of the joint statement issued by both parties following the visit read like a reworked version of last year’s joint statement. Xi Jinping’s lukewarm rhetorical support for Russia seems to have held steady.

In fact, there are several areas, which show that Moscow is growing more and more dependent on China without getting much in return.

First, an isolated Moscow has become increasingly reliant on Beijing as its energy destination. At the end of 2022, Russia was the second largest exporter of oil (following Saudi Arabia) and pipeline gas (following Turkmenistan) to China. Yet this is not enough as Russia needs to substitute the lost European markets with new energy projects. At the backdrop of Russia’s energy conundrum, Putin appears to have, once again, failed to advance negotiations about the proposed Power of Siberia 2 pipeline, intended to bring Russian gas to China. While Putin mentioned after meeting with Xi that “practically all the parameters of the agreement have been decided on,” the next day Bloomberg reported that China in fact refused to support the project because it is in no need of acquiring double the amount of Russia’s gas pipeline exports, nor does it desire to increase its dependence on Russian suppliers (which may relate to past volatile energy relations between Moscow and Europe). In this sense, China is consistent—Xi has steered clear of pipeline-related conversations before. Instead, China is diversifying the list of its gas suppliers from countries other than Russia by building another pipe to Turkmenistan and signing new contracts for liquified natural gas supplies.

Second, at the outset of the war, Putin tried to switch Russia’s energy trade with the West from euros and dollars into rubles. Instead, it is Chinese yuan that is becoming particularly important for Russia’s trade. Russia, now the second-most dependent country on China for imports (next to North Korea), is increasingly reliant on yuan; the share of yuan in payments for Russian exports has already grown from 0.5 percent in 2021 to 16 percent at the beginning of 2023. In addition, at his meeting with Xi Jinping, Putin announced that Russia would transition to yuan not only in its trade with China, but also while trading with other countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This is a win for China but creates multiple vulnerabilities for Russia. Yuan is tightly controlled, giving Beijing power to alter Russia’s trade revenues to its own advantage at any given moment. For example, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, China relaxed yuan controls to allow the already depreciating ruble to fall even faster in order to insulate Beijing from economic sanctions on Russia. Beijing could make similar moves in the future as well to boost the price of Chinese imports and decrease the cost of Russian exports to China.

Third, in its war with Ukraine, Russia is in desperate need of lethal aid from China (particularly, ammunition and combat drones). The presence at the Xi-Putin meeting of Dmitry Shugaev, Russia’s director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, and Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov, who oversees the military industry, suggests that such discussions took place. In addition to its current dual-use component supplies to Russia, China may be considering sending drones and artillery to Russian military forces through indirect channels like Belarus or North Korea, though no official statements were made or leaked in that regard. To avoid Western sanctions, Beijing will likely maintain its moderated position on the war, while continuing to provide indirect military assistance to Russia cautiously and undercover.

Overall, while Xi’s visit might have been an important symbolic win for an isolated Kremlin, Putin does not seem to have achieved much substantively. As Russia grows more dependent on China, China appears willing to assist Russia only in the areas it sees as beneficial for its national interests. Going forward, this trend is likely to continue, and even intensify as Putin pivots more toward the East and away from the West.

China: Russia as an Option

The visit has made it clear that China is not prepared to offer Russia a blank check or wholeheartedly endorse its behavior in either the Ukraine war or on the international stage more broadly. Thus, the concept of a “no limits” relationship, nowhere to be found in the joint statement, simply does not capture how Beijing sees the association. Nevertheless, this will not prevent Beijing from seeking to squeeze strategic and economic benefits from its continued partnership with a weakened Moscow. This is evident in the fact that President Xi chose Russia for his first overseas state visit during his third term as China’s president, even as Moscow heads toward pariah status and the war in Ukraine continues.

For China, an isolated Russia looking for new export markets away from the West offers an immediate source of cheap energy. All countries are reexamining their energy security, but China’s demand for oil, natural gas, and other energy resources to fuel its economic growth is particularly striking. In a bid for diversification, China has taken advantage of Moscow’s desperation to offload its exports. That said, as noted above, there are clearly limits to how much of a lifeline China will provide. While its energy imports from Russia have increased, such increases have been combined with efforts toward further diversification of energy supply geographically, through investments in Central Asia and moves toward renewables.

As relations with advanced industrialized democracies become more hostile amid rising U.S.-China tensions, Chinese leaders are increasingly preoccupied with the idea not only of generating economic growth domestically, but also reducing dependence on international supply chains and markets—particularly those seen as moving under the U.S. umbrella. Trade diversification is a critical component of this effort. In this push, enhanced trade with Russia is useful—Russia increasingly relies on China for advanced technology it now has very limited capacity to officially purchase from Western nations, such as semiconductors and telecommunications equipment—even while remaining only one part of a longer-term Chinese export diversification push that also includes many countries in the Global South. 

Likewise, as China’s international environment sours, Beijing increasingly seeks to enhance self-reliance in core technologies. Just weeks ago in Beijing, for example, policymakers signaled the centrality of this priority by launching a new Chinese Communist Party commission designed to enhance China’s research and innovation capabilities. This goal may be getting a boost for Moscow’s pariah status. While greater access to Russia’s top scientific faculties and research and development facilities has long been a goal, recent joint ventures suggest Beijing is leveraging its close partnership with Moscow to improve the quality of China’s science and technology education ecosystem.

A longer-term bet for Beijing is that Moscow can aid efforts to secure a more multipolar (read: safer for China) economic order, which involves sanctions proofing a larger share of its economic activity. Bilateral cooperation in this regard is not new but will certainly continue. Russia’s reorientation of trade away from Western economies and pledges to use Chinese yuan in its trade with third countries will provide a tailwind to China’s somewhat uphill battle to boost the use of yuan in trade among emerging economies, and thereby further its economic clout.

Beyond economic cooperation, Beijing sees the Kremlin as a partner in pushing back against Western influence in international and regional governance. The two states have long shared animosity toward U.S. influence—in terms of raw U.S. power, and the norms and rules Washington furthered through this power—while often disagreeing on how this order should be challenged. It is relatively clear that Beijing is leveraging its growing influence over Moscow to secure a dependable partner for its efforts to build political influence in the Global South, boost China’s sway in global governance institutions, and enlarge and empower China-anchored plurilateral groupings. Xi has lauded “close communication and coordination” with Russia in the United Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, BRICS countries, and the G20, reminding the world that both countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Based on Putin’s pledges last week, it is clear that continued coordination in voting behavior, candidate nomination, and standards setting in international organizations, for example, can be expected, if not further intensified.

Most intriguingly, through careful marketing of its partnership with Russia, China also serves other key foreign policy objectives—including deepening economic ties and political alignment with the Global South and keeping Europe in play for Beijing as U.S.-China tensions rise. China’s 12-point position paper on the Ukraine crisis did not score points with Brussels or European capitals, but Xi has better access to Putin than any other world leader, lending his image as an international peace broker some degree of credibility despite China’s tacit support for Russia in the war—especially as Beijing begins outreach to Ukraine. Meanwhile, China’s repeated claims that it is a “builder of world peace” may carry weight for third-party countries whose space for economic development has been jeopardized by the war, its ensuing sanctions, and rising great power competition more broadly.

Overall, while Xi’s recent trip to Moscow made headlines globally and especially in Russia, the limits of this bilateral relationship for Putin are clear. Beijing will seek to cash in on Russia’s rising isolation to advance its bid for a more multipolar political and economic order, while continuing to frustrate key Kremlin demands.

Lily McElwee is a fellow in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Maria Snegovaya is a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS and a postdoctoral fellow in Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. Alexandra Chopenko is a program manager for the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Tina Dolbaia is a research associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS.

Lily McElwee
Deputy Director and Fellow, Freeman Chair in China Studies
Tina Dolbaia
Research Associate, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program