A cordial phone chat between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin on Friday served as a fitting cap to a year in which ties between China and Russia improved on all fronts. However, Moscow is deteriorating both absolutely and comparatively, favouring Beijing more and more while raising questions about potential future relationships. In 2023, the two sides will almost certainly keep deepening their military and political relations, while a gulf in their shared trust may appear later.
Russia is unquestionably the junior party in the partnership because its economy is just one- tenth the size of China’s. This year’s events have highlighted Russia’s dependence. Bloomberg reported in late January that Western diplomatic sources said Xi had pushed Putin to postpone any escalation in the Ukraine until after the 2022 Beijing Olympics. If this assertion is accurate, it might have profound effects on how Putin views China’s place in the world, how Russia conducts its foreign policy and even how the conflict will turn out. Many observers at the time observed that any further delay would help Kyiv by allowing it more time to accept aid and weapon shipments.
The circumstances seem to support the assertions made by the Western diplomat. In an apparent message to Beijing, Russia and Belarus launched joint training exercises called “Allied Resolve 2022,” which finished on February 20—the day of the 2022 Beijing Olympics’ closing ceremony. Additionally, Putin started the invasion on February 24, four days after the Olympics, which was arguably as soon as feasible but far enough away to allow for credible denial. The delay in the invasion may have had serious consequences. Russian forces just missed creating an “air bridge” to Kiev at the Battle of Antonov Airport in the early stages of the conflict. Did the apparent Beijing- or Moscow-imposed escalating delay—implemented to appease its partner—determine the direction of the war? We’ll never know what would have happened if the opposite had occurred, but Russia’s war efforts seem to have been significantly and perhaps decisively influenced by its relationship with China. Delaying the invasion in accordance with Beijing’s wish, whether it was stated explicitly or not, may have come at a high cost to the Russian military effort and perhaps endangered it.
Before the invasion, there was a clear dependence on China, and it will probably get worse. Exports from Russia to China represented 4.4 percent of Russian GDP in 2021; this year, as Russian GDP declines and trade with the West declines, that percentage may likely surpass 5 percent. Russia has little to no ability to develop on its own and is excluded from Western technological markets. More than 30% of Russian IT professionals, according to some estimates; the previous CEO of Yandex, perhaps the most successful IT business in Russia, currently resides in Israel. Russia will be obliged to go to China for semiconductors, 5G, and other technologies since it is unwilling to buy technology from the West and is unable to create it independently. The growing economic and technical sway of China in Russia will continue to limit Moscow’s flexibility. How much dependence can Russia stand? Moscow must continue to acknowledge that Beijing’s interests are more important than its own since Russian total national strength is quite likely to decline.
China may have hindered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but this year saw unparalleled military progress between the two nations. In what seems to be a first for the two nations in the post- Cold War period, Chinese and Russian forces performed a combined bomber patrol and landed at each other’s airfields in late November. During the Quad meeting in May, China and Russia jointly flew bomber patrols. But perhaps the most significant military-to-military encounters took place in the maritime environment. Russian naval troops were joined by an ostensibly uninvited Chinese Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessel during the Vostok 2018 military drills.
However, Chinese ships took part formally in the Vostok exercises in September of 2022, four years later. The People’s Liberation Army dispatched three military branches to a single Russian practise for the first time during Vostok 2022, according to the Global Times. As long as Russia is involved in a military confrontation in Ukraine, the two sides will likely continue to reject any kind of official military partnership. However, the two sides are intensifying their military collaboration, making it more difficult for the Quad and US allies, particularly Japan, to plan.
The relationship is getting more and more unbalanced as China’s economic and military capabilities are anticipated to increase in the years to come relative to Moscow’s. Furthermore, China won’t need a weak, untrustworthy partner as much if it can gradually stop importing Russian commodities like coal, gas, and oil. Moscow and Beijing are expected to get closer in 2023, but it’s unclear if this partnership will last.