The Strategic Drive of the China-Russia Alliance

Xi's visit to Moscow confirms focus on the global challenge to US

24 March 2023

Adam Jasser

Deputy Managing Editor

President Xi’s visit to Russia this week was short on substance but long on propaganda. Still, it made one thing clear – despite Putin’s setbacks in Ukraine, China sees its alliance with Russia as a long-term strategic drive to replace the US-led world order and gain leverage over Europe. This should make it clear to some in CEE that the war in Ukraine is global, not regional.

President Xi’s parting words to Vladimir Putin: caught by the camera at the end of a state dinner ending his visit to Moscow last week, might appear spontaneous, but they were surely rehearsed.

“Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years,” Xi told Putin through an interpreter. “And we are the ones driving these changes together.”

If this sounds ominous, it should, especially if you couple it with Xi’s remarks at the joint news conference with Putin earlier in the day when he said: “The consolidation and development of Chinese-Russian relations is the result of strategic decisions China made based on its strategic interests”.

In other words, the China-Russian alliance is here to stay – and it will be the main platform to challenge the United States and the current world order established at the end of World War Two, uninterrupted even during the ensuing Cold War.

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In some paradoxical way, the fact that Xi refused to offer any concrete support to Russia’s frustrated war effort in Ukraine – and once again underlined China’s red line on the use of nuclear weapons by Moscow – stands in no contradiction to the tightening of this China-Russia alliance.

If anything, his statements and relaxed body language, contrasting with Putin’s unease, were a testimony that Russia’s dependence on China has grown as a result of Putin’s fatal decision to launch the assault on Ukraine. Xi simply clarified who is in the driving seat in this partnership.

This was not lost on many commentators, including the harsh Putin critic Gary Kasparov, who thus summarised the trip:

Kasparov’s sarcasm conveys a legitimate geopolitical interpretation that Putin’s folly in making Russia weaker and separated from Europe delivered his country into an ever-firmer embrace of China.

The turning point Xi mentioned in Moscow was primarily a reference to the challenge to the West. But it also referred to the astonishing reversal of a 100-year balance of power between the two uneasy neighbours. China’s unprecedented economic development in the past 30 years allowed it to surpass Russia’s meagre and resource-dependent economy a long time ago. Now, its estrangement from the West, exclusion from the global financial networks due to sanctions, and military weakness exposed by the brave Ukrainian defence have all made Russia’s vassal status versus China obvious for the world to see.

Europe pressed to make a stand on the China-Russia alliance

Russia’s most ardent European critics and supporters of Ukraine, especially in CEE, might be tempted to celebrate that Moscow is now playing second fiddle to China in global affairs. That would be a shortsighted Schadenfreude.

A Russia dependent on China is effectively extending Beijing’s influence closer to Europe’s borders, offering more leverage to its challenge to the United States and the Western civilisational model. China’s goals in Europe are identical to those pursued by Russia  – to push the United States out of the continent and strike a “grand bargain” with the European Union on some sort of a common Eurasian economic and security architecture stretching for half a dozen time zones. There is hardly a need to guess who, in Beijing’s great design,  would then be the dominant patron of this modern version of the Silk Road – the one which has been busy reconstructing it for the past 15 years.

With questionable strategic benefits for the continent, China is already an important economic partner of Europe, investing in hard infrastructure such as ports, airports or motorways, especially in the less developed or struggling European states. The Belt and Road initiative might have lost momentum of late but China remains focused on highlighting to the Europeans the benefits and interdependence of their economies with its own.

This remains a potent lure, especially for industrial powerhouses such as France and Germany, but also for many smaller European states, including those in central and eastern Europe. Russia’s closest remaining ally in Europe, Hungary, has developed close dependence on China – hardly a coincidence if you consider the broader point about the Chinese-Russian alignment.

Even Poland, the largest country in central Europe and the lynchpin of Western support for Ukraine, had until recently flirted with the idea of inviting more Chinese investment and deepening ties with Beijing as a counterweight to the influence of its EU partners from the West. The conservative-nationalist government in Warsaw has toned down its enthusiasm as relations between China and the United States, Poland’s ally of choice, soured. Still, latent admiration for China’s statist economic approach and its nationalist and autocratic model of governance remains.

Is Poland sitting on the fence?

Unlike some of its smaller neighbours in the region, such as Czechia or Lithuania, Poland has avoided criticising China for supporting Moscow while simultaneously sounding suspicious about German attempts to lean on Xi to intervene with Putin to end the war. It has also been circumspect about China’s growing pressure on Taiwan, which is one of the key drivers of the increasing tensions between Beijing and Washington.

Warsaw seems to insist that the war in Ukraine and European security challenges should be kept separate from what is taking place in Southeast Asia, even as the US and some of its closest western allies see it as interrelated. Ironically, this makes Poland’s approach to China and Taiwan even less hawkish than Germany’s.

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Whether that changes remains to be seen. Warsaw will sooner or later need to make its position clearer in the intensifying discussion in Europe about policy towards China in the context of Ukraine, economic dependency and risks of escalation over Taiwan. Poland’s aim to be a leading player in NATO and a key US ally will require a straight answer.

If the authorities in Warsaw were hoping not to notice the dilemma, they got a hint this week from Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida. On the day Xi was in Moscow, Kishida flew to Kyiv and then to Warsaw to express solidarity and pledge continued support.

The message should be as clear to Beijing as to Warsaw – there are no separate theatres and no regional conflicts. Ukraine’s and Taiwan’s fates are one global challenge for the democratic West.

Adam Jasser

Deputy Managing Editor

Since 2021, Adam has co-hosted a foreign policy podcast “About the World at Onet” for Poland’s leading web portal He has worked as a business and policy consultant, including with the World Bank on competition, privatisation and regulatory reforms in transition economies. In 2014-16, Adam was head of the Polish competition authority. He served as Secretary of State in the Chancellery of Prime Minister Donald Tusk in 2010-14. He was Secretary of the PM’s Economic Council and oversaw the analytical and policy impact assessment department. Before joining the government, Adam was Programme Director at Warsaw-based think-tank demosEuropa – Centre for European Strategy. Earlier, he spent almost 20 years at Reuters news agency, in roles stretching from translator and head of economic reporting in Warsaw, to bureau chief in Frankfurt and regional editor for central Europe, Balkans and Turkey.

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