In 2001, Russia and China signed a Treaty for Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation for 20 years, which was extended in 2021, and in February 2022, Xi and Putin said the two countries' partnership was boundless — weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Russia's earlier opening to Asia led to a spectacular expansion of economic ties with China, making China Russia's largest trading partner even before the war. Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, China, on the one hand, has been using the opportunity to buy energy sources at low prices from Russia, which is losing its Western markets, and, on the other hand, its companies have been trying to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of Western companies from the Russian market.
In addition to these benefits, Western sanctions against Moscow also provide Beijing with the opportunity to increase the weight of its currency in trade with Russia. Despite growing trade volumes in 2022, Russia still accounts for less than 3 per cent of China's total trade, which means that Russia currently needs China more than the other way around. The eventual depletion of Russia's economy offers Beijing the opportunity to use the asymmetric relationship to influence Moscow's Asia policy in a favourable direction.
China has refused to condemn Russian aggression, instead repeatedly blaming NATO and the USA for the conflict and opposing sanctions. However, due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and its prolongation, the dynamics of relations between the two countries have changed and shifted in China's favour, as Russia has become very vulnerable compared to its East Asian partner.
China is taking advantage of the economic benefits arising from this situation but is also trying to push for a peace deal, as a peaceful international environment is essential for China's development and economic growth.
The author is a researcher at the Eurasia Center of John von Neumann University