China, Russia Double Down on Ties Despite Complications in Trade Relations

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — China and Russia have doubled down on their “no-limits partnership” in recent weeks, with leaders from both countries vowing to maintain “close personal interaction” and the Chinese ambassador to Russia revealing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to visit China this year. 

During a Feb. 8 call, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin celebrated the deepened bilateral engagement and cooperation between China and Russia in various sectors and criticized what they called “U.S. interference in other countries’ affairs.” 

In addition to the call between Xi and Putin, China’s ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui, told Russian state media Sputnik Feb. 10 that Putin will visit China this year and that the two leaders are expected to hold several meetings during the year.

“Putin’s visit to China [this year] will definitely take place [and] China looks forward to his arrival,” Zhang said in the interview. 

Some analysts say Beijing and Moscow hope to use their recent interactions to show the world they are “strongly aligned with each other.” 

They want to show “that they have each other’s back because they both feel pressure from the U.S.,” Ian Chong, a political scientist at National Singapore University, told VOA by phone.

Since Russia and China share the goal of replacing the U.S. and weakening coordination between Washington and its allies, other experts say Beijing and Moscow believe that it is in their interests to further deepen bilateral ties. 

“While there are frictions between Russia and China, they have been fairly successful in weakening democracies and exploiting their systems,” Sari Arho Havrén, an associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told VOA in a written response, adding that the relationship between China and Russia brings more positives than negatives to both countries. 

Despite the mutual commitment to deepen ties, some recent developments may limit the degree of cooperation. Several media outlets reported that the EU is preparing to propose sanctions on three Chinese companies and four companies in Hong Kong for supporting the Russian military. 

The sanctions would be part of EU efforts to close loopholes that may allow Russia to obtain military technologies required for its weapons manufacturing. In response to the news, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it considers the sanctions imposed by the EU “unacceptable.” 

“China strongly opposes the application of illegal sanctions or ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ against China because of China-Russia cooperation,” the ministry said in a statement shared with some media outlets, adding that Beijing “will take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises.” 

In addition to the proposed sanctions, some Chinese banks have reportedly either ceased operations with Russian or Belarusian companies or tightened regulations around transactions with Russia to comply with Western sanctions on Russia.

In response to the development, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko said Moscow is confident that payment issues with China will be solved, adding that trade between China and Russia is expanding successfully.

Despite the closeness of their political relationship, some experts say the EU sanctions on Chinese companies and some Chinese banks’ reluctance to deal with Russian entities show that the commercial relationship between Beijing and Moscow is quite complex. 

“Chinese businesses and the Chinese government are very careful about not getting punished by international sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU,” Philipp Ivanov, a senior fellow at Asia Society Policy Institute, told VOA in a video interview. 

He said that while diplomatic visits between the two countries will continue, Beijing will try to carefully manage the commercial activities between China and Russia.

“At the moment, it’s hard to see [recent developments] having a huge impact on trade [between China and Russia], but China may adjust its approach [to manage its trade relationship with Russia] in the mid- to long-term,” Ivanov said. 

Since this month marks two years since Putin and Xi declared the “no-limits partnership” between China and Russia, Ivanov said the close bilateral relationship may have reached its peak. “Russia and China are politically and diplomatically very close and their economic and trade ties are growing,” he told VOA. 

However, “since Russia can’t offer anything else to China apart from what’s already offering in terms of energy and commodities, there’s not a lot else that they can do together,” Ivanov said, adding that one area to observe is how Beijing and Moscow coordinate their strategic interests. 

As Switzerland prepares to facilitate possible peace talks on the Ukraine war, all sides are looking at how China positions itself in the process. Following his visit to Beijing earlier this month, Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis said he hopes China can contribute to the potential peace process by leveraging its close relationship with Russia.

Despite the aspirations expressed by Switzerland, Chong in Singapore said China may prefer to maintain its vague position on Ukraine, which is that all parties will strive to “create favorable conditions for the political settlement of the crisis.” 

“Both Beijing and Moscow may be betting on the possibility of former U.S. President Donald Trump returning to office [in November,] which could reshuffle things to the advantage of China and Russia,” he told VOA. 

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