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Sino-Russian Relationship in a Time of Conflict: Making Sense of the ‘No-Limits’ Partnership

FT montage/Getty Images/Bloomberg©. Photo of President Xi Jinping. Retrieved from Financial Times.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of European Guanxi or its members.

It has been over a year since President Putin ordered the brutal invasion of Ukraine. In that time, Beijing has engaged in a delicate balancing act that seeks to double down on its strategic partnership with Russia and provide rhetorical support for its war in Ukraine while seeking to avoid a major deterioration of relations with the collective West (US and EU) (Jie, 2023). The conflict in Ukraine and China’s diplomacy are illustrative of the broader contours of the Sino-Russian partnership. Far from exhibiting an alliance of authoritarianism, the Sino-Russian partnership is defined by realpolitik and common interests.

In the weeks leading up to Putin’s invasion at the Beijing summit, President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin proclaimed a “no-limits partnership,” and in previous high-level dialogue, Putin has described the Sino-Russian partnership as “a model of cooperation between major powers in the 21st century” (Ebel, 2020). During his most recent visit to Moscow, Xi Jinping stated, “there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together” (Etkind, 2023). Many have looked at these high-profile visits between China and Russia and observed a new era of cooperation between an alliance of authoritarian powers that are the driving force behind a 21st-century Cold War (Ward, 2023).

A Cautious Partnership: Continuing Divergent Worldviews since the "Sino-Soviet Split"

While China is undoubtedly doubling down on its strategic partnership with Russia, this is far from an alliance. Rather, the Sino-Russian partnership is a traditional great-power relationship between mutually independent partners (Lo, 2022). What bonds China and Russia together are their mutual interests, not ideology. The two countries share a 4,300 km border and have shared resentment for global US hegemony. However, elevating the partnership into an alliance or deeper security coordination is unlikely due to their opposing worldviews of the rules-based order (Kaczmarski, 2019). China is a system player that has been a major beneficiary of the rules-based order and seeks to reform the system from within (Fung, 2022); Russia on the contrary is a system destroyer that exerts its influence via territorial conquest as in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine.

Aside from their opposing worldviews, Beijing, since the end of the Mao era, has had an aversion to alliances and has committed to a non-alliance strategy since the 12th Party Congress of 1982, when then-President Deng Xiaoping articulated “an independent and self-reliant foreign policy of peace” (Fulton, 2019). China has instead pursued strategic partnerships as its primary strategic mechanism between states, which is interest-driven, rather than a threat-driven alliance (Strüver, 2017). According to Ruonan et al.’s survey of official Chinese attitudes on grand strategy, alliances are an “an archaic and entangling system that only increases the chances of costly military conflict (Ruonan et al, 2017). Thus, strategic partnership diplomacy provides Beijing with the autonomy and flexibility in its foreign relations necessary to pursue multiple strategic partners in the diplomatic sphere that serve its economic and political interests (Fiala, 2023). Interestingly, on Xi Jinping’s latest visit to Moscow, in a joint communique, the famous phrase “no-limits” partnership with Russia had been omitted. Instead, Xi Jinping stressed a relationship of “No-alliance, no-confrontation and no-targeting against any third parties” (FMPRC, 2023).

Balancing Necessary Partnerships, and "Interests First" Policies

Beijing’s fear of entrapment and the pursuit of its interests have been consistent throughout the war in Ukraine. The PRC is seeking an economic rebound as a consequence of its “zero-Covid” policy, and therefore seeks to avoid a major deterioration with the EU and US, which are China’s primary trading partners and critical for the country’s technological advancement (Jie, 2023). Beijing has therefore sought a diplomatic reset with its European partners as China’s top diplomat Wang Yi visited France and Italy and attended the Munich Security Conference. This succeeds a series of high-level meetings between China and the EU both virtually and in-person, such as Olaf Scholz’s meeting with Xi Jinping in China in November of last year (Lieven, 2022). French President Emmanuel Macron and European President Ursula Von Der Leyen have followed in Scholz’s footsteps with a visit to China|s capital to meet with Xi Jinping. From China’s strategic perspective, they have always sought to detach Europe from the US and encourage notions of European strategic autonomy (Bergsen, 2022). Xi Jinping made this explicitly clear at the EU-China Summit when he stated that Europe should “form its own perception of China, adopt an independent China policy, and work with China for the steady and sustained growth of China-EU relations” (FMPRC, 2023).

Following these high-level talks, on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China published a peace plan for the war in Ukraine (FMPRC, 2023). The peace plan is a 12-point proposal reflecting Beijing’s longstanding talking points about the war. The proposal is deliberately vague and lacks any specific details on territory or security guarantees. Furthermore, Beijing is unlikely to engage in any sincere effort to follow up with these proposals as it does not want to incur the diplomatic costs of doing so (Freeman, 2023). Rather, Beijing seeks to reinforce and leverage the self-proclaimed non-alignment of many nations in the Global South and present itself as a responsible and peaceful power in the face of Russia’s invasion and the West’s military support for Ukraine (Gabuev, 2023). Beijing undoubtedly hopes that its successful meditation between Iran and Saudi Arabia (Abdouduoh, 2023), along with its continued talk of energy and food security, will strike a chord with the Global South, where many states of which do not see the conflict in the same way as the West (Wintour, 2023). Brazil, India, and Indonesia are prominent examples of the Global South’s ambivalence to the war, as they have condemned Russia’s aggression, but have avoided sanctions on the Russian economy (Inagaki et al, 2023).


Beijing has always regarded Moscow as a junior partner (Gabuev, 2023), a reality that has become increasingly pronounced since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which will fundamentally weaken its economy as a result of sanctions (Pifer, 2022). Thus, the future of the relationship will arguably be more known for its asymmetry rather than its quality, which partly resembles the partnership between Beijing and Tehran or Beijing and Pyongyang (Conduit, 2019). Much like Putin’s Russia, Iran and North Korea are ostracised by the West and see little value in a rules-based international order. However, Beijing sees utility in their ability to act as a bulwark against the West and liberal internationalism. This could yield strategic and economic benefits for China, but may come at a price in its relations with the collective West, making its existing balancing act between rogue states and the West increasingly hard to navigate.

About the Author

James Hammersley completed an MA in Chinese Studies at Renmin University and BA in Politics & International Relations at University College, Dublin. He is currently working for the Irish Global Health Network as an intern in Grant Management & Communications. He can be found on Linkedin.

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