In war and in peace, symbols are important.
So when this Wednesday the Russian president Vladimir Putin received in Moscow the head of Chinese diplomacy, wang yithe two of them sat on either side of a large oval table where, by stretching out their arms a little, they could have shaken hands.
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This is the same table at which a year ago, before starting the invasion of Ukraine, Putin coldly received Western leaders such as the Frenchman Emmanuel Macron or the German Olaf Scholz, but with a small difference: then they were placed —the placed—at the long ends of the board, several meters away.
China has become for Russiaespecially since the war began, in a key partner.
Beijing has absorbed a large part of Russian hydrocarbon exports, thus softening the impact of Western sanctions on the economy of the Eurasian country and, according to the United States, China is now considering the possibility of sending arms and ammunition to Russia, allegations that the Beijing government flatly denies.
At the meeting on Wednesday, both countries have assured that they are ready to deepen strategic cooperation and that they could reach new trade agreements this year.
But what exactly is China looking for from its relationship with Russia? Are you only acting out of commercial interest or is there a political strategy?
“What worries China the most, and they have said it many times, is that the security situation will get out of control in Eurasia,” Professor Rasmus Nilsson, from University College’s School of Slavic and Eastern European Studies, told BBC Mundo. of London (UCL).
China shares a long border with Russia, but also with other former Soviet republics whose instability could harm the Asian giant.
Beijing has no interest in the Ukraine warsays the academic, who recalls that the Chinese government positioned itself firmly against it when Putin mentioned at the beginning of the conflict the possibility of using nuclear weapons.
But the alleged neutrality that the Communist Party of China has defended since the start of the war is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.
“Xi Jinping’s government sees Russia as an enemy on the front lines of the battle against American influence. A nation that, like North Korea, may be considered an international pariah, but which serves a useful geopolitical purpose“, analyzes the BBC correspondent in China, Stephen McDonell.
The relationship between the two countries since the Cold War has been problematic, says Professor Nilsson. Deng Xiaoping introduced China to the world market and starting in the 2000s, the Asian giant tapped into the Russian market to stock up on technological products.
But, for more than a decade, China no longer needs Russia for these types of products, and in Beijing they are well aware that “the Russian economy is not in a good state and will not be for many years,” says the academic. from UCL.
The reason is not the sanctions, he continues, but it comes from before, “they are structural economic problems that were already there before February of last year.
Therefore, if Russia is not the ideal economic partner, China cannot disassociate itself from the West either: “Xi Jinping has said it many times, we want a relationship with the West, because that is where the economic impact is.”
China is Russia’s most important trading partner.
However, China has not wasted the opportunity to stock up on hydrocarbons at low prices either.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, many Western countries imposed strict sanctions on Russia, banning, for example, the import of oil or the export of technological products.
Many Western companies severed ties with Russia, whose trade with the United States, the European Union or the United Kingdom plummeted throughout 2022.
In that time, China’s trade with Russia has reached a record $190 billionan increase of 30% compared to 2021.
Russian imports from China increased 13% to $76 billion, and exports to China grew 43% to $114 billion.
China has thus become Russia’s main trading partner.
How much gas and oil is China buying from Russia?
Hydrocarbons are a fundamental source of financing for the Russian government. Almost half of its income comes from gas and oil, and its sale to the countries of the European Union has plummeted due to sanctions.
Part of these losses have been offset by increasing sales in Asia.
Russia exported twice as much liquefied petroleum gas to China in 2022 compared to the previous year. It also sent 50% more natural gas through the Poder de Siberia gas pipeline, which began operating in 2019, and 10% more crude.
Both countries have agreed to build a new gas pipeline, the Siberian Power 2, to expand their energy ties.
The G7, the European Union and Australia have tried to impose a cap on the price of Russian oil transported by sea, but China refuses to abide by this imposition and buys Russian crude at market prices.
“China knows that it is receiving these hydrocarbons at great discounts, it’s pure business. And, of course, if you are doing business with someone, you are not going to yell at them,” says Professor Rasmus Nilsson, who believes that this is not a way of supporting Russia, but “to get cheap energy. China and India (the other big destination for Russian hydrocarbons) are being very cynical about this.”
Is China sending weapons to Russia?
China has become the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter and, according to Washington, Chinese companies have already provided “non-lethal support” to Russia.
The United States assures that it has information that they will soon also supply Moscow with “lethal prop”.
The war material that China manufactures is also increasingly sophisticated.
“Its drones, for example, are one of the areas in which Russia would be very interested,” explains Siemon Wezeman, from the International Institute for Peace Studies in Stockholm (Sweden), to the BBC.
Although China has not openly supplied Russia with weapons, it may be secretly selling it high-tech products that could be used for military purposes, said Maria Shagina, an expert on economic sanctions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
According to the analyst, there is evidence that China has become the largest exporter of semiconductors to Russiaoften through shell companies in Hong Kong or the United Arab Emirates.
“Some Chinese companies are also supplying civilian drones, exploiting the gray area between military and civilian purposes,” Shagina says.
This is in addition to electronic components for anti-aircraft missile radars that the US-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies says Chinese companies are selling to Russia.
The United States has also imposed sanctions on a Chinese company that allegedly provided satellite images to support Russian mercenary forces fighting in Ukraine.
Moscow, according to Professor Nilsson, is aware that China is taking advantage of Russia economically and that it is in a weak position: “if you consider yourself a great power, you don’t want to depend on anyone and right now, frankly, Putin is half begging the Chinese and the Indians“.
The professor sums up the situation this way: “The Chinese want peace and things to stabilize, cheap energy and the Americans not to be too strong. The Russians want any help they can get right now. There is no strategy, and as long as they don’t have, they need the Chinese”.
The very tensions that are being experienced inside Russia as a result of the war in Ukraine also worry the Communist Party of China, according to the expert.
“China is facing demographic problems, the Evergrande situation is still there, they have had large protests related to the covid, Xi Jinping has been in power for quite some time and he has to maneuver with the political elites. They have to relaunch the economy no matter what and to continue building economic relations that, right now, Russia cannot offer. The last thing China needs right now is instability.“says the UCL professor.
* With reporting by Paula Rosas and the BBC Reality Check team.
I am Jack Morton and I work in 24 News Recorder. I mostly cover world news and I have also authored 24 news recorder. I find this work highly interesting and it allows me to keep up with current events happening around the world.