At the Beijing Winter Olympics, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin declared ‘A Friendship Without Limits,’ but it may be a friendship of convenience. Shifting world politics and strained relationships with some Western countries have led China to look towards Russia to secure necessities such as fertilizers and oil that are necessary to Xi’s plan for self-sufficiency.
Historically, the friendship between China and Russia was birthed from sharing borders, energy security, and economic ties that continue to drive these two countries together.
An agreement made between the Soviet Union and the PRC in 1991 established a 7,500-kilometer land border between the USSR and the PRC. Today, modern Russia and the PRC share a 4,500 km land border along Northeast China’s Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia Provinces, making it China’s second longest land border.
Having a land border ensures that the PRC and Russia can fully control what passes between the two countries without the United States or the United Nations’ laws and rules applying. It also allows them to circumvent trade through the Pacific Ocean and the contested South China Sea, which is regularly patrolled by the U.S. Navy.
The Sino-Russian land border is populated by many infrastructure projects vital to trade such as railways, highways, bridges, and most importantly, oil and natural gas pipelines.
One such pipeline, The Power of Siberia, operated by Gazprom is expected to deliver 22 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas in 2023 and will increase delivery to 38 bcm per year by 2027. This supplies a significant amount of gas to energy-dependent China.
Besides coal, China imports the majority of its energy sources, with over 60% of its oil and natural gas imported every year. Having a large number of factories and refineries, along with, the world’s largest population leads China to consume massive amounts of fossil fuels in order to drive its economy.
Because of this, U.S.-led Western blocks such as AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) can challenge China’s ability to meet its domestic energy demands as seen by the power outages after the PRC temporarily banned Australian Coal. This occurrence has led the PRC to look to diversify its energy imports.
Having a secure source of energy is at the core of the PRC’s alliance with Russia. This is highlighted by the approval of The Power of Siberia 2 pipeline which will deliver 30 bcm of natural gas by 2030. The deal for Power of Siberia 2 was announced at the same Winter Olympic meeting between Xi and Putin where the phrase ‘Friendship without limits’ was first used.
China produces and exports many goods and commodities including its near monopoly on rare earth metals. However, China is still dependent on imports to fulfill essential demands for many sectors. A key sector of China’s economy besides oil and natural gas is its agricultural sector. China does not produce enough food domestically for its huge population and must import food from countries such as the U.S. and Brazil to meet its domestic demands.
The supply chain and food shortages caused by the war in Ukraine have highlighted how reliant much of the world is on Russia and Ukraine for agricultural products such as wheat and nitrogen fertilizers. If the PRC could negotiate trade deals with Russia and its held territories, then it can decrease its dependence on trading for food from across the Pacific and lessen any impact that may come from a potential conflict with the U.S. and following sanctions.
Beyond agricultural and energy exports Russia also has immense mineral wealth in gold, platinum, aluminum, and iron alloys. Obtaining favorable trade terms with Russia for these minerals would help China’s economy to continue to grow and manufacture cheaply for the foreseeable future, even without trade with Western powers or their allies.
Sharing a land border, access to Russia’s energy exports, and the potential for economic substitutes in critical sectors such as agriculture and industrial inputs make the PRC’s and Russia’s ‘Friendship without Limits’ a strategic friendship of necessity. As Xi pushes for the PRC to become self-sufficient and prepare for a potential conflict with the U.S. and its allies in the near future, having Russia as an economic ally is essential to protecting China’s economy from Western sanctions, trade wars, and economic pressure. While we may not see an increase in the PRC's assistance to Russia’s military campaign, the ties between the two economies mean that Russia and China will remain necessary allies.