Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia-China cooperation has grown in all directions. Moscow makes no bones about the fact that it is betting on China in the global confrontation with the West, seeing Beijing as an alternative center of power with similar interests and values to itself. 

The trade turnover between the two countries, which reached a record $190 billion last year, increased by another 39 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2022. Russian raw material exports to China and imports of Chinese goods have sharply increased.

Unsurprisingly, all of this has prompted talk that Beijing is using its economic leverage and Russia’s rupture with the West to turn Moscow into a compliant puppet, forcing humiliating, one-sided concessions. These concerns are shared by both the harshest critics of the Russian regime in the West and the pro-war hawks within Russia.

The more than tenfold difference in the size of the two economies has turned the expression “vassal dependence” into something approaching accepted wisdom. Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that this dependence is not so one-sided, since Russia still has plenty of leverage itself.

The most commonly cited risk is that of economic dependence, yet even after the record growth since the start of the war, China’s share in Russia’s trade is approximately 22 percent: undoubtedly significant, but not unprecedented. China has an even larger share (26 percent) of Australia’s foreign trade, even as the Australian government actively participates in anti-China alliances such as AUKUS and the Quad. 

Australia is not subject to Western sanctions, of course, and is therefore less limited in its choice of trading partners. Yet the importance of China in many global supply chains is such that even without sanctions, it is virtually the only consumer and supplier for a vast range of products and resources.  

China is currently the biggest trading partner of about 120 countries, many of which are economically more dependent on it than Russia is. This imbalance does not prevent them from exiting investment agreements, engaging in decades-long border conflicts with Beijing, or becoming allies of the United States or European Union. In Russia’s case, there is a caveat regarding gas exports, where flexibility is limited by infrastructure. When it comes to oil, however, Russia’s choice of partners is much broader. Even now, the volume of Russian oil exports to India (1.7 million barrels per day) and smaller developing countries (1.6 million) is comparable to exports to China (2.2 million).

As for Russian imports, not only China but a number of other countries (Türkiye, UAE, India, and Central Asian states) are becoming hubs for parallel trading, reselling sanctioned goods to Russia. They are quite capable of ensuring at least some inflow of necessary goods to the Russian market if Moscow’s relations with Beijing get sour. 

So far, notwithstanding all the talk about “vassal dependence”, Russia has not joined China’s flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative, or recognized China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Nor is Moscow in any hurry to conclude onerous concession agreements with China or even amend legislation to that end.

Moves such as relocating polluting industries to Russian territory, building transit railways through Russia with no stops there (such as the Beijing-Berlin route), unilateral tariff reductions, or even scrapping visa requirements for Chinese nationals would demonstrate that Moscow needs Beijing more than the other way around—but none of these have materialized. 

Nearly a year and a half into the full-scale invasion, the relationship between Russia and China is largely following the same rules as before. Chinese investment in Russia increased by 150 percent in 2022, but it remains relatively small, partly because Moscow is not prepared to accept Chinese investment without certain restrictions.

Furthermore, Moscow has indirectly asserted its independence by imprisoning alleged Chinese intelligence assets. The Russian special services have deliberately publicized these cases, though they would have been easy enough to keep quiet to avoid irritating Beijing.  

The vassal argument also fails to address the key question of motive: why would Beijing seek to establish unequal relations with Moscow? It is hard to identify areas in which Russia would refuse to cooperate with China on normal terms. The Russian market is open to Chinese goods, and Russia willingly supplies China with as many resources as needed.

Attempts by Beijing to pressure Moscow in a few areas where this could make sense (political statements, individual resource concessions) would be extremely risky. Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated only too starkly the sacrifices he is willing to let Russia endure in order to confront perceived threats to its sovereignty. In the event of a real attempt by China to make Russia its vassal, the Russian leadership would likely prefer to deprive Russians of Chinese goods rather than submit.

Finally, the war has not only strengthened China’s position in its relations with Russia. It has also provided Moscow with several important advantages, most notably information on withstanding sanctions and on fighting a war against Western weaponry, which China cannot obtain from anywhere but Moscow.

Beijing has long viewed the deepening confrontation with the West as an inevitability, and not without reason. Since Beijing has no intention of changing tack, the imposition of new anti-China sanctions appears to be only a matter of time. Close cooperation with the Kremlin and other official Russian bodies allows Beijing to understand how sanctions affect the economy, what methods of circumvention exist, how the financial system will behave, which protective measures are effective, and which are not. 

The experience that the Russian army is currently gaining in Ukraine is even more interesting for Beijing. A significant proportion of Chinese weapons are either purchased from Russia or have evolved from Russian and Soviet prototypes. In Ukraine, the durability of this weaponry is being tested on a massive scale against Western analogues, and in real conditions of war.

Certainly, this experience may not be fully applicable in the event of an attack on Taiwan, but even a tenth of this information would have to be obtained by China at the cost of soldiers’ blood if it decided to find it out itself. Instead, the established military cooperation between the two countries gives China access to this information without significant costs.

The relationship between Russia and China is by no means perfect, but the shared interests of both countries’ leaderships and the strategic logic of the confrontation with the West create a solid foundation for reasonably equal cooperation. Within that interaction, China does have a certain opportunity to turn Russia into its vassal—but, crucially, it has no compelling reasons to do so. That situation is unlikely to change in the next five to ten years.

  • Mikhail Korostikov