Abstract: Amid unfolding events related to the Ukraine crisis, the focus on various aspects of China’s policies has sharpened considerably. This paper aims to analyze core aspects of the Chinese leadership’s strategy using a dependable source base spanning from December 2021 through March 2023. This period involved the preparation and execution of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China in February 2022 and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s subsequent return visit to Moscow in March 2023. The Chinese versions of events are compared with official materials from the portals of the Russian president, the Russian Foreign Ministry, heads of state, and the foreign ministries of other countries. It can be stated that throughout this period, stories related to the Ukraine crisis were the focus of Chinese Foreign Ministry briefings, although attention to this issue somewhat decreased over time. Despite noticeable pauses related to Ukraine issues since April 2022, this topic has received the most attention in connection with Beijing’s foreign policy activities during this period. This paper analyzes how the PRC leadership defines relations with the Russian Federation at the current stage and how this influences the PRC’s policy toward the Ukraine conflict.

The 12th CPC Congress, held in September 1982, declared that China would subsequently pursue an independent and autonomous foreign policy (独立自主外交政策). A notable feature of this policy was China’s decision to refrain from joining military-political alliances. This decision stemmed from the PRC’s experience of allying with the USSR against the US during the 1950s and attempting to form an alliance with the US against the USSR in the 1970s. The PRC’s new foreign policy, aimed at establishing balanced and nonconfrontational relations with major foreign policy partners, was seen as optimal for implementing a profound socioeconomic transformation.

Point of Reference

The first Joint Declaration, signed by Boris Yeltsin and PRC Chairman Yang Shangkun after Boris Yeltsin’s visit to Beijing in December 1992, stated that “the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China view each other as amicable nations.2 In September 1994, a political document was signed by Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin after the PRC Chairman’s trip to Moscow that emphasized that Russian-Chinese relations “are not an alliance and not directed against third countries.3 The document initiated the gradual upgrading of bilateral relations and defined them as “constructive partnership relations.” Both parties saw this upgraded status as indicating a greater level of mutual trust than the “amicable relations” proposed in the 1992 agreement.

Since 1995, the relationship between China and the US has been deteriorating over the issue of Taiwan, and differences between Russia and the US have been mounting. At bilateral meetings at the highest and high level, leaders of Russia and China started to criticize US policy. In this context, the advancement of military-technical collaboration has accelerated. In December 1995, Russia agreed to transfer a license for the production of Su-27SK aircraft and a batch of these aircraft to China. In April 1996, while en route to Beijing, Yevgeny Primakov initiated the sending of a telegram to the Chinese leadership from the Russian president’s plane proposing a new definition of bilateral relations. The proposal was accepted.

A pivotal step in advancing the status of Russian-Chinese relations was the Treaty of July 16, 2001. The initiative to develop this document came from the Chinese side. Prior to and following his election as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin expressed his intent to enhance cooperative relationships with Western nations and explore the possibility of Russia joining NATO. By proposing the initiative to sign the treaty, the Chinese leadership sought to avoid an erosion of the partnership that had begun to form between Moscow and Beijing in the previous period.4

The treaty combines the concept of strategic partnership and cooperation with the five principles of peaceful coexistence (stated in Article 1). Jiang Zemin explained the day after the signing of the document that the treaty is founded on the principles of “nonalignment, nonconfrontation, and nontargeting of third parties” (不结盟,不对抗,不针对第三方).5

This formula extends the definition of “no confrontation” in bilateral relations outlined in the 1994 Joint Declaration. The Chinese leader emphasized that the signing of the treaty on July 16, 2001, did not lead to the emergence of a political-military alliance between China and Russia aimed at direct confrontation with the US and the West. This is in contrast to the alliance between the USSR and the PRC that resulted from the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance of February 14, 1950.6 This three-part formula has become well-established and is frequently utilized to characterize bilateral relationships.7

In the decade following the 2001 Treaty and prior to Xi Jinping’s assumption of power, Sino-Russian relations markedly progressed in several areas, while both countries experienced notable developments in their foreign policies. Following Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 and the 2008 South Ossetia conflict, Russia’s relations with Western countries began to gradually deteriorate. Relations continued to worsen after the failed attempt to reset relations with the US and fell to a new low after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

It was crucial for China to recover faster and suffer fewer losses than other industrialized democracies after the 2008 global financial and economic crisis. In 2010, China became the world’s second largest economy. This gave Chinese leaders unparalleled confidence.

In 2012, Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the PRC. He strove to cultivate ties with the US while also being ready to respond strongly to its actions that he considered a threat to Chinese national interests.8

The altered domestic policies under Xi Jinping in China have considerably affected relations with the West. Prior to his tenure, there had been a gradual shift away from communist economic, political, and social principles that started with Deng Xiaoping. This progression, as noted by Western analysts, established the foundation for cordial China-Western relations for the foreseeable future. The clearest example of such predictions was the proposal by US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick that China should assume the role of a responsible shareholder in the Western values-based international system.9 After coming to power, Xi Jinping explicitly opposed any convergence plans and considered a return to original, revolutionary, and socialist values as one of his top responsibilities. As a result, both China and Russia significantly altered their approach toward the West after 2014, and their subsequent rapprochement proceeded on a qualitatively new foundation.

All these factors helped improve bilateral relations, initially leading to the establishment of a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” (June 2012)10 and later to a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era” (June 2014).11

The enhancement of relations centered around the principles of “no alliance, no confrontation, and no targeting of third parties.” Notably, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has gradually moved away from Deng Xiaoping’s established directions for both domestic and foreign policies, including the reluctance to form alliance relationships. This has affected the approach toward cooperative efforts between China and Russia. In China, voices began to be heard that the formula of the “three no’s” no longer met the requirements of the modern situation, that it was necessary to think about how to go beyond this framework and how to formalize movement toward alliance relations in substance if not form.

The main content of the discussions at that time was reflected in an article by Mrs. Fu Ying, a prominent Chinese diplomat. After a thorough analysis of the arguments of proponents of the various approaches, she concluded that partnership rather than allied relations with Russia were still optimal for China.12

Toward a New Formula of Relations

In 2018, an event greatly affected the approaches of China’s top leaders toward cooperation with the Russian Federation. The US State Department imposed its first sanctions on the PRC Central Military Commission’s Equipment Development Department and its leadership in September due to China’s acquisition of Russian Su-35 planes and S-400 air defense systems. According to a Chinese commentator, the closer partnership and the development of “partnership but not alliance” relations between China and Russia can be attributed to external pressure from the US. The year 2018 played a significant role in this development.13

In 2018, two major events occurred in Russia and China. On March 17, during the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), Xi Jinping was re-elected president of the PRC. The second event took place on March 18, 2018, with the re-election of Vladimir Putin as president. In the Chinese leader’s view, this afforded ample time for mutual efforts to improve bilateral relations. The year 2019, which marked the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the countries, seemed ideal for this.

In 2019, the PRC published several pieces on Sino-Russian relations. A policy article was featured in the Chinese Communist Party’s primary theoretical journal.14 Summarizing the history of bilateral relations from 1949 to their normalization in 1989, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng noted that both sides had implemented the principles of nonalignment, nonconfrontation, and nontargeting of third parties. He also observed that “since then, relations between the two countries have quickly been put on the right track of healthy and stable development.” Thus, he viewed the “three principles” not as the result of the development of bilateral relations but as a starting point for moving forward.

Le Yucheng outlined three major objectives for the future: prioritizing mutual political trust, expanding mutually beneficial cooperation to comprehensive cooperation, and strengthening intergenerational friendship through mutual understanding between people. The article implied that the PRC leadership was laying the groundwork to elevate relations beyond the principles of nonalignment, nonconfrontation and nontargeting of third parties.

On November 25, 2019, Le Yucheng stated after his discussion with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that “there are no restrictions on the growth of Sino-Russian ties, and no such limitations have been placed” (不封上顶,不设限).15 The objective appeared to be to eliminate obstacles to the expansion of the partnership without formally renouncing its nonaligned nature.

Starting in 2020, Chinese officials’ statements shifted in tone. Previously, they focused on building a comprehensive partnership, but now they stressed the absence of limitations on cooperation and interaction. This trend was exemplified by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement in January 2021 that Sino-Russian cooperation has no limits or restricted areas. In March 2021, following the NPC session, he declared: “There are no limitations to Sino-Russian collaboration.”16

Of particular importance in the process of working out a new formula for relations was the signing on June 28, 2021, of the Joint Declaration on the extension of the 2001 Treaty. “As Russian-Chinese relations are not a military-political alliance similar to the alliances formed during the Cold War, they are superior to such a form of interstate interaction. They are not opportunistic in nature, free from ideologization, presuppose full consideration of the interests of the partner and noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, are self-sufficient and not directed against third countries, and are international relations of a new type.”

This definition shows that the leaders of Russia and China aimed to establish a new type of relationship that is more substantial than an alliance, but not directed against third countries. This definition deviated significantly from the formula of nonalignment, nonconfrontation, and nontargeting of third parties. Only the third part of the formula remains evident in this definition. The document did not include the “no upper limits” formula that the Chinese side was already following. It may have appeared too radical for the partners to utilize at the highest level.

It is worth noting the following statement: “Today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic that is exacerbating global tensions, the Treaty’s provisions are not only relevant but gaining new significance, continuously serving as a dependable foundation for Russian-Chinese relations.” This marked the initial inclusion of the pandemic factor in bilateral ties at the highest level. During this period, the Chinese leadership began to develop the belief that China’s effective handling of the pandemic and its wide-ranging international aid to developing countries would significantly enhance its global status. This, along with successfully overcoming the 2008 financial crisis, could be a critical milestone in positioning China as a leading world power. Therefore, it was deemed advisable to present proposals on restructuring the global world, taking into consideration the Chinese experience. The jointly issued statement on the extension of the treaty can be considered the initial demonstration of such a stance. Section VIII, which specified Sino-Russian views on the global world order, was of significant importance.

Xi Jinping advanced this strategy by implementing several global initiatives (全球倡议) focused on fundamental principles for organizing a postpandemic world. On September 21, 2021, he introduced the Global Development Initiative, followed by a global initiative on vaccination cooperation in October. In April 2022, he declared the Global Security Initiative, and in March 2023, he proposed the Global Civilization Initiative.17

The Sino-Russian document on the extension of the Treaty of July 16, 2001, came in second in Le Yucheng’s summary of major accomplishments of Chinese diplomacy in 2021. First place was given to the launch of the Chinese president’s Global Development Initiative.18 This ranking was not arbitrary, as the Sino-Russian joint document contained one of the first indications of the desirability of significantly strengthening positions in the post-COVID world.

The early months of 2022 were of significance for the Chinese and Russian governments as they worked to redefine the nature of their bilateral relations. During this period, Putin implemented constitutional changes and paved the way for unrestricted term limits, putting him on a par with Xi Jinping in this regard. Due to the buildup of troops near Ukraine’s borders and the implementation of stringent security measures, relations between Western countries and Russia significantly deteriorated.

Xi Jinping’s main objectives for the year included successfully hosting the Winter Olympics and the 20th CPC Congress, as well as implementing measures to overcome pandemic restrictions. The Chinese leader was undoubtedly grateful to Vladimir Putin for being the sole leader of the major powers to attend the Olympic opening ceremony.

All these factors contributed to a conducive environment for the culmination of the process of elevating bilateral relations that began in 2021. Le Yucheng’s statement in December 2021 that “there is no limit to the friendship, no forbidden zone to the cooperation, and no ceiling to the mutual trust between China and Russia”19 marked the start of this process. This statement was a continuation of Le Yucheng’s remarks during his talks with Sergey Lavrov in December 2019.

In mid-December 2021, the heads of state of Russia and China held a videoconference.20 The Chinese president and the Chinese Foreign Ministry representative who commented on the dialogue did not mention the absence of limits andno-go zones in bilateral relations. Nevertheless, in his commentary, Wang Wenbin made persuasive arguments in favor of taking bilateral relations to a qualitatively new level. “President Xi Jinping … wishes to join hands and look to the future together, and together open a whole new chapter in Sino-Russian cooperation in the post-COVID era … so that they become a model of relations between major powers with the highest degree of mutual trust, the highest level of interaction, the highest strategic value, and make even greater contributions to building a new type of international relations and a community of shared destiny for mankind.”21

Before Putin’s arrival in China for the Olympic opening ceremony, Chinese Foreign Ministry representatives released statements that included a fresh approach to bilateral relations, asserting that their development had no limits.22

In this context, it is not surprising that such a definition was first included in the Joint Statement following the talks between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. In particular, it stated: “The sides call for the establishment of a new kind of relationships between world powers on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and mutually beneficial cooperation. They reaffirm that the new interstate relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no forbidden areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.”23

With a few caveats, it must be acknowledged that this statement accomplished the primary objective set by the Russian and Chinese leadership – to illustrate that the Moscow and Beijing connection had advanced to a qualitatively higher level than the era defined by the terms “no alliance, no confrontation, and no targeting of third parties.”

The joint statement between Russia and China regarding the extension of the July 16, 2021 Treaty included a subtle hint at a postpandemic global program promoted by both states, albeit mainly by China. The Joint Statement on February 4, 2022, provides a comprehensive and structured presentation of this program. Section one of the document outlines various concerns regarding democracy in the contemporary world. Section two examines issues of peace, development, and collaboration. Section three delves into the issue of global security, while section four focuses on the establishment of an international system where “the UN plays a pivotal role in world events.” In each section, the parties first detail their discontent with the Western nations’ handling of a specific global problem and then present their proposed solution.

After the talks, Le Yucheng offered his comments on their results, saying, “The Sino-Russian relationship is like a high-speed train that is always moving forward, with no end in sight, only refueling stops.” The global media widely quoted a catchy headline from his interview – “Sino-Russian relations have unlimited potential and are continuously reaching new heights.24

However, on February 16, 2022, a representative from the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared: “Under the direct leadership of the Heads of State, China and Russia have consistently been committed to building long-term friendly and mutually beneficial relations based on the principles of nonalignment, nonconfrontation and nontargeting of other countries.”25 The Chinese diplomat utilized the former definition of bilateral relations that had been used since at least 2001. Interpreted literally, this implied that no new formula had been proposed by either party to define bilateral relations as having no forbidden zones and upper limits.

After February 16, 2022, Chinese officials defined bilateral relations as based solely on the principles of nonalignment, nonconfrontation, and nontargeting of third parties.26

The Joint Statement released following Xi Jinping’s March 2023 visit to the Russian Federation asserts that the Russia-China relationship is not a military-political alliance comparable to those established during the Cold War; instead, it surpasses such a form of interstate interaction. It is not a bloc or confrontational style of interaction and is not aimed at any third countries.27

Thus, a significant change occurred: The formula depicting a qualitatively new level in Sino-Russian relations, which had only just been mentioned in the official document signed at the start of February 2022 at the highest level, disappeared starting in the latter half of the same month. There is every reason to believe that both the proposal for a new formula for relations and its abandonment were initiated by the Chinese side.28

A New Stage

The primary reasons for China’s decision to refrain from redefining the essential character of relations with Russia are evident. Shortly after the initiation of Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) [in Ukraine], foreign correspondents asked Chinese Foreign Ministry officials whether Russia had forewarned China about the launch of the operation during Vladimir Putin’s visit in February and whether the Chinese leader had requested that the launch of the SMO be deferred until after the Winter Olympics.29

The way the question was posed was totally unacceptable to Beijing. On March 15, 2022, an article by PRC Ambassador to the US Qin Gang was published. “Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to, or tacitly supported this war are purely disinformation.… Had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it.”30

Given the extremely tense situation in relations between Russia and Ukraine, the buildup of Russian troops at the border, and continued leaks regarding the imminent start of hostilities, it is difficult to assume that Xi Jinping and Putin did not discuss these issues during their exchange in early February 2022. There is no clear indication that the Russian side provided the Chinese partners with any significant information regarding the impending launch of the SMO during these talks.

First, if the Chinese leadership had sufficiently detailed information about the start of the SMO, its nature, and scope, it would never have initiated the formula of no limits and no forbidden zones in bilateral relations. And then abandon it.

Second, leading up to the start of the SMO, the Chinese side maintained its desire to resolve the issue through political means, specifically by implementing the new Minsk agreement (i.e., Minsk-2).31 However, the termination of this agreement due to Russia’s recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) came as an unwelcome surprise to the Chinese.32

Third, even an ally as close to Vladimir Putin as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko acknowledged that the Russian president did not give him advance information about the start of the SMO.33

The Chinese side was very interested in maintaining a serene and calm international atmosphere during the Olympics and Paralympics, and it warmly received the Russian delegation’s participation in the Games.34

On February 3, 2022, Vladimir Putin published an article titled “Russia and China: A Future-Oriented Strategic Partnership.”35 The 2008 and 2014 Olympics mentioned in the article coincided with major political upheavals marked by the Russian Federation’s use of armed forces in neighboring states, making them notable events in history.

On August 8, 2008, a Russian-Georgian armed conflict began on the opening day of the Beijing Olympics. Chinese leaders expressed their discontent with this coincidence. Similarly, on February 23, 2014, just before the close of the Sochi Olympics, Russia moved to annex Crimea. The culmination of this process was a referendum held on March 16, 2014, which coincided with the closing day of the Sochi Paralympics.

The Beijing Winter Olympics took place amid heightened tension along the Russian-Ukrainian border. Given this backdrop, it is entirely reasonable that the Russian side made an explicit pledge in the Joint Statement of February 4, 2022, to guarantee favorable conditions for the hosting of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing. The Chinese side did not necessarily require knowledge of Russia’s SMO plans to raise this matter.

The Russian leadership initiated the process to recognize the DPR and LPR on February 21, 2022 – i.e., the day after the Olympic closing ceremony. The SMO commenced on February 24. Hostilities were already under way during the Paralympic Games (March 4-13).

In the context of the China’s refusal to redefine the nature of bilateral ties, it is imperative to consider the fate of Le Yucheng, one of the inspirers and initiators of this formulation.

In late May 2022, Le Yucheng’s name was removed as a leader from both the official website of the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the website of the PRC General Administration of Broadcasting, where he had been listed as a deputy leader. However, Le Yucheng later resurfaced on the website of the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a deputy minister. However, in late June 2022, Le Yucheng’s name was removed from the MFA website and he assumed the position of deputy head of the Radio and Television Bureau. He retired in 2023 at the age of 60.36

It can be assumed that had the SMO not been launched, the Chinese side would likely have retained the formula suggesting the limitless nature of relations. It is now unlikely that the two sides will go back to defining the relationship as having no limits and no restricted areas anytime soon.

Current Status and Prospects

We can confidently state that the three principles guiding current relations between China and Russia are not just rhetoric but are being implemented in practical policies.

The principle of nonalignment provides China with an opportunity to speak from a position of moral and political superiority in its interactions with partners, particularly with members of NATO and other military-political blocs that involve the US. China stresses that such blocs are Cold War relics and that military confrontation based on differing ideologies is unacceptable in the modern world. Such logic contradicts the modern system of international relations, which is characterized by the intermingling of interests and their interdependence. China believes that one of the fundamental factors that gives the US global strategic superiority is its system of political-military alliances. One of China’s long-term policies is to gradually weaken and undermine this system.

The second principle, nonconfrontation, directly affects Chinese practical policy. China considers it categorically unacceptable to publicly criticize or condemn the Russia’s policy, regardless of the severity of accusations by third countries and their insistence that China join them. Many examples of this have emerged since the start of the SMO.

Chinese representatives declined to join accusations against Russia regarding the launch of the SMO.37 The same is true of claims against Russia of committing war crimes38 and launching missile strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure.39 The Chinese side did not support the decision of the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for the Russian president.40 China opposed proposals to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Committee,41 impose restrictive measures on Russian citizens, confiscate the property of “Russian oligarchs,”42 exclude Russia from the G20, and classify Russia as a state that supports terrorism, which was the intention of the US State Department.43

The prospect of the use of nuclear weapons in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been frequently talked about. The Chinese side has at times faced challenging situations, as its stance did not align with Russia’s.

Following Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in 2023, a document was produced that stated that nuclear powers should not deploy any nuclear weapons outside of their national territories and should withdraw any nuclear weapons that have already been deployed abroad.44 A few days after the signing of this statement, Vladimir Putin announced that Russian nuclear weapons would be deployed in Belarus.

In January 2023, the leaders of the five nuclear weapon states issued a joint statement reaffirming that a nuclear war is unwinnable and must never be fought. They emphasized the importance of preventing wars between nuclear-armed states and reducing strategic risks. Given the present situation, all parties must focus on diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis peacefully and collaborate to de-escalate tension.45

As can be seen, the Chinese side consistently refrains from criticizing the Russian Federation, even in situations where its position clearly differs from Russia’s. This can be attributed to the nonconfrontation principle of the three-part formula.

The most significant practical implication lies in the third component of this formula, which affirms the absence of any intention by Russia and China to target third-party countries. From the perspective of realpolitik, China has consistently advocated for joint statements with Russia on issues concerning third-party countries. Furthermore, any suggestion of joint actions with Moscow that may affect the interests of third-party countries must be categorically avoided. Strictly speaking, such collaborative efforts can only occur within the context of bilateral coordination.

During the assessed period, China’s stance was initially evident amid the turmoil in Kazakhstan in early 2022. At no time did China publicly endorse the deployment to Kazakhstan of Collective Security Treaty Organization troops, which comprised Russian Armed Forces. Chinese officials solely conveyed their support for Kazakhstan in a bilateral capacity.46

China’s stance on international sanctions against Russia, particularly those implemented by the US, was even more pronounced. China has consistently disapproved of and criticized such sanctions in its official statements.47

Meanwhile, Chinese representatives at the practical level abstain from discussing joint or parallel measures with Russia to counteract or reduce the effects of sanctions. China’s stance is that any actions taken by the US against Russia should not adversely affect Chinese interests.48

Given the strategic nature of cooperation with Russia, Chinese representatives typically avoid confirming or denying reports of Chinese constraints on practical engagement with Russian partners due to Western pressure.49 This stance enables China to regulate trade with Russia in order to evade potential sanctions while rejecting claims that such action is in response to pressure from the US and other Western nations.

Under this reasoning, it appears natural for China to deny supplying Russia with arms and military equipment.50 This approach also applies to dual-use products.51 Reports from European diplomats indicate that Chinese representatives have been denying arms deliveries to Russia in even greater detail and with greater fervor than is reflected in the texts officially released in China.52

The Chinese side denies the possibility of engaging in joint actions with Russia, even those that could target their strategic opponents on the most important and sensitive issues for Beijing. A case in point is the following dialogue between foreign journalists and a representative of the PRC MFA.

“Agence France-Presse correspondent: ‘What is the Chinese side’s response to the Japanese démarche over a Chinese warship sailing in the waters near the Senkaku Islands?’

“Zhao Lijian: ‘Diaoyu Island and the surrounding islets unquestionably belong to China. Chinese warships have the legitimate and fair right to operate in coastal waters, and Japan has no authority to criticize them.’

“Kyodo correspondent: ‘A Russian warship navigated in waters close to the Senkaku Islands this morning. Is this a joint action by Russia and China?’

“Zhao Lijian: ‘I have already stated the Chinese perspective. Your interpretation is subjective. If you want to inquire about the actions of the Russian side, please direct your questions to your colleagues to ask the Russian side.’ ”53

Generally, PRC officials maintain a “nontargeting of third countries” approach when communicating with Russian officials. However, there are rare exceptions that require separate consideration. The most noteworthy episode occurred in September 2022, when Li Zhanshu, chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, made a statement during a meeting with Russian State Duma faction leaders:

“On matters that pertain to Russia’s fundamental interests, we offer continuous support and understanding, particularly regarding the Ukraine issue,” Li Zhanshu said. “We have observed the US and its NATO accomplices increase their presence along Russia’s border, gravely jeopardizing national security and the lives of Russian citizens. We fully comprehend the measures that Russia has taken in safeguarding its key interests, and stand ready to offer our assistance wherever necessary … Russia was cornered in respect to the Ukrainian dispute … In light of this, Russia demonstrated its resolve by striking back with a decisive response.”54

These statements provoked numerous reactions in the Russian and foreign press. Journalists noted that Li Zhanshu’s interpretation of the causes of the Ukraine crisis did not coincide with the official Chinese version. The main point, however, was that Li Zhanshu in effect acknowledged China’s direct support of Russia in the armed conflict. This directly contradicted Beijing’s official position from the first day of the SMO that the PRC was not a party to the confrontation but was on the side of peace and peaceful negotiations.55

If Li Zhanshu’s declared stance, which contradicts the principle of Sino-Russian relations not targeting other countries, had become dominant in Chinese policy, this would have signified a qualitative change. However, there is no evidence that this occurred. The Chinese parliamentary speaker’s visit to Russia was documented in an official report that neglected to reference the aforementioned statements.56 No Chinese official has subsequently advocated similar approaches. Thus, Li Zhanshu, who at that time was well aware of the fact that he would no longer be a member of the Politburo Standing Committee as a result of the 20th CPC Congress and would step down as chairman of the NPC Standing Committee at the parliamentary session in March 2023, most likely went beyond his instructions, while the principle of not targeting third countries in relations with Russia remains inviolable in the eyes of China’s top leadership.57

* * *

All these facts convincingly prove that the Chinese side is serious about implementing all three elements of the formula of nonalignment, nonconfrontation, and nontargeting of third countries. It may seem that the first and third elements of this formula, as interpreted by the Chinese side, do not indicate that it is a true and sincere partner of the Russian Federation and is guided only by its own interests. In the author’s opinion, such a view is simplistic and makes it difficult to grasp the seriousness of the reasons behind China’s policy. In fact, each component of this formulation, in China’s view, reflects the country’s historical experience in a concentrated form.

The first component of this strategy, nonalignment, aims to prevent situations like the one China faced after forming a military-political alliance with the USSR in 1950. That alliance led to China’s involvement in an unnecessary war in Korea, resulting in a missed opportunity to take control of Taiwan. China was then drawn into a confrontation with the US and its allies for more than two decades that caused immense losses.58

The second component of this formula, nonconfrontation, reflects the historical events of the 1960s, when ideological debates between Moscow and Beijing escalated into military conflict, pushing both states to the verge of a full-scale armed struggle with potential use of nuclear arms.59

Finally, the third part of the formula clearly indicates that the PRC gained experience in the 1970s when it attempted to create the “broadest united front” with the US and the West to counter the USSR, despite not forming an official alliance. However, in doing so, the PRC eventually became a tool for more powerful and sophisticated partners.60

It was precisely this kind of historical experience that prompted the Chinese side to swiftly drop characterizations of its relations with Russia as having no limits and no forbidden zones as soon as the threat emerged that China might become embroiled in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. It also explains why China’s practical policy steps are firmly guided by the three-part formula that defines Sino-Russian relations. Fortune favors those who are able to objectively analyze their past experience and apply it in practice.


1. The author’s monograph that examines several facets of this issue will be published by the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies.

2. Sovmestnaya deklaratsiya ob osnovakh vzaimootnosheniy mezhdu Rossiyskoy Federatsiyey i Kitayskoy Narodnoy Respublikoy [Joint Declaration on the Fundamentals of Relations between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China]. Sbornik rossiysko-kitayskikh dogovorov: 1949-1999. Terra-sport Publishers, Moscow, 1999, p. 150.

3. Sovmestnaya rossiysko-kitayskaya deklaratsiya [Joint Russian-Chinese Declaration]. Sbornik rossiysko-kitayskikh dogovorov: 1949-1999 [Collection of Russian-Chinese treaties: 1949-1999]. Terra-sport Publishers, Moscow, 1999, p. 271.

4. See: S.N. Goncharov, Zhou Li, O formirovaniyi teksta Rossiysko-kitayskogo Dogovora o dobrososedstve, druzhbe i sotrudnichestve, peregovorakh po nemu i yego podpisaniyi [On the formation of the text of the Russian-Chinese Treaty on Good-Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation, its negotiation and signing]. Obshchestvo i gosudarstvo v Kitaye, # 1, 2019, pp. 619-651.

5. 共创中俄关系美好未来. 在莫斯科大学向俄罗斯各界知名人士发表的演讲. 中华人民共和国主席江泽民 (二○○一年七月十七日,莫斯科) [Creating together a beautiful future for Sino-Russian relations. Speech delivered at Moscow University to prominent people of Russia from various circles. Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Jiang Zemin (July 17, 2001, Moscow)]. 中央人民政府门户网站. URL: https://www.gov.cn/gongbao/content/2001/content_60978.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.) It should be noted that this type of relationship is not exclusive to China. For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping defined relations between the PRC and ASEAN countries as “dialogue, not confrontation, forming a partnership, not concluding an alliance.” See: 习近平: 坚持对话不对抗, 结伴不结盟 [Xi Jinping. Firmly adhere to (the course) toward dialogue, not confrontation, toward establishing partnerships, and not concluding an alliance]. 中央人民政府门户网站. November 22, 2021. URL: https://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2021-11/22/content_5652461.htm (Retrieved on September 9, 2023.)

6. For more details, see: S.N. Goncharov, J.W. Lewis, Xue Litai, Uncertain Partners. Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. Stanford University Press, 1993, pp. 76-110.

7. 江(外交部欧亚司司长). “征程七十载, 共创新时代. 写在中俄建交70周年之际 [Sun Linjiang (Director of the Department of Eastern Europe and Central Asia). We have been on a campaign for 70 years, together we are creating a new era. Written during the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Russia]. 外交”季刊. 2019年. 第131期.

8. 北大学者谈中美关系恶化三大原因 [A scholar from Peking University talks about the three main reasons for the deterioration of Sino-American relations]. 自由亚洲电台. April 22, 2022. URL: https://www.rfa.org/mandarin/yataibaodao/junshiwaijiao/hc-04222022101619.html (Retrieved on September 9, 2023.)

9. R. Zoellick, Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility? Remarks to the National Committee on US-China Relations. New York City. 2001-2009 Archive for the U.S. Department of State. September 21, 2005. URL: https://2001-2009.state.gov/s/d/former/zoellick/rem/53682.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

10. 中俄进一步深化全面战略协作伙伴关系的联合声明 [Sino-Russian joint statement on further deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination]. 中央人民政府门户网站. June 6, 2012. URL: https://www.gov.cn/govweb/jrzg/2012-06/06/content_2154854.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

11. 中俄关于全面战略协作伙伴关系新时代的联合声明 [Joint Statement between China and Russia on the New Era of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination]. 中央人民政府门户网站. May 20, 2014. URL: https://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2014-05/20/content_ 2683144.htm (Retrieved on September 9, 2023.)

12. 傅莹. 中俄关系:是盟友还是伙伴?[Fu Ying. Sino-Russian Relations: Allies or Partners?]. 现代国际关系. 2016年. 第4期. 第5页.

13. 李自国,2018年中俄关系回顾 – 在内生动力和外源推力下全面深化 [A retro-
spective look at Russian-Chinese relations in 2018 – a comprehensive deepening under the influence of internal driving forces and external pressure]. 中国国际问题研究院. January 9, 2019. URL: https://www.ciis.org.cn/yjcg/sspl/202007/t20200710_953.html (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

14. 乐玉成,“继往开来,携手共创中俄关系新时代,写在中俄建交70周年之际 [Le Yucheng. Continuing the past and opening the future, holding hands, we are jointly creating a new era in Sino-Russian relations]. 求是. 2019年. 第18期. 第50-55页.

15. 乐玉成: 发展中俄关系上不封顶不设限 [Le Yucheng, There are no restrictions or limits for the development of Chinese-Russian relations]. 俄罗斯卫星通讯社. November 26, 2019.

16. 解讀兩份中俄聯合聲明:習近平與普京如何定義「上不封頂」?[Interpreting two joint Sino-Russian statements: How do Xi Jinping and Putin define no restrictions?”]. 香港. 01. March 24, 2023. URL: https://www.hk01.com/%E5%9C%8B%E9%9A%9B%E5%88%86%E6%9E%90/880876/%E8%A7%A3%E8%AE%80%E5%85%A9%E4%BB%BD%E4%B8%AD%E4%BF%84%E8%81%AF%E5%90%88%E8%81%B2%E6%98%8E-%E7%BF%92%E8%BF%91%E5%B9%B3%E8% 88%87%E6%99%AE%E4% BA%AC%E5%A6%82%E4%BD%95%E5%AE%9A%E7%BE%A9-%E4%B8%8A% E4% B8%8D%E5%B0%81%E9 %A0%82 (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

17. 习近平提出全球发展倡议 [Xi Jinping launches global development initiative]. 中央人民政府门户网站. September 22, 2021. URL: https://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2021-09/22/content_5638602.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.); 习近平提出全球疫苗合作行动倡议 [Xi Jinping proposes global initiative regarding cooperation on vaccination]. 中央人民政府门户网站. October 30, 2021. URL: https://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2021-10/30/content_5647902.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.); 习近平提出全球安全倡议 [Xi Jinping proclaims Global Security Initiative]. 中央人民政府门户网站. 04/21/2022. URL: https://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2022-04/21/content_5686416.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.); 习近平提出全球文明倡议 [Xi Jinping launches global initiative on education]. 中央人民政府门户网站. March 15, 2023. URL: https://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2023-03/15/content_5746927.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

18. 外交部副部长乐玉成分享2021年中国外交“高光时刻 [Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng shares ‘highlights’ of China’s diplomacy in 2021]. 中华人民共和国外交部. January 18, 2023. URL: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/web/wjbxw_673019/202201/t20220118_10629733.shtml (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

19. 外交部副部长乐玉成:中俄友好没有止境、合作没有禁区、互信没有上限 [Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng: there are no limits to Sino-Russian friendship, no restricted areas for cooperation, no upper limits for mutual trust]. 中华人民共和国外交部. December 3, 2021. URL: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/wjbxw_673019/202112/t20211203_ 10461532.shtml (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

20. 习近平同俄罗斯总统普京举行视频会晤 [Xi Jinping held a video meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin]. 中央人民政府门户网站. December 15, 2021. URL: https://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2021-12/15/content_5660984.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.); Negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Prezident Rossii. 12/15/2021. URL: http://www.kremlin.ru/catalog/persons/351/events/67364 (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

21. See the press conference of the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China dated December 16, 2021. All press conferences are posted on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry: 例行记者会 [Regular press conferences]. 中华人民共和国外交部. URL: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/web/fyrbt_673021/jzhsl_ 673025/index.shtml (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.). Hereinafter, only the dates of press conferences will be indicated. – Editor’s Note.

22. See press conferences by PRC Foreign Ministry officials on December 31, 2021; January 17, 2022; January 27, 2022.

23. Sovmestnoye zayavleniye Rossiyskoy Federatsiyi i Kitayskoy Narodnoy Respubliki o mezhdunarodnykh otnosheniyakh, vstupayushchikh v novuyu epokhu, i global’nom ustoychivom razvitiyi [Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on international relations entering a new era and global sustainable development]. Prezident Rossiyi. February 4, 2022. URL: http://www.kremlin.ru/supplement/5770 (Retrieved on September 7, 2023). When discussing the possible meaning of the formula on no-go zones, Chinese internationalists recalled the Russian president’s statement, see: Rossiya pomogayet Kitayu sozdat’ sistemu preduprezhdeniya o raketnom napadeniyi, eto kardinal’no povysit oboronosposobnost’ KNR [Russia helps China create a missile attack warning system; it will dramatically increase China’s defense capability]. RIA Novosti. October 3, 2019. URL: https://ria.ru/20191003/1559414540.html (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

24. 外交部副部长乐玉成:中俄关系上不封顶,不断攀登新高 [Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng: Sino-Russian relations have no ceiling, keep climbing to new heights]. 中华人民共和国外交部. February 5, 2022. https://www.mfa.gov.cn/wjbxw_new/202202/t20220205_10639185.shtml (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

25. See the press conference of the spokesman of the PRC Foreign Ministry on February 16, 2022.

26. See press conferences held by officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China on February 24, 2022; February 28, 2022; March 30, 2022; September 3, 2022; October 28, 2022; November 12, 2022; November 14, 2022; December 25, 2022; February 3, 2023; February 20, 2023; March 17, 2023; March 17, 2023; March 21, 2023.

27. Sovmestnoye zayavleniye Rossiyskoy Federatsiyi i Kitayskoy Narodnoy Respubliki ob uglubleniyi otnosheniy vseob’yemlyushchego partnyorstva i strategicheskogo vzaimodeystviya, vstupayushchikh v novuyu epokhu [Joint statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on deepening relations of comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction entering a new era]. Prezident Rossii. March 21, 2023. URL: http://www.kremlin.ru/supplement/5920 (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.); 中华人民共和国和俄罗斯联邦关于深化新时代全面战略协作伙伴关系联合声明 [Joint statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on deepening relations of comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction entering a new era]. 中华人民共和国外交部. March 22, 2023. URL: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/web/zyxw/202303/t20230322_11046188.shtml (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

28. We found only one instance of the former formula being applied after February 16, 2022, in Wang Wenbin’s speech: “Sino-Russian cooperation aims to have no limits in protecting security and fighting against hegemony. Sino-Russian relations entail nonalignment, nonconfrontation, and nontargeting of third countries.” See 外交部:中俄关系不结盟、不对抗、不针对第三方 [Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Sino-Russian relations are relations of nonalignment, nonconfrontation, and nontargeting of third countries]. 新华网. March 30, 2023. URL: http://www.news.cn/world/2022-03/30/c_1128516911.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

29. See press conferences by PRC Foreign Ministry officials on January 24, 2022; February 24, 2022; March 3, 2022; March 16, 2022.

30. Qin Gang. Opinion. Chinese Ambassador: Where we stand on Ukraine. The Washington Post. March 15, 2022. URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/15/china-ambassador-us-where-we-stand-in-ukraine (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

31. See press conferences by PRC Foreign Ministry officials on January 28, 2022; February 1, 2022; February 15, 2022; February 18, 2022; February 21, 2022.

32. See the press conference of the spokesman of the PRC Foreign Ministry on February 23, 2022.

33. Lukashenko otkrovenno o voyne v Ukraine, Putine i Zelenskom: kto vinovat i chto delat’. Podrobnosti rezonansnogo interv’yu [Lukashenko speaks frankly about the war in Ukraine, Putin ,and Zelensky: who is to blame and what to do. Details of the high-profile interview]. Belta. August 18, 2023. URL: https://www.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-otkrovenno-o-vojne-v-ukraine-putine-i-zelenskom-kto-vinovat-i-chto-delat-podrobnosti-583100-2023 (Retrieved on August 7, 2023.)

34. See PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman’s press conference on January 25, 2022.

35. V.V. Putin, Rossiya i Kitay: strategicheskoye partnyorstvo, oriyentirovannoye v budushcheye [Russia and China: a future-oriented strategic partnership]. Prezident Rossiyi. February 3, 2022. URL: http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67694 (Retrieved on August 7, 2023.)

36. I am grateful to O.A. Timofeyev for bringing this information to my attention.

37. See press conferences of PRC Foreign Ministry officials on February 24, 2022; February 25, 2022; February 28, 2022.

38. See press conferences of PRC Foreign Ministry officials on June 6, 2022; May 13, 2022.

39. See press conferences of PRC Foreign Ministry officials on May 13, 2022; October 10, 2022; October 30, 2022.

40. See PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s press conference on March 20, 2023.

41. See PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s press conference on April 8, 2022.

42. See PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s press conference on April 1, 2022.

43. See press conferences of PRC Foreign Ministry officials on April 28, 2022; July 25, 2022; August 5, 2022.

44. see [27].

45. See PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s press conference March 27, 2023.

46. See press conferences of PRC Foreign Ministry officials on January 7, 2022; January 10, 2022; January 11, 2022; January 12, 2022; January 20, 2022.

47. See press conferences of PRC Foreign Ministry officials on February 15, 2022; February 23, 2022; February 25, 2022; March 10, 2022; July 19, 2022; July 27, 2022.

48. See press conferences of PRC Foreign Ministry officials on February 23, 2022; February 28, 2022; March 28, 2022; June 29, 2022; February 27, 2023.

49. See press conferences by PRC Foreign Ministry officials on February 25, 2022; March 30, 2022; April 14, 2022; May 20, 2022; May 1, 2022; July 27, 2022.

50. See press conferences by PRC Foreign Ministry officials on February 24, 2022; March 14, 2022; February 21, 2023; February 23, 2023; February 27, 2023; March 15, 2022; March 20, 2023.

51. See PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s press conference on March 17, 2023.

52. Ukraine: Remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the joint press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba and NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg. European Union External Action, The Diplomatic Service of the European Union. February 21, 2023. URL: https://eaccny.com/news/chapternews/ukraine-remarks-by-high-representative-vice-president-josep-borrell-at-the-joint-press-conference-with-ukrainian-foreign-minister-kuleba-and-nato-secretary-general-stoltenberg (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

53. See PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s press conference on June 28, 2022.

54. V KNR zayavili, chto s polnym ponimaniyem otnosyatsya k zashchite RF svoikh interesov na Ukraine [China says it fully understands Russia’s defense of its interests in Ukraine]. TASS. September 9, 2022. URL: https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/15706589 (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

55. See press conferences by PRC Foreign Ministry officials on February 17, 2022; February 17, 2022; March 15, 2022; September 28, 2022; February 17, 2023; February 17, 2023. 外交部副部长乐玉成:把俄乌冲突责任甩锅中国豪无道理 [Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng: It is totally unreasonable to blame China for the Russia-Ukraine conflict]. 中华人民共和国外交部. May 6, 2022. URL: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/web/wjdt_674879/wjbxw_674885/202205/t20220506_10682587.shtml (Retrieved on September 7, 2023); 秦刚会见荷兰副首相兼外交大臣胡克斯特拉 [Qin Gang met with Dutch Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hukstra]. 中华人民共和国外交部. March 3, 2023. URL: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/web/wjdt_674879/wjbxw_ 674885/202303/t20230303_11034584.shtml (Retrieved on September 7, 2023); 王毅会见德国外长贝尔伯克 [Wang Yi met with German Foreign Minister Berbock]. 中华人民共和国外交部. July 9, 2022. URL: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/web/wjdt_674879/wjbxw_674885/202207/t20220709_10717972.shtml (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.)

56. 范伟国,齐紫剑,石昊. 栗战书对俄罗斯进行正式友好访问 [Fan Weiguo, Qi Zijian, Shi Hao. Li Zhanshu made an official friendly visit to Russia]. 新华网. URL: http://xinhuanet.com/2022-09/10/c_1128993864.htm (Retrieved on September 7, 2023.) The report was posted on the NPC’s website and broadcast on China Central Television.

57. Their viewpoints, along with those expressed by Le Yucheng, the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China mentioned earlier, suggest that the Chinese leadership holds differing opinions about how China should approach the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

58. See S.N. Goncharov, J.L. Lewis, Xue Litai, Uncertain Partners. Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. Stanford University Press, 1993, pp. 130-229.

59. L.M. Luthi, The Sino-Soviet Split. Cold War in the Communist World. Princeton University Press. Princeton and Oxford, 2008, pp. 46-340; S. Radchenko, Two Suns in the Heavens. The Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy. Woodrow Wilson Press, Washington D.C., Stanford University Press, Stanford. California, 2009, pp. 23-209; Shen Zhihua, Li Danhui, After Leaninng to One Side: China and It’s Allies in the Cold War. Woodrow Wilson Press, Washington D.C., Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2011, pp. 3-257.

60. See: Chen Jian, China and the Cold War after Mao. The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Volume III: Endings. Ed. by Melvyn P. Leffler, Odd Arne Westad. Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 181-201; J.W. Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China. Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 321-345.

Translated by Valery Samoshkin