“There’s nothing better than living in friendship,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping quoted medieval poet Alisher Navoi to his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, upon meeting him at the Samarkand airport last week. Shortly after, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s jet landed.

Both leaders were scheduled to meet for the first time since February to attend this year’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan, together with five more member nations to convene and welcome Iran, which recently attained full membership in the Eurasian body. SCO is a regional security group formed by Beijing and Moscow in the early 2000s to counterbalance the influence wielded by the United States.

Putin and Xi had discussed matters on the sidelines during the summit. Nevertheless, many have anticipated their meeting, especially following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to see if the dynamic between the authoritarian leaders has shifted. Three weeks before the attack, both leaders declared a “without limits” type of partnership, but as the war continues 200 days later and the odds of winning aren’t on Russia’s side, many wonders if the expression still applies.

Stability Over Friendship

For the past months, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s relentless military harassment of Taiwan had placed both countries on the sour side of the US and its European allies. But unlike Russia, China appears to be treading its thin ice carefully. Why? Simply because they don’t want to be barred like Russia in terms of economic activities. Remember, China is obsessed with social stability. Expressing full-blast support for the former’s raging expansion can potentially trigger instability, harm its trading route in the Western countries, and lose its valuable customers and export resources.

During the sideline meeting, Putin began his usual rant about “those who had attempted to create a unipolar world,” then expressed appreciation to the Chinese leader for their “balance position” concerning the Ukrainian crisis. Moreover, the Russian president acknowledged China’s “questions and concerns” regarding the prolonged war without further delving into it and instead moved on to condemn the “provocation” of the West in the Taiwan Strait, to which Xi responded surprisingly with positivity and stability-focused, Al Jazeera reported.

“China is willing to work with Russia to play a leading role in demonstrating the responsibility of major powers, and to instil stability and positive energy into a world in turmoil,” Xi told Putin.

They further proved that Beijing remained steadfast in keeping stability over supporting a poorly executed aggression.

Economic and Trade Compatibility

Russia is a significant energy exporter, while China imports it. With the loss of its primary energy export market in the West, Russia began focusing on its neighbors in the East.

According to Reuters, China has become Russia’s top crude oil customer between May and July and accounted for Beijing’s nearly 20 percent of its overall imports, in addition to its cooperation in terms of trading, agriculture, and connectivity. However, for this smooth sailing relationship to continue, Putin needs to realign himself with the Chinese leader, or else he’ll be “treated like a liability, not an asset,” Alisher Ilkhamov, the Uzbekistan-born director of Central Asia Due Diligence, told Al Jazeera.

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Meanwhile, other analysts suggested that although China and Russia share a common denominator of wanting to push back Western influence in the East while supporting each other from facing sanctions and isolation, the former remains in the “dominant position.” Thus, they’re “unequal” partners.

Matthew Sussex, an associate professor from Griffith University in Australia, stressed, “Russia needs China more than China needs Russia.”

“It’s an unequal partnership, and China is in the dominant position in the relationship,” Sussex said. For example, China might “morally” support Russia’s “special military operation” over Ukraine, but supplying them with arms and forces would be impossible.

They may be compatible, but China sees purchasing cheap Russian fuel and goods as an alternative rather than a necessity. In contrast, Russia considers this relationship co-dependency due to sanctions imposed by the West.

China-Russia Relationship “With Limits”

Here enters the limit in the China-Russia “no limits” relationship. Despite brewing tension with the US over Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific region, China doesn’t seem to want to jeopardize its economic order nor face the same sanctions Russia is going through. Beijing relies on trade with the West, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, witnessing the Kremlin struggle with winning the war doesn’t give an appealing look for its counterpart to fully bet on its side. Hence, the rising concerns Xi about the Ukrainian crisis.

“These very different approaches towards global order and disorder have been highlighted in the course of Putin’s war in Ukraine. They have also demonstrated why it is problematic for China and Russia to coordinate their foreign policies. They cheer-lead on behalf of each other, offering moral and political support to their partner when their interests align,” analyst Bobo Lo explained. “But China and Russia are strategically autonomous actors, whose influence on each other’s behaviour is limited and indirect at best. For both, foreign policy is a sovereign affair. This is the main reason why there has been little interest, especially in Beijing, in transforming the partnership into a more formal, but also more binding, political-military alliance. For then there would be an obligation to consult more closely; and they would lose the flexibility and autonomy of decision-making they prize so highly.”

Later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the talks with China had gone well. Doubts surrounding the strength of this relationship continue to linger, though, especially with Putin having to exhibit viciousness and tons of miscalculations. So Beijing would surely remain on the sidelines, that’s for sure, simultaneously learn through Moscow’s mistakes. Because as Lo pointed out if the US is willing to go to such lengths to defend Ukraine, it will undoubtedly be decisive in defending Taiwan as well. And China might want to rethink things on that.