How has Putin's invasion of Ukraine changed the relationship between Russia and China?

Xi Jinping has joined Vladimir Putin in opposing the expansion of Nato. Credit: AP

China wants the world to believe it is ready to assume the role of neutral peacekeeper.

At today’s daily press briefing in Beijing the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the Sino-Russian relationship is one of ‘’strategic partnership’’- the two nations are not ‘’allies’’.

In one State newspaper they went further to describe ‘’China’s stance of neutrality’’ being important because when it comes to potential mediation only a country with ‘’real neutrality’’ can effectively fill that role. Three weeks ago, President Putin and President Xi sat face to face in the Chinese capital and described a partnership with no limits, no forbidden areas of cooperation. Which sounded for all intents and purposes like an alliance.

But Russia and China do not have allies they act in cohort only when it suits their own interests. The two nations hold no formal treaties.

In light of what we are seeing from Russia - how will China be considering its relationship with the Kremlin?

There has been the suggestion that President Xi was warned by Putin at that meeting in Beijing that he was planning an invasion, it now seems that was not the case.

China’s actions over the last five days indicate it too was caught off guard. An illustration of that comes in the chaotic scramble to evacuate its citizens from the ‘’crisis’’ – Beijing still refuses to call this a war.

Last week we were told the embassy was arranging charter flights to get its people to safety when air space over Ukraine had been shut.

Residents walk on a pedestrian bridge near the Russian Embassy in Beijing. Credit: AP

Initially Chinese citizens were told to affix their cars with a flag if making long journeys, presumably to safety, but that was retracted when the government realised their refusal to condemn Russian actions had prompted attacks on Chinese citizens in the capital Kyiv.

One man posted a video online saying he was having to pretend to be Japanese because there was so much ill-will towards China and its relations with Russia. At today’s press conference we were told work is being done ‘’around the clock’’ to safeguard and attempt to extract Chinese citizens from Ukraine. In the meantime, they are being told to ‘’take greater precautions.” To present China as the peacemaker, in some quarters they are pointing out the timing of when Putin offered talks with Ukraine; it came following a phone call with President Xi on Friday.

Although China hasn’t openly supported Putin’s actions, it has stood by ‘’Russia’s legitimate security concerns’’, raising Nato's ‘’ five consecutive rounds of expansion’’ as justification for military action.

A joint opposition to Nato expansion was one of the key declarations in the two leaders February 4th accord. So we are led to believe that Xi Jinping, still has Putin’s ear. But Beijing is not just a ‘’strategic partner’’ of Russia’s, it also happens to be Ukraine’s biggest trading partner. It has a deal to install Huawei’s 4G Wi-Fi on Kyiv’s metro as well as millions of pounds worth of annual trade in agriculture, renewables, machinery, and consumer goods.

In return Ukraine supplies one third of Chinas corn, as well as barley, sunflower oil, and nuclear reactor parts.

Why has Russia invaded Ukraine and can Putin be stopped? Our experts tell you what you need to know in our latest podcast. Listen here:

The Chinese government says it decides its actions ‘’on the merit of the matter’’, in the case of the war in Ukraine its actions are being decided on economic grounds and based on its own self interests.

Stand too close to Russia and it risks being painted as a global pariah, but to align with the West would not only go against its principles, it would also risk what China sees as its power to offset US hegemony.

The bond President Xi has formed with President Putin is grounded in the shared belief that it is time for a new global order.