When the devastating wave of the pandemic was only just rising over Europe and the United States in March 2020, China had already declared victory over the virus. By then, Beijing had succeeded in cordoning off entire cities and putting half a billion Chinese nationals in lockdown, which enabled the country to weather the worst phase of the epidemic in just six weeks.

For the Chinese authorities, it’s very important to prevent new outbreaks, and to achieve that, Beijing is clearly prepared to keep an iron curtain drawn between China and the rest of the world, without any concern for how that will impact on international relations, even with close partners such as Russia.

There has been little physical contact with the outside world since the start of the pandemic, when China canceled visas and limited entry for virtually all foreigners. As of September 2021, permission to enter the country is almost exclusively for business purposes and only for nationals of certain countries, which don’t include Russia. All those who enter the country must be vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine, though for Americans, the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are also accepted. 

Anyone arriving from abroad must quarantine for two weeks at a special facility or hotel, install an app that tracks their movements, and do several PCR tests. If a foreign national is going on to another region to work, they will likely have to quarantine twice: once when they arrive in Beijing, and once in their destination city.

Flights in and out of China are still heavily restricted, and routes are suspended if they are found to have brought in cases of the virus. A similar approach is in place at the ports.

The Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other members of the Communist Party politburo have not left the country for more than 600 days, with Xi declining to attend the G20 summit or COP26 UN climate change conference in person, or take part in face-to-face talks with U.S. President Joe Biden, among other events.

When foreign dignitaries come to China on official visits, they are not allowed into Beijing, but meet with senior Chinese leaders via video link, or in the city of Tianjin, which has been turned into a safe “bubble” for meetings with foreign visitors. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, U.S. special envoy for climate John Kerry, and U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Chinese officials in Tianjin, for example.

The strict lockdowns China puts entire regions under at the first sign of any new outbreak are constraining economic activity, with individual spending and industrial manufacturing both lower than expected. But Beijing shows no sign of changing its zero tolerance policy any time soon. This summer, Chinese sources told the Wall Street Journal that all restrictions would remain in place for at least another year. They might last even longer—until 2023—when the National People’s Congress will assemble in March, and Xi is set to be elected the country’s chairman for the third time. An outbreak at such a sensitive time would create extra headaches for the Chinese authorities, so they might well decide to put off reopening until the summer of 2023.

Despite their warm bilateral relations, Russia was one of the first countries to close its border with China and restrict flights from the neighboring country when the epidemic broke out there. Soon the shoe was on the other foot, and as the virus began to spread across Russia in spring 2020, Beijing imposed its own restrictions.

People entering China from Russia are, in fact, quite often carrying the virus, so the Chinese authorities regularly put flights from Russia on hold. Most recently, restrictions were in place from August until the middle of September, when the Chinese embassy in Moscow once again introduced stricter rules for employees of Chinese companies boarding flights. Now they have to quarantine at home for three weeks, take several PCR tests, do blood tests for their antibodies to be measured, and fill in a journal for the week before their flight.

Talks on recognizing each other’s vaccines are slow-moving, and unlike Belarusians, for example, China won’t yet even allow Russians who have had the Chinese vaccine to enter the country.

These complex requirements and restrictions are reducing any interest in face-to-face contact with Russia—including business relationships—to a minimum. Even at this year’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, a large-scale event where the Chinese delegation has always been one of the biggest, there were only a couple of dozen Chinese participants attending in person, and nearly all were representatives of Chinese companies working in Russia.

The main victim of China’s zero tolerance approach is the fishing industry in the Far East. When the virus was found at Chinese ports following contact with Russian fish, an embargo was imposed on importing pollock from Russia into China. That was a blow for Russian fishermen in the Far East, where fish exports are a key sector of the economy, with two-thirds of the catch traditionally going to China.

With nowhere to store the fish, Russia appealed to China several times at the governmental level to resume imports, to no avail. Some even saw this as an undeclared trade war, suspecting Beijing of taking advantage of the situation to obtain fishing rights to Russian waters.

Still, even the toughest coronavirus restrictions can’t really impact on economic cooperation between the two countries, thanks to the enormous export volumes of raw materials and oil and gas. Russia and China’s trade turnover decreased by just 2.9 percent in 2020 to $107 billion. In the first three quarters of this year, it grew by 29.8 percent, reaching $102.5 billion: clearly by the end of the year, it will exceed the figure for the pre-pandemic year of 2019, since oil prices are rising, while gas and coal prices are beating all the records.

Nor did the coronavirus restrictions prevent China and Russia from holding large-scale joint military exercises in China’s northwestern Ningxia province in August, in which more than 10,000 Russian and Chinese soldiers took part—though no more than 500 Russian troops went to China.

China’s new isolation has created plenty of difficulties in Sino-Russian relations, but its influence on strategic relations should not be exaggerated: the problems that have arisen can hardly be described as a serious crisis. To put it bluntly, human contact and cooperation at the border wasn’t the greatest strength of the Russian-Chinese entente even before the pandemic.

Putin and Xi have not met in person since November 2019, but that hasn’t stopped them from speaking eight times on the record during the period of the pandemic. The nature of Russian-Chinese relations is pragmatic and transactional, and as long as political and strategic cooperation remains a priority for Moscow and Beijing, the lack of personal contact between their people and even businesses is unlikely to impact bilateral relations. As for their leaders, senior officials, and heads of big companies, there are protected communication channels, or bubbles like Tianjin.

This publication is part of a project carried out with the support of the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

  • Yaroslav Shevchenko