Although the war in Ukraine and China’s competition with the United States have accelerated ties between China and Russia, the two nations have been growing closer for the last four decades. This fact raises a number of questions: What unites China and Russia? What forces are driving them apart? How has the war in Ukraine affected the dynamics of their relationship? And what does their growing relationship mean for the West and for the world?
As we look at the partnership between Beijing and Moscow today, we could be forgiven for thinking of them as fully fledged allies. Their interests converge in so many areas, from trade and multilateral diplomacy to their resentment of Western liberal democracy and joint military drills. But China and Russia are also drawn to each other by virtue of their strategic geography, alignment of values and views of their current leaders, common enemy in Washington, natural economic complementarities, and opportunism.
Despite these areas of convergence, Russia and China are also driven apart by historical animosities, power asymmetry, competition in overlapping spheres of interest, deep cultural differences, and shallow societal links.
China and Russia are also aggrieved superpowers. They crave respect and resent the Global West for not treating them as equals. Their national narratives feature stories of humiliation at the hands of an aggressive or triumphalist West. The chief narrators of these stories are Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, who share a close personal bond and values of centralized power, autocratic governance, and nationalism. Xi and Putin are determined not to be humiliated again, even at the expense of their nations’ long-term prosperity and global reputation. Both see their leadership and the survival of their political systems as synonymous with the existence and success of their nations.
The war in Ukraine has simultaneously accelerated and disrupted the China-Russia relationship. It has deepened Russia’s economic dependence on China, increased the power asymmetry between the two countries, and squeezed Moscow’s diplomatic playing field vis-à-vis China. Beijing has gained an even more loyal ally as well as discounted access to Russian commodities, but its partnership with Moscow has damaged China’s ties with Europe and deepened the rift with the United States.
While China and Russia have grown closer, we might be witnessing the zenith of their partnership. Both are fiercely independent powers unwilling to compromise their strategic autonomy. This, together with their growing power asymmetry and competition for spheres of interest, will limit the scope for further alignment. Yet, at this historic juncture, for both China and Russia, the benefits of their partnership offset the risks.
Beijing and Moscow are also aligned in their quest to disrupt the current U.S.-led international rules-based order. They may not act in unison or from a position of strength, but individually, they are major builders of a new, more fluid, multipolar global system in which Western power is diluted and Beijing and Moscow have a stronger voice. The challenge for the global system is to find space for China and Russia — a task that has been made harder by Russia’s war on Ukraine and rapidly intensifying competition between the United States and China.
China and Russia are simultaneously drawn to and pulled apart from one another. The contradiction of their relationship transcends centuries, regimes, and externalities. The relationship between nations rarely follows a straight or predetermined path. The China-Russia relationship is no exception. It is neither static nor entirely predictable — which means that our analysis and assumptions need to be constantly tested and reevaluated.
This paper provides a snapshot of the forces unifying and dividing China and Russia in 2023, how the two countries’ relationship is affected by the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the future trajectory and global impact of Sino-Russian relations. Each point of convergence or difference has been scrutinized in the West, in China, and in Russia. This paper proudly stands on the shoulders of that analysis while weaving together multiple threads of the ever-evolving China-Russia story. It also sets the scene for future work on this relationship under the newly established China-Russia program at the Asia Society’s Center for China Analysis (CCA).
From Damanskiy to Beijing
In March 1969, my parents were eagerly awaiting the arrival of my sister — their firstborn — in Vladivostok, a Russian city located within a bumpy four-hour drive of the Chinese border. But they were also looking anxiously to the north, where a vicious fight had broken out between Chinese and Russian border troops over a little-known island on the Ussuri River. At that time, my parents were seriously considering leaving Vladivostok, fearing an all-out war and a Chinese invasion.
The skirmish over the disputed border — known in Russia as the “Damanskiy Incident” and in China as “Zhenbao Island Self-Defense” — was the most violent military conflict between China and Russia in recent history.1 Damanskiy marked a dangerous peak in the "Sino-Soviet split," a protracted decoupling of the Soviet Union and Communist China driven by mounting ideological and strategic disagreements and personal hostility between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. The split would have a long-lasting impact on Asia’s security, ultimately leading to the reopening of high-level ties between the United States and China in the early 1970s.
In the end, my parents decided to stay, and the conflict was resolved. The 1991 Sino-Soviet Border Agreement officially but quietly recognized Chinese jurisdiction over Zhenbao.2 While the dispute has been settled — for now, at least — anxiety and distrust linger on both sides of the border.
Had you been in Beijing in 2022, you would not have known that China and Russia were on the brink of war. In February of that year, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping stood together at the Beijing Winter Olympics to announce a "no limits" partnership between their two countries, signaling an elevation of their already close economic, military, and strategic ties. The "no limits" formulation captured the imagination of Western analysts, policymakers, and media, fueling anxiety and visions of an autocratic alliance that might wreak havoc on the liberal rules-based order.
Less than a month later, Russia invaded Ukraine. From the start of the invasion, Beijing has been consistent in expressing its support for Moscow and criticizing the West for ignoring Russia’s "legitimate security concerns." But as the global backlash against the invasion unfolded and Russia’s military setbacks mounted, the "no limits" language largely disappeared from official Chinese proclamations as Beijing sought to downplay its support for Moscow’s war.
Although the rhetoric has changed, China and Russia are as close as they have ever been. Whether their partnership continues to strengthen or falters under the pressure of strategic divergences and power asymmetry, the outcome will have a major impact on Asian and European security and the shape of the international system.
An important starting point for understanding the relationship between China and Russia is the fact that for most of their history, Beijing and Moscow have been either suspicious of or openly hostile to each other. Despite their animosity, China and Russia have managed to avoid a major, high-casualty conflict.
The current period of all-out friendship between the two countries is a historical anomaly. But it is also underpinned by a concerted multigenerational effort by Chinese and Russian leaders to avoid war with each other.
The history of the China-Russia relationship dates back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. During the Yuan dynasty, Chinese and Russian explorers, traders, and military expeditions interacted across vast swaths of Central Asia, Siberia, and the Far East. At many points in China’s earlier history, its subjects had ventured into and populated these areas. Russia insists that the scale, density, and temporary nature of the Chinese settlements in this region do not support a clearly defined Chinese sovereignty — a claim that China vehemently denies.3
As the Russian Empire pushed further east in the seventeenth century, these contacts intensified, often resulting in clashes, but also expanding diplomacy and trade.4 The arrival in China of the Qing dynasty, which originated in Manchuria in present-day Northeast China — an area of intensive exploration and settlement building by the Russian Empire — accelerated these interactions, creating the first official borders between the two empires, and with them, territorial disputes.
In 1689, China and Russia signed the Nerchinsk Treaty — the first attempt to define their official borders. The treaty was largely favorable to China, as Russia agreed to recognize Chinese sovereignty over the large territories of the Far East south of the Amur River. Many contemporary Chinese leaders and scholars point to Nerchinsk as the most equal and historically fairest agreement between China and Russia, as it correctly recognized Chinese sovereignty in the region.5
But in the nineteenth century, a more powerful and emboldened Russian Empire, and a China that had been weakened by confrontation with Western colonial powers and economic stagnation, signed treaties in Aigun (1858) and Peking (1860) that gave Russia large territories between the Stanovoy Range and Amur River and the far eastern coast of the Sea of Japan, dramatically reversing China’s gains from Nerchinsk. China still regards these agreements as unfair and unjust, and they form a part of its narrative of the "Century of Humiliation" — a period when China lost control of its major eastern ports and was contained, ripped off, and humiliated by Western colonial powers, including Russia. In 1896, Russia reached an agreement with China to build a trans-Siberian railway connecting Moscow and Vladivostok via China’s Heilongjiang Province, and it established a naval base at Luishun (formerly Port Arthur) near Dalian.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 marked a new era in the China-Russia relationship. While the Soviet Union, as the leader of the global communist movement, initially supported the Kuomintang, it played a central role in the growth of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its long and treacherous march to power.6 During World War II, Russia played a decisive role in the defeat of the Japanese army in Manchuria and provided major financial, ideological, and political support to the Chinese Communist Party.
In 1945 — 24 years before my parents were glued to the radio for news of an imminent Chinese invasion — my grandfather, an officer of the Soviet Army, was fighting Japanese troops in Heilongjiang alongside his Chinese comrades. He could not have imagined that more than two decades later, Chinese and Russian troops would be facing not a common enemy, but each other.
From 1949 to 1956, China and the Soviet Union were close partners. Soviet specialists helped build China’s factories and army.7 Trade reached an all-time high, and military cooperation and political ties were deep and comprehensive. A popular Russian song from this period — "Russians and Chinese are brothers forever" — captured the spirit of the era. While the song describes the two partners as equal, by all measures, the Soviet Union was a powerful big brother to the newly born People’s Republic of China (PRC), which was left enfeebled by the devastating war with Japan and decades of civil conflict and instability. While Beijing was happy to take Soviet aid, Chinese resentment at being cast as the lesser partner was one of the factors that eventually led to the collapse of the relationship.
That happened in 1953 following Joseph Stalin’s death and the start of "The Thaw" — a brief period of de-Stalinization and easing of tensions between the Soviet Union and the West, led by the new Soviet leader, Khrushchev. Mao rejected Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin as a counterrevolutionary. Driven by a number of other foreign policy divergences, China and Russia slid into a prolonged period of hostility, taking them to the verge of a full-blown war over Damanskiy in 1969.
Only in the 1980s did diplomacy resume, and in 1989, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, visited China. The visit marked the beginning of a new period of Sino-Russian relations characterized by expanded trade and tourism, and later — with Vladimir Putin’s arrival — converging geopolitical interests. The post–Cold War period, however, has also been marked by a dramatic reversal of the roles of the two partners. China’s economic rise and Russia’s decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos of the 1990s created a new asymmetry in their relationship, in which China is a far more powerful country and partner than Russia. This is the period we are living through now.
What Unites Russia and China?
China and Russia share a 4,200-kilometer border. They are both the ultimate Eurasian superpowers, seeing themselves as connected to the East and the West.
Westerners’ conceptions of Asia are influenced by their perspectives as outsiders arriving there by sea — hence the preference for using maritime terms to describe the region, such as the "Asia-Pacific" and, in the current decade, the "Indo-Pacific." While China and Russia are indeed maritime states, they often regard themselves as powers of horizontal or continental Asia, stretching from the Pacific deep into the geographic heart of the region in Central Asia and the Middle East, and from the Arctic Circle to the Indian border. This self-conception is reflected in their strategic philosophy, identity, and outlook.
Imagine two giants with their backs against each other — with Russia facing west toward Europe, where its cultural heart lies, but also its fiercest enemies, and China facing east toward the Pacific, where the main sources of its prosperity and risks to its security lie. This strategic geography dictates that both countries seek peace with each other, so that they can confront their challengers in the East and the West.
With Russia at war with Ukraine — and, by extension, with Europe — and China facing competition with the United States and its allies in Asia and a potential conflict over Taiwan, it is in the interests of both Beijing and Moscow to reduce any major risks in their vast, strategic backyards.
Leaders and Aggrieved Superpowers
The second driver of Sino-Russian unity is the relationship between the two nations’ leaders and their alignment on issues of domestic and global governance. While China and Russia are no longer bound by communist ideology, they share a similar approach to governance. Both systems are grounded in the idea that the state and the leader play central roles in setting the policy direction and a longer-term trajectory of the nation.
Russia does not share China’s Communist ideology. In fact, Putin has been consistently anticommunist. His resentment of communism is not rooted in ideology, but rather in his critical assessment of the mistakes made by Soviet leaders that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union — in his own words, "the geopolitical catastrophe of our time." Xi, on the other hand, has made strengthening the Chinese Communist Party and its ideology a hallmark of his leadership, though he has reached similar conclusions about the Soviet failure. These ideological differences do not preclude the alignment of Chinese and Russian political views and systems. Their governance systems share many similarities.
China and Russia are one-party autocratic states with totalitarian features and strong, highly concentrated, personalized leadership — as cultivated and consolidated by both Xi and Putin. China and Russia under Xi and Putin have strengthened the role of the state in the economy and society, reversing the democratic gains of their predecessors. China’s and Russia’s legal, human rights, media, and social control systems are subservient to the state. But both systems maintain some of the foundations of a free market economy and support a large and dynamic private sector.
Both countries are also technocracies with an expansive technology-enabled security apparatus and highly educated and competent bureaucracies. Evidence is emerging that both systems are actively learning from each other. China and Russia also maintain an active program of exchanges between their bureaucracies. Impressed with China’s technocratic authoritarianism, Russia is borrowing from Beijing’s playbook on mass surveillance of its citizens. The design of Russia’s Gosuslugi — a one-stop-shop digital government services portal — shares many features of China’s social credit system. Earlier this year, Russia even opened a research center to study "Xi Jinping Thought" in Moscow. The Modern Ideology of China Research Laboratory was established at the prestigious Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ICCA RAS). While there is more symbolism than substance in this venture, it is a signal of Russia’s respect for China’s successes as a communist technocracy.
The design of their systems contributes to China and Russia’s convergence in their opposition to Western liberal democracy and its fundamental concepts of electoral democracy, independent judiciary, free media, and universal human rights. Both resent it — even more openly and decisively under Xi and Putin.
In such centralized systems, the relationship between leaders is paramount. And Presidents Putin and Xi are incredibly close, having met more than 40 times during the last 10 years. We do not know the intricacies and dynamics of their relationship, but on the surface, they show a certain camaraderie, mutual respect, and even occasional warmth. They also share the values of nationalism and a strong role for the state and autocratic leadership, as well as a contempt for what they see as a Western hegemony over the world’s affairs.
Both Xi and Putin are almost messianic in their drive to earn international respect and recognition for themselves and their countries, which they see as lacking from the West. China and Russia are also aggrieved and exceptionally thin-skinned superpowers. They see deep injustices in the way the Global West treats them. China’s narrative of the Century of Humiliation and Putin’s grievances about the collapse of the Soviet Union and disregard for Russian security concerns by the victors of the Cold War form a big part of their national stories. As a result, Xi and Putin are driven by a determination not to be humiliated again. They are committed to protecting the political systems that gave them power, which they see as synonymous with the existence of their nations.
On March 22, 2023, during his most recent visit to Russia, Xi was intentionally caught on camera as he bid farewell to Putin, saying, "Right now there are changes — the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years — and we are the ones driving these changes together." "I agree," replied the Russian president. There have been many interpretations of this exchange. This was not the first time Xi had used this phrase, but it was the first time he said it publicly to a leader of another state.
It is plausible that in this context, Xi was implying that Beijing and Moscow’s shared objective to create a world in which the Chinese and Russian systems can survive and thrive and be accepted as legitimate. Both Xi and Putin have spoken repeatedly about the necessity of a multipolar world — defining multipolarity as a condition in which the United States is no longer the only global rule maker and enforcer. It is also a world in which democracy and universal human rights are not the key criteria for international legitimacy, allowing China and Russia to form two other poles of power as counterweights to the Global West.
Xi and Putin believe that Western, and particularly American, power is in decline. But they also recognize that the Western decline is not predetermined or terminal, and that China and Russia at this junction need each other — or at the very least need stability along their borders — to create a new multipolar world.
Complementarities and The Myth of Vassalage
Underneath the alignment of systems and leaders, the China-Russia relationship is driven by a combination of natural complementarities and the opportunistic convergence of interests.
First, China and Russia are perfect trade partners. The two countries benefit from their respective economic strengths. China is the number-one supplier of manufacturing equipment, goods, and technologies to Russia. Russia is a significant provider of energy, resources, food, and fertilizers to China.
For China, Russia is an important part of its energy security strategy, allowing Beijing to avoid overdependence on energy from the Middle East delivered via the Indian and Pacific Ocean maritime routes, where — in the event of conflict with the United States — China is vulnerable. For Russia, China is a major buyer of its resources and the only major alternative to the West for supplies of goods, equipment, and technology.
Bilateral trade has been growing steadily since the 1990s and significantly accelerated beginning in 2014, when Western sanctions were first imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea. Trade surged again in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with China serving as an economic lifeline for Russia as it became isolated by severe Western sanctions and restrictions.
The latest data from China’s General Administration of Customs paints a remarkable picture of growing trade and dependence. Bilateral trade between China and Russia grew by $93.8 billion from January to May 2023 — an increase of more than 40% compared to the same period in 2022. China’s exports to Russia have reached $42.96 billion since January 2023 — a 75.6% increase compared to 2022. The increase in total trade value and exports marks the biggest jump since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, fueled by Russian raw material exports to China and imports of Chinese goods, equipment, and technologies, including those that are critical to the Russian economy and security. For example, China’s exports of integrated circuits to Russia have doubled since 2021, reaching $179 million, with additional circuits from China likely being shipped via Turkey.
This makes Russia one of China’s fastest-growing trade partners in the world, while China’s trade with many of its major trading partners has been flat or declining. For example, Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, and the United States recorded the biggest drops in their trade with China. Absent a major crisis, this trend is likely to continue. During his visit to China in September 2023, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said that he expected trade between Russia and China to grow beyond $200 billion in 2023.
While trade benefits both nations, Beijing is in no hurry to embed itself in the unpredictable and now war-focused and strained Russian economy. Investment flows between China and Russia are growing but remain modest. According to Chinese statistics, Chinese investments in Russia in 2022 were valued at $50 billion, but in the first eight months of 2022 grew by $450 million, or 150%, compared to the same period in 2021.
Trade between Russia and China is increasingly conducted in the Chinese currency, the renminbi (RMB) or yuan. China's use of the yuan to buy Russian commodities has surged since the Ukraine war. This has accelerated China's quest to internationalize the yuan and Russia’s efforts to find alternative methods to get paid for its exports, bypassing now inaccessible Western-controlled financial channels. A recent report stated that the RMB's share in Russian import settlements in 2022 rose to 23% from 4%. Imports of Russian oil, piped gas, coal, and metals are reportedly mostly settled in yuan. China and Russia have also attempted to connect their signature geoeconomic initiatives — China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Despite these successes, Russia remains a relatively minor trading partner to China, ranking 16th in 2022. China is the largest trading partner to Russia, but natural economic complementarities are not exclusive to China and Russia. China is, after all, a global economic giant and the largest trading partner for more than 120 countries. Its economic relationship with Russia pales in comparison to China’s trade with the European Union, United States, or Japan.
Neither does China’s oversized role in the Russian economy imply Moscow’s economic and strategic subservience to Beijing. The argument that Russia has become a vassal of China, a narrative that has become dominant in the West, is rooted in neither history nor reality. Rarely have countries abandoned their strategic autonomy, let alone their fundamental security interests, because of economic interdependence or asymmetry of power. There are myriad examples. The newly born People’s Republic of China of the 1940s was heavily dependent on Soviet aid. That did not stop Beijing from confronting Soviet troops on Damanskiy and breaking ties with Moscow altogether when it thought that its interests were being threatened. Today, China’s share of Australian trade is larger than Russia’s. Yet Canberra has been a pioneer of the Western pushback against Chinese political interference and economic coercion, and it is one of the United States’ closest and most proactive allies in Asia.
China and Russia are combatively independent powers. Even in the most adverse circumstances, both have demonstrated independence in their policy decision-making and a fervent pursuit of their national interests. It is hard to imagine that they will act any differently because of their trade dependencies or even the friendship between Xi and Putin.
China and Russia’s quest for strategic autonomy will likely prevent them from becoming formal military allies. But it has not precluded them from building a remarkably close defense relationship. The two countries’ military cooperation spans three main domains: joint exercises and defense consultations, arms sales, and military-technical cooperation.
Russia has been a major supplier to the Chinese military since the 1990s, and Moscow was the only source of modern foreign weapons following the arms embargo imposed by the European Union and the United States after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In fact, Russia was the single most significant external contributor to China’s military modernization during the early twenty-first century, and to some extent, it continues to be. A large portion of Chinese military gear is either Russian or based on Russian technology. But Chinese arms purchases from Russia have been declining since 2007, as China began building out its own capabilities. There is strong evidence that the bilateral military cooperation has disproportionally benefited China.
In addition to arms trade, China and Russia have well-established institutional political and military cooperation through leaders’ meetings and other official forums. The Chinese and Russian militaries regularly conduct joint exercises and operations, and in the mid-2010s, the frequency, complexity, level of coordination, and global reach of these joint activities increased.8 But in the 2020s, this trend slowed as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine hampered cooperation.
As China’s military production and technologies improved in the late 2000s, its reliance on Russia decreased. Traditionally, Russia has been reluctant to share its most sensitive advanced military hardware with China. But since the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, some of these blocks have lifted. As China’s own capabilities started to grow in the 2000s, so did the tensions: Russia alleged massive-scale industrial theft of Russian military technologies by China through espionage. Russia claims that China has frequently breached intellectual property agreements and reverse-engineered Russian equipment to produce its own. For example, China’s purchase of the Russian Su-27 jets contributed to the development of its own J-11 fighter.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has created new dynamics in the defense relationship. On the one hand, a weakened Russia will likely continue lifting some restrictions on exports of its most advanced and sensitive military kit to China. There are reports that Russia is also supplying enriched uranium to China, which could be used in nuclear weapons. It is unclear how much more of its sensitive military technology Russia is prepared to share with China. On the other hand, the demands of the war in Ukraine and the subpar performance of the Russian army and military hardware on the battlefield are dampening the arms trade and defense cooperation more broadly. Yet, as both China and Russia face Western pushback and the risks of conflict and escalation rise, we might be surprised how far China and Russia may go in aligning their defenses.
As far as we know, apart from limited transfers of dual-use equipment that can be used in Russia’s war effort, China has refrained from providing direct military aid to Russia. That might change if Russia faces a comprehensive defeat in Ukraine, which China may deem contrary to its interests. At this stage of the conflict, China sees the risks of Western sanctions and further damage to its vital relationship with Europe as outweighing the benefits of supporting Russia.
Finally, just as China dedicated significant resources to studying the collapse of the Soviet Union to avoid its fate, Beijing is taking valuable lessons from the Russian war in Ukraine. From the performance of Russian weapons to the Western economic blockade of Russia, from Ukraine’s ingenious use of drone warfare to Russia’s outdated model of command and control, we can be sure that China is taking copious notes.
In addition to complementarities and practical areas of cooperation, China and Russia have shown a great degree of opportunism when it comes to their cooperation on a global stage.
China and Russia are active regional and multilateral players. Both are also active users and disruptors of the multilateral system. Beijing and Moscow seek to use established international institutions such as the United Nations (UN) to simultaneously pursue and defend their interests or disrupt the system when its decisions are not favorable to them. China and Russia often support each other through the UN system — for example, through voting at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) or the United Nations Security Council. Both hold veto power on the Security Council and use it often. For example, China and Russia condemned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s use of military power in the former Yugoslavia and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They also acted in unison at the Security Council to curtail a U.S. campaign to impose UN sanctions on Iran after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
China is a far more sophisticated and powerful force in the UN, with a growing number of Chinese nationals in leadership and management positions at UN bodies and a strong track record of proactive diplomatic campaigns and advocacy, especially through its alignment with other non-Western countries. Russia’s role in the UN has been diminishing amid its aggressive behavior abroad, but it still holds sway in the system because of its size and forceful diplomacy.
At the same time, Beijing and, to a much lesser extent, Moscow are building new global and regional bodies that have China’s or Russia’s interests in their DNA. Both are active members of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and recently agreed to bring Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates into the group, signaling an intent to build a counterbalance to the Western-dominated G7. Russia is a core member of the China-headquartered Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and allows — at least diplomatically — China and Russia to manage their competition in Central Asia.
Russia has expressed its support for, and in some cases participated in, albeit as a minor player, most of China’s recent major foreign policy initiatives and new institutions, including the BRI, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Global Development Initiative (GDI). China supported Russia’s version of the BRI, the Eurasian Economic Union, which is designed to build economic connectivity between Russia, Central Asia, and Belarus. In fact, Xi and Putin sought to integrate the BRI and EEU through joint projects, but so far they have had limited success. Suspicion of each other’s geopolitical and commercial motives, competition for local influence, and mismatch between Beijing’s and Moscow’s investment and infrastructure-building capabilities made the BRI-EEU cooperation unfeasible.
China and Russia are opportunistic in using each other and established regional and global institutions and networks to achieve three interconnected objectives. First, both are pursuing their own economic, diplomatic, and strategic interests while carefully managing their competition in their overlapping spheres of interest: Central Asia, the Middle East, the Arctic, and the Antarctic. Second, China and Russia are strategically aligned but operationally independent in their efforts to weaken U.S. hegemony and reduce the risks to the legitimacy of the Chinese and Russian governance systems from multilateral and global institutions. Third, Beijing and Moscow are building alternative poles of power. Especially under Xi and Putin, Beijing and Moscow seek to deepen relationships with countries outside the United States’ network of allies and partners.
China and Russia are bound by a Gordian knot of complementarity, expediency, and anxiety. Their relationship is unsentimental and pragmatic, yet both countries derive significant dividends from each other. Beijing’s and Moscow’s relationships with the West play an important role, but they are not a determining factor in their partnership. Their respective national interests are, and they do not remain static. While China and Russia are drawn to each other, their relationship is challenged by powerful divisive forces.
What Divides Russia and China?
Asymmetry and Animosity
Strategic and cultural divisions are deeply embedded in the China-Russia relationship and historic grievances are never far from the surface, creating contradictions that neither Beijing nor Moscow can fully resolve and that external powers can exploit.
China and Russia are fiercely independent nationalist powers. They act largely alone on the world stage and have a checkered track record of alliances. Although Russia and the Soviet Union have far more experience and successes in building alliances than China, at this juncture of their history, neither has close partners, including any that are closely comparable to the allies of the United States, such as the United Kingdom, Japan, or Australia.
China’s and Russia’s strategic cultures are sometimes contradictory. Often, Beijing and Moscow are deeply inward looking, and their definitions of their strategic interests are extremely narrow. Conversely, both strive to project political, military, and cultural power beyond their immediate borders.
China and Russia consider themselves civilizational powers with deep historical roots and a sense of continuity and legitimacy, but their cultures and worldviews are not always aligned. Russia — despite its claims that it is a uniquely Eurasian power connecting East and West — is culturally a European country, while China, despite being the world’s second most powerful nation and, to a certain extent, one of the leaders and drivers of globalization, remains a deeply traditional East Asian culture. Both nations see themselves as the direct descendants of traditional Eurasian empires with multiethnic populations, vast territories, dominant cultures, and an obsession with historical continuity and national pride.
With such grandiose perceptions of their place in the world, it is hard to imagine that either China and Russia could be any closer than they are now. However, in addition to cultural and historical differences, they are driven apart by asymmetry, competition, and divergent interests.
In most aspects of national power, China is far ahead of Russia. The brotherhood of the 1940s and 1950s, when the Soviet Union dominated the relationship, was turned on its head by the beginning of the twenty-first century. The Chinese economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s. China surpassed Russia in nominal per capita GDP in 2020, although Russia is still ahead in purchasing power parity. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that China's GDP will reach nearly $30 trillion by 2027, while Russia's GDP is predicted to be well under $2 trillion. China has a clear edge in technology and innovation. It is ranked 11th globally in The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Innovation Index, while Russia is 47th. China’s military expenditure grew by 47% from 2014 to 2021, to $270 billion, while Russia’s remained largely stagnant at $64 billion.
This asymmetry has created resentment in Russia, which used to think of itself as a superpower. Russia’s growing dependence on China, the continued decay of Russia’s economy and global reputation as a result of the war in Ukraine, and China’s unforgiving exploitation of Russian weaknesses may provoke a backlash that neither Xi nor Putin may be able to contain.
Russia and China carry heavy historical baggage, especially along their long border. As a reminder of how alive these grievances remain, in August 2023, China published a new map claiming full sovereignty over the disputed Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island or Heixiazi. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova rejected the claim but downplayed any suggestions of a renewed territorial dispute.
Earlier this year, the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources requested that all new Chinese maps "accurately reflect the scope of China’s territory" by including the correct historical names of regions and cities spanning the Sino-Russian border. Thus, Vladivostok is now clearly marked as Haishenwai and Khabarovsk as Boli. Chinese tourists in Siberia and the Far East are regularly told by their own tour guides that they are visiting historically Chinese territories. Chinese farmers who are allowed to lease agricultural land in Russia’s Far East are routinely accused of unsustainable land use, environmental pollution, and disregard for local communities. Chinese hunters, fishers, and divers are blamed for illegal poaching and overfishing. So far, the tensions have been contained and managed carefully by both governments, but behind the façade of friendship, there is a degree of animosity and distrust.
Despite the friendship between Xi and Putin, the relationship between their systems is quite shallow. Very few Russian ministers, CEOs, or cultural and academic leaders (beyond Sinologists and diplomats) have experience working in China or deep professional networks there. It is no different for the Chinese elite, who for the last four decades have been educated largely in the United States and Western Europe and invested in their relationships with the West.
Although there have been multigenerational exchanges between Chinese and Russian military leaders and professionals, they remain cautiously mistrustful of each other. Many Chinese policymakers and analysts remain clear-eyed about the relationship with Moscow: Russia is useful to China as an economic, strategic, ideological, and diplomatic partner, but it cannot be trusted.
Public opinion in both China and Russia is notoriously hard to measure. A Pew Research Center survey found that 71% of Russians viewed China positively in 2019 — the highest of all the 35 countries surveyed. However, China’s activities in the Russian Far East are viewed quite negatively. Negative public sentiment has appeared from time to time in both countries, including on social media, but it is hard to measure, and both governments have been quick to downplay or clamp down on any reports or expressions of negative sentiments. While Chinese and Russians interact extensively through trade, tourism, migration, and educational and cultural exchanges, at the societal level, there remains a degree of distrust and at times outright racism and chauvinism, which hinders deeper engagement.
China and Russia do not always see eye to eye, and their national interests are not always aligned. Competition and tensions are most acute in their overlapping spheres of interest: the Russian Far East, Central Asia, and the Arctic. In these regions, Russia defends what it sees as its strategic backyard or, in the case of the Far East, its sovereignty.
China seeks to project its power through a superior economic toolkit — infrastructure, technology, and investment capabilities — to gain access to the resources, transport routes, and markets that these regions offer. China is also increasingly positioning itself as a security partner, encroaching on Russia’s traditional domain of global influence.
Despite historical sensitivities, Russia and China have managed to cooperate effectively in the Far East. Cross-border trade and tourism have been booming since the borders reopened after the pandemic, and Russia has been forced to reorient its supply chains to China because of severe Western sanctions. In 2023, the Chinese and Russian governments agreed to China’s use of Vladivostok as a transit hub for "internal" shipping from landlocked Jilin Province in the northeast to Zhejiang Province in the south. However, the agreement remains largely symbolic, as the infrastructure on the Russian side remains underdeveloped.
The story of Russia’s Far East and China’s role in its development remains underwhelming, despite the official rhetoric.9 For decades, Russia expected major Chinese investment in the region in exchange for access to abundant Russian resources. That investment has not materialized. Instead, China has been ruthlessly exploiting Russian timber, mineral, and fishing resources, often leaving behind environmental damage and disgruntled local communities.
In Central Asia, Chinese and Russian interests collide and coexist. Russia has traditionally been a dominant power in the region, which previously belonged to the Soviet Union. With its collapse and the rise of China, Russia’s role waned and China’s influence and presence in the region have expanded. But a resurgent Russia under Putin has regained some of its authority in the Central Asian republics. The Russian language is still widely spoken across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and all have sizable ethnic Russian communities, with the largest in Kazakhstan numbering over 3 million (18% of the total population). Many Central Asian political and military leaders come from the old Soviet cadre or were educated in Russia. Russia is still a powerful security force in the region. In 2022, the Russian military intervened decisively and effectively on behalf of the government of Kazakhstan to suppress anti-government riots in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana and restore public order. Since the 2000s, Russia has also opened its borders to migrant workers from the region to fill a critical labor gap in its economy, which is affected by an aging and declining population. My parents back in Vladivostok are taken to their doctor’s appointments by a Tajik taxi driver, and their apartment block is maintained by an Uzbek facility manager. It is estimated that over 10 million migrants from Central Asia were living legally in Russia in 2022, with more than 3 million living there illegally. Their remittances are important sources of prosperity for their families back home.
China’s role in the region is different. It has been using its strength as an economic power to improve Central Asia’s vital infrastructure and open new energy corridors and markets. Central Asia has become a major destination for Xi’s signature program, the BRI. In the last decade, China completed construction of a three-line Central Asian gas pipeline, Kazakhstan’s Khorgos Gateway, and upgraded railway crossings in Kazakhstan. China’s two-way trade with the region also overshadows Russia’s — it reached $70 billion in 2022, while Russia’s trade totaled $40 billion. Russia cannot offer the Central Asian states the kinds of economic opportunities presented by China. But China’s successes have been marred by Beijing’s brutal policies in Xinjiang, which is ethnically and culturally a part of Central Asia. China’s role in the region is changing, however. Xi’s expansive foreign policy agenda for Central Asia now goes beyond economic ties to include joint antiterrorism training, peacekeeping, and military cooperation, pitting Beijing against Moscow in its role as a security partner.
So far, Beijing and Moscow have accepted their roles in the region and managed their competition well. Russia mostly benefits from the improved infrastructure in Central Asia, while China enjoys stability and security in the region that is assisted by Russia. The Central Asian states have their own agency in the game, deriving benefits from both Beijing and Moscow and often playing them against each other. China and Russia face no immediate dangers to their relationship in Central Asia, but this equilibrium is fragile as their activities in the region grow and intersect.
China’s quest for resources, markets, and alternative transport corridors is also pushing it up against Russian interests in the Arctic. China has long sought to establish a footprint in the region to access vast and underdeveloped energy resources, and transport corridors via the Northern Sea Route (an alternative maritime route from the Pacific to the Atlantic). It also seeks opportunities to sell its engineering and telecommunications equipment to Russia and conduct research on the impact of climate change. So far, cooperation between the two countries has been limited. China successfully invested in the Yamal LNG project, of which it now owns 20%. In other areas, Russia has been consistently limiting China’s involvement in the region, insisting that Arctic issues need to be managed by the Arctic powers. China sought to bypass Russia by expanding its cooperation with other Arctic powers such as Iceland and Finland. It is unclear whether Russia’s position on China’s presence in the Arctic will be weakened by the war in Ukraine. It is possible that China has asked or will ask for Russian concessions in the region as a reward for providing an economic lifeline to Moscow. While the Arctic is not expected to be a major flash point between China and Russia now, as the impacts of climate change intensify and access to Arctic resources eases, they may yet face each other in this vital strategic region.
The War in Ukraine
Perhaps the biggest test of the relationship between China and Russia in the last several decades is the war in Ukraine. The conflict has, paradoxically, been the single most powerful accelerator of the partnership (particularly economic and political), but also its biggest disruptor.
China often detests Russia’s overly aggressive foreign and security policy. The war in Ukraine revealed to China once again Russia’s unpredictability as a partner and the negative implications of their relationship for China’s interests.
First, as the war broke out, China was forced to side with Russia, which further exacerbated tensions with the United States. More importantly, by siding with Russia, China damaged its relationship with the European Union, its largest trading partner, at a time when Beijing was seeking to create a wedge between the United States and Europe on their policy approaches to China. Beijing’s support for Moscow also undermined China’s principles and narrative about the sanctity of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Second, China’s support for the Russian war in Ukraine has forced Beijing to play an impossible diplomatic game in which it must perform mutually exclusive roles simultaneously — a responsible peacemaker to Ukraine, Europe, and the rest of the world; a loyal ally to Russia; and an independent and defiant global power to the United States.
Third, the Russian war has had a material impact on the Chinese economy. It has disrupted energy, food (particularly grains), and fertilizer markets, affecting China’s already precarious post-pandemic recovery. China has always been highly sensitive about food security and food prices. The disruption of the grains trade and persistent inflation have created major headwinds for China’s sluggish economy. Chinese companies trading with Russia must navigate severe risks of secondary sanctions and reputational damage.
Fourth, the war has affected Sino-Russian military cooperation as Russian resources and equipment are directed toward the war effort. The subpar performance of Russian weapons systems in Ukraine will further dampen China’s interest in arms purchases and open a competitive window for China to fill the arms trade void left by Russia.
Finally, Russia’s potential defeat in Ukraine risks bringing an end to Putin’s rule. The transition of power may be messy and violent. With no clear successor, Putin might be replaced by an even more nationalist and aggressive leader who may not share Putin’s affinity with Xi. A weak, chaotic, nuclear Russia is a far worse outcome for China than a clear victory.
The only benefit that China can draw from the war in Ukraine is that it distracts U.S. attention from Asia and its competition with China. But, given the Joe Biden administration’s laser focus on China and its significant successes in strengthening U.S. alliances in Asia, it seems that Washington is perfectly capable of managing both Chinese and Russian challenges at the same time.
For the time being, Beijing has likely concluded that the impact and fallout of the war can be managed. But the unpredictability of this conflict makes Beijing uncomfortable and creates unnecessary disruptions to the Chinese economy, diplomacy, and international standing. While the relationship between Beijing and Moscow is not all smooth sailing, and tensions and contradictions abound, at this juncture, for both China and Russia, the benefits of their relationship far outweigh the risks.
Longer-term trajectory for the China-Russia relationship, however, is less certain. As the power asymmetry between them grows, Russia may feel threatened by China and seek a hedge against Beijing’s military might, economic power, and pressure on Moscow’s spheres of interest. The only powerful counterbalance to Chinese power for Russia will be Europe and the United States. It is hard to imagine Russia’s rapprochement with the West now, in the middle of its invasion of Ukraine, but interests and alliances shift, and there may come a time when China will present a more formidable and urgent challenge to the West than Russia.
Similarly, for China, the risks of the partnership with Russia may at some point outweigh the benefits, especially if Russia continues on its aggressive and belligerent path and sees its power weakening further. But China may overplay its hand as the big brother in the relationship, antagonizing Russia by securing economic or strategic gains at Moscow’s expense.
Together and Apart: The Global Implications and Future of the China-Russia Partnership
Lessons of Kissinger
Across Western capitals, policymakers and analysts are pondering where the China-Russia partnership is headed and what it means for the world. These questions require further analysis that is outside the scope of this paper. But it would be useful for such an analysis to pose some basic questions about our understanding of the China-Russia relationship.
First, are China and Russia on a path to a full military alliance, and how will this alliance affect global security? There is little evidence that Beijing and Moscow are ready to give up their strategic autonomy for collective security. But the unpredictability of the current security environment and the decisive U.S. competition and alliance-building strategy in Europe and the Indo-Pacific may change their calculus.
Will China and Russia support each other militarily in the event of an existential crisis — for example, China’s war with the United States over Taiwan or Russia’s war with NATO? So far, the consensus among Western analysts is that such support is unlikely. Both nations will maintain their autonomy and be unwilling to risk their security for each other. Thus far, China has refrained from providing direct military support to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Russia has not shown any interest in being a part of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait or East and South China Seas. But these conflicts have not yet threatened the survival of the regimes in Beijing and Moscow.
Second, short of alliance, do Russia and China together pose a fundamental challenge to Western interests? Is their partnership really more than the sum of its parts? Judging by their economic, military, and multilateral cooperation, their collective impact is modest, but independently, China and Russia each presents significant challenges to Asian and European security and to the economic and technological power of the West.
Third, if China and Russia do present a challenge to Western interests, can the United States and its allies create a wedge between them? Absent an unexpected crisis or a sudden change of leadership in Russia, the short-term trajectory of the China-Russia relationship is likely to remain stable across all vectors. It is conceivable that the arrival of a democratic, pro-Western leader in Russia would put a strain on the relationship with China. Hypothetically speaking, a new Russian leader may be forced to downgrade ties with China as a condition for resetting Moscow’s relations with the West and lifting sanctions. But, practically speaking, it is hard to see why a new Russian government, even a more pro-Western one, would undermine the relationship that is so fundamental to Russia’s strategic and economic interests. It is also hard to see how China could be replaced as Russia’s largest trading partner, given the two countries’ economic complementarities.
The outcome of the war in Ukraine and the U.S.-China relationship are the two biggest unknowns. The war in Ukraine will further diminish Russian power and increase its dependence on China, but not to the extent that China’s influence on Russian foreign policy would substantially increase. In the unlikely scenario of U.S.-China stabilization, it is plausible that China would reduce its economic and political support of Russia to gain benefits in its relationship with the United States. This may strain the partnership with Russia, but it is unlikely to result in a split of the kind that we saw in the 1950s and 1960s. China is also deeply skeptical about the likelihood of U.S. reciprocity in exchange for Beijing’s devaluation of its Russia ties.
Can the United States and the West orchestrate a diplomatic play that will strain or break the China-Russia partnership? The lessons from President Richard Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger’s maneuvers of the early 1970s that led to the U.S.-China rapprochement are less relevant today. The security and political environment is fundamentally different from that of the 1970s, when the China–Soviet Union partnership collapsed under the weight of ideological, political, and strategic disagreements. The United States was there to take advantage of it. China was weak and threatened, and the Soviet Union was more powerful than today’s Russia. None of these conditions exist today. There are just too many convergent interests between China and Russia for a third party, even one as powerful as the United States, to change their current course. The West has only limited levers at its disposal. More extensive sanctions and technological restrictions on China for supporting Russia, advocacy in multilateral institutions, and other measures by the United States and its partners have already been factored in Beijing’s and Moscow’s calculations.
A major "black swan" event or miscalculation is more likely to disrupt China-Russia ties than a diplomatic effort by the West. One such event would be Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine — which China has made clear that it strongly opposes.
Another is the confluence of elections in 2024. Both Russia and the United States will go to the polls next year. Even though the current martial law prohibits it, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine may also decide to call elections in 2024 or earlier to secure his political future amid a slower than expected counteroffensive. Putin’s future is less certain amid the protracted war in Ukraine, the reputational damage of the Prigozhin revolt, and the weakening economy. Even though elections in Russia are neither real nor free, it is part of the political theater that the Russian system takes seriously. Early signs suggest that Putin will run for president again, but the election may also provide a convenient watershed moment for a leadership change — forced and violent or seemingly voluntary and staged.
The possible reelection of Donald Trump as the U.S. president in 2024 is another factor that could create headwinds for the relationship, given Trump’s aggressive stance on China and his affinity toward Putin.
But none of these factors fundamentally changes the basic settings and underlying interests of the China-Russia partnership.
Russia and China’s Multipolar Vision
One area in which the China-Russia partnership presents a profound global challenge is the erosion of the liberal rules-based international order. Intentionally and through a confluence of global events, China and Russia are creating what they have been preaching for a long time — a multipolar world. It is a world in which power is diffused across distinct and unequally powerful poles: the United States and its allies; China and Russia; and a large, collectively significant but decentralized grouping of countries in Africa, the Middle East, South and Central America, and Asia that maintain strategic independence and balance their relationships with each other, China, Russia, and the United States. In fact, some analysts conclude that it is incorrect to describe the emerging system as multipolar. It is in fact bipolar, with China and the United States as the most powerful states (but not powerful enough to dominate the global system) and multiple regional powers that are seeking to shape their immediate strategic surroundings.
To be precise, there is little evidence that China and Russia are acting in concert to undermine the current global system. But independently and through their own distinct strategies, Beijing and Moscow are building a world in which their systems can survive and thrive and in which the United States and its allies will no longer be able to dictate the rules.
Here the personalities and visions of Xi and Putin are important. A common perception in the West is that Russia under Putin is a belligerent wrecker and that China with Xi at the helm is a clandestine transformer of the global order. But a closer look reveals a less clear distinction. It is true that Putin is a less predictable and more aggressive leader than Xi. But both leaders are generally supportive of the elements of the global system from which they have benefited. They respect and largely support the global trading system. While they begrudge the dominance of Western institutions, both understand the value of markets and global trade. At the same time, both Beijing and Moscow do not hesitate to use economic coercion to get ahead or punish those who oppose them.
Both Xi and Putin have interfered and sought to influence the domestic politics of other countries on a large scale, albeit using different methodologies and with varied outcomes.
Similarly, Xi and Putin have presided over a comprehensive crackdown on even the feeblest of opposition to their rule. Xi’s violent subjugation of Hong Kong and aggressive territorial expansion in the South China Sea cannot be compared with the annexation of Crimea or Russia’s war with Georgia, but the longer-term impact of China’s actions is as globally significant as Russian aggression.
The Russian war on Ukraine has dramatically raised the stakes. The war remains the most acute challenge to the international system, with profound consequences. One of them is how a Russian victory in Ukraine (defined by a larger territorial grab) would influence decision-making in Beijing on Taiwan. It is possible that as Xi ages, his power remains unchallenged, his fear of U.S. encirclement grows, and the Chinese economy slows down, he will be more willing to take risks to achieve reunification with Taiwan.
While Xi and Putin are risk takers, they also understand the current limits of their power. They instinctively know that — together or apart — they cannot unseat Washington as the preeminent global economic and military power. But both leaders have capabilities to create a more competitive and fluid global system in which the United States and its allies no longer have the dominant voice. China has a long-term comprehensive strategy to thin American power globally through its economic weight, its deft multilateral diplomacy, and its own new global institutions and initiatives. Moscow is an opportunistic disruptor using its military and covert power to sow discontent, create conflicts, and intimidate.
The Chinese and Russian narratives and actions in pursuing multipolarity are different. China uses its impressive economic rise and experience in poverty reduction, technological prowess, and track record of infrastructure building to showcase itself as a responsible, pragmatic, and benign alternative to the "lecturing" and domineering United States. China maintains its ambivalence about exporting its ideology or governance model, but it is clearly pursuing a leadership role in the non-Western world by offering an alternative to the current system, which in Beijing’s view only suits the interests of the West. Russia is a far less systematic and more aggressive player in challenging the liberal order — insisting on respect for spheres of interest, undermining the sovereignty of its neighbors, and confronting Western values of human and individual rights, diversity, and freedom. It sees itself as the last protector of traditional values, projecting respect for military power and a masculine model of leadership.
Beijing’s and Russia’s messages resonate far beyond their borders. Their narratives of the declining and decadent West found fertile ground around the world as nations watched the global financial crisis, the Trump presidency, the Western’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and endless culture wars. Many countries beyond the United States and Europe see the West as unwilling and unable to address their existential challenges: economic inequality, refugee crises, and climate change.
Beyond the rhetoric, there is little evidence that China and Russia are truly stepping up their global leadership. But their propaganda machines are effective at highlighting how out of tune the West is with the real needs of countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Their alternative vision to the self-absorbed West is Russia fighting ISIS in Syria and China building roads and hospitals in Africa.
Propaganda aside, China and Russia’s quest to build a new order is not rooted in a coordinated grand strategy, altruism, or a genuine desire to make the global system more inclusive and fairer. Beijing and Moscow are driven by opportunism, national egoism, and self-preservation, as both are convinced that the United States and its allies are bent on containing and weakening them.
On the surface, the countries outside the U.S. alliance system are benefiting from the emergence of alternative poles of power. Beijing and Moscow have dramatically elevated their engagement with South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. China and Russia provide options — economic, diplomatic, political, and even security — for countries that are not aligned with the United States. This allows them greater space for hedging and balancing, as well as economic opportunities. The latest BRICS Summit in South Africa was a perfect example of anti-Western posturing and solidarity with the "rest" of the world, with no tangible agenda or outcomes.
More consequential in this new multipolar system are the fluidity of policy choices and the behaviors of individual countries. India, for example, has been moving decisively toward the U.S.-led pro-Ukraine coalition while at the same time taking advantage of cheaper Russian oil, and it continues to be a major buyer of Russian arms. Turkey — a NATO member — is an important transit hub for restricted goods heading for Russia in circumvention of Western sanctions. The African nations whose leaders gathered in Moscow in July 2023 are seeking to benefit from China’s and Russia’s independent tilts toward the continent to manage their security risks and supplement their economic assistance deals with U.S.- and European-controlled financial institutions. Such ambiguity and shallowness of alliances suit Beijing and Moscow.
Recent research shows that many countries outside the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand are ambivalent about the war in Ukraine and reluctant to sever their relationships with Russia, even though many are critical of Russian aggression. But in the long term, an unpredictable and competitive playing field with few rules of engagement will create a world that is less safe for smaller and middle-sized nations without powerful friends and allies.
China and Russia’s multifaceted relationship is bound by a shared strategic geography, opportunistic pursuit of convergent interests, and pragmatic management of disagreements. But their partnership is regularly tested by a lack of strategic trust, divergent foreign policy agendas, and power asymmetry. The conundrum of the relationship is that it is neither guaranteed to thrive nor destined to fail.
Limited by their desire for strategic autonomy, growing power asymmetry, and competition in overlapping spheres of interest, China and Russia may have reached the peak of their partnership. But at the moment, the benefits of the relationship to both far outweigh the risks.
The most effective strategy that the West can pursue in competing with China and Russia and preserving the rules-based order is to be the best at its own game. Western countries need to strengthen their democratic institutions and security alliances and networks, grow their economies, and tackle climate change, inequality, the refugee crisis, and pandemics. Together with the countries of Africa, the Middle East, South America, and Asia, the West must work to build a more inclusive and fairer global system, rather than trying to preserve a system centered on Western hegemony and self-interest.
As counterintuitive as it may appear now, the West will have to find space for China and Russia in this new order. It will be particularly difficult for Russia, given the scale of its aggression toward Ukraine. But the alternative is a belligerent Beijing and Moscow, aggrieved and unconstrained by even the pretense of international responsibilities, partially disconnected from the West, and set on undermining and contending with it.
Perhaps that is what China and Russia want. It is possible that we have already passed the moment when a new, more inclusive, and sustainable global order can be created. China and Russia may have concluded that it is not in their interest to join the effort to rebuild it and that a new era of fragmentation and multipolarity is upon us.
Chinese and Russian leaders may think that we are simply going back to a world that has always been: The end of the Cold War and the global preeminence of the United States was just a short, isolated episode, and the world is returning to its natural state of competition, fluidity, and conflict.
While the injustices of Aigun and the shadows of Damanskiy linger over Zhongnanhai and the Kremlin, we can be certain that China and Russia, together and apart, wish to be the main actors in this new era.
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