Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, July 2019.

Expert Round-Up: How Likely Is a China-Russia Military Alliance?

June 14, 2019
Simon Saradzhyan and Angelina Flood

Russia and China watchers are parsing statements made by presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin during their two meetings this month—Xi’s June 5-7 visit to Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit that kicked off today in Kyrgyzstan—in search of subtle clues on changes in the bilateral relationship, and one of the questions that stays on people’s minds is this: Will Russia enter into a military alliance with China? After all, Russian-Chinese military and security cooperation has been growing stronger and stronger. Last year China took part in Russia’s Vostok-2018 wargames—the first time the Chinese army participated in its Russian counterpart’s annual strategic military exercises. Moreover, the two countries’ navies held their first joint maneuvers in the Mediterranean in 2015 and in the Baltic in 2017, and Russia also agreed to have its warships train with the Chinese in the South China Sea—a significant show of support considering that China claims the sea in its entirety, while its neighbors disagree. Given all this cooperation, it should come as no surprise that some scholars and former officials, particularly in Russia, assert that a Russian-Chinese alliance essentially already exists. However, most of the experts and officials—Russian, Chinese and Western—whose views are quoted below do not agree. That said, this larger group varies in their beliefs about what the future holds: Is a Sino-Russian military alliance possible or not? Both countries’ official pronouncements, meanwhile, avoid the word “alliance” altogether.

Those who say a Russian-Chinese alliance has already coalesced include such leading Russian scholars as Sergei Karaganov, dean of the department of world economy and international affairs at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, and Vasily Kashin, a senior research fellow at the school’s Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies. Kashin penned an article in May 2014 saying that “the Russian-Chinese ‘anti-revolutionary alliance’”—“anti-revolutionary” because both bristle at the idea of U.S.-led regime change—had been “essentially formalized,” while Karaganov wrote in April 2017 that “Russia and China have built allied relations de facto though not de jure” (the Russian Embassy in London posted Karaganov’s article on its website). In addition to these scholars, some ex-officials also see China and Russia as already allied. What the two countries have is a “functional military alliance,” one former senior Russian national security official told Harvard’s Graham Allison.

In contrast to these claims, however, the majority of scholars, experts and officials whose articles and statements were reviewed for this article do not believe Russia and China have formed a de facto alliance, although they disagree on how likely such an alliance might be in the future. For instance, Brookings Institution scholar Fiona Hill, who now serves as the Trump administration’s adviser on Russia, and Bobo Lo of the French Institute of International Relations predicted tensions between the two countries in their July 2013 article as “the economic and political gap between a dynamic China and a non-modernizing Russia will be too wide for Moscow to bridge in the Asia-Pacific.” Russian commentator Mikhail Korostikov, too, does not see a Russian-Chinese alliance either now or in the future. In a May 2019 analysis entitled “Friendship at Arm’s Length,”  Korostikov argued that “the political ties between Russia and China have reached a natural limit” and “that the feeling of a common threat from the United States is unlikely to lead to a military alliance between the countries.” Allison is equally skeptical, noting in a December 2018 article that while Moscow and Beijing have succeeded in forming a “grand alignment of the aggrieved … the prospects for a Chinese-Russian alliance in the longer run are undoubtedly grim.” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, is more pessimistic still: “The hope of forming a close alliance with China … [has] faded,” he wrote in April 2019.

Others are more optimistic about the prospects for a Russian-Chinese pact. For instance, Alexander Lukin, director of the Center for East Asian and SCO Studies at the Foreign Ministry’s Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), wrote in his 2018 book that “a formal alliance between Russia and China would become a reality” if one condition emerges and that condition is a ‘serious confrontation’ of the U.S. with both Russia and China.” Some Russian officials-turned-experts do not conceal their hopes for such an alliance. For instance, June 2016 saw retired chief of the Russian Defense Ministry’s international cooperation department Gen. Yevgeny Buzhinsky openly call for “truly allied relations” between Russia and China. Less than a year later, in April 2017, Buzhinsky, who became chairman of one of Russia’s leading nuclear policy think-tanks, the PIR Center, along with Karaganov and other Russian participants took part in a meeting of Russian and Chinese experts—held under the aegis of the Kremlin-funded Valdai Club—and “came out in support of a Russian-Chinese military alliance,” according to an account of the event in Russia’s Kommersant newspaper.

Russian influentials’ recent musings about a potential alliance with China have been welcomed by some of their Chinese counterparts. Scholars who have seemed to voice support for a Russian-Chinese alliance include professor Zhang Wenmu from the Center for Strategic Research at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and prominent Chinese political scientist Yan Xuetong, who told Kommersant in a March 2017 interview that, “China has half approached the status of a superpower. Therefore, this principle [of not entering into alliances] is no longer in our interest. … I do not understand why Russia does not insist on forming an alliance with China.” Yan subsequently adjusted his views on the issue in a December 2018 article, writing that China sees a U.S.-Chinese bipolar world order emerging and making no mention of an alliance with Russia: “[A] bipolar U.S.-Chinese order will be shaped by fluid, issue-specific alliances rather than rigid opposing blocs divided along clear ideological lines,” he wrote.

Other Chinese scholars are even less enthusiastic, expressing doubt that China and Russia will ever enter into a formal alliance. Feng Zhongping and Huang Jing do not see Russia and China in an alliance, but call “the Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership of Coordination and the Sino-Pakistani All-Weather Strategic Partnership … unique and unparalleled”; they also write that some scholars in China argue that, as China’s international clout grows, “Beijing needs to build a special relationship with countries, such as Russia, that lie somewhere in-between partnership and alliance.”

Finally, it’s worth noting that public assessments of the bilateral relationship by Russian, Chinese and Western policymakers do not include references to Russian-Chinese alliances either now or in future. Recent Russian and Chinese documents refer to relations as “comprehensive, equal and trust-based partnership and strategic cooperation” and “comprehensive strategic partnership,” respectively, but contain no language on “alliance” or “allied relations.” Moreover, the joint statement on developing the two countries’ “comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction in a new epoch,” adopted during Xi Jinping’s June 5-7 visit to Russia, explicitly says the bilateral relationship will be based on a “repudiation of establishing allied relations, [and of] confrontation, and [on] not being directed against third parties,” among other principles.

Russian and Chinese officials routinely describe the current relationship as “comprehensive partnership” and “strategic interaction,” but avoid references to any alliances—and Putin and Xi’s latest (almost 30th) meeting in St. Petersburg was no exception. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu used the same formula verbatim when congratulating Wei Fenghe with his appointment to the post of China’s defense minister in April 2018. Wei more than returned the compliment one year later, calling Sino-Russian tiesthe closest interaction, which is the best among all relations between large countries,” during his April 2019 visit to Moscow. However, China’s former deputy foreign minister and former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress Fu Ying has flatly ruled out a formal alliance: “China has no interest in a formal alliance with Russia,” she wrote in 2015.

Western officials, meanwhile, are not uniform in their assessment of the Russian-Chinese relationship. For instance while then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in June 2018 that he believes there’s “little in the long term that aligns Russia and China,” the director of U.S. national intelligence, Daniel Coats, told legislators in January 2019 that Russia and China "are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s. ” 

So what would be the most accurate description of the increasingly close bilateral relationship? Is it a “grand alignment of the aggrieved,” as Allison describes it, or an “axis of convenience,” as Lo has put it, or is it a de facto alliance, as per Karaganov? Moreover, if it is not an alliance, will it evolve into one, becoming “America’s nightmare,” or even a “nightmare for the entire Western world?” We have collected over 50 experts’ takes on this relationship, whose evolution may significantly impact the global world order, for you to review and decide for yourself.

Graham T. Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard University

The year before he died in 2017, one of America’s leading twentieth-century strategic thinkers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, sounded an alarm. In analyzing threats to American security, “the most dangerous scenario,” he warned, would be “a grand coalition of China and Russia…united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.” … Few observers heard his admonition then. Even fewer today recognize how rapidly this grand alignment of the aggrieved has been moving from the realm of the hypothetical toward what could soon become a geostrategic fact. Defying the long-held convictions of Western analysts, and against huge structural differences, Beijing and Moscow are drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the “American threat.” (The National Interest, 12.14.18)

 [T]he differences in national interests, values and culture are stark. As Russian strategists think about the longer run, they must view China’s rise with consternation. Today’s map draws a line between Russia and China that leaves a large swath of what was in earlier centuries Chinese on the Russian side of the divide. That border has repeatedly seen violent clashes, the last in 1969. Given these structural realities, the prospects for a Chinese-Russian alliance in the longer run are undoubtedly grim. (The National Interest, 12.14.18)

What has emerged is what a former senior Russian national security official described to me as a “functional military alliance.” Russian and Chinese generals’ [sic] staffs now have candid, detailed discussions about the threat U.S. nuclear modernization and missile defenses pose to each of their strategic deterrents. For decades, in selling arms to China, Russia was careful to withhold its most advanced technologies. No longer. … In their diplomacy, Russia and China mirror the relationship between the two leaders. On major international issues, they coordinate their positions. … The two have worked together to create and strengthen new organizations to rival traditional American-led international organizations, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICs. (The National Interest, 12.14.18)

Surveys this year show that 69 percent of Russians hold a negative view of the United States, while the same percentage of Russians hold a positive view of China. When asked “who their enemies are,” two-thirds of Russians point to the United States, ranking it as Russia’s greatest foe. Only 2 percent of Russians view China as their enemy. (The National Interest, 12.14.18)

Jamil Anderlini, Asia Editor of the Financial Times

This idea that Russia and China can never really be friends is just as wrong and dangerous as the Cold War dogma that portrayed global communism as an unshakeable monolith. … It is true that Russia’s ego has been bruised by the obvious role reversal—from the former Soviet Union as “big brother” to Russia as “little brother” today. But China has been careful to save Moscow’s pride—by speaking of the two as equals, massaging Mr. Putin’s ego and offering many of his confidantes and advisers lucrative contracts. (Financial Times, 08.02.18)

While heavily lopsided … the countries’ economic relationship is critical for both sides. China is the world’s biggest importer of crude oil; Russia was China’s biggest supplier last year and Beijing has lent tens of billions of dollars to Moscow to secure future oil and gas supplies. Crucially, from Beijing’s perspective, oil imports from Russia do not need to travel by ship through strategic chokepoints, such as the Strait of Malacca or the Gulf of Aden, that can easily be shut off by the U.S. military. (Financial Times, 08.02.18)

Leon Aron, Director of Russian Studies, American Enterprise Institute

Russia and China are hardly any closer in foreign policy than they are in trade. To be sure, the two countries stand together in their declared opposition to U.S. primacy in world affairs. … They vote almost in unison at the United Nations. Yet away from the global limelight and closer to their shared Eurasian home, the two countries are hardly aligned. They poach in each other’s spheres of influence, contest each other’s clients and reach for each other’s economic and geopolitical assets. China has failed to support Russia in matters of great geopolitical importance to Moscow. Beijing refused to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. It abstained from, instead of voting against, the U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. (Foreign Affairs, 04.04.19)

Chinese-Russian military cooperation in particular is often held up as evidence of a growing closeness. Much has been made of the fact that Russia has sold China the latest version of its most advanced antiaircraft S-400 missile defense system. But India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are next in line for the same equipment. And although China was the first to buy Russia’s most advanced Su-35 jet fighter, it will not be the last. … Overall, from 2013 to 2017, India was a far likelier destination for Russian defense hardware than China, with 35 percent of Russian arms exports going to New Delhi, compared with 12 percent to Beijing. (Foreign Affairs, 04.04.19)

[T]he most promising portent of an alliance might be the personal relationship between the rulers of the two countries. The Putin-Xi bonhomie extends beyond surface pleasantries. They have met more than 25 times, far more frequently than either has with any other head of state. … Putin’s and Xi’s kinship is real and formidable, but even it may not be enough to overcome the obstacles to a genuine alliance. One such obstacle is aptly described by a Russian expression, “istoriya s geografiey.” Literally “a history with geography,” the collocation refers to a seemingly straightforward matter suddenly turned into something involved and complicated. History and geography militate against an entente cordiale between the two Eurasian giants. Authoritarian states sharing a 2,600-mile border, with much of that boundary first imposed by imperial Russia on a weaker neighbor, are hardly ideally set up to build mutual trust. (Foreign Affairs, 04.04.19)

Samuel Charap, Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation; John Drennan, Former Special Assistant to the Executive Director, International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS); and Pierre Noël, Senior Fellow in Economic and Energy Security, IISS

Moscow has found itself in the position of demandeur vis-à-vis Beijing, creating an increasingly imbalanced bilateral relationship. … Both sides devote significant effort and political capital to managing their bilateral relations effectively; they take a pragmatic, behind the-scenes approach to resolving disputes and publicly stress the positive elements in the relationship. These ‘relationship management’ efforts have helped to mitigate the potential tensions created by Russia's relatively weaker position post-2014. (Survival, 01.31.17)

There are limits to the Russia–China relationship, however. China will not make Russia the centerpiece of its foreign policy, which is increasingly global and multidimensional. … While historic Russian mistrust of China has abated in recent years, elites in Moscow prize their foreign-policy independence and thus continue to search for additional partners in the Asia-Pacific, including some of China's regional rivals. Ultimately, both countries' leaders are unsentimental pragmatists, and when their strategic calculus differs, there are limits to how far they will go to sacrifice for the other. (Survival, 01.31.17)

Relations between Moscow and Beijing have been steadily improving since before the break-up of the Soviet Union. … As tensions eased, the Russia-China relationship was upgraded to full “strategic partnership.” In 2001, the two countries signed a “Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation” that articulated five principles to govern ties: “mutual respect of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence.” (Survival, 01.31.17)

At a basic level, the Ukraine crisis stripped Russian policymakers of alternatives to getting closer to Beijing. … China is now Moscow's only viable strategic option. … Current trend lines are pointing toward a much closer, albeit highly unbalanced, Russia-China relationship. Russia is much more enthusiastic about ties with China and has significantly less freedom of maneuver than before; China is sympathetic and interested in cooperation but has no intention of making Russia the focal point of its foreign policy. … The Russia-China relationship is too important for either country to sacrifice. Barring radical shifts in the international system, the post-Ukraine crisis dynamic is likely to endure, no matter what Washington does. (Survival, 01.31.17)

Daniel Coats, U.S. Director for National Intelligence

China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year as some of their interests and threat perceptions converge, particularly regarding perceived U.S. unilateralism and interventionism and Western promotion of democratic values and human rights. … China and Russia are expanding cooperation with each other and through international bodies to shape global rules and standards to their benefit and present a counterweight to the United States and other Western countries. (Statement on Worldwide Threat Assessment, 01.29.19)

Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics, Fletcher School, Tufts University

[T]he entente between Russia and China that has emerged over the past decade will not be disrupted anytime soon. … For the past decade, I have heard many an international relations thinker posit that the Moscow-Beijing entente was ephemeral. After all, the two countries border each other. They vie for influence in Central Asia and the Far East. China’s large population and voracious demand for raw materials makes an underpopulated Siberia an awfully interesting region to them. As Central Asia trades more with China, Beijing’s influence in the region will naturally grow. The logic of geopolitics suggests that as China rises, Russia should feel more insecure about it, and turn toward the United States. (The Washington Post, 04.03.19)

[T]heir foreign policies seem awfully coordinated as of late. A recent National Bureau of Asian Research special report noted that in the Far East, “Driven by common dissatisfaction with real or perceived Western constraints on their geopolitical ambitions, China and Russia have steadily converged in their positions on key regional strategic issues. Though the two maintain independent interests on the margins, their core aims on the Korean Peninsula appear congruent and largely complicate the United States’ pursuit of its goals.” This congruence of Russian and Chinese policy positions is also quite clear in places ranging from Iran to Venezuela. (The Washington Post, 04.03.19)

I am not saying that cooperation between Russia and China is a game-changer that requires Cold War-level efforts to combat. Nor am I saying that their entente is permanent; there are persistent frictions in their relationship. What I am saying is that their cooperation on foreign policy is growing and not shrinking, [and] that it will complicate U.S. foreign policy going forward. (The Washington Post, 04.03.19)

Arkady Dubnov, Political Analyst and Expert on Central Asia

China holds a highly significant place on Russia’s agenda in Central Asia. Beijing has become an indispensable strategic partner for the Kremlin as it seeks alternatives to the West, and it is an indispensable economic partner for the region’s countries. Moscow and Beijing now form a de facto duopoly in Central Asia, with Russia preeminent on political and security issues and China in charge of economic development. This leaves no room in the region for the influence of the West with its ideas about promoting democracy and its search for inroads for a military and political presence. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 04.19.18)

Feng Zhongping and Huang Jing, Vice President and Assistant Researcher, respectively, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR)

Some strategic partnerships are established at the request of other countries, such as those with Russia and the U.S. As China rises, in recent years more and more countries have begun to request strategic partnerships… As a good-will move, China accepts most requests. … Strategic partnerships are institutionalized in different ways. The mechanisms established with Russia are the most comprehensive and effective. … By the end of 2013, … China and Russia had developed unparalleled measures to strengthen their ties. Chinese and Russian presidents meet with each other every year and there is a hotline for direct communication between them. The premiers as well as the heads of parliament of both countries also meet annually. A Sino-Russia Prime Ministers’ Regular Meeting Mechanism has been created… The China-Russia Strategic Security Consultation and the China-Russia Friendship, Peace and Development Commission also play important roles. (European Strategic Partnership Observatory, June 2014)

In the past, China had created a China-centered international system in the region—the Tribute System or the All-Under-Heaven System. In this system, foreign nations were judged according to their “closeness” to China in the hierarchical international structure. The world has changed, but the remnant of this worldview lingers. Strategic partners are regarded as “closer friends” than other countries, and among the strategic partners, there is also an implicit hierarchical structure. The Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership of Coordination and the Sino-Pakistani All-Weather Strategic Partnership are unique and unparalleled. These two partnerships stand out from the rest. … The Chinese do not expect every strategic partnership to carry the same weight. They accept that some partnerships are going to be less substantial than others. (European Strategic Partnership Observatory, June 2014)

China has avoided war or serious confrontation with major powers and has successfully steered into a new multipolar world. China’s relations with Russia and India, with whom China fought border wars in the 1950s and 1960s, have stabilized, partly thanks to the strategic partnerships. China has also obtained enormous economic benefits from the partnerships. … Oil and gas projects in cooperation with Russia, as well as strategic partners in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) and Latin America (Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina), have greatly alleviated the pressure of China’s roaring energy demand. By framing and prioritizing agendas with its strategic partners, China has spread concepts such as multipolarity, non-interference and different development models. (European Strategic Partnership Observatory, June 2014)

China has proposed a new concept—New Type of Major-Power Relationship [xinxing daguo guanxi]—to address Sino-U.S. relations. It was first proposed by then Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping (now the president) during his visit to the U.S. in February 2012. Although the concept was also used to describe Sino-Russian relations during President Xi’s visit to Russia in 2013, it is first and foremost intended to regulate relations with the U.S, China’s most important bilateral partner, and to accompany a peaceful power transition. … [I]t is worth noting that Beijing does not want to go as far as forming an alliance with Russia or engaging with Russia at the cost of its relations with other major powers. (European Strategic Partnership Observatory, June 2014)

Fu Ying, Former Deputy Foreign Minister and Former Chair of China’s National People's Congress Foreign Affairs Committee

The Chinese-Russian relationship is a stable strategic partnership and by no means a marriage of convenience: It is complex, sturdy and deeply rooted. Changes in international relations since the end of the Cold War have only brought the two countries closer together. (Foreign Affairs, 12.14.15)

Nevertheless, China has no interest in a formal alliance with Russia, nor in forming an anti-U.S. or anti-Western bloc of any kind. Rather, Beijing hopes that China and Russia can maintain their relationship in a way that will provide a safe environment for the two big neighbors to achieve their development goals and to support each other through mutually beneficial cooperation, offering a model for how major countries can manage their differences and cooperate in ways that strengthen the international system. (Foreign Affairs, 12.14.15)

Alexander Gabuev, Senior Fellow and Chair, Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program, Carnegie Moscow Center

The deepening of military ties between these two former rivals is real, and a stronger strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow could, given time, upend a half century of U.S. military planning and strategy. Vostok-2018 was the culmination of a shift in Russian strategic thinking about China that gained momentum after 2014. Even before that, however, Moscow saw clear reasons for deeper engagement with Beijing. For one, both Russia and China care a great deal about preserving peace and tranquility along their shared 2,600-mile border. … At present, both countries see their major security challenges elsewhere, and their shared desire to avoid creating yet another adverse relationship has been a stabilizing factor for relations. (Foreign Affairs, 09.24.18)

Shunned by waves of Western sanctions [following the 2014 annexation of Crimea], the Kremlin turned to Beijing for financial resources, technology and export markets for Russian goods. Before doing so, however, the Russian government conducted an interagency study on the potential risks of closer engagement with China. The results helped mollify the Kremlin’s previous concerns and demonstrated that many of them were actually overblown. … Russia’s economic dependence on China has been growing since 2014, and Chinese banks have provided lavish loans for large Russian state–owned companies and the members of Putin’s entourage who are on various sanctions lists. This attempt to buy Russia’s loyalty is likely to succeed, since the Kremlin no longer believes a better relationship with the United States under President Donald Trump will materialize. (Foreign Affairs, 09.24.18)

The Chinese-Russian security partnership has its limits, and it is important not to lose sight of them. Moscow and Beijing aren’t seeking a formal alliance, at least for now. Beijing doesn’t want to be dragged into a military confrontation with the United States as a result of belligerent or unintentional Russian missteps in the Middle East or Europe. By the same token, Moscow doesn’t want to be forced take sides if China clashes with other strategic Russian economic partners such as Vietnam or India. (Foreign Affairs, 09.24.18)

Washington’s hostility to both regimes has been a major factor in the improving Russian-Chinese ties. … [Vostok-2018 was] a clear message to the United States and Europe: If you continue to pressure us with sanctions, tariffs, and military deployments, we will join hands and push back. … Exercises such as Vostok-2018 improve interoperability between Russian and Chinese forces that could come in handy in regional hot spots such as Central Asia or the Korean Peninsula. They also improve trust and informal connections between senior officials… Enhanced trust between Russian and Chinese militaries may lead to growing cooperation and coordination in cyberspace, particularly when it comes to probing vulnerabilities in U.S. military and civilian communication systems. At a minimum, Russian and Chinese counterintelligence agencies are now believed to share sensitive information on CIA operations that are being conducted against them. (Foreign Affairs, 09.24.18)

Fiona Hill, White House National Security Council Senior Director for European; and Bobo Lo, Russian Affairs and Associate Research Fellow at the French Institute of International Relations

Moscow has consistently refused to allow Chinese companies to acquire substantial equity in Russian energy projects. In fact, the Kremlin often appears to regard Beijing as the investor of last resort––the “partner” it turns to only when all other possibilities have been exhausted. (Foreign Affairs, 07.31.13)

His [Putin’s] goal for the time being is to stake an early claim for Russia in a new world order, where the concert of great powers is presumed to be more Asian and less European. But over the long term, the economic and political gap between a dynamic China and a non-modernizing Russia will be too wide for Moscow to bridge in the Asia-Pacific. (Foreign Affairs, 07.31.13)

Jonathan Hillman, Director, Reconnecting Asia Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies

“Moscow and Beijing share a common interest in weakening U.S. global influence and are actively cooperating in that regard,” the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded in a 2017 report. But unintentionally, the cumulative effect of U.S. sanctions against Russia and tariffs against China could hasten the very threat Washington seeks to avoid: an anti-Western authoritarian partnership between the world’s largest nuclear power and second-largest economy. (The WorldPost, 11.15.18)

Thankfully, the Sino-Russian partnership still has an artificial flavor, supported more by leaders-on-high than organic developments on the ground. After each round of ceremonial signings and partnership promises, China still towers above Russia in economic and demographic terms. With a long history of invasions, Russia’s paranoia about foreign powers approaching its borders will not vanish overnight. (The WorldPost, 11.15.18)

Russian policymakers must be persuaded to take China’s economic power as seriously as the West’s military power. China’s grand ambitions run through Russia and its neighbors, but its investments and infrastructure projects have not yet triggered alarms in Moscow. Russia is the gatekeeper for China’s overland push westward, but Xi now holds the keys in the form of investment and respect that Putin, economically and diplomatically isolated from the West, craves. (The WorldPost, 11.15.18)

Three of the eight countries with the highest debt risk from Chinese lending are Russia’s close neighbors: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. China can exploit the weakness of small economies that borrow big, as it did when it wrote off a portion of Tajikistan’s debt in exchange for disputed territory in 2011. Inevitably, as China’s economic footprint grows, so will its security footprint. (The WorldPost, 11.15.18)

Vladislav Inozemtsev, Director, Center for Research on Post-Industrial Societies

Beijing is frequently portrayed as Russia’s “strategic partner” on whom Moscow increasingly relies in its economic plans and geopolitical aspirations, and arguments are made that “pivot to the East” (or, in other words, the outreach toward the Pacific) should be the centerpiece of the Russian strategy for the coming decades. … [But] the cooperation between Russia and China, however intensive it may seem, lacks many features of really strategic relationships. (Russia Scenarios 2030, May 2019)

[T]he growth of economic interaction between Russia and China is unbalanced in several aspects. Yes, the advances in trade are obvious, but it is China that profited most from such cooperation. (Russia Scenarios 2030, May 2019)

[T]he “strategic partnership” in geopolitical issues also fell short of Russia’s expectations. There were a lot of hopes in the Kremlin in 2008, and later in 2014 concerning China’s recognition both of … Russia’s client states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and of Crimea’s attachment to the Russian Federation; instead of this, Beijing reaffirmed its position on territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine and proceeded [with] cooperation with both. Russia also becomes increasingly disturbed by strengthening of China’s positions in post-Soviet Central Asia where Chinese companies outnumber Russian ones and where China invests billions of dollars in badly needed infrastructure projects that Russia definitely cannot afford. Even as Рresident Xi announces that China wants to confront the American “unilateralist trading policy,” Beijing shows now a much more balanced approach to major international issues than Moscow does. (Russia Scenarios 2030, May 2019)

Robert D. Kaplan, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security

China and Russia refer to their relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” in which Russia supplies oil to China and the two countries hold joint military exercises. And, officially, their relationship has rarely been better. But trade is lopsided in China’s favor; the fall in energy prices has made China considerably less dependent on Russia. Russia sells arms to China’s adversaries, India and Vietnam. And China has copied Russian weapons designs. These deeper geopolitical realities mean China and Russia will be only allies of convenience. And because the Beijing-Moscow rivalry is long-term, understated and focused on remote terrain, thus lacking in appeal for the news media, it is easy to ignore. (New York Times, 11.03.17)

Sergei Karaganov, Dean, Department of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics

For the foreseeable future, we are going to be very close partners, de facto allies with China, even though there will never be a formal alliance. … [While Russia depends on China’s economy and partly on its military heft,] without relying on Russia China would not have been able to remain steadfast in what is unfortunately becoming its inevitable confrontation with the United States. (Wall Street Journal, 02.01.19)

Russia and China have built allied relations de facto but not de jure, but they are increasingly complemented and balanced by stronger ties with Japan, Vietnam, other ASEAN countries, India, South Korea and Iran. Instead of [the] anticipated rivalry in Central Asia, Moscow and Beijing are pairing or integrating, albeit slowly, the Silk Road initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia’s policy in Asia is becoming comprehensive and strategic in nature, but there is still a long way to go. (Russian Embassy in the U.K., 04.24.17)

Vasily Kashin, Senior Research Fellow, Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, National Research University Higher School of Economics

Full alliance means a written commitment to support each other militarily. We are not likely to have such a treaty [between China and Russia] in the foreseeable future. But the actual level of defense cooperation and policy coordination is that of an alliance. … If there was no U.S. pressure, the two sides would maintain close relations but would avoid getting too close. (The National Interest, 07.25.17)

China is gradually but irreversibly acquiring a guaranteed and reliable trade partner in the north—essentially, its "very own Canada." Those deepening ties lie beyond the reach of Western sanctions, blockades or potential military pressure directed against Russia. In fact, it is popular among Chinese experts on Russia to point to the Canada-U.S. relationship as the optimal model for relations between the two countries. (The Moscow Times, 05.27.14)

In a joint statement, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping speak not only of a "new stage in relations, comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation." They also point to the need to "resist interference in the internal affairs of other states, to reject the language of unilateral sanctions and organizations … and activities aimed at altering the constitutional order of another state or its involvement in a multilateral association or union." That statement essentially formalized the Russian-Chinese "anti-revolutionary alliance" that had begun de facto with the two countries' effective efforts to stymie Western intervention in Syria. (The Moscow Times, 05.27.14)

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security; and David Shullman, Senior Advisor, International Republican Institute

[T]oday’s skeptics argue that concerns about deepening Chinese-Russian relations are overblown and that the two powers are unlikely to enter into a formal alliance. The conventional wisdom no longer applies. Already, the depth of relations between Beijing and Moscow has exceeded what observers would have expected just a few years ago. Moreover, the two countries acting in concert could inflict significant damage on U.S. interests even if they never form an alliance. In fact, whether Russia and China are becoming formal allies is not really the relevant question today. Rather, the questions policymakers should be asking are how deep their partnership will grow, how it will affect U.S. interests and what Washington can do to shape its trajectory and ameliorate its negative effects on the United States and other democracies. (Foreign Affairs, 05.14.19)

[A]lthough Russia and China may have initially banded together in discontent, their repeated interactions are fostering a deeper and enduring partnership. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it in a press conference in March, Beijing’s relations with Moscow are increasingly “steady and mature.” As Moscow and Beijing work together on areas of mutual interest, from North Korea to the Iran nuclear deal, they lay the foundation for a deep and enduring partnership. (Foreign Affairs, 05.14.19)

Michael Kofman, Senior Research Scientist, CNA Corporation

China’s official involvement in the annual exercises [Vostok-2018], which is a first, made the event politically significant in Sino-Russian relations, and a mutually agreed upon political signal sent by both sides to international observers. … [I]ncluding China in the exercise [Vostok-2018] was a prudent measure to alleviate any inherent suspicions Beijing might have that these strategic maneuvers were aimed at them, or a manifestation of Russian security apprehensions. Since most of the exercise events took place in Zabaykalsky Krai, a land-locked region bordering China and Mongolia, this was an important precaution. Moscow’s effort at engaging the Chinese military is quite clever, intended to foster greater partnership, engendering stronger military ties, while at the same time demonstrating to their strategic partners the capability of the Russian armed forces in an effort to bolster coercive credibility. (Russian Military Analysis, 09.28.18)

Interactions between Russian and Chinese forces at the tactical level, assuming any serious collaboration even took place, seemed of lower import than the utility of this event as a form of political signaling. China’s Minister of Defense, Wei Fenghe, highlighted the importance of Sino-Russian cooperation at the operational and strategic level, while [his Russian counterpart Sergei] Shoigu announced that they had agreed to hold exercises regularly in the future. In a subsequent interview, Shoigu referred to the Chinese participants as allies. While it is difficult to interpret Vostok, or any other exercise, as a proof of a budding Sino-Russian entente, it is clear the two countries seek to demonstrate that they do not see each other as a threat. (Russian Military Analysis, 09.28.18)

Indeed, starting in 2014, Moscow has been careful to make the exercise scenario for Vostok based more on aerospace and naval attack—i.e., aimed at U.S. expeditionary forces and their Pacific allies, as opposed to a land-based contingency that implies fighting Chinese forces. (Russia Matters, 09.10.18)

Official Chinese involvement [in Vostok-2018] is yet another indicator that Russia and China are more inclined to balance the United States than each other. Although defense establishments fixate on capability, at the end of the day countries balance threats based on a holistic interpretation that includes perceptions of a potential adversary’s intentions and pattern of behavior. With joint exercises, increased defense cooperation and engagement among senior officials, the Russian and Chinese establishments are signaling that they do not see each other as a threat. This does not mean that they will enter an entente, but it is an important early step along that arc. … Moscow—sanctioned by the West while facing a China growing quickly in economic and military power—has no strategic alternatives but to look east for security and economic cooperation. Russia has already made its choice, while China is in a deliberative mode on how to handle increased competition with the United States. (Russia Matters, 09.10.18)

Mikhail Korostikov, Commentator, Kommersant Newspaper

In their present form, the political ties between Russia and China have reached a natural limit… The feeling of a common threat from the United States is unlikely to lead to a military alliance between the countries, but it may well generate new forms of cooperation for which Moscow and Beijing are not ready now. (Kommersant, 05.31.19)

Stephen Kotkin, John P. Birkelund '52 Professor in History and International Affairs, Princeton University

On his first foray abroad as China’s new leader, Xi Jinping’s first stop last week was in Moscow, giving the impression that the giant Asian neighbors were friends intent on broadening their “strategic partnership.” But for all the handshakes and cultural agreements, the relationship between China and Russia remains at its core a “strategic competition”—one in which rising China has a distinctly better hand. (New York Times, 03.28.13)

Anatol Lieven, Senior Research Fellow, International Security Program, New America

While he has moderated his stand somewhat in recent weeks, Mr. Trump has suggested he is prepared for a confrontation with China. But Russia will not play along. With a 2,600-mile-long border with China and a hopelessly outnumbered army, there is no way that Russia can be persuaded to adopt an outright hostile stance toward its neighbor. The furthest that Russia might go as a result of a better relationship with the United States would be to limit sales of its most sophisticated weapons to China, and perhaps to help seek a United Nations-brokered international compromise over the islands disputed by China and its neighbors. (New York Times, 02.14.17)

Bobo Lo, Russian Affairs and Associate Research Fellow at the French Institute of International Relations

In my view, the currently popular thesis that this is an authoritarian entente … I think is overblown. I think it overlooks critical differences between Chinese and Russian positions in four main areas—and these differences are not just trivial because they undermine their capacity and will to develop an alternative world order with its own particular rules of the game. These differences are evident in four main areas: their perceptions of the existing international system, their visions of a future world order, their attitudes towards cooperation, towards engagement with the United States and in their differing priorities in the Asia-Pacific region. (Brookings Institution, 05.09.17)

Although China and Russia agree that the U.S.-led global order is unsatisfactory in many respects, they diverge crucially in their overall assessment of its worth. Moscow’s attitude towards the existing international system is unequivocally negative. … It believes, on the positive side if you are looking from the Kremlin, that this U.S.-led order is also in terminal decline, and that its demise should therefore be expedited. To this end, it has sought to undermine it through various means … The Chinese, by contrast, do not seek the demise of the existing international system, but rather its reform. They recognize ... that U.S. leadership, and Western style globalization has actually been extremely kind to China, helping to transform it … to an incipient superpower in just over three decades. (Brookings Institution, 05.09.17)

Russia, in the same way it has opposed a U.S.-led global order, has even less interest in a China-led global order, because either way, Russia does not become an independent center of global power with the strategic flexibility to punch above its weight. That’s why Putin, in a sense, is not committing entirely towards China and why he’s kept open a personal rapport with Donald Trump, why he’s reaching out to the European mainstream, having flirted with the European far right and why he’s also diversifying relations across Asia. (GLOBSEC, 06.07.19)

Alexander Lukin, Director, Center for East Asian and SCO Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO)

China regards Russia as an important geopolitical partner. … [A former Chinese official writes that Beijing and Moscow] will not enter into a legally binding alliance or form an anti-Western bloc… [China wants partners that] are generally supportive of Beijing's desire for a multipolar world, speak out against U.S. domination of the global system and can work with China as a counterweight to that influence. Russia is the most important of such states. … China prefers that Russia be stable and strong—though perhaps not too powerful. … Russia's pivot to Asia … is largely irreversible… What Moscow and Beijing are trying to achieve is not spheres of exclusive influence … but an international agreement on a new set of rules, which would suit the interests not only of the U.S. and its allies but of other major international players. … A formal alliance … would become a reality only if the U.S. and its allies were to pursue an ideological course of “democratism” that brought them into serious confrontation with both Russia and China. (China and Russia: The New Rapprochement, March 2018)

The establishment of a formal Russian-Chinese alliance remains unlikely. Russia values its political and economic partnership with China, but prefers not to tie its channels of cooperation to one country exclusively. (China and Russia: The New Rapprochement, March 2018)

Dave Majumdar, Defense Editor, The National Interest

[Joint naval] exercises are an indication of a closer partnership between Moscow and Beijing, but [this] falls short of a formal military alliance, analysts in both Russia and the United States said. … Retired Rear Adm. Mike McDevitt, a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, told The National Interest that while Beijing and Moscow are getting closer there is not likely to be a new strategic alliance between the two. “They are getting closer,” McDevitt said. “But, none of the experts I know believe they are headed toward a formal alliance. Neither nation is prepared to go beyond the ‘strategic partnership’ rubric.” (The National Interest, 07.25.17)

Jeffrey Mankoff, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Many Russian analysts and officials recognize that Moscow needs to be more than a stalking horse for Beijing if it wants others in the region to take it seriously. As long as Moscow believes it is locked in an existential struggle with the West, it will continue to prioritize relations with China in the region. Yet Russian officials and analysts dislike being pulled into China's orbit. Frustration with unfulfilled Chinese promises creates an opening for the U.S. and its allies to seek Russian support for efforts to maintain a more open, pluralistic vision of Asia-Pacific security. This opportunity stems from the nature of the "arranged marriage" between Moscow and Beijing. While the two countries have many good reasons to cooperate, from trade to border security to rejection of U.S.-led democracy promotion, their relationship remains more difficult than it looks on the surface. (Russia Matters, 12.12.16)

[The] tilt to China has never lived up to Russian expectations. The [Power of Siberia] pipeline deal remains on the drawing board, amid disputes over investment and the eventual route. Financing from China’s domestically focused banks proved disappointing. The main corridor of Beijing’s One Belt One Road is set to bypass Russia to the south, limiting Moscow’s ability to benefit from either the infrastructure itself or the transcontinental trade it will carry. Nor is Russia interested in joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Chinese-sponsored trade agreement given new life by Trump’s rejection of the TPP. (Russia Matters, 12.12.16)

Jim Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense (2017-2018)

It is clear that China and Russia … want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions—to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. (Resignation Letter, 12.20.18)

I think that nations act out of their interest. I see little in the long-term that aligns Russia and China. (Reuters, 09.11.18)

Ethan Meick, Policy Analyst, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

Despite areas of tension and distrust in China-Russia relations since Beijing and Moscow normalized relations in 1989, the two countries’ militaries and defense establishments have steadily worked to minimize and overcome these differences and are now experiencing arguably the highest period of cooperation. … In terms of military exercises, the two militaries are staging increasingly complex exercises with an expanded geographic reach in strategically important areas, recently adding a new set of exercises on missile defense cooperation. Military-technical cooperation similarly shows significant progress in recent years, highlighted by a major uptick in the technical capability of Russian arms sales to China, wide-ranging strategic industrial partnerships in key defense sectors and joint production deals and other cooperation on advanced military and dual-use systems. Finally, Chinese and Russian defense officials are holding more meetings at higher levels in the military bureaucracy than they did in the past, signaling closer coordination. (U.S.-China Economic and Security Review, 03.20.17)

As Beijing and Moscow increasingly share overlapping interests and maintain a shared resistance to U.S. leadership in the Asia Pacific, the two countries appear likely to further deepen defense relations in the coming years. In the years ahead, analysts and policymakers will need to closely watch this trend, especially as the Asia Pacific experiences rapid change and China continues to pursue its military modernization goals. In particular, Russian arms sales to China and military-technical cooperation could have significant consequences for the United States, challenging U.S. air superiority and posing problems for U.S., allied, and partner assets in the region. (U.S.-China Economic and Security Review, 03.20.17)

Zachary Paikin, Senior Editor, Global Brief

Rather than threatening the traditional Russian sphere of influence, China’s economic penetration of Central Asia helps strengthen the foundations of the region’s authoritarian regimes, thereby reducing the risk of further color revolutions in the post-Soviet space. (European Council on Foreign Relations, 02.21.19)

[T]he process of deepening Sino-Russian cooperation has not yet passed the point of no return. … Russia’s long-standing desire to be treated as an independent great power, coupled with its nominal commitment to constructing an international order that upholds the norm of non-interference in states’ internal affairs, places limits on the potential depth of Moscow-Beijing cooperation. Indeed, Russia’s obsession with gaining recognition of its privileged position in global affairs, along with its vocal attempts to counterbalance American hegemony, sharply contrasts with China’s focus on preserving the international conditions necessary for it to continue its economic modernization and development (except in instances when Beijing perceives its core interests to be at stake). … [T]he longer Western sanctions on Russia remain in place, the more Moscow’s dependency on Beijing will grow, and the more the economic dimension of their relationship will likely acquire an overtly strategic character. (European Council on Foreign Relations, 02.21.19)

Vladimir Putin, Russia's President

Russian-Chinese relations have reached an unprecedentedly high level. This is a truly comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction. … Russia and China intend to develop the practice of conducting financial transactions in our national currencies. … During the discussion of topical international and regional issues, the sides stated that their views are identical or very close on most matters. (Press Statement Following Russian-Chinese Talks, 06.05.19)

Sebastien Roblin, Journalist on International Affairs, Security and Military History

The Vostok exercises were originally intended to prepare for a knock-down, drag-out fight with China. … If Vostok isn’t meant to defend against China, Moscow and Beijing alike will have everyone know it is because of the “very aggressive and unfriendly” international environment they blame upon the United States. Does this signal a new security alliance between Russia and China? The differing statements from foreign capitals are revealing both of national communication styles and differing contexts. (The National Interest, 09.02.18)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Chinese participation shows they are “cooperating in all areas.” However, the Chinese Defense Ministry stated [that] the exercise [was] “enhancing both sides’ capabilities to jointly respond to various security threats” and was not directed at any particular third party. Chinese security analysts have been quick to clarify that participation in Vostok-2018 does not herald a new Sino-Russian military alliance. (The National Interest, 09.02.18)

[W]hile both states may oppose American hegemony, they pursue fundamentally different objectives for which neither would sacrifice itself to aid the other: Moscow is preoccupied with maintaining its dominion over neighboring buffer states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, while Beijing is looking to cement de facto control over the South China Sea. … China is also seeking to expand its influence into Central Asia, particularly by building an economic corridor through its New Silk Road initiative—a move which could threaten Russia’s long historic influence over these former Soviet client states. Moscow also happens to be [a] major arms supplier for India, which Beijing sees as a strategic rival. These differences won’t necessarily lead to war, but they do highlight that though China and Russia may both hold grievance with U.S. hegemony in common today, they lack deeper shared interests. (The National Interest, 09.02.18)

Eugene Rumer, Director and Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Russia’s relations with China have undergone a complete transformation in the past quarter century and have developed into a genuine strategic partnership. Although the Kremlin no doubt is aware of its junior partner status vis-à-vis Beijing, this relationship is truly without an alternative for Russia’s leaders. Russian foreign policy is controlled exclusively by a narrow circle of the country’s elite, whose chief preoccupation is with preserving domestic stability and the security of the ruling regime. The West’s insistence on domestic change in Russia makes it an incompatible partner for the Kremlin. Beijing, by contrast, does not confront Moscow with such demands and, moreover, partners with it to oppose the West’s pursuit of democratic change worldwide. These domestic considerations largely offset potential sources of friction in relations with China. (National Bureau of Asian Research, July 2017)

Simon Saradzhyan, Founding Director of Russia Matters; and Ali Wyne, Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation

Today we see many shared interests between the two in the areas of economy, security and geopolitics. China has an impact on most of Russia’s vital interests, making constructive relations with Beijing a priority for Moscow. Russia’s effect on China’s interests may be smaller, but is far from negligible. Some Western policies are also nudging the two deeper into each other’s arms—notably, sanctions against Russia and Washington’s new policy of lumping China and Russia into a collective adversary. (Russia Matters, 06.07.18)

But … the convergence of Russian and Chinese interests is far from absolute. Moreover, growing disparities between the two countries—in their economies and demographics in particular—will probably make a strong, formal alliance unlikely, unless two conditions emerge. The first is that Russia would agree to settle for an unequivocally junior role in the partnership with China—something it is not currently willing to do. Yet Moscow may have to accept such a position if it grows too weak to act as an independent pole of power in the emerging multi-polar world and estrangement from the West continues to preclude any rapprochement with the U.S. and Europe. The second condition is that China would have to change its current position that such alliances should not be entered into. (Russia Matters, 06.07.18)

Simon Saradzhyan, Founding Director of Russia Matters

The fact that the Russian leadership has come around to supporting OBOR even though it will not necessarily be conducive to some of Russia’s vital interests signals Moscow’s readiness to pursue even closer ties with Beijing. This, in turn, could eventually culminate in the establishment of an official military-political alliance between the two countries if tensions between the West and Russia continue. … In addition to the Ukraine crisis, there are at least five sets of longer-term factors that lend themselves to closer ties between Russia and China… The first factor is trade. … Second, both countries have a vested interest in stability in Central Asia to prevent the rise of militant Islamism there. Third, the two also want to preserve their rights as veto-wielding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Fourth, they share a number of serious grievances vis-à-vis the Western world. … Finally, Russian leaders have come to believe that the U.S. and its Western partners are in long-term decline, while China is a rising power and engaging it would pay off for Russia. (Russia Matters, 05.12.17)

There are, of course, factors that hinder the emergence of a Sino-Russian alliance. These include Russia’s reservations about demographic, economic and conventional military disparities in areas straddling the Russian-Chinese border that may come to threaten Moscow’s control of the Russian Far East. … Another damper on closer Russian-Chinese ties is Moscow’s arms trade and robust relations with such regional opponents of China’s rise as Vietnam and India. China’s expanding foot print in Central Asia, where it has displaced Russia as the dominant economic power, has also caused frictions between Moscow and Beijing. These factors make the formation of a de jure Sino-Russian military-political alliance unlikely in the short term. However, the longer Russia remains in a state of Cold War with the West, the less Russian leaders will factor in these friction points as they decide whether to seek such an alliance as a counterweight. (Russia Matters, 05.12.17)

Shi Jiangtao, Former Diplomat, China Reporter at South China Morning Post

During his visit to Russia this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping and “best friend” and counterpart Vladimir Putin ushered in a new era for bilateral ties between the two countries… According to former diplomats and analysts, the “bromance” between the two leaders that has been splashed across both countries’ state-controlled media is not just a show of resentment at Trump’s big-stick diplomacy, but of the geostrategic implications on the shifting global political and economic order. (South China Morning Post, 06.08.19)

But despite their stronger ties, few analysts believed China and Russia would be able to forge a meaningful alliance against the U.S. Fraser Cameron, a former British diplomat and European Commission adviser and director of the EU-Asia Centre, described it as “a marriage of convenience.” (South China Morning Post, 06.08.19)

Shi Ze, Former Chinese Diplomat in Moscow, Senior Fellow, China Institute of International Studies (a think tank affiliated with China’s Foreign Ministry)

China and Russia have different attitudes. Russia wants to break the current international order… Russia thinks it is the victim of the current international system, in which its economy and its society do not develop. But China benefits from the current international system. We want to improve and modify it, not to break it. (Wall Street Journal, 02.01.19)

Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Defense Minister

[Speaking to visiting Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe:] Thanks to the efforts of our countries’ leaders, ties between Russia and China today are entering a new, unprecedentedly high level and are becoming an important factor in ensuring peace and international security. … It is a joy that you are making your first foreign visit in your new position to Russia. (TASS, 04.03.18)

Dimitri K. Simes, President and CEO, Center for the National Interest

In private, Chinese and Russian officials and experts express scant confidence that their two countries can build a lasting alliance. Russians who claim on domestic television that Moscow and Beijing have already established such a relationship in all but name will admit sotto voce that China’s investment in Russia has been disappointing, that Chinese banks fear exposing themselves to U.S. sanctions by working in Russia and that Russian officials are leery of a settlement of their country’s territorial dispute with Japan (over the Kuril Islands) because any cession of Russian-held lands could encourage new Chinese claims. (The National Interest, 12.16.18)

At the same time, Moscow’s discomfort with China and, for that matter, Russia’s generally Western cultural orientation, matter much less now than they might otherwise. If Russian officials do not see acceptable and feasible changes in their policies that could facilitate a better relationship with the United States and its allies, they may believe that they have few options other than closer relations with Beijing to protect Moscow’s security, sovereignty, political order and great power ambitions. … Well-connected, prominent Russian experts go even further; on a recent episode of The Great Game, a program on Russia’s Channel One, each of the four Russian politicians and specialists participating in the discussion spoke of a Chinese-Russian alliance as an emerging reality. While discounting prospects for a formal treaty, they saw a broad partnership unquestionably directed against the West and, first and foremost, the United States. (The National Interest, 12.16.18)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu left little to the imagination: “There’s no question that international tensions have contributed to the tightening of Russian-Chinese bonds.” More ominous are growing Russian military sales to China… Russia has seemingly acquiesced to China’s proclivity for reverse-engineering Russia’s military technology. (The National Interest, 12.16.18)

China and Russia may well build a united front to confront the United States and its allies. Even if such an alignment doesn’t last, it could have dangerous consequences. … How far the Chinese government is willing to go to support Russia in a potential confrontation with the United States is unclear and obviously depends to a significant extent on China’s evaluation of its relationship with America. Should Washington and Moscow indeed confront one another, China would have to consider hopes that its relationship with the United States could still improve as well as fears that becoming too involved with Russia might permanently damage these relations. Even today, however, the very possibility of a Sino-Russian alliance of convenience emboldens Moscow in facing American pressure and makes Russia more willing to target U.S. interests worldwide if the relationship further deteriorates. (The National Interest, 12.16.18)

Jacob Stokes, Senior Policy Analyst, China Program, at the U.S. Institute of Peace

The problem for Trump is that Sino-Russian ties have been improving more or less steadily since the waning years of the Cold War. The thaw between the two communist powers began in the early 1980s and was followed by normalized relations in May 1989. Beijing and Moscow established a “strategic partnership” in 1996 and signed a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001. Chinese and Russian leaders now refer to the relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination,” a convoluted term for a not-quite alliance. (Foreign Affairs, 02.22.17)

The two countries cooperate closely across a number of fields. On energy, Russia became the top oil supplier to China in 2016. Crucially for China, it transports supplies overland rather than through contested sea lanes. The nations have partnered on military exercises, including in the Mediterranean and South China Sea, as well as on some joint technology development projects. They have revived their languishing arms trade relationship. … The two countries have also embarked on a number of symbolic people-to-people projects, such as beginning the long-delayed construction of a bridge across the Amur River. And in June 2016, Presidents Xi and Putin agreed to work jointly to increase their control over cyberspace and communications technologies. (Foreign Affairs, 02.22.17)

A shared political vision for world order provides the foundation for Chinese-Russian cooperation. It is defined primarily by the desire to see an end to U.S. primacy, to be replaced by multipolarity. … To be sure, there is some potential for a rupture between China and Russia. Moscow worries about a lopsided economic relationship based on trading Russian resources for Chinese finished goods. China’s growing influence in Central Asia and the sparsely populated areas of eastern Russia, Moscow’s arms sales to India and Vietnam and China’s theft of Russian weapons designs all threaten to derail the partnership. … Xi and Putin have found a modus vivendi that downplays and contains those frictions while focusing on the cooperative aspects of their relationship. When Chinese leaders talk about a “new type of great power relations” with the United States, they envision something much like the Sino-Russian relationship as a model. (Foreign Affairs, 02.22.17)

Paul Stronski and Nicole Ng, Senior Fellow and Research Assistant, respectively, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Beijing have transformed their relationship from being Cold War adversaries to become pragmatic partners with a common goal of pushing back at a Western-dominated international system. Their relationship is tactical and opportunist but marked by increasingly compatible economic, political and security interests. Sharing a geopolitical worldview of multipolarity, they both have firm desires to contain Western power and seek to accelerate what they see as the weakening of the United States. With a common desire to shift the center of global power from the Euro-Atlantic space to the East, they aim to rewrite at least some of the rules of global governance, suggesting that their partnership is becoming increasingly strategic. Yet the Chinese-Russian relationship is complex, with lingering mistrust on both sides. Despite the grand ambitions for cooperation voiced by the two countries’ leaders, achieving substantive results often eludes them, particularly in the Russian Far East and the Arctic, where realizing the plethora of trade, investment and infrastructure deals announced since 2014 has been difficult. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 02.28.18)

Yun Sun, Senior Associate, East Asia Program, Stimson Center

[The relationship between Russia and China is more of an alignment than an alliance] because Beijing doesn’t want to be bogged down. … But now with Washington becoming more hostile toward China by the day, the benefit of a solid partnership with Russia outweighs its cost significantly. (South China Morning Post, 06.08.19)

Dmitri Trenin, Director, Carnegie Moscow Center

Driven by real and compelling interests, the Sino-Russian relationship in the last five years has reached the level of an "entente": basic compatibility of worldviews supported by practical collaboration in a large number of areas. As Beijing and Moscow look to the future, they understand not only the potential of their cooperation, but also its safe limits. Both countries insist on full sovereignty and freedom of maneuver. They see each other as a key and close partner. … The essence of the Sino-Russian relationship can be summarized thus: Russia and China will never be against each other, but they will not necessarily always be with each other. (China Daily, 06.05.19)

Putin and Xi are on the same page when it comes to the fundamental concept of a desirable world order: several independent power centers instead of a single-nation hegemony; protection of state sovereignty from foreign political and ideological influence; and full equality in relations among the major powers, including the United States. Chinese and Russian strategies and tactics in foreign affairs are as different as their cultures, but now that the liberal democratic order led and dominated by the U.S. has passed its prime, the two neighbors’ efforts are pretty much aligned. (China Daily, 09.11.18)

Crucially, China on the whole has kept away from the U.S.-Russian confrontation, while Russia doesn’t want to be drawn into disputes between China and the U.S. Rather than a list of weaknesses and deficiencies of the Russia-China relationship, this ability to allow for side exemptions and set clear limits for expectations to keep the core intact testifies to the resilience of the relationship. (China Daily, 09.11.18)

Still, a Russia-China defense alliance is a far-fetched possibility. Both China and Russia regard themselves as self-sufficient military powers. Neither Russia nor China would want—or tolerate—a hierarchical relationship with the other. Permanent military alliances in peacetime are a thing of the past, or—as in the case of NATO—a reflection of dominance and voluntary submission, hardly relevant for China and Russia. Yet the Moscow-Beijing relationship, while not an alliance, is also more than the strategic partnership it still calls itself. To borrow a word from the past century, it is best described as an entente—a basic agreement about the fundamentals of world order supported by a strong body of common interest. (China Daily, 09.11.18)

Yaroslav Trofimov, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Wall Street Journal

Though aligned, the two nations are not formal allies and do not always see eye to eye on foreign policy. China doesn’t recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula—just as Russia doesn’t endorse China’s claims to contested islands in the South China Sea and continues to sell weapons to China’s regional rivals, India and Vietnam. (Wall Street Journal, 02.01.19)

Though there is no overt ideological alignment between Russia and China today, the two governments share a hostility to dissent, deep suspicion of Western interference and a strong desire to impose tighter controls over their own societies. Mr. Xi has presided over a push to stamp out corruption and bolster the Communist Party’s role in the economy and the society at large—a campaign akin to Mr. Putin’s earlier effort to tame Russian oligarchs and crush political opposition. China was inspired by Russia’s legislation cracking down on nongovernmental organizations, while Russian officials have expressed admiration for China’s comprehensive internet censorship and “social credit” plan to rank citizens based on their loyalty and behavior. (Wall Street Journal, 02.01.19)

Even as the relationship has blossomed, however, the two nations grow less equal with each passing day. … [D]ivergent economic trajectories have translated into different approaches to the international order. Russia’s demographic and economic stagnation means that it only has so much time left before its military might—its only remaining claim to being a global power—starts to erode, too. Moscow has thus sought rapid change, sometimes too recklessly for China’s tastes. (Wall Street Journal, 02.01.19)

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

[B]eing a bully encourages adversaries to join forces out of their own self-interest, while giving potential allies more reason to keep their distance. It is no accident that Russia and China continue to move closer together—even though they are not natural allies, and a smarter U.S. approach could give Moscow reasons to distance itself from Beijing—and America’s same bullying impulses are going to push states like Iran even closer to them. (Foreign Policy, 04.26.19)

Wei Fenghe, China’s Defense Minister

As for our relations [between Russia and China], they have the greatest common interests, the closest interaction, which is the best among all relations between large countries… We all want to show a high level of Russian-Chinese comprehensive relations, interaction and partnership, to show our friendship and deep relations. (Russian Defense Ministry, 04.25.19)

The Chinese side has come to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia… We’ve come to support you. (Financial Times, 08.02.18)

Jeanne L. Wilson, Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Russian Studies, Wheaton College

Russia and China increasingly share a convergent set of political norms and values, that are indicated in an increasingly shared political national identity. It is not clear to what extent this situation has been facilitated by a shared socialist legacy, but it is the case that both leaderships draw upon the ideological premises of the Marxist-Leninist theory of imperialism in the construction of a world view. Here the United States and the West more generally are seen to pose nothing less than an existential threat to the Russian and Chinese regimes. Russia and China both vehemently resist the concept of universal values, which they interpret as another attempt of the Western powers to impose their norms and values globally. (Russia Matters, 02.04.19)

Putin’s measured praise [of One Belt One Road] largely reflects Russia’s need to make the best of a bad situation: With its economy stymied by sanctions and low oil prices, and its relations with the West tense at best, Moscow has been deepening ties with China in recent years. Nonetheless, Russia understands all too well that China’s “project of the century,” if successful, and its rise on the global stage more generally are reshaping international power dynamics in a way that only highlights the profound economic disparity between the two states. (Russia Matters, 05.19.17)

There is no doubt that the Russian-Chinese relationship has grown substantially closer in the past few years. This is seen not only in rhetoric and symbolic actions—such as the deference paid to Putin at the OBOR forum—but also in the willingness of the Kremlin to allow China greater access to investment opportunities in Russia, notably in the energy sector and land-lease plans in the Russian Far East, and the easing of constraints in the sale of high-technology weaponry. … Nonetheless, as Carnegie analyst Alexander Gabuev has noted, the much vaunted Russian pivot to China is largely a response to Western sanctions in the wake of the crises in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Though Russia and China have become increasingly interdependent, Russia needs China more than China needs Russia. (Russia Matters, 05.19.17)

Xi Jinping, China’s President

President Putin and I … have met almost 30 times in the last six years. Russia is the most frequently visited foreign country for me and President Putin is one of my closest friends and a great colleague. This is the best reflection of the high level of bilateral relations and close strategic cooperation between China and Russia. … Our countries will further consolidate mutual political trust, build mutual support and assistance in issues that concern our key interests in the spirit of novation, cooperation for the sake of mutual advantage, and promote our relations in the new era for the benefit of our two nations and the peoples of the world. (Press Statement Following Russian-Chinese Talks, 06.05.19)

Yan Xuetong, Dean, Institute of International Relations, Tsinghua University

Given the long shadow of nuclear escalation, the risk of a direct war between China and the United States will remain minimal, even as military, technological and economic competition between them intensifies. … Proxy wars, however, cannot be ruled out, nor can military skirmishes among lesser states. In fact, the latter are likely to become more frequent, as the two superpowers’ restraint may embolden some smaller states to resolve local conflicts by force. Russia, in particular, may not shy away from war as it tries to regain its superpower status and maintain its influence in eastern Europe and the Middle East. … Unlike the order that prevailed during the Cold War, a bipolar U.S.-Chinese order will be shaped by fluid, issue-specific alliances rather than rigid opposing blocs divided along clear ideological lines. (Foreign Affairs, 12.11.18)

China has half approached the status of a superpower. Therefore, this principle [of not entering alliances] is no longer in our interest. I do not understand why Russia does not insist on forming an alliance with China. (Kommersant, 03.17.17)

Zhang Wenmu, Professor, Center for Strategic Research, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics

U.S. containment invites China-Russia counter-containment. (The National Interest, 04.25.17)

Zhao Lingmin, Columnist, Financial Times (Chinese edition)

[F]or any country, the main cause for an alliance is the deterioration of the external … environment [and in the absence of that deterioration] … the necessity of an alliance between China and Russia is questionable, and the benefits of alliances to China are not as great. … An alliance with Russia will further worsen China’s international image and soft power deficit. (Hexun, 10.10.14)

Ivan Zuenko, Research Fellow, Center for Asia Pacific Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences (Far Eastern Branch)

[T]he two countries declared 2018 and 2019 the “Bilateral Years of Russian-Chinese Interregional Cooperation.” Additionally, a number of transborder projects have been revived—although, so far, their tangible results have been limited to exhibitions, conferences and festivals. … [They] also signed a key document on Russian-Chinese interregional cooperation… This time, however, it was signed by ministers … and not heads of state. Unfortunately, that accurately reflects regional development’s position in the countries’ bilateral relations: Geopolitics takes priority, while on-the-ground economic cooperation is seen as dull and not particularly rewarding. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.08.18)

[T]he new program is missing many high-profile projects that the Far East Development Ministry and potential Chinese investors have long been discussing. It makes no mention of a “transborder priority development area” and fails to include the issue of constructing high-speed transborder freeways—despite the fact that, in August, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev assured the public in Dalian, China, that the freeway construction was all but a done deal. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.08.18)

The current level of regional cooperation between the two countries, as well as its abominably low results, is far out of sync with the closeness of the two leaders. In fact, the heads of state are deliberately distancing themselves from this issue, allowing their subordinates to do all the work. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 11.08.18)

Peter Zwack, Former U.S. Defense Attache to Russia, Senior Research Fellow, Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

The Russia-China military relationship continues to evolve and is a logical progression following deepening political and economic ties. …The PLA [China’s army], not blooded since its brusque 1979 defeat by Vietnam, likely hopes to learn from Russia’s newly gained fighting expertise derived since 2014 in eastern Ukraine and Syria. What is key to determine is if their interaction evolves more ominously into interoperability exercises where substantial and varied forces can operate in tandem and jointly in coordinated operations. (The National Interest, 09.09.18)

While vulnerable to potential future problems including an increasing resource imbalance … both nations have bigger fish to fry, whether Russia’s issues to the west and south, and in China’s case, in the southeast Pacific, and with India to a lesser extent. Both needed calm borders and a more insulated trading relationship… Making increased military interaction more attractive is also the shared perception that the United States and its allies are squarely blocking their more autocratic aspirations and directly threatening their regimes. Neither have major allies or are part of a well-organized security alliance as is NATO. They are loath about being internationally isolated or contained, which explains why both, even while pursuing different agenda[s], are usually lockstep with each other on major security issues in the U.N. and other international fora. (The National Interest, 09.09.18)

We [the U.S. and its allies] should watch and learn from these military exercises, assure allies and partners, but not overreact to their actions and rhetoric nor appear to try to drive a wedge between them. The wedges are already there, those of the vast region’s history, geography demography and resources, which will inevitably play out in the generations ahead. (The National Interest, 09.09.18)

Photo by shared under a CC-BY-4.0 license.


Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


Angelina Flood

Angelina Flood is Russia Matters' editorial assistant and web coordinator.