Putin arriving in China

Russia and China Beyond Realpolitik: The Bond of Respect and Values

February 04, 2019
Jeanne L. Wilson

This op-ed is part of a new debate from Russia Matters called "Russia and China—Alliance or Dalliance? And What Will This Mean for the West?" with contributions by Graham Allison and by Simon Saradzhyan and Ali Wyne.

Exactly how close are Russia and China and what does this mean for the West? This has been a matter of concern among experts for some time. The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment by the U.S. intelligence community groups Russia and China together as America’s No. 1 “regional threat,” competing with Washington worldwide for “technological and military superiority.” In outlining their concerns, the report’s authors explicitly point out that Moscow and Beijing are “more al­­­igned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year.” If this is the case, then how did it come to be and what are the prospects for the U.S. and its allies?

Four of us have grappled with these questions recently on these pages. In a debate published by Russia Matters on Dec. 20, Graham Allison, Simon Saradzhyan and Ali Wyne parsed the likelihood that the increasingly close bilateral relationship will evolve into a formal military and political alliance. Allison argues that Russia and China have been motivated to draw steadily closer as a consequence of the “American threat.” Saradzhyan and Wyne do not dispute this assessment, but they present a broader and more nuanced analysis that points to the existence of diverging perspectives between the two states that render the formation of a formal alliance unlikely. My own view of Russian-Chinese relations does not differ significantly in most aspects from these authors’. I want, however, to introduce two interrelated observations. First is to emphasize to an even greater degree the importance of respect and the phenomenon of status granting as a factor in the relationship. Second is to stress the extent to which political norms and values shared by Russia and China come through in a shared political identity that, in turn, plays a major role in determining the countries’ interests.

Despite the contrasting conclusions described above, there is a considerable extent of overlap in the major points stressed by Allison, Saradzhyan and Wyne. They agree, as noted above, that Russia and China share a list of geopolitical grievances that identify the United States and its Western allies as an outright threat. Relevant actions pursued by the West include the longstanding issue of NATO enlargement, the development of missile defense systems, U.S. claims to hegemonic status in the Asian Pacific Region and efforts to foment “color revolutions” as a means of regime overthrow. And they also agree that there are significant obstacles to a deep alliance in the longer term.

Allison’s article stresses the extent to which successive American presidential administrations have (in large part inadvertently) contributed to the growing collusion between Russia and China. Saradzhyan and Wyne, in contrast, pay more attention to the tensions that underlie the relationship, which benefits from the façade of equality and the congenial personal ties between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. This atmosphere of bonhomie, however, is not sufficient to mask frictions. Despite the improvement of relations, there remains an absence of trust. Saradzhyan and Wyne note a deep-seated suspicion of China among elements of the Russian military, as well as a fear of the migration of Chinese to the Russian Far East, and the consequent fear that a resurgent China will seek to reclaim Russian lands. They further point to the complexities of the Russian-Chinese relationship in Central Asia, where Russia’s traditional hegemony is being challenged by Chinese economic penetration. They indicate that a full-blown alliance between Russia and China is unlikely unless two conditions emerge: 1) Russia proves amenable to accepting a junior role in an alliance with China; or 2) China changes its longstanding policy of rejecting membership in alliance relationships.

Allison’s is essentially a geopolitical argument rooted in the realist logic of the balance of power, and perhaps an attempt to nudge Washington to reconsider some of its policies; Saradzhyan and Wyne adopt an alternative approach that assesses the relative configuration of positive and negative features of the Russian-Chinese relationship.

Saradzhyan and Wyne  also acknowledge the important role that respect plays in the relationship, a situation that, bluntly stated, indicates that China, although the dominant partner, has elected to treat Russia as an equal rather than a subordinate. Similarly, Russia’s pivot to the East, most notably in the economic sphere, is viewed at least in part as an adverse consequence of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the Russian annexation of Crimea. It is on this former point that I would like to expand.

Both Russia and China exhibit a highly sensitized awareness of status gradations in the international system.  According to Deng Xiaoping, the Sino-Soviet dispute reflected the situation that the “Soviet Union put China in the wrong position” and that the Soviet Union did not treat China as an equal partner.1 In contrast, the Chinese leadership has elected to treat Russia—even in the chaotic days of the 1990s—with a scrupulous respect that has gone a long way to assuage Russia’s wounded ego. There can be no doubt that Putin understands that China is now the ascendant partner in the relationship (he has said as much), but China has continued its solicitous behavior up until the present—seen in such decisions as to make Xi’s first trip abroad as China’s leader to Russia, and to place Putin as the keynote speaker immediately after Xi at international fora, etc. These sorts of events form one element—among others—in Putin’s constructed presentation of Russia as a great power. In effect, China’s actions serve to confer an enhanced status to Russia. It is by no means clear, as Saradzhyan and Wyne point out, that Russia would willingly accept a second-place status in a formal alliance. But this is to note that Putin has proved exceedingly proficient at developing a sort of virtual narrative that transcends a linkage with empirical reality.

Neither Allison nor Saradzhyan and Wyne ascribe a notable role in the relationship between Russia and China to ideology. However, it has alternatively been suggested, as Gilbert Rozman argues, that Russia and China increasingly share a convergent set of political norms and values, that are indicated in an increasingly shared political national identity.2 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. This recasts Allison’s list of grievances as ideological precepts that reflect fundamental conceptions of political identity.  Saradzhyan and Wyne’s compilation of state interests, such as the importance of state sovereignty, non-interference and political stability can also be recast as normative values that attest to a Russian and Chinese shared identity. In this situation, it can be suggested that Russia and China’s perception of their national identity shapes their delineation of core interests.

Despite the realist logic of a trilateral balance-of-power system, the authors leave room for individual agency in their analyses. Allison’s identification of the United States as a major facilitator of Russia and China’s growing closeness indicates that U.S. leaders can also play a role in reversing this process. Similarly Saradzhyan and Wyne call for efforts to normalize U.S. relations with Russia. The implication is clear that decision makers are not the passive subjects of historical forces but possess the ability for positive change.

As the Worldwide Threat Assessment notes, cooperation between China and Russia is “expanding” both bilaterally 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.” The fact is, however, that current U.S. foreign policy has paid very limited attention to the increasing linkages between these two international outliers. In the short run, there seem to be few constraints on the intensification of the relationship. At the same time, the United States has exhibited few tendencies to ameliorate its relations with Russia or China, much less contemplate the multilateral geostrategic implications of their relationship. In this sense, I concur with Saradzhyan and Wyne that the United States should seek to normalize its relationship with Russia.  With regard to China, the Trump administration is betting big on Chinese concessions in its escalating trade war, but a more calculated approach would be to identify the issue areas that divide the two states, to acknowledge the possibility of compromise and to rely more on diplomacy than on threats


  1. “Russia: Ten Years After” at www.ceip.org/files/programs/russia/tenyears/panel112.htm.
  2. Gilbert Rozman, “The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order,” Stanford University Press, 2014.

Jeanne L. Wilson

Jeanne Wilson teaches at Wheaton College where she is the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Russian studies, a professor of political science and coordinator of the school's international relations major. She is the author of "Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era." 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.