In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Putin and Xi

Mitter, Wishnick: Alignment, Not Alliance for Russia-China Relationship

April 18, 2024
Conor Cunningham

"Is the Russia-China relationship truly an alliance?" This pivotal question framed a recent seminar hosted by the Belfer Center and Russia Matters, entitled "Russia-China: A Long-Term Alliance?" as part of the series "Russia's Past, Present, and Future." Moderated by Paula Dobriansky, a senior fellow with Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the seminar featured insights from Harvard’s S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations Rana Mitter and senior research scientist at the China and Indo-Pacific Studies Division at CNA, Dr. Elizabeth Wishnick. Both Wishnick and Mitter agreed that alignment defines the current Sino-Russian relationship, not alliance. Over the course of the ensuing discussion, the nuances of this alignment were explored in detail; Mitter and Wishnick delved into the essence of the Russia-China relationship, probing whether this partnership signifies a long-standing alliance, the potential role of China in a post-Putin Russia, the prospects for cooperation or discord and the broader implications of this relationship for the Indo-Pacific region.

In her opening remarks, Wishnick underlined that while she dislikes the term “marriage of convenience” to describe the Sino-Russian relationship, the relationship between the two countries, which have not entered any official military pacts with each other, falls short of an alliance. She then explained which features of this relationship make it an alignment. Among these, she pointed to deepening military and aerospace cooperation, mutual support in international venues and expanding trade. Wishnick also emphasized two distinct aligning factors in the relationship: a shared animosity for the United States and both countries’ search for regime security as authoritarian states. These factors are the prevailing glue that anchors their alignment rather than the “non-insignificant” personal relationship between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Wishnick also emphasized that while Russian public opinion vis-à-vis China has improved, Russians remain concerned about becoming an energy appendage of China. In addition, deeper integration faces challenges, including complicated border relations in Russia’s east and China’s northeast, as evidenced by agreements of cooperation between non-contiguous border regions. 

Mitter agreed with Wishnick’s general assessment of the Sino-Russian relationship as an alignment, underlining the shared Sino-Russian strategic conundrum of the United States’ global predominance. Additional practical elements driving China and Russia together include economic concerns and China’s efforts to develop its own payment system, the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS). However, emotional, identity-led and diplomatic elements of the relationship exist. The personal relationship between Xi and Putin plays an outsized role compared with any other modern Sino-Soviet/Russian relationship. This strong personal relationship is shaped by Xi’s upbringing as the last generation immersed in Russian/Soviet culture. Mitter emphasized that China’s influence on Russia likely led to a de-escalation in Russia’s rhetoric at the beginning of the full-scale invasion regarding the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine—a red-line for China. Regarding potential pitfalls in their relationship, Mitter emphasized Russian concerns about China’s ambitions in the Arctic; China declared itself a “Near-Arctic State” in 2018, much to the dislike of Russia and Canada. And while the majority of the Chinese leadership privately and publicly supports deeper integration with Russia, there remains significant resistance to said rapprochement among some members of the Chinese leadership. 

Following the opening remarks, Dobriansky asked if Wishnick wanted to comment on Mitter’s statements, highlighting their shared remarks on Xi and Putin’s personal relationship. While she resisted lending too much significance to Putin and Xi’s personal relationship—stating that China and Russia would likely still be aligned regardless of leadership—Wishnick largely agreed with Mitter’s opening assessment. Wishnick depicted the Sino-Russian relationship through the metaphor of a panda bear and a brown bear, each pedaling their own bicycle side by side in the same direction. This imagery underscores the notion of parallel but distinct journeys, highlighting cooperation with a degree of independence. Yet, their journeys’ ultimate destinations or purposes remain ambiguous, leaving room for interpretation regarding the future trajectory of their partnership. Wishnick underscored Russian resistance to China’s “near-Arctic” posture. Russia continues to view itself as the gatekeeper of the Arctic, and like its stance on Central Asia, Russia wants to police those areas where it still has influence and authority. However, Wishnick admitted that Russia is dependent on purchasing Chinese technology to explore the Arctic, leaving less room to resist China’s encroachment. Subsequently, Wishnick detailed the military cooperation between Russia and China, noting that while their joint military exercises and mutual visits to military bases are steps toward deeper collaboration, these actions often serve more as symbolic gestures of unity rather than indicators of solidified military integration. Additionally, the Chinese doubt that Russia would act in Chinese interests if China became entangled in Taiwan. Nevertheless, Wishnick noted that a sincere deepening of military cooperation is still possible in the future, given future agreements on joint helicopter production and dialogue on Asian security. 

Turning again to Mitter for comment, Dobriansky added that several years ago, in response to China's desire to have more influence in the Arctic, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu rebuffed the idea that any other country would govern the Arctic. Mitter responded to Wishnick, emphasizing again that the practical elements of the Sino-Russian relationship do not exclude a critical personal relationship between Xi and Putin. 

During the Q&A session, Margaret Williams of Belfer’s Arctic Initiative underscored China’s heavy investment in the Arctic, stating that from the Russian perspective, Chinese influence is actually welcome, given that it would not be able to develop the Arctic’s natural resources without them. Williams also pointed to Russia’s and China’s shared interest in gaining greater access to fishing resources. In response, Wishnick emphasized that 90% of the trade goes from Russia to China, not vice versa. Chinese investment is hindered by secondary sanctions, as delayed projects like the Yamal 2 gas pipeline attest. Russia is also actively searching for other partners to counterbalance Chinese investment (i.e., Turkey) as it fears its own project, the Northern Sea Route, becoming merely an appendage of China’s Silk Road. Wishnick said that China’s goals are much grander in the Arctic and entail gaining influence in other countries' zones of influence—a move staunchly rebuffed by Greenland and Sweden. Dobriansky agreed with the concerns about larger Chinese expansion in the Arctic, emphasizing Norway's serious concerns. 

Another member of the audience asked about the strategic signaling in Putin’s recent statements in support of the official Chinese position vis-à-vis Taiwan. Wishnick clarified that these statements are nothing out of the ordinary. Not deviating from Russia’s well-established policy on Taiwan, Putin hopes to “talk the talk” and display broad geopolitical support with China. However, Russia ultimately wants greater maneuverability in East Asia, even to the dismay of China; this has always been evident, given Russia’s relations with countries, like Vietnam, that oppose aggressive Chinese maneuvering in Southeast Asia.

The last two questions regarded Russian and Chinese efforts to develop a like-minded cohort of countries and diplomatic efforts by the U.S. to bring Russia and China back into the fold. Wishnick emphasized the cyber realm, and particularly the premise of internet sovereignty, as an area where Russia and China could attract countries that favor a more controlled internet governance model. However, the Western premise that there is a staunch tri-lateral coalition between Russia, China and Iran is overexaggerated. After all, average Iranians are skeptical of the relationship between Russia and China. Mitter outlined two possible trajectories of Chinese and Russian efforts to foster cooperation with other nations. In the first, short- to medium-term scenario, both Russia and China increase their influence by relying on certain advantages; for Russia, this entails using its natural wealth, and for China, embedding Chinese technology to help countries build. In the second scenario, envisioned over the long-term, China will play an increasingly important role as the leader in renewable energy, while Russia’s global role diminishes. Regarding the U.S. perspective, neither Mitter nor Wishnick predicted an about-face vis-à-vis Russia or China—with the caveat of the unpredictability of a second Trump presidency, Mitter noted. However, Mitter added that certain unpredictable changes could heavily influence the direction of events, most notably social unrest in Russia due to conscription and outrage in the event of China’s pension system going bankrupt—a scenario the Chinese government is already preparing for, he added. Wishnick mentioned increased anti-migrant violence in Russia as a possible influential factor in domestic Russian politics, citing the serious declaration made by the Kyrgyz president urging citizens to go to Russia. 

In their concluding remarks, Wishnick identified the trend of Russian and Chinese alignment accompanied by their mutual isolation from the global system as a negative. One such negative is the isolation that countries in East Asia could experience due to Chinese and Russian isolation from the global system. However, limits on their cooperation exist, given both Russia and China’s interest in conducting independent foreign policies. Mitter closed the conversation, distancing the current situation from the Cold War world order and emphasizing that Russia and China do not represent a unified “monolith” of power. Additionally, this competition between China and Russia is evident in developing countries outside the Western world. Unlike the Cold War, these countries display a large degree of agency in picking who to work with, contrary to what we might think. 

Wishnick and Mitter were not the only scholars to explore the possibility and consequences of an increasingly stronger Russian-Chinese alignment. “Moscow and Beijing may never sign a formal alliance, but the evolution of their relationship in the years ahead will increasingly affect the world and challenge the West,” CEIP’s Alexander Gabuev wrote in FA this week. “To come to terms with this development, Western policymakers should abandon the idea that they can drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow,” Gabuev writes, “[w]hereas ... Henry Kissinger courted communist China during the Cold War by offering Beijing a normalization of ties with the United States, U.S. officials cannot extend a deal of that sort to either Moscow or Beijing at this point.” Like Gabuev, Ivan Timofeev of pro-Kremlin RIAC doesn’t believe Moscow and Beijing are creating “a military-political alliance similar to NATO... yet,” but he does see the two countries eventually building a Eurasian security framework that may “be tailored to the task of deterrence.” Timofeev may have been alluding to the “dual counteraction to double containment” formula proposed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi while recently hosting Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov, which the latter welcomed.

Conor Cunningham is a student associate with Russia Matters.

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by shared under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.