By Yun Sun
Western observers of international affairs sounded the alarm after a seemingly enthusiastic joint statement by President Vladimir Putin and General Secretary Xi Jinping. Released during the Russian president’s visit to China — the first time Xi has met with a foreign head of state since before the pandemic — the statement seemed to signal increasing alignment between two powers against the United States and its allies. Based on the document, one could assume China would be supportive of Russia’s assault on Ukraine. The truth, however, is quite different, both on this particular issue (in which China was played by Russia) and in China’s general assessment of Russia, its largest neighbor.
The nature of the Sino-Russian relationship has been difficult to define and there is much disagreement over its characteristics. Is it as sturdy as an alliance? Or as flimsy as a marriage of convenience? The truth is the relationship is neither and both. This paradox is the result of both an alignment and misalignment in different areas of their national interests. While certain factors innate to the Sino-Russian relationship drive them apart, the two are currently glued together by their shared view that the United States poses a threat to their core interests. An accurate assessment of the depth, strengths, and weaknesses of Sino-Russian relations is thus key to mapping out where the two countries do and do not collude in international affairs, especially in Europe and Asia. This includes an understanding of how China views its past, present, and future relationship with Russia.
How can we understand China’s evaluation of Russia’s comprehensive power, and consequently, the alignment of China and Russia’s political, strategic, and economic visions? I find that a close alignment to counter the United States between Beijing and Moscow is primarily driven by their perceived “hostility by the U.S.” Meanwhile, leadership preferences — especially Xi’s personal affinity toward Russia and Putin — also play a key role in driving alignment with Russia, arguably beyond China’s national interests. However, these factors do not negate the fact that China and Russia differ fundamentally in their visions and approaches to the international system. Their alignment is based solely on their shared anti-U.S. agenda and leadership preferences. As such, the Chinese assessment of the long-term prospects of Sino-Russian relations is not as glorified as it seems.
How to Understand What Beijing Thinks
Given current travel restrictions and general censorship in China, my analysis relies on more than a dozen private roundtables in the past 12 months (including four in the past month), conversations with Chinese strategists and experts, and desktop research of Chinese academic papers, commentary, and reports. I also lean on the works of long-time Russia experts, such as Feng Yujun and Ji Zhiye, the former vice president and former president of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), respectively. CICIR is the most authoritative international relations think tank in China and plays an unrivaled role in the Chinese security apparatus. As such, their views carry significant weight.
There are also voices in China that sing high praise for the Sino-Russia relation and its value. These voices cater to Xi’s preferences and are politically expedient, but they obstruct a clear reading of Chinese assessments and intentions. Still, I find that both “bear-huggers” and “bear-critics” share the same basic assessment: that Russia is a destructive power, and that there is a fundamental difference in Russian and Chinese goals and approaches to the international system. In China, what separates supporters and critics of a strong Sino-Russian relationship is whether one believes that the opportunities and benefits of partnering with Russia outweighs the risks and costs, and for how long.
Brought Together by a Mutual Adversary
China and Russia are pushed together by two factors. The first is the shared threat the United States poses. The second is a leader-level nostalgia for the Sino-Soviet partnership. The most salient characteristic of the Sino-Russian alignment today is their shared threat perception of the United States. This does not mean that China and Russia would not have any relationship absent this shared perspective — they always have and always will. But it does mean that the shape and health of their relationship would be completely different if the shared threat perception of the United States was not present.
Prior to the 2014 crisis over Ukraine, China and Russia had a lukewarm relationship. However, the crisis created a watershed event that led Chinese government experts to designate 2014 as “a year of abnormal acceleration of Sino-Russia relations,” although, this acceleration needs to be qualified since China has not yet recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Still, around that time, China’s strategic anxiety over the U.S. strategy of “rebalancing to Asia” coincided with Russia’s fear over NATO’s potential expansion. As such, China made a determination that “China and Russia face the same international pressure from the U.S. bully on a wide range of issues from global governance to their neighborhood and to their domestic affairs.” For Beijing, China and Russia are both identified as revisionist powers in the international order (although the common title disguises critical distinctions of their desired goals). Furthermore, the United States constitutes the most important threat to both countries in their primary theaters — China in the West Pacific and Russia in Eastern Europe. Alignment and cooperation is thus sought, almost instinctively, to mitigate Chinese and Russian isolation by the West, to divide American attention and resources, and to complicate U.S. military planning in both theaters.
Such an alignment is significant for alleviating strategic pressure on China, at least psychologically. At a minimum, it provides a reassurance that China is not countering U.S. hegemony alone. As long as the United States pursues “dual containment” of both China and Russia, the alignment will have motivation and justification. Given the overarching theme in the Chinese national security strategy that defines the United States as China’s primary threat, any disagreements with Russia are seen as secondary and Russian diplomatic and military capabilities will be seen as a valuable asset.
Yet Russia’s fondness for strategic maneuver, such as the utilization of hybrid warfare, also constitutes a major risk for China. Four hundred years of Sino-Russian relations has taught the Chinese that during China’s conflicts with others, the Russian modus operandi is to maximize its own benefits in the name of mediation and assistance for China. For example, Russia carved out one million square kilometers of Chinese territory through its mediation of the Second Opium War. Therefore, the assessment by China’s Russia hands is that Moscow not only sees the “new Cold War” between Washington and Beijing as beneficial for Russia, but that Russia is also responsible for “exploiting and deepening the suspicion, hostility and fear” between Washington and Beijing through diplomatic maneuvers and manipulations. Yet, these experts also vigorously warn about Russian acts of “balancing and coalescing” with both America and China.
So long as the United States remains the biggest threat to China and Russia, the latter will manage their differences to serve the more important goal of countering U.S. pressure. However, while such alignment is strong in terms of words and postures, it is weak on actions. As attested by the joint statement by China and Russia during Putin’s most recent visit of Beijing, the two countries are adept at verbally expressing their shared positions and mutual support, but they are short on concrete policies to be adopted. For example, as China tries to gauge Russia’s substantive support in the South China Sea and on Taiwan, nothing but tepid statements have emerged, along with one joint military exercise in the South China Sea in 2016. While support in this limited domain does not do justice to China and Russia’s coordination on the global scale, the authenticity of the Sino-Russian friendship is tested by how Russia will act toward China’s most important security concerns, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Sino-Russian alignment is also vulnerable to shifts in the balance of relations between the United States, China, and Russia. This is the core weakness of a relationship driven by external factors, in the eyes of Chinese analysts. As put by Ji Zhiye, former president of CICIR, , the Sino-Russian relationship is “temporary, uncertain, vulnerable and could be severely weakened by even slight changes in the external factor (the U.S. policy toward both).” Improvement of relations with the United States, by either China or Russia, will undermine the confidence by the other party. Furthermore, overwhelming Russian dependence on China from sweeping Western sanctions will sow the seeds of Russian discontent against China and result in efforts to distance and counterbalance.
Brought Together from the Top
Although the U.S. factor is the primary driver of the Sino-Russian relationship, there is a less-known and more obscure driver on the Chinese side: Xi’s “Russia complex.” After 1949, the new China adopted complete Sovietization in its ideological, political, economic, and military systems. Soviet mentality and culture was admired, embraced, and absorbed in China “deep to the bones.” Xi’s educational background was profoundly shaped by Russian culture, which he acknowledged during his visit to Russia in 2014. The nostalgia and preference for Russian history and culture is a broad phenomenon observed among people who grew up in the 1950 and 1960s. Xi, as a princeling from that generation, is among the most saturated by Soviet influence. Furthermore, according to my private conversations with Chinese experts, Xi’s “Russia complex” includes a strong admiration of Putin as a strongman leader and a deep desire to be Putin’s peer. Xi is powerful because China is powerful, but Putin is seen as powerful even when Russia is weak. In the Chinese popular culture, Putin is nicknamed, “the Great Emperor” (大帝), who is intelligent, decisive, manipulative, and powerful. This is a status that Xi deeply desires.
The primary result of Xi’s “Russia complex” and admiration of Putin is a selective bias in his judgement about Russia’s national power. Xi is prone to overestimating Russia’s strengths and reliability, while underestimating its weaknesses and the risks posed to China. It means that Xi is more likely to see Russia in a favorable light, just like he sees the United States through a hostile lens. Consequently, he favors alignment with Russia, especially given his “struggles with the U.S.” to reclaim China’s rightful place in the world. As a domestic factor, Xi’s “Russia complex” both accelerates and aggravates China’s alignment with Russia, and some Chinese experts have privately argued the growing Sino-Russian relationship is against China’s national interests.
China’s Assessment of Russia’s National Power
Regardless of the circumstantial drivers, the most important determinant of Sino-Russian relations is how China views Russia as a power, its strength, weaknesses, and how they affect China. That is where An analysis of China’s relationship with Russia must begin with. In China, Russia is regarded as one of only three world powers with global influence, alongside the United States and China. This assessment is not based on singular factors such as economic wealth or military assets, but rather a judgement about Russia’s comprehensive national power.
When China looks at Russia, it sees a nation torn between great-power ambitions and weak capabilities. That tension, in the Chinese view, is the fundamental origin of Russia’s insecurity, anxiety, and strategic choices today. Yet, judging by most domestic indicators, Russia is not a great power. Its economy has stagnated, with an average annual growth rate of 1 percent since 2009. Additionally, the Russian economy shrank by 3.1 percent in 2020 due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia’s gross domestic product ranks 11th in the world, which is just 7 percent and 10 percent of the U.S. and Chinese economies, respectively. In 2021, Russian research and development spending amounted to $60.57 billion, or about 10 percent of the Chinese and American spending, respectively. In 2020, Russia’s military spending was $61 billion, which was about 24 percent and 7.8 percent of Chinese and American defense spending, respectively. If spending is the most convincing indicator of the country’s strength and future trajectory, Russia’s does not inspire confidence.
Although Russia’s economic growth rate was as high as 4.7 percent in 2021, China does not see a positive trajectory for the Russian economy in the years to come. Efforts to curb carbon emission will reduce Russia’s energy export revenue and the government lags in domestic investment. Capital flight continues to worsen, along with the brain drain of Russian intellectuals and elites. No matter how China looks at it — from domestic regulations to international competitiveness, from quantity and education level of the population to the shrinking high-tech capability — the Russian economy does not boast a winning prospect.
China also views Russia’s external environment as having deteriorated significantly since the recent Ukraine crisis, especially in its relations with the West. Global governance, including the international financial system, trade, and climate change, are not Russia’s strong suit, and its role in global governance is limited to U.N. Security Council veto power. Russia has worked vigorously to consolidate its dominant influence in Eurasia, although the result is at best mixed when all 11 states of the Commonwealth of Independent States are considered.
Traditionally, China has high regards for Russia as a military power, but such respect is diminishing. China’s military spending is currently four times that of Russia. In the Chinese discourse, if Russia does not have the budget for military research and development and system upgrades, it will increasingly lag behind and become a “gas station disguised as a nuclear power”.
But there is one aspect of Russia’s national power that elicits the highest respect from Chinese strategists: Russia’s strategic vision and its strong will and ability to utilize, combine, and integrate military power, diplomatic maneuver, and hybrid warfare to advance such a vision. Russia combines various tools to create chaos, helping it to achieve geopolitical goals that otherwise would not have been tenable for a country of its size and means. The ability to combine diplomatic skills, strategic manipulation, and hybrid warfare to achieve geopolitical goals is the one trait that China has admired and does not have.
Compared to all countries except the United States, Russia enjoys superior strength in diplomatic, military, and intelligence capabilities, but is inferior on technological, economic, and financial power. According to prominent Chinese experts on Russia, this discrepancy is the fundamental reason why Russia “should not be underestimated.” Russia’s strength does not lie in its ability to construct, but in its ability to destroy. Russia is not able to cooperate or lead global cooperation, but it can undermine and destroy others’ efforts. This is the essence of Putin’s “strategy of chaos” in the Western narrative. Understanding this aspect of Russian power, China continues to reject an alliance with Russia as of Feb. 28, 2022, days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Fundamental Misalignment
In assessing Sino-Russian alignment, it is important to examine their grand strategic goals, not their short-term postures. Simply put, do China and Russia share the same endgame vision and approach to the international system? With this question in mind, the prospects for long-term Sino-Russian cooperation are ultimately limited by four important factors. First, China and Russia have different visions of international order. Second, as argued in the previous section, China believes that Russia’s ambitions outpace their capabilities. Third, China fears a Russian betrayal of China (just as China betrayed the Soviet Union during the Cold War). Fourth, the two economies are not mutually complementary in the long run. Digging into these factors should disappoint enthusiasts of a Sino-Russian alliance.
China and Russia differ significantly in how they view their roles in, and relationship with, the international system. As Xi Jinping has indicated, China has been a beneficiary of the international system since the end of the Cold War. Xi therefore seeks to reform the system, but he does not seek to replace it. Many observers have found this statement incredulous, seeing Xi’s vision — such as the Community of Common Destiny — to be a replacement of the current international order as we know it. However, the fact remains that China has benefited tremendously from the international system, and Beijing would not want to lose its permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council and free trade with the West.
In comparison, Putin calls the dissolution of the Soviet Union a tragedy and sees Russia as a victim of the same international system that China has benefited from. As such, China’s strategy has largely been a “peaceful rise” — bidding for global supremacy by surpassing the United States without a war or major disruption. This is the essence of the “new model of major power relations,” proposed by Xi as a peaceful mechanism to manage the power transition and avoid a clash. In contrast, Russia’s comparative advantage — its military and diplomatic power, and hybrid warfare approach — lies in its strategy of chaos to maximize Russian leverage and bargaining power. In other words, Russia benefits from instability, while China prefers stability. They both seek to revise the international order, but differ in the process by which they want to change it and the magnitude of changes they prefer.
There is no denying that China also benefits to a certain extent from the chaos Russia creates. At a minimum, Russia could distract the United States and blunt the impact of Washington’s strategic competition on China. However, beyond their shared anti-U.S. agenda, China and Russia differ in their grand vision of international order. China’s desired international order is hierarchical, with China on the top. Within that order, Russia is inferior to China and would need to pay deference. However, this is not Russia’s desired future. Russia is seeking peer status with China and is actively aligning its positions with India, Japan, and Southeast Asia to counterbalance China’s geopolitical influence.
In the Chinese view, Russia is not only seeking to become the “third pole” in the international system and leader of a new Non-Aligned Movement, it also wants to lead that movement to counterbalance both the United States and China. Consequently, Beijing believes Moscow will not side with Beijing to confront Washington, but that it will exploit U.S.-Chinese competition to pave Russia’s leadership in a new world order. This is where China and Russia part ways, and why Russia pursues arms sales and defense cooperation with India and Vietnam, two major headaches for China.
The misalignment between China and Russia is also reflected in their low level of bilateral trade, quantitatively and qualitatively. Chinese-Russian trade increased by an impressive $146.9 billion, or 38.5 percent, in 2021. However, the majority of this increase came from the inflation of energy prices. The volume of trade only grew by less than 6 percent. To put this in perspective, Chinese-Russian trade is smaller than China’s $166 billion in trade with Vietnam. Furthermore, the trade is still unbalanced as natural resources make up more than 70 percent of Russia’s total exports to China.
Imbalance by itself does not suggest misalignment, but Russia’s primary role as a raw materials supplier does. China’s economic transformation is based on high technologies, such as AI and new energy resources. As mentioned, China’s research and development spending is 10 times that of Russia. On new energy, China’s commitment to reduce carbon emission will eventually lead to a decline of energy imports from Russia. In other words, Russia will play a minor role in this economic transformation.
In the context of U.S.-Chinese decoupling, Russia plays no role in substituting China’s losses in high-tech products, and Russia’s position in the global high-tech industry is lagged far behind China, perhaps with the only exception of military technologies. For example, after the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Russia has relied on China to import semi-conductor chips. In another example, during the recent U.S.-Chinese trade war, the two countries hoped that Russian soybeans could make up for China’s loss in American soybeans. However, they soon realized that Russia’s total soybean production (less than five million tons per year) was less than 20 percent of China’s imports from the United States (32 million tons in 2021). Overall, due to the size and structure of Russian economy, Russia is not a likely candidate for bigger roles in the future of Chinese economy.
How can we square the circle between the Chinese policy community’s negative and critical view of Russia, and the seemingly ever-growing alignment between the two countries? Indeed, as the Feb. 4 joint statement seems to suggest, China and Russia are leaning on each other in many domains of international politics. The declaration of a “no limits” partnership between China and Russia seems to be playing out in the Ukraine crisis, where China has refrained from opposing Russia.
The joint statement and China’s acquiescence (or even tacit support) in the Ukraine crisis illustrates a difficult reality: In response to increasing strategic competition with the United States, China is turning to Russia for support, despite misalignment between Beijing and Moscow’s national interests, as well as Russia’s history as a destructive and exploitative neighbor. There is no better example of “marriage of convenience” than this, and China will pay dearly for this choice.
It’s hard to predict the longevity and stability of the current Sino-Russian alignment. It begins and ends with China’s anti-U.S. agenda and is strengthened by Xi’s personal preferences. There is a famous Chinese saying among Russia hands that China and Russia can only share miseries, but not happiness (中俄只能共苦，不能同甘). Without shared visions, goals, and approaches, China and Russia will align against a common enemy. Yet it will split, in a destructive way, when that delicate equilibrium is disrupted by any structural change.
Yun Sun is the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.
Credit | Wars on the Rock