The Continuing Saga of Russia-China Relations: Can the Bear and the Dragon Be Friends?11 min read

 In Analysis, Politics, Russia

Since 2014, Russo-Chinese bilateral cooperation has risen to an unprecedented level, facilitated by international sanctions on Russia and shared skepticism towards the Western-dominated international order.

Context of the relations

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russo-Sino Cold War period rivalry has transformed into a pragmatic partnership built on an anti-US axis. In 1996, a “Russo-Chinese strategic partnership” was formed, signalling the emergence of Russian “multi-vector” foreign policy aimed at counterbalancing America’s unipolar domination. NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 accelerated Moscow’s shift towards Beijing, as both drew an analogy to their national security concerns stemming from secessionist ethnic minority areas (Chechnya in Russia; Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia in China). 

Since Vladimir Putin’s second term of presidency, amid Russia’s increasingly fraught relationship with Europe and accelerated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and consequent Western sanctions imposed in 2014, Russo-Chinese bilateral cooperation has risen to an unprecedented level. The two countries seem to have numerous reasons to like each other: both are states with authoritarian tendencies, and neither needs to worry about being sanctioned or excluded by the other’s foreign policy on humanitarian grounds.Moreover, their  current leaders seem to have friendly relations. Together with their mutually compatible economies and beneficial military and economic projects, they have shared interests in several regions including Russia’s Far Eastern Region, Central Asia, and the Arctic.

Despite ups and downs, Russo-Sino relations have always been characterized by complexity and lingering mistrust. China’s emergence as an influential player with ambitious plans and the ability to materialize them gives China the upper hand. Even though the asymmetry is likely to grow, Moscow and Beijing realize that they can gain more from cooperation. If China refrains from strengthening its hard security role vis-á-vis Russia and continues to focus on being the economic superpower, Russia-Sino ties are likely to get better.

Arms Trade: A friend in need is a friend indeed?

Amid the sanctions regime supported by the West, Russia keeps forging new partnerships, including signing lucrative military technology trade deals with India, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, and, most importantly, China.

In the Moscow-Beijing friendship, a peculiar correlation can be observed between Western sanctions and breakthroughs in their relations. After the Tienanmen Square Massacre of June 4th, 1989, when Chinese forces violently suppressed student-led demonstrations, the United States and the European Union imposed an arms embargo on China. Instead of condemning Beijing’s actions, Moscow soon became China’s largest arms supplier (40% of total arms exports going to China). As one would expect, Russia’s defense industry soon became one of the pillars of Russo-Sino relations. By 2014, the share had reduced to approximately 25-30%, mainly because China had already acquired advanced conventional weapons from Russia and itself had become a producer and exporter of arms. China’s copying of Russian military technology (the Russian Su-27/30 became the Chinese J11) stoked friction in their relationship, and since 2004 has resulted in an informal ban in Russia on selling advanced military technology to China. But considering that China was the first foreign buyer to seal a deal with Russia on the purchase of its S-400 air defense system, in 2014, and also secured purchases of its Su-35 fighter jets, in 2015, Russia has evidently overcome its dilemma in favour of China’s lucrative markets.

Amid Russia’s increasing concern that Chinese weapons might take over Russia’s traditional market share in weapons trade, current arms deals come from short-term economic and, more importantly, political reasons. Moscow is likely to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s growing military industry if China remains its staunch ally in military adventurism aimed at challenging U.S military superiority.

 From “constructive partnership” to the strategic alliance?

Skepticism towards the West combined with pragmatism can be potentially translated into an alliance on strategic issues. Amid apparent divergence with the West on the norm of non-intervention on matters concerning the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Syria, combined with the attempts to keep the status-quo by supporting friendly regimes in the Middle East, Russia has sought to find allies in the East.

Even though some might speculate that joint military exercises since 2012, especially Russia-China military drills in Baltic Sea, and joint efforts to stabilize Central Asia (combating terrorism, separatism and extremism), can be a prelude to a future strategic alliance, at the practical level, to date, there has been little evidence that they may cooperate under a strategically-oriented institutionalized framework covering military matters. China’s uneasy relations with Russia’s friends India and Vietnam combined with differences in perceived key security threats are primary obstacles to forming an alliance, as neither Moscow nor Beijing wants to play a role in the other’s military adventurism where there are no common threats. As Gabuev observes, their security threats lie elsewhere, from NATO’s enlargement to domination over the South China Sea. 

Economy and asymmetrical dependence

Mutually compatible economies are one of the primary drivers in Moscow-Beijing partnership. China is the world’s number one energy consumer while Russia is one of the largest energy exporters. Russia moreover needs to diversify its energy routes and attract investment. By 2017, China was Russia’s top export destination (11%) and top import origin (20%), while for China’s extremely diversified market, exports to  Russia remain insignificant. Russia is worried about overdependence on China, but Chinese markets provide the best alternative for diversification of its exports from Europe.

Despite Western skepticism of the Kremlin’s usual rhetoric of diversification of gas supplies to Asian markets, this is not a distant, uncertain prospect. In 2014, Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) signed 30-years deal, which according to Gazprom is “the biggest purchase and sale contract in the history of the global gas industry”. The deal appears mutually beneficial, however, Russia may potentially become overdependent on China, while China, unlike Europe, already has diverse suppliers. In addition, as a result of post-Crimea western sanction, Russian energy companies became heavily dependent on Chinese investment which has given China the leverage to buy from Russia at pennies on the dollar.

It comes as no surprise that Chinese markets seem attractive to Russian energy companies, especially to Russian rent-seeking elites. Yet, Russia’s short-term strategy to maximize foreign trade rent by exporting raw materials will not likely benefit its economy in the long-term.

One should take national narratives with a grain of salt. Despite general positive coverage of bilateral relations, Moscow is waging a subtle information war against China and is sending mixed signals to the Russian public about China’s increasing assertiveness. Chinese migrants and investors play an important role in boosting the Russian economy, however, Moscow has successfully securitized the migration of Chinese settlers on the grounds of a ‘racial threat’, to Russia’s declining population, claiming that the ethnic balance of Russia could shift. Moscow’s growing anxiety concerning overdependence on China, coupled with general anti-Chinese rhetoric, could influence prospects of future cooperation.

Region of shared interest: Russia’s Far East and Asia-Pacific integration

Russian political discourse emphasizing its “Europeanness” has been shifting over recent years. Russian policy-makers have realized that Russia’s Far Eastern (RFE) region could play an important role in its integration with the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) and subsequent diversification away from dependence on Europe. If the US dominated the West, the East was relatively a free space for geopolitical contestation where Russia could re-emerge as a great power. If the 1993 Russian Foreign Policy paid little attention to Russia’s Asian neighbors, by 2000 one of the crucial directions had become active participation in “major integration mechanisms of the Asia–Pacific Region” by focusing on the “economic development of Siberia and the Far East”. Even though Russia sought to reinforce long-term relations with most Asian countries, its Asian vector remained mainly oriented towards India and China. Despite the complexity of relations with China, in the Indian-Russian-Chinese triangle the link to India has always been the weakest. With China’s emergence as an economic superpower, the focus has certainly shifted towards the latter by acknowledging it as a principal investor and facilitator of integration. Still a shared long continental border is the major reason for strengthening economic ties between RFE and China. For example, by 2011, nearly 90% of exports from Amur Oblast, which borders Heilongjiang Province, went to China, and nearly 80% of imports came from China. While the RFE region is heavily dependent on China, Russia’s importance to Chinese m markets is relatively minor. For Beijing, growing engagement in the RFE comes from political interests. For China, securing its northern border by having friendly relations is an essential driver of its active economic engagement.

Region of shared interest: Common security threats in Central Asia

Cooperated efforts to stabilize regional conflicts in Central Asia (CA) and operations undertaken by China, Russia and Central Asian republics to fight the three evils”: terrorism, separatism and religious extremism prove that the two countries’ strategic partnership can reach a new level. At the same time, CA is an area of contestation where both powers are economically present. In recent years, China surpassed Russia in trade and investment in the region. China’s increasing economic presence has led to a stronger security presence that undermines Russia’s interests in being the main security provider in the region. To counter Beijing’s influence, Russian state-controlled minor media units are raising an anti-Chinese narrative claiming China wants to “occupy Central Asia”. Reportedly, China financially supports building a military base for Afghan armed forces on the Afghan-Tajik border by covering material and technical expenses and providing military assistance to the other CA States. Despite this, so far there have been no signs of China trying to undermine Russia’s political influence over the region; thus, as long as China continues to be a soft security provider via economic assistance without pursuing geopolitical goals, Russia-Sino strategic relations are likely to remain stable.

Region of shared interest: Plans for the Arctic

Joint projects of resource extraction and infrastructure assistance in the Arctic region are another sign of Moscow and Beijing’s commitment to overcoming differences. The need for new transportation roads and natural resources are significant drivers of China’s interest in the region, especially with global warming enabling more active human involvement. Considering its economic and strategic importance, the resource-rich Arctic region is undoubtedly Russia’s “special zone of interest”. Other states’ increasing engagement in the area is met with unease by Moscow.

Despite concerns, Russia needs Chinese economic assistance to advance infrastructure, crucial for cost-effective resource extraction. After Western sanctions, Chinese investments seem very attractive to Moscow to realize its ambitious plans for the Arctic. Moreover, by the inclusion of the Arctic in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Russia has become an important link in China’s ambitious transport projects.  Moscow’s alignment with Beijing in BRI, in the latter’s plan aimed at emerging as an economic superpower, can be not only a sign of unprecedented level Russo-Sino relations but may also signal global power shifting to the East.

However, rhetoric is far from reality. China has serious concerns regarding the costs of engagement in the Arctic and historically engrained spectrum of mistrust are haunting Sino-Russo relations. Russian security elites are also worried about Russia’s sovereignty and geopolitical interests and remain increasingly skeptical about China’s increasing involvement in their “special zone of interest”. Considering the benefits and trade-offs of cooperation, it is difficult to foresee how long Russia will tolerate China’s increasing engagement in the Arctic.


The mutually beneficial, albeit asymmetrical Russo-Sino partnership is steadily progressing. Beijing’s sophisticated diplomacy is well aware of Russia’s sensitivity on equal treatment and anxiety about China’s rapid rise as a global power.  China is boosting its geopolitical standing and subtly challenging regional dynamics, but the apparent power asymmetry and geopolitical aspirations are well-hidden behind Beijing’s constructive, non-confrontational approach to Moscow. China rhetorically respects Russia’s sovereignty and accepts it as a key regional player. Yet, the relationship is far from harmonious and can be influenced by numerous factors. It is difficult to foresee for how long international sanctions will be imposed on Russia. Moreover, rhetoric has not matched reality as most EU states (including Germany, France, and the UK) continue to cooperate with Russia on issues ranging from business to new energy projects.Warming relations with the West might influence Moscow’s “Asia Pivot” policy. Even though odds are that both leaders will remain in power for a long time,  it is difficult to speculate how friendly Russo-Sino relations will remain in the Post-Putin and Post-Jinping era. Moreover, the countries’ relations with other global players will have implications on their relations with each other. Change in US foreign policy and a Nixon-style resumption of harmonious relations with China might strike a friction in Sino-Russian relations.

National narratives of friendship are far from reality and both sides have concerns. Despite numerous challenges, considering beneficial military and economic projects, shared interests in RFE, CA and the Arctic accelerated by international sanctions, the Russo-Sino partnership will likely continue to flourish. If China continues to provide economic assistance without pursuing geopolitical goals vis-á-vis Russia, their relations are likely to remain stable.

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