The Art of Tasseography: China–Russia Relations as Viewed from China

Behind the curtain: following Chinese academic debates can provide clues about how the country's leadership is reflecting on China's foreign relations. Image: aphotostory / Adobe Stock

Analysis of Beijing's relationship with Moscow tends to focus on official statements and diplomatic behaviour. But what do Chinese experts have to say about the matter? And how might they be advising their government?

The dynamics of Beijing’s relationship with Moscow remain as opaque as the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, we rely on body-language experts to dissect every aspect of a handshake between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin to help confirm what we think we already know. Are China–Russia ties so plagued by mutual distrust that they are set for an inevitable weakening or even collapse? Or are they now so strong that they might develop into a formal alliance or lead China into providing military support to Moscow? Arguments continue to be made in both directions, some more convincing than others. Ultimately, however, we are mostly just reading the tea leaves, and this article will likewise attempt to do just that.

Security as China’s Main Driver

Since having frank and open conversations with Chinese government officials is almost impossible, following academic debates has become one of the few ways of gleaning hints about how Chinese leaders may be reflecting upon certain issues and the type of advice that they may be receiving. Zhao Huasheng (赵华胜), one of China’s most renowned Russia experts, may provide a few clues. In one of the more comprehensive analyses of China–Russia relations to have been published in China since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Zhao explains why he believes that his country should maintain its close ties with Moscow in spite of the drawbacks.

Unsurprisingly, he describes security as being Beijing’s foremost interest in its bilateral relationship with the Kremlin. ‘With China’s greatest strategic pressure coming from the sea’, he says, ‘good Sino-Russian relations can ensure that China has … a relatively stable strategic rear … This has enormous strategic benefits for China. The significance of this is invisible and seemingly unremarkable in times of peace, but its strategic relevance to China will be revealed were our country to be faced with a major upheaval [变故] coming from abroad.’

This goes beyond simply stabilising China’s 4,300-km-long border with Russia. On account of Moscow’s remaining influence in and around China’s neighbourhood, ‘good Sino-Russian relations can at the very least ensure the basic stability of half of Eurasia’, Zhao argues. Conversely, ‘a deterioration in Sino-Russian relations would plunge the entire Eurasian continent into a state of turmoil and uncertainty’. This would be highly detrimental to China’s ‘security and economic interests’.

With its hinterland stabilised, Beijing is able to focus most of its energy and military resources on its coast, the surrounding seas and – most importantly – Taiwan. The island, according to Zhao, ‘is the greatest strategic challenge facing China. In a sense, it is like the sword of Damocles hanging over [our] head. We do not know when it will fall, perhaps suddenly, perhaps in the more distant future. But in any case, China cannot [afford] not to prepare itself for all the possible changes [that might affect] the situation in the Taiwan Strait. If the mainland were one day obliged to reunify using military means, we can be sure that China would then find itself in an extremely difficult and complex international environment’. And although Zhao does not expect Russia to be ‘completely’ supportive of China (不期望俄罗斯完全支持中国) in the event of such a crisis – perhaps much like China’s stance over Ukraine – he does expect Moscow to maintain its ties with Beijing and to not take part in imposing sanctions on his country. Zhao reminds his readers that, ‘Among the major powers, Russia is probably the only one that is not opposed to China’. Were US--China relations ever to descend into outright confrontation (对峙), Moscow could well seek to play both sides. ‘But so long as it does not side with the US, this will be a strategic success for China’, he adds.

Perhaps more damaging to China than the war in Ukraine itself has been Beijing’s refusal to distance itself from the aggressor

Economically, Russia may only represent a small share (roughly 3%) of China’s foreign trade, Zhao says, but ‘in the event of a major international crisis, Russia would be the most important foreign source of energy – and [perhaps] even the only foreign source of oil – that China could conceivably continue to preserve’. Other scholars in China also highlight Russia’s important role in helping to achieve some of Beijing’s broader economic and financial objectives, such as the internationalisation of the yuan and the continued quest for a credible alternative to Western cross-border payment systems, with the aim of reducing China’s and the world’s dependence on the current US-dominated financial system. More broadly, Moscow is regularly portrayed as a key partner, if not Beijing’s most important partner, in what Zhao calls ‘China's push to build a new international order’ – in other words, an order that would be less dominated by the West and more in line with the interests of Moscow, Beijing and other members of the Global South. Losing the support of a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a key participant in such groupings as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation would inevitably jeopardise such plans. Summarising the China–Russia relationship, Wang Xiaoquan (王晓泉), a Russia specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, remarks: ‘China and Russia are “half of the sky” [半边天] for each other’s security and development’.

The Positive and Negative Impact of the War in Ukraine on China

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as a shock to most experts in China. Chinese academia has its fair share of Russia apologists who blame the war on both Washington and NATO’s eastward expansion. However, even they occasionally bemoan the adverse consequences that the war has had for China. To be sure, some see the conflict as having helped to push Russia further into China’s orbit and to accelerate the emergence of the desired new multipolar and less Western-centric world order, and even as having distracted – albeit temporarily – the US from its ‘containment’ of China in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, in these scholarly discussions at least, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives. As Chinese economist Xu Mingqi (徐明棋) noted last year: ‘The repercussions of the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine have been largely negative [for us] and I cannot see China benefitting from it … First, it has hindered the world economy's [post-pandemic] recovery; second, it has fuelled the ideological trend towards deglobalisation; and third, it has put global economic governance in jeopardy.’ Stability abroad continues to be key to sustaining China’s economic development, Xu adds. In that respect at least, the war in Ukraine has evidently run counter to his country’s interests.

But perhaps more damaging to China than the war itself has been Beijing’s refusal to distance itself from the aggressor. A few months after the invasion, Yan Xuetong (阎学通), one of China’s leading international relations experts, acknowledged that ‘refusing to condemn Russia has strained China’s relations with some of its neighbours and distanced Beijing from many developing nations’. Like many others in China, Zhou Bo (周波), a well-known former senior People’s Liberation Army colonel turned think-tanker, regrets the negative impact that the war has had on China’s relations with Europe in particular. In his words: ‘The last thing China wants is a deterioration in its relations with European countries. It is very important to us that Europe is not always on the side of the United States.’ Yang Jiemian (杨洁勉), another notable figure in China’s think-tank world (and brother of former top diplomat and politburo member Yang Jiechi), worries about the deep rift and growing hostility that has emerged between Russia and China on the one side and the West and its allies on the other (he blames this on Washington, of course). Like many of his peers, he is particularly concerned about the impact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having on cross-Strait relations, with the West more intent than ever on providing diplomatic and military support to Taiwan. Instability, decoupling, confrontation and containment are written all over these assessments, and Ukraine is depicted as a major catalyst of this trend.

An Imperialistic, Messianic and Reckless Partner

Although censorship, self-censorship and China’s propaganda machine ensure that China–Russia relations are mostly portrayed as flourishing, disapproval of Russia’s actions does occasionally transpire even among China’s staunchest Russia sympathisers. Wang Wen (王文), for instance, who is the director of Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies and a former Global Times journalist, recently asked Russian intellectual Aleksandr Dugin (who is also nicknamed ‘Putin’s brain’ in China) ‘why Russia’s elite do not advise President Putin to do his best to avoid conflicts or to adopt approaches that might be better than [his] special military operations’. Also present in the writings and speeches of Chinese scholars are the occasional jabs at both Putin and Russia for their alleged imperialistic tendencies, messianic ideology and reckless behaviour. Feng Yujun (冯玉军), one of China’s most outspoken critics of Moscow since the beginning of the war and the director of Fudan University’s Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, stresses that ‘the imperial logic underlying both the rejection of Ukraine as a national entity and the overt claim to restore [Russia’s] traditional territories is alarming’. He describes Russian culture as suffering from a superiority complex and Putin’s conservatism as an empty ‘discursive bubble’, a mere tool for Moscow to advance its political interests and bolster its legitimacy.

Historical grievances against Russia run deep in China and regularly resurface even among ordinary citizens. As Yuan Gang (袁刚), then a professor at Peking University, once noted: ‘In recent times, China has had its share of invasions and abuse at the hands of the Great Powers, yet Russia's seizure of Chinese territories was the greatest scourge of all.’ Memories of betrayals, bullying and even aggression by China’s former Soviet brother are surely still very much alive, particularly among President Xi’s generation, which lived through some of the tensest moments of China–USSR relations.

Chinese scholars do not hesitate to point out that Russia’s vision of a new world order differs greatly from China’s

Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye’s (卢沙野) recent comments, which appeared to question the legal status of former Soviet states, should not distract from the palpable unease among Chinese intellectuals over Russia’s approach to national sovereignty – a concept that continues to be paramount for China. Shortly after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Yuan asked ironically: ‘Could China's Tannu Uriankhai consisting of 170,000 square kilometres of territory, which was seized by the Soviet Union under Lenin and [later] replaced by the so-called “Tuvan Autonomous Republic”, be returned to China by a vote of the local inhabitants, who have long been inclined towards separatism, with the promise of a tripling of their pay by China? Even worse, if a majority of the Taiwanese were to vote in favour of independence, would China resign itself to this fate?’ He continued: ‘The Russians have also openly introduced the concept of “strategic space”, going so far as to treat the territories of other countries as their own “space” and claiming that they cannot stand the West “encroaching” on their “strategic space”. What is the difference between this and Hitler's cry for “Lebensraum”?’ Yuan is admittedly on the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to criticising Russia (and his own government), but milder versions of his views continue to exist in China. Whether President Xi and his colleagues are closer to Ambassador Lu’s perception of former Soviet states or to Yuan’s is difficult to tell. But their official rebuttal of Lu’s controversial comments and their refusal to recognise Russia’s annexations in eastern Ukraine (including Crimea) show at the very least that Russian behaviour poses a challenge to one of China’s most fundamental principles.

Despite all the vaunted camaraderie between Xi and Putin and the former’s recent parting words to his ‘dear friend’ that the world is undergoing its biggest change in a century and that ‘we are driving this change together’, Chinese scholars do not hesitate to point out that Russia’s vision of a new world order differs greatly from China’s. Zhao Long (赵隆), a researcher at one of China’s top think tanks (SIIS), notes that ‘while China emphasises the careful reform and improvement of the [current] order, Russia hopes for its complete disintegration’. Huang Jing (黄靖), a well-known ‘returnee scholar’ from the US, says much the same, adding that Moscow’s desire to confront and weaken the West does not align with China’s developmental interests. Feng adds that if Putin does indeed seek to overturn the current order, then he should at least have a credible alternative to offer, but he does not. While most Chinese scholars may not go as far as Feng in his criticism of Russian mentality, politics and society in general, many point to the increasingly visible weaknesses in Russia’s economy, military and technological advancement. Tang Shiping (唐世平), another prominent international relations scholar from Fudan University, describes how Russia’s overall strength and influence have been severely damaged by the war and concludes (in English) that, ‘Although Russia remains an important strategic partner of China, the China-Russia strategic partnership surely faces growing challenges’.

Overt calls by Chinese scholars for Beijing to distance itself from Moscow are rare for obvious reasons. Somewhat more common are implicit and explicit criticisms of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though Chinese censors have prevented at least some of these voices from being heard. While – as Feng points out – mentions of China’s ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia have indeed faded from Chinese official pronouncements, relations with Moscow are still going strong 15 months into the war, and China–Russia joint military exercises continue apace. Challenges to the relationship there may be, but few predict a sudden and significant repositioning of Beijing’s approach to Russia, barring a major upset.

China–Russia Relations Through the Lens of a Chinese Realist

Given Beijing’s recent posture towards both Russia and Ukraine, Zhao’s analysis of China–Russia relations in the context of this conflict remains one of the most compelling. He acknowledges that his government’s refusal to condemn Moscow for its actions has tarnished China’s image, particularly in the West. But he sees the benefits of maintaining close ties with Moscow as outweighing those that Beijing might gain by condemning (and offending) Russia. Zhao is a self-professed proponent of realpolitik and a critic of values-driven diplomacy. Like many of his peers, he probably does disapprove of Russia’s actions, but does not say so explicitly, simply noting that ‘maintaining Sino-Russian cooperation does not imply supporting all of Russia's actions and policies’. He claims to be neither pro-US nor anti-US, and neither pro-Russia nor anti-Russia. Rather, he is guided first and foremost by his country’s national interests. ‘Russia is not infringing China's core interests, so why should [we] take the initiative to destroy a friendly relationship?’, he asks. ‘There is a saying that nothing is more difficult to build up and easier to destroy than trust. The friendship between China and Russia has been extremely difficult to achieve. Destroying it would be much easier. All it would take is a condemnatory statement [by China] and participation in sanctions against Russia and the foundation of friendship and trust that China and Russia have built up over decades would collapse.’ Like Zhao, many – if not most – Chinese experts do not believe that joining the West in condemning Russia would have led Washington to soften its approach to China. Siding more closely with the West and Ukraine would, as the Chinese expression goes, have been akin to ‘giving a bride away on top of losing one’s soldiers’ (赔了夫人又折兵).

Now, if one were boldly to assume that China’s leadership is assessing its relationship with the Kremlin through a similar lens to that of Zhao and other like-minded Chinese realists, then Beijing’s neutrality in this conflict would seem all the more difficult to sustain. If moral values must give way to a country’s strategic interests, then China would need Russia to come out on top or – at the very least – not to lose too badly in Ukraine. This is essentially what Tang was suggesting in a piece last year. Yang Jiemian would probably agree: ‘In the unlikely event that Russia were to be continually weakened to the extent that it would be unable, unwilling or afraid to continue its struggle against the US and the West’, he writes, ‘this would ultimately lead to an extremely unfavourable strategic situation for China’. Feng Shaolei (冯绍雷), another prominent Russia specialist, worries about what would happen if either a pro-Western regime or an even more radical force than Putin’s were to take over the Kremlin and become China’s neighbour. Feng has thus called on his government to take a more ‘proactive’ stance in trying to resolve this conflict and to use the influence that it has to encourage peace talks.

Being dragged further into the Ukraine quagmire is the last thing that China wants, and safeguarding its already tense relations with the West remains one of its top priorities

The question of whether China might ever provide military support to Moscow (it has denied that it will) is a particularly thorny one that would necessitate more careful consideration than a short analysis of Chinese scholarly views. However, to continue using Zhao’s realist lens, it would seem logical for Beijing to want to prevent both an unknown neighbour from suddenly appearing on its doorstep and the Kremlin from being so weakened that it leaves a power vacuum in China’s fragile Central Asian neighbourhood. Needless to say, China brazenly shipping military goods directly to Russia is hard to imagine and would not be in keeping with its peace-promoting, non-aligned and non-interfering posture. But there are, of course, other ways of keeping a friend afloat. What is also abundantly clear from these discussions is that being dragged further into this quagmire is the last thing that China wants, and safeguarding its already tense relations with the West remains one of its top priorities.

Earlier this month, a UK civil servant specialising in China–Russia relations wrote a piece under a pseudonym in which he/she warned that China–Russia ties were likely to strengthen and that they might even develop ‘into some form of formal alliance structure as each looks to the other for support against perceived Western encirclement’. The argument that what the Chinese would call ‘contradictions’ with the West – and more specifically with the US – are the main binding force and driver of China–Russia relations is certainly a very strong (and widely held) one. But in the light of what Chinese experts have been advocating, the author’s suggestion that Beijing’s partnership with Moscow might develop into a formal alliance appears somewhat less convincing. The author apparently bases part of his/her argument on two Chinese sources recommending this change, the first being Yan Xuetong and the other ‘a government-commissioned national security “blue book”’ written by CICIR, a key think tank linked to China's Ministry of State Security. Unfortunately, no valid link to this report was provided, but since pro-alliance views have previously been expressed in China, one must assume that this was indeed part of its recommendations. That being said, one report published almost 10 years ago is insufficient to substantiate the idea that Chinese experts are currently pushing for this change. In fact, the director of CICIR’s Institute of Eurasian Studies, Ding Xiaoxing (丁晓星), published a paper just last month in which he maintains that ‘forging a partnership without forming an alliance [结伴不结盟] is more conducive to the long-term development of Sino-Russian relations’. As for Yan, most China watchers will know that he has long been arguing for his country to form alliances with some of its neighbours but, as he has stated himself, his proposal has been rebuffed not only by most of his colleagues, but also by his government.

Although a more comprehensive overview of both Chinese and Russian opinions on this topic would be welcome, none of the papers reviewed for this article signalled that the tide might be turning in favour of implementing such a change. Quite the contrary. Ding, Zhao and others believe that a formal alliance would create unnecessary risks for a relationship that remains both inherently fragile and scarred by the failures of the previous Sino-Soviet alliance. But were a new alliance ever to be formed, writes Ding, ‘the possibility of another breakdown in relations between the two countries cannot be ruled out if inequalities in the relationship were to reappear’. Indeed, Chinese scholars are deeply aware of the impact that the dramatic shift in their country’s relative power is having on such a proud country as Russia. Moreover, an alliance would risk exacerbating the bipolarisation of world politics, dragging the Chinese into conflicts that are not theirs to fight and negating Beijing’s vaunted principle of non-alignment. Beijing is better off with a vaguer and more malleable cooperative framework, they say. ‘Unless Washington increases its strategic pressure on Beijing and Moscow to such an extreme that both states feel compelled to consolidate a formal alliance, China and Russia will continue to pursue a hedging strategy but avoid entering an outright alliance’, concludes Wang Dong (王栋), a professor at Peking University.

The war in Ukraine has been a defining moment in China–Russia relations, and Beijing has shown that it is willing to put up with relatively high costs in order to preserve its ties with the Kremlin. Beijing says that its relationship with Moscow has a ‘bottom line’, but how far Putin could still go before breaching it is rarely addressed in China. So far, few Chinese scholars have hinted at a significant shift in Beijing’s current policy towards Moscow. The war has certainly presented the China–Russia relationship with ‘challenges’ that are yet to be addressed, but Russia appears to be too strategically important for China to risk losing it right now. A toppling of Putin by a pro-Western force or a crippling of the Kremlin would in all likelihood be a disaster for Beijing. Nevertheless, suspicion of and – for some – even deep-seated antipathy towards this important partner is also evident in these discussions. That is one reason why so many Chinese experts continue to argue against forging a formal alliance with Russia. Distrust (on both sides) points once again to the underlying fragility of China–Russia ties and is perhaps one of the reasons why Beijing has been quite so afraid of offending its partner.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Thomas des Garets Geddes

Associate Fellow

RUSI International

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