A China–Russia Alliance is Likelier Than We Think


Ever closer: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands after signing a joint statement on deepening cooperation in March 2023. Image: Xie Huanchi / Alamy


China officially pursues a ‘non-alliance’ policy, but Western aid and support to Taiwan, economic competition – particularly the US restrictions on semiconductors – and the formation of ‘blocs’ perceived as hostile to Beijing in the Asia-Pacific will test this to the limit. The invasion of Ukraine will likely accelerate the deepening of ties by, over time, forcing China to pick a ‘side’ between Russia and the West. It is unlikely that the West will be Beijing’s choice.

While a formal China–Russia alliance is less likely than a continued strengthening of their strategic partnership, and the formation of a NATO-style collective defence structure is unlikely, China’s policy on alliances could be adjusted or ditched if it suits Beijing’s interests. Both countries have demonstrated flexibility in the past as international circumstances have changed. The West should prepare for this scenario and understand what is driving the two countries together, particularly as continued pressure against Beijing and Moscow appears certain.

Western Pressure

Both sides have gained significantly from their relationship. Russia has a wealthy and willing trading partner at a time of increasing international isolation. China has made technological gains from its relations with Russia and buys heavily discounted energy. Each side legitimises the other internationally. Despite these ‘positive’ elements, their ties are largely defined in opposition to the West. Historically, Western pressure against one or both countries (usually in the form of sanctions or blocs in their ‘near abroad’) has deepened their relations. The newly normalised relationship deepened after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as the international community sanctioned China. The US’s much-heralded ‘Pivot to Asia’ and sanctions implemented against Russia in 2014 were followed by a flurry of economic and military agreements between Beijing and Moscow. This happened partially out of necessity, but also because the costs for each side of deepening relations were lowered as they had less reason to fear alienating Western countries.

Further Western sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, the possibility of a forceful unification of Taiwan, the ‘Summit for Democracy’ and the ‘Quad’ have reinforced these drivers in Beijing and Moscow. For both countries, the growing economic, diplomatic, ideological and potentially even military confrontation with Western powers almost certainly trumps lingering (but waning) historical mistrust.

Dealing with Competing Interests

There is little chance of differing interests prising the two countries apart. They learned from the Cold War-era Sino-Soviet split the importance of removing ideology from ties, accepting that interests will not always align, and resolving territorial disputes. The China–Russia border, over which the two countries almost went to war in the 1960s, was finalised in a series of agreements in the 1990s and 2000s. Each side needed a secure border to pursue their goals elsewhere. This led to other issues, particularly Russian fears of Chinese immigration.  The Chinese helped Vladimir Putin domestically by clamping down on illegal border crossings. Similarly, after Russian complaints about Chinese reverse engineering of weaponry, Beijing reduced this practice against Russian arms companies, thus allowing the expansion of high-grade weapons sales. Dispute resolution has markedly improved.

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Despite Xi Jinping’s deliberately publicised ‘questions and concerns’, the Ukraine war will probably drive Russia and China closer together in the long term

Russia and China also have to manage their sometimes competing interests in Central Asia. China makes clear that it views Russia as a great power with historical rights in Central Asia. The two countries have devised an informal division of labour based on their strengths and priorities, with Russia focusing on security provision and China on economic development. Moreover, China has reassured Russia by proposing and implementing many of its regional initiatives via the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), rather than unilaterally. Given Russia’s significant influence over the SCO, this enables Moscow to temper or contribute to Chinese initiatives. In sum, both sides have learned the lessons from their Cold War relationship. Trying to drive a wedge between them will probably fail.

Barriers Remain

The relationship is likely to deepen, but barriers to a formal alliance remain. There are concerns within the Chinese system about Russian foreign policy, particularly Moscow’s propensity for force, encouragement of separatism and attempts to alter international borders. Ukraine has added credence to these concerns. China has abstained on most UN resolutions regarding the war, but at the same time has provided Moscow with an economic lifeline and is reportedly considering the provision of weapons to its beleaguered partner. Beijing has not publicly justified Moscow’s actions, but has amplified Russian narratives. Despite Xi Jinping’s deliberately publicised ‘questions and concerns’, the war will probably drive Russia and China closer together in the long term as intense Western pressure on both looks set to continue.

Given Russia and China are conventionally powerful, nuclear-armed states, the military utility of an alliance is questionable. However, the statements and actions of both sides suggest feelings of insecurity. These include their professed concerns about the threat of Western-backed ‘colour revolutions’. Analysis based purely on capability also ignores the political significance of an alliance as a statement of mutual support in their competition against Western powers. A China–Russia alliance would serve as a lynchpin for global opposition to the West. The Chinese government is already testing the anti-alliance line, with prominent scholar Yan Xuetong arguing for an alliance with Russia, and a government-commissioned national security ‘blue book’ advocating the same policy.

Conclusion

Even with the unpredictability of the Ukraine war, the China–Russia relationship will endure. If anything, history suggests that the war will probably deepen the relationship in the long term, quite possibly into some form of formal alliance structure as each looks to the other for support against perceived Western encirclement. China’s non-alliance policy was originally enacted by Deng Xiaoping to maintain independence and freedom of action in its foreign policy. This independence is increasingly difficult for China to maintain in the post-Ukraine invasion international arena, particularly as positions harden in the Asia-Pacific and China’s international obligations increase. The Chinese Communist Party has often surprised us. The West cannot easily afford to let this be the latest surprise.

The author, who writes under a pseudonym, is a UK civil servant specialising in Russia–China relations. 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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