On 4 February 2022, the opening day of the Winter Olympics in Beijing and only twenty days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China and Russia declared a ‘no limits’ partnership that ‘surpasses an alliance.’ Given China’s and Russia’s geopolitical ambitions and boundaries, a tighter alignment between the two countries could significantly change the power structure of the contemporary international system and fundamentally challenge the existing liberal order.
This article takes stock of recent developments in China-Russia strategic alignment from three often neglected angles. One has to do with the consistency of China-Russia cooperation. One is about growing military-technical cooperation. The third deals with the structural shifts in great power politics that drive China-Russia relations. The article also addresses the main weaknesses of China-Russia strategic cooperation as well as the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on it.
Consistent consolidation of bilateral cooperation
The current relatively high level of China-Russia strategic cooperation is not an ad hoc phenomenon. Nor is it a knee-jerk reaction to the deterioration of US-Russia relations in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis or recent US-China tensions in Southeast Asia and beyond. It is a continuation of a consistent consolidation of China and Russia’s strategic partnership since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The steady expansion of China and Russia’s comprehensive mechanism of strategic cooperation has proven immune to episodical perturbations, progressing into what in alliance studies is defined as an advanced form of strategic cooperation.
This consistent trend is reflected in official statements, according to which the relationship has progressed from ‘good neighbourliness’ in the early 1990s to ‘constructive cooperation’ in the late 1990s to ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ in 2001, then further on to ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination’ in 2012 and a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of equality, mutual trust, mutual support, common prosperity and long-lasting friendship’ in 2019. On 5 June 2019, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin upgraded China-Russia relations to ‘a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era’. This progression highlights consistent consolidation of the alignment, its immunity to exogenous shocks, and the willingness of both sides to deal together with the challenges of the future.
The consolidation of China-Russia alignment materialised mostly in military-strategic terms, including the introduction of a comprehensive mechanism of military consultations at different levels. The number of joint military exercises, involving Army, Airforce, and Navy, in different parts of the world, as well as regular computer-simulated missile defence drills, significantly increased coordination between the two militaries. The critique and condemnation of US policies in Asia and elsewhere as ‘increasingly threatening’, as well as the proclamation of the intention of China and Russia to jointly resist the growing US threat, became an embedded norm of China-Russia security dialogue. Cooperation across economic and diplomatic dimensions, while not yet as strong, also steadily increased.
There have been ups and downs. Examples include a temporary stagnation in China-Russia military-technical cooperation in the mid-2000s and the occasional suspension of otherwise regular bilateral consultations. However, the overall trend is upward; viewed in its entirety, the relationship shows itself immune to short-term fluctuations. It is in this context that on 4 February 2022 the two leaders announced a ‘no limit partnership’ that ‘surpasses an alliance’ because it has ‘no forbidden areas’.
Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beijing has tried to carefully distance itself from Russia with regard to Ukraine to avoid being affected by the global sanctions, which suggests at least one limit to the partnership – an unwillingness to be partners in economic adversity. However, China has procured more energy resources from Russia since the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Russia has become China’s biggest supplier of oil as Moscow sold discounted crude oil to Beijing amid sanctions over the Ukraine war. In May 2022, imports of Russian oil rose by 55 percent from a year earlier, reaching a record level and displacing Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest provider. Moreover, the continuing bilateral military exercises and joint air patrols over the Western Pacific, especially recent incidents of Chinese and Russian warplanes together entering South Korean air defense zone from the Sea of Japan, suggest that China is not distancing itself from Russia when it comes to the strategic aspects of the bilateral cooperation, even though China’s voting decision on Ukraine at the UNSC might suggest more neutrality than support.
Growing military-technical cooperation
Military-technical cooperation (MTC) has to do with the degree of military alignment between China and Russia and is ultimately a question of how technically prepared the two countries are for a hypothetical full-fledged alliance, including united military actions.
China and Russia have travelled a long way in terms of strategic cooperation since the early 1990s. Currently, China and Russia carry out twenty to thirty high-level security-related consultations every year, which is at the level of a functional alliance. This number excludes regional consultations between Chinese and Russian provinces and cities and exchanges between military academies.
Russia’s attitude toward a more comprehensive and interdependent MTC with China has evolved, with Moscow increasingly less wary of relying on China in this area. Political factors that used to constrain Russia in its MTC with China, which included concerns about China’s unlicensed reverse-engineering of weapons and potential competition with the cheaper China-made weapons on international markets, as well as worries about excessive dependence on China, have disappeared and interconnectedness has started to become the dominant tendency. Russia started to rely on China for such things as electronic components for its space programs, composite materials and technologies used in drone construction, and engines for warships, all of which result in closer military-technical interdependence. Russia’s tendency to consider China as not only a target market for its weapons but also a source of critical equipment and technologies has only consolidated in the context of its war in Ukraine. Willingly or not, Russia has reconsidered its previous defence-equipment-for-cash model of cooperation with China. The imposition of global sanctions on Russia, however, has made China more cautious about sending supplies to Russia and has incentivised the use of more complex and less traceable schemes in the bilateral transactions.
China and Russia have undertaken a growing number of joint military exercises in different parts of the world. For example, ‘Joint Sea-2015’ took place in the NATO-dominated Mediterranean, and ‘Joint Sea-2016’ became the first major exercise of its type to include China and a second country in the disputed South China Sea after the Hague-based tribunal overruled China’s claims on the waters under its nine-dash line claim. The increasing operational complexity of these joint exercises has laid the foundation for potential simultaneous joint military actions in multiple theatres of operation. This could enable China and Russia to draw the attention and capabilities of the US and its allies to a specific region, reducing their ability to react to, for example, Chinese actions in the Pacific or Russia’s in western Eurasia. This is one of the reasons why, in the context of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, the US has paid so much attention to China’s potential military invasion of Taiwan. As some recent congressional reports specified, the US might struggle to win a war against China or Russia if forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.
The degree of interoperability between Chinese and Russian forces has increased: recent joint military exercises have involved the creation of temporary joint command centres, tactical groups under a single command, and air groups implementing simulated attacks jointly. China and Russia have also started integrating their satellite navigation systems – China’s Beidou and Russia’s GLONASS. Huawei Technologies Group has also been facilitating China-Russia cyber integration by opening data centres in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Novosibirsk, and Nizhny Novgorod.
A new height of military cooperation came with the announcement, by President Putin in October 2019, that Russia was actively helping China to create a missile attack early warning radar system. According to some assessments, the new system will be based on the Russian ‘Tundra’ satellites and ‘Voronezh’ modular ground-based radar stations set up in Chinese territory. The system will provide advance warning on potential incoming missiles’ trajectory, speed, time-to-target and other critical information needed for an effective interception. Missile early warning systems are strategic arms constituting one of the most critical aspects of any country’s defence capability. Potential integration of the two countries’ early warning systems can facilitate the convergence of Russia’s and China’s defence strategies, in which case China-Russia military integration and interdependence would potentially match that of US alliances with such countries as France and the UK.
Structural shifts in great power politics
To understand the third aspect – the structural balance of power – requires looking into the structural shifts in great power politics. There are strong international-systemic factors that drive China-Russia alignment. Historical research on power transition between great powers suggests that out of sixteen power transitions (shifts of the global balance of power in which a rising power catches up with or surpasses the dominant great power in terms of comprehensive capabilities), only four were peaceful.
In the contemporary international system, power transition is happening between China and the US. According to World Bank, in 1991, the US’s total GDP of US$6.158 trillion was more than sixteen times that of China (US$383,373 billion). By 2020, China’s GDP reached almost 70 percent of that of the US (US$14.343 trillion vs. US$21.374 trillion). History shows that an established superpower (the US in this case) represents the greatest threat to states that are on the cusp of becoming superpowers (e.g., China). In this context, China has every reason to develop its strategic alignment with Russia, which, given Russia’s anti-US foreign policy orientation, military and geopolitical characteristics, and the permanent seat in the UN Security Council, presents the most effective counter-balance against US power.
At the same time, the US explicitly identifies China and Russia as major strategic threats, an assessment that drives its defence decisions and allocation of military resources. As the US’s main strategic rival, China is given a primary place in US defence strategy. Russia, in turn, is dubbed as a ‘revitalised malign actor’ that must be contained through comprehensive sanctions (made even more comprehensive since its invasion of Ukraine). A simultaneous focus on both China and Russia by the US contributes to a situation in which the two countries start viewing the US the same way the US views them – as the greatest threat to national security and the primary focus of defence policy.
This tendency was exacerbated on 27 October 2022, when the Biden Administration unveiled a new defence strategy that effectively puts the US military in Cold War mode with both China and Russia. The new strategy details the US’s plan to confront the two nuclear peers and potential adversaries (China and Russia) with a historical multi-year build-up of modernised weaponry, enhanced foreign alliances and a top-to-bottom overhaul of the US’s nuclear arsenal. The issue is complicated by the fact that while the US and Russia have negotiated on nuclear weapons, China has never agreed to any such negotiations. As a result, the power balance within the international system that is conducive to China-Russia alignment is buttressed by China and Russia’s shared perception of external threats: both increasingly feel that the US jeopardises their geopolitical interests, civilisational identities, and domestic political regimes.
The current behaviour of the US suggests a lack of questioning within its strategic establishment if adopting a hostile attitude towards both China and Russia makes strategic sense. According to some assessments, such an approach does not bode well for US long-term strategic interests because it systematically encourages China-Russia alignment. In the context of the evolving power balance, this deterioration generates an external compulsion that removes any remaining political barriers to closer China-Russia alignment.
‘Unfavourable complementarity’ in economic relations
Economic cooperation remains the Achilles heel of China-Russia strategic alignment. The two countries have become more complementary economically and more interdependent in the energy sector. However, as relative shares of China and Russia in each other’s external trade indicate, Russia depends much more on China than China depends on Russia in terms of trade. China ranks as Russia’s top trading partner, but Russia is only China’s fourteenth largest trading partner. Moreover, Russia has ended up in a role in the current China-Russia economic cooperation model that it is reluctant to embrace. The so-called ‘complementarity’ of China’s and Russia’s economic models, allegedly conducive to closer cooperation, also creates unfavourable geopolitical pressures on the relationship.
The rapid growth of China-Russia trade’s total volume – from meagre USD 5.56 billion in 1992 to $153.9 billion in the first 10 months of 2022 – has been accompanied by the emergence of a bilateral trade structure that is too unbalanced to be healthy for the relationship and reflects the degradation and primitivisation of Russia’s economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, Russia’s manufacturing sector has all but collapsed, and the country has become a petrostate. Meanwhile, China has become the world’s factory on a gargantuan scale, producing more than 20 percent of global manufacturing output. Between 2001 and 2021, the share of machinery and equipment in China’s export to Russia rose from less than 10 percent to almost 50 percent but drastically dropped in Russia’s exports to China from almost 30 percent to less than 1 percent. Simultaneously, the share of oil and oil products in Russia’s exports to China soared from 10 percent in 2001 to more than 70 percent by 2020. Despite this, China, unlike Europe, does not strongly depend on Russian resources, which represent only 19 percent of its total energy/oil consumption. For some European countries such as Germany, by contrast, Russian resources accounted for more than 50 percent of total energy/oil consumption in 2021. The war in Ukraine and the comprehensive sanctions imposed on Moscow will most likely accelerate the technological degradation of the Russian economy, reducing Russia’s significance to China from being a true economic partner to being little more than just an energy provider.
The deterioration of Russia’s economic standing vis-à-vis China has a range of implications. Except for the Russian military-industrial complex, China perceives Russia less and less as a source of innovation and new technologies and more and more simply as a source of energy resources and a market for finished manufactured products. For Russia, which only twenty years ago was ahead of China on many economic development indicators, this is a disappointing outcome that thins out the otherwise strong foundations of and support for China-Russia strategic cooperation.
On a psychological level, China’s increasing perception of Russia as a net energy exporter discomfits many Russians, including political elites, and make the Russian government need to seem cooler on China than it might otherwise be.
These tendencies consolidated after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Barred from access to Western technologies by comprehensive economic sanctions that are unlikely to ease in the foreseeable future, Moscow has rushed to extend its energy exports to Asia at discounted prices – a situation that China has naturally taken advantage of. Thus, the pattern of unequal bilateral economic transactions is likely to continue. This in turn will lead to demand within Russia for Moscow to protect Russia’s national markets and producers from Chinese economic expansion, and to prevent Russia from turning into little more than China’s resource appendage.
The test of the Ukraine war
The ongoing war in Ukraine that Russia started in February 2022 is stress-testing China-Russia strategic cooperation. By not distancing itself from Moscow Beijing has incurred serious reputational costs and potentially risks becoming a target of secondary economic sanctions. Yet the war in Ukraine is unlikely to significantly reverse China-Russia strategic alignment. That is due to Beijing’s growing recognition that China and the US are on a long-term collision course.
US policies towards China indicate that Washington has embarked on a strategy of containing China, though its official rhetoric tends to favour the use of the word ‘competition’. On top of a de facto economic containment of China, enforced through such measures as restricting the export of microchip technologies to China and pressuring partners to ban the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from getting involved in building their 5G network infrastructure, the US continues to back Taiwan with arms sales and high-profile visits by top US officials. These measures seriously stress China-US relations and make China increasingly reluctant to distance itself from Russia.
Ten days after Russia invaded Ukraine, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Taipei and urged Washington to ‘take necessary and long-overdue steps to do the right and obvious thing’, by which he meant to recognise ‘free and independent’ Taiwan. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on 2 August 2022 (five months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), despite Beijing’s vehement criticism and the staging of live-fire exercises off Taiwan’s coast, further added fuel to the fire. For Beijing, any proclamation of Taiwan independence is a red line. Washington could have tried to use the Ukraine war to pull China away from Russia, but actions such as those of Pompeo and Pelosi have made this difficult. An argument can be made that neither Pelosi’s visit nor Pompeo’s words represent US policy and that, thanks to the nature of the US’s political system, both are independent actors. However, if it is the case (i.e., Pelosi’s visit is a pursuit of her personal political interest) and the US is interested in minimising tensions with China, Pelosi’s visit should have been criticised by the Biden administration.
Xi has continued to speak directly with Biden, including for three hours in Bali, as the two leaders affirmed their mutual opposition to any use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Nonetheless, Beijing remains suspicious that Washington is promoting a new Cold War. These suspicions were exacerbated significantly by, among other things, the recently minted AUKUS initiative that former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison claimed was a way to push back against a China-led ‘arc of autocracy’.
Another factor that contributes to China’s unwillingness to openly criticise Putin’s war in Ukraine is Western hypocrisy in not making much noise about India’s friendship with Russia. Like China, India has never condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and through its purchases of crude oil from Russia, is supporting Moscow no less than China is. In March 2022, India was preparing a rupee-ruble trade arrangement with Russia that will allow India-Russia trade to continue despite Western sanctions against Russia. Attempts to warn India of the consequences if it tries to circumvent the sanctions have only been mild and delivered with nowhere near as much pressure and hostile rhetoric as those targeted at China.
From Beijing’s perspective, this behaviour would appear to confirm that the US criticism of Beijing is not about the war in Ukraine. Instead, it is about using that war to contain China. In such a hostile context, then, Beijing has been reluctant to condemn Russia over Ukraine and risk undermining their strategic alignment.
China and Russia’s alignment is not a formal military alliance and may not become such. Moreover, it is not impossible for China-Russia military cooperation to unravel. For all its reluctance to condemn it directly, China remains ambivalent towards Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Beijing’s position on the issue of state sovereignty does not fully coincide with Moscow’s. Economic factors may also hinder the further upgrading of China-Russia relations to the level of a fully-fledged alliance. The different economic roles of China and Russia in the global division of labour remains another challenge for bilateral strategic cooperation.
And yet, China-Russia strategic alignment is currently in place and is affected by international systemic trends. It is solid, institutionalised, and comprehensive, and it should be taken seriously. It is also trending incrementally upward. Their shared great power hostility towards American hegemony in world politics suppresses the most likely centrifugal forces that could pull them apart. The simultaneous deterioration of China-US and Russia-US relations after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prevents the Ukraine war from becoming a factor that might slow down or undermine China-Russia strategic alignment. An alliance is possible, although if it’s in the works, China and Russia may delay an official announcement or not make such an announcement at all.