The March 2023 state visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to Russia has attracted significant attention, and has been described as symbolic of growing cooperation between authoritarian states opposed to the current world order. However, as we argue in a recently-published article based on a review of Russian and Chinese expert statements, this partnership should best be understood as a limited, strategically motivated cooperation against shared threat perceptions. Meanwhile, there is much less agreement on normative questions, let alone a shared vision of an alternative world order.
From March 20th to 22nd 2023, Chinese president Xi Jinping paid a highly publicized state visit to Russia, which covered a personal meeting with his counterpart Vladimir Putin, the release of a joint statement affirming their strategic partnership, and a blueprint for expanding economic cooperation. Many analyses have ascribed a high symbolic significance to the meeting, describing it as a “show of support” by Xi for an increasingly beleaguered (and recently indicted) Putin, the emergence of an “undeclared alliance” to counterbalance US hegemony, or even a statement of intent to “create a new world order”. To be sure, the fact that China remains willing to invest major political and economic capital into a relationship that has seriously affected its standing with Western nations is significant; as is the reality that Putin’s Russia is not nearly as isolated as the original backlash against its war on Ukraine may have suggested. The Sino-Russian partnership is clearly thriving, and the fact that it has done so at the same time as Western nations have reaffirmed their own security ties makes it tempting to see it as a rival block in world politics.
However, as we described in a recent article on the development of Sino-Russian relations since the outbreak of the war, it is necessary to also keep the limitations of this partnership in mind. Most importantly, it does not measure up to the usual definition of an “alliance” – a binding agreement in which states tie their respective security to each other and promise aid against foreign attacks, as NATO does for its members. Neither does it constitute a community of values, in which close cooperation is founded on shared identities and beliefs about the normative content of a desirable world order. While both states share similar grievances about US hegemony and have increasingly found a common voice to express these in search of further international support, they have so far not been able to formulate a positive, shared alternative to a US-centric order.
We investigated this issue by studying Chinese and Russian expert assessments of the respective other side, the basis of their current bilateral cooperation, and the potential for its future development. In authoritarian regimes, this is often the best available source to study key interests and visions driving foreign policy, which is otherwise made by a small cadre of inaccessible political elites. From this brief survey, we identified three salient points characterizing the Sino-Russian partnership: first, it is based on a partial and short-term overlap of interests; second, it has an underdeveloped normative basis further challenged by Russia’s war on Ukraine; and third, it is marked by a pronounced reactivity towards US security policies. In all of these points, the Sino-Russian relationship differs significantly from the Western community of nations, and hence should not be seen as its autocratic mirror image.
A partnership without limits?
First, despite official rhetoric celebrating the Sino-Russian partnership as one with “no limits”, its interest base is in fact limited to one – albeit very powerful – strategic incentive. Across most of the writings we analyzed, their authors laid out a very basic rationale for closer alignment: given the recent deterioration of their respective relationships with the US and its allies, and a shared feeling of tightening containment at the hands of these powers, bilateral cooperation was a strategic necessity in order to shore up their external security. In a nutshell, Sino-Russian cooperation is based on the elementary maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is friend”. Authors also identified further complementarities especially in the economic realm, where Russia’s status as a major energy producer and the ever-increasing Chinese hunger for such resources have formed the basis for a recent spate of bilateral agreements. In the recently updated Russian Foreign Policy Concept, ‘China’ is mentioned twice as often than in the 2016 version, and has moved from the fringes of “regional priorities” into the top three.
However, disagreements and incompatibilities are evident when looking a bit deeper: for example, Chinese experts are keenly aware that the war in Ukraine is detrimental to their own country’s growth prospects and attempts to stabilize relations with the US, while association with the aggressor is putting China in a difficult diplomatic spot. The recently-published Chinese peace proposal for Ukraine can be seen as an attempt to escape this dilemma. On the Russian side, multiple experts voiced concerns that their country’s disadvantage in manufacturing capacity and economic dynamism risked it slipping into a dependency on the Chinese market. This challenges a fundamental Russian desire to remain an independent, first-rate global power. China’s growing economic penetration of post-Soviet Central Asia e.g. though the Belt and Road Initiative is another issue of concern, considering how strongly Moscow reacted to growing Western influence in Eastern Europe. None of these differences are irreconcilable, but they suggest an – at best – partial overlap in shared interests.
Second, further contradictions emerge when looking at the partnership’s purported normative basis. On the eve of the Beijing Olympics, China and Russia had released a bilateral statement outlining their vision for a “new era of international relations”, centered on a joint affirmation of sovereignty, non-interference in the political affairs of other states, and territorial inviolability. However, both countries apply these principles very differently in practice: obviously, Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine violated them in the most extreme way imaginable; a point explicitly raised by some Chinese authors in our sample. While China’s commitment to noninterference is a genuine part of its foreign policy doctrine (despite mounting challenges), Russia has a long history of direct, unilateral military interventions in neighboring post-Soviet republics and overseas battlegrounds like Syria.
Equally importantly, considering how many politicians and authors have described this pairing as an “authoritarian alliance” or “axis”, there are no signs that China and Russia have developed a shared identity rooted in their authoritarian political systems. The only reference to domestic regime types in their recent proclamations is actually a section in which they seek to defend their status as “democracies”, based on an understanding of the term that is more rooted in performance outcomes than procedural legitimacy.
Third, whatever joint agenda Moscow and Beijing develop in the future is likely to remain highly responsive to the foreign policy of the US and its allies. Practically all of the authors we covered described closer Sino-Russian alignment as a reaction to a security environment shaped by US policy, and specifically its perceived hostility to their countries and regimes. This shared threat perception has only grown more acute since the outbreak of the war, as the US and its allies have increasingly framed their own security agendas in terms of a global struggle between democracies and autocracies. The obvious consequence of such a policy is that it creates a powerful incentive for the latter to align with each other, and could thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves the world even less secure than it has already become. US experts associated with the realist school of IR, principally John Mearsheimer, have already questioned the wisdom of attempting to simultaneously face down two rival great powers.
Competition with powerful autocracies
Beyond this strategic logic, there are also good reasons to note the significant behavioral differences between Russia and China, instead of lumping them together in an authoritarian camp. Notably, China has a greater stake in the current status quo, is more supportive of basic international norms like sovereignty and territorial inviolability, and still sees benefits in maintaining a peaceful international environment for its economically-driven rise. Across these interests, Russia’s war in Ukraine poses a challenge for China’s own foreign and security policies. And while it has become fashionable to portray autocracies as invariably aggressive or revisionist, the available evidence paints a much more nuanced picture when just comparing these two states.
This has an important practical implication: when engaging in competition with powerful authoritarian governments over the future of world order, an agenda recently laid out in multiple documents issued by NATO and individual members, it is crucial to do so smartly and in response to actual transgressions against said order. Sino-Russian alignment is not based on their shared status as autocracies, and should not be overestimated to the point of imagining them as a rival block in world politics. Instead, their strategic motivations should be studied individually, and policies to deal with them be made on this basis. If the aim is to avoid the formation of such a block, then enticements that are tailored towards their interests – for example, Russian fears of overdependence on China, or Chinese worries about economic disruptions caused by the war – are a more promising avenue.