China and Russia: Exploring Ties Between Two Authoritarian Powers
Backgrounder

China and Russia: Exploring Ties Between Two Authoritarian Powers

China and Russia have expanded trade and defense ties over the past decade, but they’re not formal allies. Experts say Russia’s war in Ukraine could be a turning point in the relationship.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in February 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in February 2022. Sputnik/Aleksey Druzhinin/Reuters
Summary
  • China and Russia have expanded trade and defense ties over the past decade. But they are not formal allies, and some experts question the strength of the relationship. 
  • They share the desire to curb the United States’ power and challenge its hegemony. Russia has used force, while China has worked to compete with the United States.
  • Experts say Russia’s war in Ukraine has exposed the limits of the relationship. China hasn’t defended Russia on the battlefield, though Chinese officials have refused to condemn the war.

Introduction

China and Russia have a long and complicated history, marked by periods of solidarity as well as disagreement. The neighbors have strengthened ties over the past decade, but some experts question the depth of their strategic partnership. They say the countries’ alignment is driven more by their common rivalry with the United States than any natural affinity for each other.

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In the past, tensions have flared over issues including communist doctrine, their extensive shared border, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, people-to-people connections remain weak, and officials continue to distrust each other despite formal pronouncements of cooperation. Many foreign policy analysts say Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine could be a turning point in the relationship, and how their relationship develops will likely have major consequences for the international order.  

Are China and Russia allies?

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Russia

Ukraine

Taiwan

Security Alliances

China and Russia are not formal treaty allies, meaning they aren’t bound to come to the other’s defense, and they are otherwise unlikely to do so in the case of Ukraine or Taiwan. But they call each other strategic partners and have grown closer in recent years. At a meeting in February 2022, days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin said their partnership has “no limits” and vowed to deepen cooperation on various fronts. Xi and Putin are believed to have a close personal relationship, having met with each other more than forty times since 2012.

But some experts say the partnership is one mostly of convenience, where the main force pushing them together is their shared perception that the United States threatens their interests. For their part, U.S. leaders have in recent years characterized China and Russia as the country’s great-power rivals [PDF]. “I don’t think China-Russia is a natural alliance,” Yale Law School’s Susan A. Thornton says. “The deterioration of relations with the United States facilitates the driving together of China and Russia.”

How do their foreign policies and interests compare?

The Chinese and Russian political systems have some similarities: Both are considered authoritarian regimes with power concentrated in the hands of a single, long-serving leader. China is a one-party state led by the Chinese Communist Party, while Russia is a multiparty system dominated by Putin’s United Russia party. Both governments have increasingly cracked down on domestic dissent and undermined the rule of law to preserve their authority. 

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They have also used subversive nonmilitary tactics to project their influence abroad and undermine democratic norms. For example, Russia has interfered in foreign elections, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election, through online disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks. Meanwhile, China’s state-owned media organizations have moved to fill information gaps in dozens of countries, broadcasting and publishing news that is favorable to Beijing. 

China and Russia tend to back (or at least not oppose) each other at the UN Security Council, of which they are both veto-wielding permanent members. Although they have different interests in Central Asia—Russia has focused on supporting the security and political stability of allied former Soviet republics, while China has focused on bolstering trade and economic development—they have avoided conflict with each other and have collaborated on maintaining regional security through the ​​Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

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Security Alliances

However, there are major differences that shape their foreign policy goals and the tools they use to pursue them. China’s economy is the second largest in the world, behind the United States’, and more than eight times the size of Russia’s. And it is still growing, despite a slowdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, Russia’s economy, the eleventh largest prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, had stagnated in recent years. Following the 2022 invasion, Western governments hit Russia with unprecedented sanctions, which are expected to further hamper its growth for years to come. These diverging trajectories have led some within the Chinese government to see Russia as a weak partner, experts say. 

China has greatly benefited from the current international order and seeks to reform it, rather than replace it, to better suit its interests. Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, Chinese officials have touted the country’s development as a “peaceful rise” that aims to avoid military conflict with the United States and its allies. It has worked to compete with the United States, build economic and diplomatic ties with countries worldwide through its Belt and Road Initiative, and promote a vision of win-win cooperation. Moreover, it has played an increasingly active role in international institutions, such as the United Nations. 

Russia, on the other hand, has flouted many international laws and norms in its actions abroad—such as its election meddling, political assassinations, and cyberattacks—and experts have described it as a rogue state. “Russia is much more provocative, while China is taking a more careful, long-term approach when it comes to global competition with the West,” Georgia State University’s Maria Repnikova says. She adds that although both China and Russia are contributing to authoritarian trends globally, there is limited evidence that they carry out coordinated activities to undermine democracies together. 

What are major challenges for the relationship?

Distrust. Many Chinese and Russian officials, business leaders, and citizens maintain a mutual distrust of each other. Although Xi and Putin are friendly, historically, the countries’ leaders have not been close. Also, people in both countries have been known to express nationalistic sentiment that diminishes the other, and Chinese and Russian companies have expressed difficulties working with the other side. Though the countries share a long border, tourism and academic exchanges between them are limited. The COVID-19 pandemic also heightened distrust.

War in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put China in an awkward position. China has not publicly provided Russia with military assistance in Ukraine (even though Russia reportedly asked for it), knowing that doing so would trigger backlash from the United States and the European Union (EU). Aiding Russia’s offensive in Ukraine would also violate China’s long-standing policy of noninterference. But Chinese officials have refused to condemn Putin for the war, and have blamed the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for provoking Russia.

India. Russia has maintained a friendly relationship with India since the Cold War, supplying most of its arms. But China remains wary of its neighbor due to long-running disputes over their shared border. These led to a brief war in 1962 and other standoffs, including one simmering since 2020

What have been turning points in the relationship?

The China-Russia relationship has experienced many highs and lows over the decades, but some stand out.

China’s and Russia’s adherence to Marxist-Leninist communist ideology initially brought them together, with Chinese leader Mao Zedong looking to the Soviet Union as a model for building a socialist society. In 1950, they signed a thirty-year alliance treaty. The Soviet Union supported China’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, provided the country with conventional arms, and sent Soviet academics and scientists to advise the Chinese government. 

In the 1960s, the relationship soured in what became known as the Sino-Soviet split. Disagreements over communist ideology were partly to blame, as were the debate over whether to develop relations with the West and Russia’s support for India. Tensions culminated in a monthslong border conflict in 1969, in which Chinese soldiers attacked Soviet security personnel near contested river islands. Some analysts feared that the Soviet Union would use nuclear weapons against China, but it never did. By 1980, the China-Soviet Union treaty had expired, and the countries were essentially cut off from one another.

Tensions began to ease in the late 1980s. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing in 1989, marking the first formal meeting between a Soviet and Chinese leader in thirty years. Gorbachev and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared that they would normalize the countries’ relations. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, China and Russia continued to foster ties. In 2001, they signed the Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, agreeing not to use nuclear weapons against each other and pledging to strengthen cooperation.

During the 2008 global financial crisis, China and Russia saw the United States and the West as in decline. Together, they worked to boost collaboration with each other as well as with emerging economies, such as Brazil and India through the BRIC grouping. (South Africa joined the group in 2010, and it was renamed the BRICS.)

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 greatly accelerated China-Russia cooperation, even though Beijing did not recognize the annexation. As the United States and many others imposed sanctions and shunned business with Russia, “Russia decided that it needed to look more closely to China and turn to Asia,” American University’s Joseph Torigian says. Xi’s visit to Moscow in 2015 was a clear signal of deepening ties, with the leaders signing more than two dozen bilateral agreements, including on new arms sales.

What are their economic ties?

Although trade between the countries has increased over the past two decades—reaching an all-time high of $147 billion in 2021—their economic relationship is lopsided. Russia depends far more on China than vice versa, which has generated concerns in Moscow. For example, China is Russia’s top trading partner after the EU, while Russia is China’s fourteenth-largest trading partner [PDF]. Russia also relies on Chinese companies and banks for critical investment in its energy and telecommunications infrastructure.

Russia could become even more reliant on trade with China as the EU moves to ban imports of Russian oil. China-Russia trade is already heavily dominated by energy, partly because the countries have what experts call complementary economies. China has enormous energy needs, and Russia has an abundance of oil and natural gas. Indeed, more than half of Russia’s exports to China in 2020 were energy-related. And in 2021, Russia provided 16 percent of China’s crude oil imports, 15 percent of its coal imports, and 10 percent of its natural gas imports.

Before the war in Ukraine began, Xi and Putin agreed to boost annual trade by 50 percent by 2024 and reportedly planned to build a cross-border gas pipeline. (Today, most of Russia’s pipelines flow to Europe. Only one goes to China.) Yet, some Chinese companies have reportedly been hesitant to take on new projects in Russia out of concern they could violate international sanctions.  

In an effort to reduce their dependence on Western banking systems and their vulnerability to sanctions, China and Russia have started to move away from using U.S. dollars for trade, a process known as de-dollarization. Russia has increasingly used euros for its foreign trade, though, with China, it has more frequently used the renminbi or the ruble. However, China has not yet joined Russia’s SPFS financial transfer system, which was created as an alternative to the U.S.-led SWIFT system.

What are their military ties?

China and Russia don’t have a formal alliance, and their militaries have never engaged in combat alongside one another, but defense cooperation has increased since 2014. The countries have started to work together on developing missile warning systems, and they are boosting collaboration in space, including by integrating their satellite-based navigation systems.

Since the 1950s, most of China’s imported arms have come from the Soviet Union and Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But in recent years, Russian arms sales to China have declined; this is due to the advancement of China’s defense industry, as well as to Russia’s hesitation to sell sophisticated systems to China out of fear of technology theft. China now produces most of its own weapons and has become one of the world’s top arms exporters.

China and Russia’s joint military exercises have increased, and they’ve held dozens of drills since their first in 2003. The exercises have also grown larger and more complex, and some experts say they’ve helped boost the militaries’ interoperability and mutual trust. Others say the exercises are more notable for the message they send to the United States and European countries than for their actual operational benefits. China and Russia sent another high-profile signal of their strategic partnership in May 2022, flying bombers near Japan while U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders of Quad countries were visiting Tokyo. It was their first joint military drill since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Recommended Resources

During this event, CFR’s Zongyuan Zoe Liu, Georgetown University’s Evan S. Medeiros, and Yale Law School’s Susan A. Thornton unpack China’s Russia dilemma

On The President’s Inbox podcast, the Brookings Institution’s Patricia M. Kim discusses the emerging China-Russia alliance amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

For Foreign Affairs, CFR’s David Sacks looks at what China is learning from Russia’s war.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ ChinaPower Project uses graphics to show the strengths of the China-Russia relationship.

On the ChinaPower Podcast, American University’s Joseph Torigian explains the history of China-Russia ties.

Velina Tchakarova of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy lays out what the China-Russia partnership means for geopolitics.

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Will Merrow created the graphics in this Backgrounder.

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