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. Aleksey Druzhinin/Kremlin/Reuters
Summary
  • After a long history of disputes, China and Russia have expanded their military, economic, and diplomatic relations in the twenty-first century. The countries are celebrating seventy-five years of diplomatic relations in 2024.
  • Though ties between them have substantially increased, China and Russia are not natural partners or formal allies, and experts question the strength of the relationship.
  • Beijing and Moscow’s cooperation is driven by their desire to curb American power and challenge U.S. hegemony despite ongoing challenges to their relationship.

Introduction

China and Russia have a long, complicated history together, marked by periods of both cooperation and fierce strategic rivalry. The neighbors have strengthened ties over the past decade, but some experts question the depth of their strategic partnership, arguing that the countries’ alignment is driven more by their common rivalry with the United States than by any natural affinity.

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In the past, bilateral tensions have flared over issues including communist doctrine and the countries’ extensive 2,600-mile (4184 kilometers) shared border. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, however, the China-Russia relationship has improved substantially. The two formally resolved their border dispute in the 2000s and now exercise greater security cooperation through joint military drills and arms deals. Moreover, their economic relationship has blossomed in the face of Western sanctions against Russia as Moscow shifts trade away from Europe. China and Russia also coordinate within and across international institutions to challenge the norms of the U.S.-led world order.

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However, challenges remain. While joint security exercises have increased, the two militaries do not exhibit interoperability. The economic relationship has deepened, but it remains highly asymmetrical. And on the diplomatic front, China and Russia coordinate in established and new international institutions, though they do not share the same vision of world order. 

Are China and Russia allies?

China and Russia are not formal treaty allies and are not bound to come to the other’s defense. Nevertheless, their emerging strategic partnership has caused alarm in Washington. During a state visit to Stockholm, Sweden in September 2023, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) called the burgeoning China-Russia security alliance the most “large-scale” threat that Europe and the Pacific have faced since World War II. 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” [PDF] and vowed to deepen cooperation on various fronts. 

Xi and Putin are believed to have a close personal relationship. Since Xi came to power, he and Putin have met on forty-two different occasions, far more visits than the Chinese president has had with other world leaders. Xi has even called Putin his “best friend and colleague,” while the Russian president has addressed his Chinese counterpart as a “dear friend.” Putin has also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s global infrastructure project, as an attempt to achieve a more “equitable and multipolar world order.”

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The countries have also aligned themselves in multilateral institutions to oppose U.S. influence in the world. Similarly, they have established their own institutions, such as the BRICS (alongside Brazil, India, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), to garner support from developing countries. The BRICS has been an especially effective vehicle of global influence since its first summit in 2009, and it aims to promote de-dollarization to challenge the global dominance of the U.S. dollar. As of 2024, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates have officially joined the BRICS group.

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. Meanwhile, both the countries face a declining working-age population.

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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, where both are veto-wielding permanent members. Neither has vetoed a Security Council resolution without the other’s support since 2004. 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 to maintain regional security through the ​​SCO.

China has greatly benefited from the current international order and seeks to reform it—not replace it—to better suit Beijing’s 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. China has worked to compete with the United States, build economic and diplomatic ties globally through its Belt and Road Initiative, and promote a vision of win-win cooperation with its partners. Moreover, China has played an increasingly active role in international institutions, such as the United Nations.

Russia has also intensified its engagement in multilateral institutions, but it has done so while flouting many international laws and norms in its actions abroad. Some 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,” says Maria Repnikova, an associate professor in global communication at Georgia State University, who studies comparative authoritarianism in China and Russia.

What are major challenges for the relationship?

Distrust. Many Chinese and Russian officials, business leaders, and citizens distrust each other—a dynamic often motivated by historical grievances or overt racism. Although Xi and Putin are friendly, previous leaders were not so close. Also, Chinese and Russian companies have expressed difficulties working with each other. Though the countries share a long border, tourism and academic exchanges between them are limited. The COVID-19 pandemic also heightened distrust; Russia was one of the first post-Soviet countries to adopt strict travel and border restrictions when the first outbreak of COVID-19 occurred in Wuhan, China. Moscow also detained Chinese nationals deemed to have violated Russia’s quarantine rules.

War in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put China in an awkward position. Beijing has not publicly provided military assistance to support Moscow’s war (even though the Kremlin reportedly asked for it), knowing that doing so would trigger a backlash from the United States and Europe. Aiding Russia’s offensive in Ukraine would also violate China’s long-standing policy of noninterference. During a March 2023 state visit to Moscow, Xi personally warned Putin not to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. But experts say the war has had little impact on the countries’ bilateral relations, pointing to the fact that their military ties and joint drills have shown no signs of decline since the invasion. Chinese officials have also refused to condemn Putin for the war and have blamed the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for provoking Russia. In February 2023, China released a twelve-point peace plan for the conflict that was quickly rejected by Ukraine and the United States as a nonstarter.

What are their economic ties?

Although trade between the countries has increased over the past two decades—reaching an all-time high of $240 billion in 2023—their economic relationship is lopsided. Russia depends far more on China than vice versa, which has generated concerns in Moscow. For example, while China has become Russia’s number-one trade partner, Russia was only China’s sixth-largest trade partner as of 2023. Russia also relies on Chinese companies and banks for critical investment in its energy and telecommunications infrastructure.

In 2022, the United States, Japan, and the European Union, moved to ban imports of Russian oil in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. But China remained a key buyer—imports from Russia rose 49 percent to $76.4 billion that year, deepening Russia’s reliance on trade with China. As of October 2023, China’s trade surplus with Russia was $2.42 billion, with $8.68 billion worth of imports to Russia and $11.1 billion worth of exports. China-Russia trade is already heavily dominated by energy, partly because China has enormous energy needs, and Russia has an abundance of oil and natural gas, creating what experts call complementary economies. Indeed, more than half of Russia’s exports to China in 2020 were energy-related. And in June 2023, China’s crude imports from Russia marked the largest volume ever imported from any country in any month. But some experts predict that China’s increased use of electric vehicles and renewable energy will decrease its reliance on Russian natural resources in the future. 

Before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Putin and Xi agreed to boost annual trade by almost 50 percent in 2024, and Beijing plans to invest $1 billion to build the “Power of Siberia 2,” a second, cross-border gas pipeline. (Today, most of Russia’s pipelines flow to Europe. Only one goes to China.) However, the project has been consistently delayed by China despite Russian officials—including Putin—insisting that the pipeline is almost completed. As of early 2024, the pipeline is still in the negotiation phase.

In an effort to reduce their dependence on Western banking systems, 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 System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) financial transfer system, which was created as an alternative to the U.S.-led Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT). Although it is not clear whether Russia is formally part of the BRI, Putin has attended every Belt and Road forum since its inaugural meeting in 2017. At the 2023 BRI summit, Putin was the guest of honor and used the platform to encourage international investment in Russia’s Northern Sea Route, a 3,480-mile (5,600-kilometer) shipping route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans through the Arctic.

What are their military ties?

China’s and Russia’s militaries have never fought alongside one another, but defense cooperation has increased since 2014. The countries have started to work together to develop 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. Historically, Russian arms exports were a source of tension: in the 2000s, Moscow alleged that Beijing had breached intellectual property protections and reverse-engineered Russian weapons. During Xi’s tenure, however, China has been more willing to supply Russia with advanced military gear. Meanwhile, Russian arms sales to China have declined due to the advancement of Beijing’s own defense industry, as well as Moscow’s hesitation to sell sophisticated systems to China out of fear of losing trade secrets if Chinese engineers illegally copy the technology. Today, China produces most of its own weapons, and it has become one of the world’s top arms exporters.

China and Russia’s joint military exercises have increased in frequency, scale, and complexity since their first drill in 2003. Some experts say these exercises have 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. In a high-profile signal of their strategic partnership, China and Russia flew bombers near Japan while U.S. President Joe Biden and other Indo-Pacific leaders were visiting Tokyo in May 2022. It was the first of several joint military drills since the start of the war in Ukraine. China and Russia held another joint military exercise in the Sea of Japan, often referred to as the East Sea, in July 2023, and they have conducted at least five joint exercises in the region over the last year. 

China’s export economy has also indirectly contributed to Russia’s war despite Beijing’s claims of neutrality. Russian customs data from August 2023 showed a rise in Chinese imports of heavy digging machinery, vehicles, and manufactured goods that could serve a military purpose, such as helmets, radios, and heavy trucks used for logistics. In one instance, Chinese excavators manufactured for civilian use were spotted digging Russian trenches on the front lines in Ukraine. However, Beijing so far has refused to cross into directly supplying Russia with ammunition or military technology. China defends Russia’s increased imports as part of “normal economic cooperation,” but at the same time, Beijing has issued export restrictions for certain types of commercial drones and equipment to safeguard “national security” and prevent their use for “non-peaceful purposes.” While both Russian and Ukrainian forces have used Chinese-made drones for reconnaissance and attacks, such restrictions have put a disproportionate strain on Ukraine’s defense capabilities, which heavily rely on drone parts that have supply chains through China.

Recommended Resources

During this event, CFR Fellow Zongyuan Zoe Liu joins Georgetown University’s Evan S. Medeiros and Yale Law School’s Susan A. Thornton to 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 Fellow David Sacks looks at what China is learning from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

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.

Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, examines China and Russia’s deepening defense partnership in Foreign Affairs

This blog post by CFR Senior Fellow Joshua Kurlantzick compares China’s and Russia’s use of militarized politics to promote an alternative world order.

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