By Jacob Bosen
For centuries, the vast Asian continent has been dominated in delicate balance by Russia and China, with cyclical changes in influence between China’s century of humiliation and the collapse of Russia’s Soviet Union. Nixon leveraged this dichotomy in his strategic competition with the Soviet Union in his role in aggravating the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1970s.
Today, however, Russia and China are rediscovering a need to cooperate, using their shared histories and beliefs to develop a powerful Sino-Russian bloc that could secure relative hegemony in Asia. Policymakers must seriously consider policies to challenge the partnership, while avoiding direct war.
Shared Communist History
Identities create interests, but interests can help create identities. In China and Russia, repressive communism under Stalin and Mao utilized Han and Russian nationalism, building a complex and volatile relationship as identities were built and deconstructed in service to a centralized state. Today, China and Russia seek to construct new national identities through the promotion of a strong state that opposes perceived Western encroachment.
Communism attempted to create an identity subservient to the state and party and that concept has left its print on Chinese and Russian societies. Even before communism, both Chinese and Russian identities rejected Western ideals. Neither Russia or China embrace values like freedom and liberty, beyond some strategic measures like the liberalization of their economies rather than their political systems. Russia’s identity is fueled by vulnerability and China has an identity fueled by a national sense of humiliation.
Both countries see the United States as increasingly threatening to geopolitical interests, civilizational identities, and their political regimes. Neither accepts the United States led international order and liberal standards of what civilization should look like, uniting against the United States through their authoritarian nature. Even through the liberalization of Chinese and Russian markets, Chinese and Russian identities drew closer.
Post-Cold War Chinese and Russian Relations
Russia and China introduced agreements in 1992 and 2001 signaling the end of rivalries and intentions of friendship, although no military alliance. The first Russian and Chinese joint military exercises were in 2005 followed by their first joint naval exercises in 2015, and in 2016 Chinese warships were docking near annexed Crimea in Novorossiysk.
Through Russian annexations of parts of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, China maintained their relationship despite disapproval, with greater exchange of Chinese investments and Russian arms after 2014. China approved Russia’s willingness to stand up to the West in its sphere of influence, possibly encouraging greater Chinese support as they were challenging China’s American rivals.
In 2019, China and Russia announced the five-point “comprehensive strategic partnership” based on mutual understanding and “win-win cooperation.” In 2022, China joined Russia in joint military exercises. Additionally, in 2022, Russian and Chinese bombers conducted joint exercises and landed at an air base in Russia and then both commenced the Joint Sea 2022 naval maneuvers in the East China Sea.
The Partnership During the Ukraine War
Weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, China and Russia released a joint statement that asserted that both countries have a partnership of no limits, implying the possibility of greater security cooperation. This terminology almost serves as its own sort of strategic ambiguity paralleling American policy over Taiwan. When Russia decided to invade Ukraine, there was and still is speculation about the Chinese and Russian partnership.
At the beginning of 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov described relations as having “…no bounds or limits…” Russia and China both reject the idea of forming any official alliances given fears of seeming reliant on or below another nation. This is an identity split between Russia and China and makes it unlikely for a formal alliance to be developed in the future.
In February 2023, Russia, China, and South Africa conducted naval exercises off the South African coast. A month later President Xi visited Moscow for meetings with President Putin. Both discussed again and promoted the idea of developing further strategic cooperation with no limits. Xi stated, “China and Russia adhere to the concept of eternal friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation.” Xi’s words may be covered by wishful thinking and mere diplomatic language, but the record shows that cooperation continues to rise between both nations.
During the visit, China and Russia signed agreements calling for and outlining increased cooperation in economics, television, science, natural resources, atomic energy, and media sectors. Further, economic cooperation and outmaneuvering of the West is seen by China and Russia as essential and both are reducing their dependency on Western currencies. Since the war in Ukraine, Russia has accelerated its efforts.
Since the 2022 invasion, China has increased its exports to Russia including microchips, other electronics, and natural resources that may be used in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Additionally, President Xi visited Russia to hold meetings with President Putin to deepen relations through joint television production programs, forest and soybean programs, and developing infrastructure and military cooperation in the Far East and Arctic.
Despite this, China has insisted that it is deeply upset about Russia’s war in Ukraine but this is more likely an attempt by China to save face with its potential partners. After all, communication, cooperation, and support has only continued to increase between Russia and China since the war in Ukraine.
A Renewed Bloc
The war in Ukraine has rekindled the need to think seriously about a Chinese-Russian bloc. A serious challenge to the world order run by the United States is coming from Beijing and Moscow. Policymakers need to seek out options that will split the bloc because China is a much bigger threat to the United States than Russia. The United States should seek to resolve the Ukraine war and take steps to engage Russia in a detente and full spectrum statecraft to split it from China before it’s too late.
The United States can seek to split China and Russia by using issues that already exist between the two against them: Russia is uneasy with growing Chinese influence in Central Asia and the Arctic, Russia will not enjoy being treated as a junior partner, there are territorial disagreements between China and Russia, and Russian military aggression goes against Chinese interests. Even though the Russian and Chinese partnership continues to grow in pursuit of defying the United States, the United States has options that can attempt to address the partnership head-on and cause a split.
Jacob Bosen is a graduate student of statecraft and international affairs at the Institute of World Politics. He participated in the Russian American Cooperation Initiative in Moscow in December 2021.