In recent years, the growing cooperation between Russia and China has become one of the current discussions between international relations researchers with a disagreement. Some attach great importance to this cooperation and see the two countries as leaders of a non-Western bloc united against the global hegemony of the United States of America (USA). Others tend not to underestimate the Russian-Chinese alliance, but to emphasize the borders of the alliance. But recent developments have shown that both views do not fully reflect the exact truth, meaning that the painting cannot be depicted with only two colors, black or white.
First of all, Russian-Chinese relations have an extremely complex historical heritage. Although the two countries were in the same ideological camp during Cold War, the majority of the period went through competition, and disputes in many areas followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, with the Shanghai Agreement signed in 1996 to establish trust in border regions, the foundations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization were laid. Only a year later, the same states made a joint statement regarding their demands for a multipolar world order. Thus, Russia and China have now begun to solve their problems over time and strengthen cooperation in international politics. Although this cooperation has not created a real alliance, it has deepened by spreading to many different areas, especially in the last ten years.
The first important pillar of cooperation is in the military field. On one hand, resolving border issues between parties has reduced burdens in the field of border security; on the other hand, it has opened a door to a neighborly relationship based on mutual trust. In an environment of ongoing border problems, it can be argued that Russia will need to deploy more troops on the Chinese border and will have to think twice before sending troops to Syria or launching an attack on Ukraine. Similarly, China can allocate more military resources to issues such as the Taiwan Issue, border disputes with India, and the modernization of the army, thanks to having fewer soldiers on the Russian border.
The economy is equally important. While economic cooperation is asymmetrical, Russia can balance this asymmetry to a certain extent with its natural resources and its advantages in military technology. But one of the most critical aspects of collaboration is related to shared interests in the international system. Both countries perceive Western international interventions as some kind of imperialism, view Western values, such as democracy and human rights as excuses for interfering with the internal affairs of other states, and are skeptical of the leadership of the USA in the system. This is the most important reason for the deepening of Russian-Chinese cooperation, especially in recent years. Because the parties are united in the demand for multipolarity.
The fact that the USA has gradually shifted its foreign policy and security priorities away from the global fight against terrorism and directed it towards interstate competition at the level of the international system, makes the multipolar demand of Russia and China more meaningful and directs these two countries to closer cooperation. Therefore, common interests arising from the structural transformation in the international system show that Russian-Chinese cooperation has a strong motivation. However, this cooperation also has some limitations.
Firstly, although structural transformation in the international system is related to change in the balance of power, identity and cultural dimensions are neglected in discussions on the subject. For example, Moscow’s opposition to American hegemony does not have an anti-imperialist or anti-Western basis. Russia has been one of the most important players in the European balance of power since the 19th century and sees itself culturally closer to Europe than to China. In this respect, Russia’s objection is not the Western hegemony itself; it is about not being a partner in this hegemony. Represented to a certain extent in the European security architecture, sensitive to its national interests, not surrounded by steps such as the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); in other words, a Russia that partially shares the Western hegemony may follow a very different foreign policy line. These are, of course, a matter of speculation, but Moscow cannot be held responsible for Russia’s growing distance from the West.
On the other hand, it is controversial that China dreams of a multipolar world. Although China refrains from portraying a revisionist state, it aims to become a global leader in the long run. China also sees Russia as a weak partner. In other words, in terms of achieving the goals in the international system, Moscow needs Beijing more than China needs Russia. China’s deep historical and cultural heritage also points to a political thought that positions itself at the center of the world. For all these reasons, the cooperation between China and Russia does not have a strong historical, cultural, and identity foundation and is more pragmatic.
Secondly, the tools and methods used by the two countries in foreign policy also differ. China has developed rapidly, not by challenging the global economic structure, but by integrating with it. China has chosen to resolve its disagreements with its neighbors, not geopolitical conflicts, but to focus on cooperation opportunities. It avoided being involved in international problems and acted in favor of stability in the geographies it penetrated. Therefore, Russia’s increasing aggression in its relations with the West and using its military power as a problem-solving method contradicts China’s approach.
It is difficult to say that China is satisfied with the rise of geopolitical tensions in the international system. While admitting that Russia has legitimate national security interests, China did not give any support to Russia on the ground in the war in Ukraine. The fact that the annexation of Ukrainian lands by Russia was not recognized is very important in terms of showing the limits of support given to the Moscow administration.
On the other hand, the two countries often prefer to act together in the United Nations (UN) Security Council. But China; attaches importance to its relations with international institutions, takes active roles in these institutions, and increases its role in the UN day by day. Moscow’s actions against the basic norms of the international system contradict Beijing’s policy.
Third, despite common interests in the structure of the international system, the two countries are rivals in more concrete policy areas. One of the issues that attracted particular attention after the Ukraine War is the increasing Chinese activity in Central Asia. Russia’s dominant power position in former Soviet geography has been questioned, and the reliability of defense alliances, which is the main basis of Russian influence in the region, has been shaken. China’s growing influence in the region is mainly based on economic and diplomatic efforts.
The importance of the Middle Corridor in the Belt-Road Project has increased due to the instability in the north of the Black Sea and the economic sanctions imposed on Russia. This corridor, which reaches Europe through Central Asia, Caspian, Caucasus, and Türkiye, has gained a much more favorable political ground than the Eurasian Northern Corridor passing through Russia. In short, China is quick to fill the power gap created by Russia.
Fourth, the sustainability of Russian-Chinese cooperation, which has a pragmatic character, is also controversial. The main reason behind the deepening of this cooperation in recent years is the rising tension in relations with the USA. But, the USA’s normalization of relations with one of these two countries would have a significant impact on Russian-Chinese cooperation. An example of this was during the USA-China rapprochement in the 1970s. After the Ukrainian War, it will not be easy for the USA to normalize its relations with Russia, but relations with China that have improved to a certain extent will chronic Russia’s isolation in the international field.
As we can see, Russian-Chinese cooperation is of great importance and is a critical variable in the structural transformation of the international system. But this collaboration does not have a real appearance of an alliance. It’s more like a pragmatic collaboration than a natural alliance. This pragmatic aspect is associated with the tension in relations with the USA and is difficult to say that there is a strong relationship of trust between the two countries. However, this does not mean that Russian-Chinese cooperation is fragile. But the Ukrainian War is not a development that strengthens cooperation on the Moscow-Beijing line, but rather a testing event.
As a result, the two countries meet on common ground in their demands for the international system. China acknowledges that the Ukrainian War is caused by the provocations of the USA, such as NATO enlargement, and supports Russia’s security sensitivities. But Beijing’s support for Moscow in this war contradicts its long-term interests. For this reason, the prolongation of war is not an image that China desires. As the war drags on and Russia is isolated in the international system, the political costs of China’s cooperation with Russia are increasing. This puts Russian-Chinese cooperation to a challenging test.