This report compares Russian and Chinese security perceptions and explains how they shape the two countries’ policies towards each other. It argues that the modern relationship between the two countries, formed in the late 19th and 20th centuries, was turned on its head at the start of the 21st century. China has now become a powerful factor affecting a whole range of Russian policies, both domestic and foreign. The paper also argues that, while Russia is not central to China’s foreign relations, and non-existent in China’s domestic politics, good relations with Moscow are an important supporting element in Beijing’s overall strategy of reclaiming China’s “rightful place in the world.” It concludes that while both countries need each other and would benefit from a stable political relationship and close economic ties, both Moscow and Beijing lack the long-term strategies to create such a bond.

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has been with the center since its inception. He also chairs the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.
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As great power relationships go, the reversal of China’s and Russia’s fortunes at the close of the 20th century could not have been more dramatic. For the first time in their recent history, Russians have to deal with a China which is more powerful and more dynamic than their own country. To contemporary Russia, China holds out a number of opportunities, economic as well as political, as a market for Russian raw materials, a locomotive of economic development in the Russian far east and a fellow non-Western partner on the world stage. At the same time, however, China presents Russia with major challenges, particularly in Siberia, to which Russia has yet to respond. So far, Moscow has been able to sustain a tolerable modus vivendi in relations with Beijing, but the future beyond a ten or 15 year horizon is less clear. Russia will only be able to develop a long-term view of its relationship with China when Russian elites start to think more strategically about their country and what its global role should be.

To the Chinese, by contrast, Russia’s decline from being a Soviet-era superpower to its present status as a second tier power is but one of a number of great changes in the emerging international system. In overall GDP, China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. In terms of foreign trade volume, it has replaced Germany as the world’s top exporter. The UK’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and Portugal’s withdrawal from Macau in 1999, symbolized the end of a century and a half of humiliating Western occupation of parts of China’s territory. During the eurozone crisis, China was even being touted as a possible financial savior of the European Union. As for Russia, Beijing has learned to use its former mentor-turned-enemy-turned-partner as a source of raw materials, especially energy. It has also been able to rely on Russia as a strategic cushion, to strengthen its hand in opposing Western-led liberal interventionism. Beyond this, however, the Chinese do not seem to have a strategy for dealing with Russia.

The paper begins with a parallel description of Moscow’s and Beijing’s “strategic universes”—their respective security outlooks—and the place of the other country therein. With reference to Russia, it stresses that China’s rise has made Moscow’s view of the world far less Western-centric. With reference to China, it explains how and why the Russia relationship stands out among links with the major world powers, and what value it holds for Beijing.

The paper then assesses the two countries’ principal interests in key areas: global governance; regional issues; trade and investment, with a particular attention to energy; and arms transfers and their strategic implications. Despite the growing inequality of the relationship, the paper seeks to go beyond an assessment of the balance of power by analyzing each party’s interests and motives. The paper ends with reflections on the future of Sino-Russian relations, in bilateral, regional and global contexts.