Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership

Despite the bias and ideological conflict between Soviet Union and China, the normalization talks, which brought the two states together, began in 1982 and found its ground with Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” in 1986-1988. Nevertheless, the suspicion between two the sides prevented the progress of the relations. Through the rise of liberalist movements in Moscow, ideological and realist perceptions began to lose influence and therefore, the relations were revised and tried to be reformed, in spite of the failures of both sides in developing the ties. In 1996-1998, Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin forged a strategic partnership. From this point, although the hesitancies of Russia and China, particularly thanks to Vladimir Putin’s policies since 2003, the partnership has gained impetus through broadening the concept of bilateral relations in 2006-2008 and Medvedev pursued the same route with his successor. In brief, the former ideological enemies, who have had the same concerns and bias to each other, have presented a new type of relation called “strategic partnership”.

In this study, the Sino-Russian strategic partnership will be analyzed. Initially, the content of this strategic partnership will be explained by indicating both the definiton of the term and the issues agreed upon by both side. Secondly, the perspectives toward the partnership and each other of Russia and China will be discussed. Lastly, the current and possible challenges for the strategic partnership will be defined in order to point out how long and how this partnership can maintain its existence.

The Content of Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership

Prior to the development of bilateral relations between Russia and China, the sides constituted a forum to keep their compromised interests and overcome the regional tensions. This forum was Shanghai Five substituted in 1996 and transformed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. The organization has been consisted of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China. However, the SCO has remained hampered by the dominance of national interests over any sense of multilateral cooperation and sacrifice by its members and even more revealing is the inescapable fact that, despite the rhetoric, the fundamental strategic goals of the organization, for countering terrorism, securing borders and bolstering regional stability are all shared by the US.[1] It is apparent that SCO has represented the security concerns of Russia and China, who were the leaders of the Organization.

Regarding security concerns, while the SCO has remained as an economic forum, bilateral ties have been strengthened in security and military issues. From now on, both sides have attached importance to military maneuvers and capabilities. Currently, some 45 percent of Russia’s arms exports go to China; since 2000, Russia has delivered weapon systems to China — including fighter aircraft, submarines and destroyers — amounting to an average of US $2 billion annually and China has been the largest consumer of Russian military equipment for a number of years.[2] Both sides have been combating with the “terrorism, separatism and extremism” so that they pioneered to establish the SCO and increasing their bilateral cooperation. On the Chinese part, apart from the extremist and separatist movements in Xinjiang Region, there have been three main concerns: “recognition of the pivotal role of Central Asia for security along China’s western borders, the economic implications of an open Central Asia region and the linkage of Central Asia to the ever expanding Chinese sense of its role in as an important actor in global security”.[3] On the Russia part, the same concern about extremist, separatist and terrorist movements have existed in Chechnya region. In addition, Russia has been trying to maintain the status quo in the Central Asia and its dominance over the post-Soviet geography.

As regards the energy policy, in August 2005, during a visit to Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed economic ties and especially the work of Russian energy companies in China, bilateral projects that would distribute those supplies to third countries, as well as the delivery of Russian oil and gas to China and furthermore, in November 2005 Russia and China agreed to double oil exports to China and to consider constructing an oil pipeline from Russia to China and a gas-transmission project from eastern Siberia to China’s Far East.[4] The Caspian Region has also gained significance due to its energy supplies and increasing energy demands of several countries including China and Russia.

After giving a general summary of the issues of the partnership, the strategic dimension should be focused on. This dimension has been consisted of three interrelated levels: The first is the bilateral balance of power, which also touches on other geopolitical constructs, such as zero-sum equations and spheres of influence.[5] The second is the tri-lateral relation among Russia, China and Japan. The main intention of this triangularism is to maintain the strategic status quo in Northeast Asia. The last level is based on broadening the bilateral agenda and counterbalance against the US. In this context, the anti-hegemon attitudes of Russia and China shouldn’t be regarded as an “anti-American alliance”. Given the security and power concerns of two leading countries of Asia, it is understandable for Russia and China to stand against the permeation of US into the region. Thus, US have had a combining role in this strategic partnership.

Specifically the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation on July 2001 defined the concept of strategic partnership. According to the treaty, consolidating friendly and good neighborly ties and mutual cooperation in all realms, promoting a new world order, enhancing bilateral relations, respecting mutual non-aggression, mutual benefit, strategic stability in nuclear weapons, cooperating in economy, trade, military know-how, science and technology, energy and obeying the rules of international law, respecting territorial integrity are included in the strategic partnership.

In conclusion, the parties of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership have both contradictory and compromised interests with each other. Regarding the consciousness of the contested interests, they have engaged in strategic partnership to focus on common concerns and find out solutions together. Although they initially began to overcome the regional security problems in multilateral organizations, they later shifted the dimension of their cooperation toward global issues within the framework of bilateral relations.

The Perspectives of Russia and China about the Partnership and Each Other

The Russian Perspective

In the Soviet era and in the first post- Soviet decade, China was considered a “younger brother” and a “strategic partner”, but now the situation is not so unambiguous.

The perceptions of China by the population and the elites in Russia have changed quickly in accordance with the changing role of the country in the world. In the Soviet era the perceptions of China were characterized by a relative consensus maintained by researchers and experts as well as among the population, but these days opinions are cardinally opposed on the prospects for bilateral relations.[6]

In general, the Russian perspectives on China are very indicative of Russia’s identity and view of its place in the world as a uniquely “Eurasian power”.[7] Different parties in Russia have had different views on China. As for the anti-China party, the representatives have considered that China is overpopulated and needs new territories to move some amount of this population. This has been perceived as a menace to Russia due to the territories, which are close to both countries. They have been also anxious about immigration and negative effects to life standards of Russian society. Another concern is about the pressure on coal and oil import over Russia by China. Russia has become the major resource supplier of China. In addition, China’s military threat has made the anti-China party irritated. Although the arm sales have been continuing between two countries, the possible usage of these weapons toward Russia constitutes a concern, which doesn’t seem so logical. Maybe this last concern can stem from the former bias and animosity.

While the society has still had some suspicion toward China, the administrative swing of Russia has focused on strengthening of bilateral ties with China. As regards the Russian perspective over the strategic partnership, it is twofold. The first is what might be called global strategic.[8] This means using the partnership to balance the dominance of US in particular. In this regard, it can be named as an “anti-relationship”. In addition although Russia would like to see China as a hegemon instead of US, the balance between US and China seems more possible. Given, Russia has considered China as an alternative, but not replaceable with US. The strategic partnership serves as an important psychological crutch; after energy-driven economic prosperity, it is the most compelling explanation for the confident face Russia presents to the world.[9] In brief, the strategic partnership with China has been considered as a critical instrument for the security interests including geopolitical maneuvering by Russia. This approach can also be defined as “keeping friends close, keeping enemies closer” as Bobo Lo indicated. This perception enables not to see China as an enemy, but to develop peaceful coexistence and cooperation together.

The Chinese Perspective

In comparison with Russia, China has often tended to develop the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership. Despite the antipathy that it initially felt for the Yeltsin regime, the Chinese leadership, apparently acting on the direct orders of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, perceived that it had nothing to gain and much to lose, from a policy of outright condemnation, rather, Chinese interests dictated a policy of accommodation with Russia.[10]

In 1950s, although China accepted Soviet Union as the older brother, after Joseph Stalin’s death Mao Zedong chafed at the inequality in the Sino-Soviet relationship. [11] Soviet leaders blamed their Chinese counterparts for Sinocentrism. However, in the late 1980s; China began to pursue a foreign policy based on “peaceful development” principle. Deng Xiaoping’s attachment to peace and development normalized the relations with Soviet Union and constituted the ground of strategic partnership in 1990s. Especially thanks to the mutual intention to achieve socialist economic reform in both countries, they could combine their interests and benefits together despite ideological antagonism and bias.

In recent times, China has been pursuing both a multilateral web of relations with many actors of the world politics and bilateral relations with key actors such as Russia important for its political and economic interests. The strategic partnership with Russia belongs to the bilateral relations. Given China’s foreign policy understanding, China has been developing its cooperation with other actors in the framework of “win-win diplomacy, mutual support and foreign policy consensus”. In this context, it will be true to indicate that China has been pursuing its foreign policy as a whole. Namely, it has not attached any special importance to any actor; instead, it has been trying to remain neutral and in equal distance toward all actors. Therefore for instance, China doesn’t consider Russia as a counterweight to the US. Although China admits that Russia has international influence, it doesn’t tend to use Russia as a bargaining partner instead of the West. Russia is seemed as weak to perform such a role.

In addition, China has expanded the realm of its influence from Africa to the West. It has both made its economy gained impetus and increased its political influence especially by using the right of veto in UN Security Council. In this regard, China has no need to consider Russia as an alternative but it has shed a light on a supplement position for Russia to burgeon its ties with the US and Europe.

The Threats to the Partnership

The first obstacle is border demarcation. In 1991, the problem seemed to reach a settlement. However, the loss of territory and the flow of migration became important problem for both sides. Despite the demarcation in 1997, two unresolved matters could still have negative effects on bilateral relations. First, Chinese believe that historical treaties guarantee their country access to the Sea of Japan, only fifteen kilometers from their territory in Jilin province.[12] Second, Russia and North Korea have suspicion about that Tumen River’s arm length remained to China would damage their sovereignty rights. Several Russian commentators have pointed out that even though the border agreement was signed in 2004, Russia has still had suspicion about China’s irredentism. As a result, Russia and China could not still agree upon a final demarcation.

A second obstacle is difficulty of realizing the remarkable increase in trade from 2000. Although mistrust and the fear of deception continue, the profit motive has depended on new competitive conditions. Neither northeast China nor the Russian Far East has advanced far enough in building modern financial institutions, revitalized industries, and administrative respect for a market economy to cope well with a new spurt of cross-border economic cooperation.[13] Therefore, trade relations between Russia and China can be under risk and don’t seem to have positive future. Instead, China has had trade and economic ties with the US, and Russia had had ties with the EU.

Lastly, both sides have different perspectives, interests, capabilities and agendas. For instance, Russia has re-emerged as the regional superpower, in spite of less influence over the world politics. Especially China perceives Russia as a less active actor. As regard the position of US in Sino-Russian strategic relationship, both Russia and china know that close relations with US is significant for their influence over their regions. Although Russia and China has been anxious about US intervention about Asia’s political atmosphere, they can not refrain from maintaining cooperation with the hegemonic power of the world. In brief, strategic triangular relation seems more possible rather than strategic partnership between Russia and China.


Even though changing world politics has brought former enemies together to cooperate for some key issues such regional conflicts, regional or global threats and economic issues, the bias or mistrust to each other has been continuing. It is apparent from the name of the strategic partnership that Russia and China have attached importance to definite issues, in which they have had common interest and benefits. Nevertheless, this strategic partnership is supposed to be an anti-American alliance. It seems totally wrong, because of the fact that both sides have accepted the US dominance and they have been in cooperation with US in a set of issue ranging from economic to political. Therefore, the Sino-Russian partnership can not be considered as a strategic alliance against US. Instead, they prefer using their ties with US to each other and they use their bilateral relations as an alternative to the US simultaneously.

Müjde Brahimi

Department of International Relations (MSc.)

Middle East Technical University


Bellacqua, James, The Future of China-Russia Relations, the University Press of Kentucky, 2010

de Haas, Marcel, “Russia-China Security Operation”, Power and Interest News Reports, 27 November 2006, p. 2

Ferdinand, Peter, “Russia and China: Converging Responses to Globalization”, International Affairs, Vol. 83/4, 2007, p. 660–671

Giragosian, Richard, “The Strategic Central Asian Arena”, China and Eurasia Forum Quaterly, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2006), p. 134

Lo, Bobo, “A Fine balance: The Strange Case of Sino-Russian Relations”, Research Programme Russia/CIS, April 2005, p. 4

Lo Bobo, Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics, Brooking Institute Pres, 2008

Rozman Gilbert, “Sino-Russian Relations: Will the Strategic Partnership Endure?”, <> (download date: 20.05.2012), p. 14

Pavel Salin, “How Russians Perceive China”, Russia-China Relations: Current State, Alternative Futures, and Implications for the West, ed. Arkady Moshes, Matti Nojonen, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, FIIA Report 30, p. 60

Wilson, Jeanne Lorraine Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era, M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2004

[1] Giragosian, Richard, “The Strategic Central Asian Arena”, China and Eurasia Forum Quaterly, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2006), p. 134

[2] de Haas, Marcel, “Russia-China Security Operation”, Power and Interest News Reports, 27 November 2006, p. 2

[3] Giragosian, Richard, op.cit., p. 134-135 

[4] de Haas Marcel, op.cit., p. 2 

[5] Lo, Bobo, “A Fine balance: The Strange Case of Sino-Russian Relations”, Research Programme Russia/CIS, April 2005, p. 4

[6] Pavel Salin, “How Russians Perceive China”, Russia-China Relations: Current State, Alternative Futures, and Implications for the West, ed. Arkady Moshes, Matti Nojonen, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, FIIA Report 30, p. 60

[7] Andrew Kuchins, “Russian Perspectives on China: Strategic Ambivalence”, The Future of China-Russia Relations, ed. James Bellacqua, the University Press of Kentucky, 2010, p. 33

[8] Bobo Lo, Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics, Brooking Institute Pres, 2008, p. 43

[9] Ibid., p. 44

[10] Jeanne Lorraine Wilson, Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era, M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2004, p. 9

[11] Elizabeth Wishnick, “Why a Strategic Partnership? The View from China”, op. cit., ed. James Bellacqua, p. 59

[12] Rozman Gilbert, “Sino-Russian Relations: Will the Strategic Partnership Endure?”, <> (download date: 20.05.2012), p. 14

[13] Ibid., p. 15

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