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A nation must think before it acts.
The statements could not have been more different. As Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up his visit to Russia in March, the two governments released a joint statement that described their relations as having reached “their highest level in history.” The same day, White House spokesperson John Kirby dismissed the relationship as “a marriage of convenience.”
The difference between the two statements neatly frames a debate about Sino-Russian relations that has continued for almost two decades. One side insists that ties between Beijing and Moscow are a true strategic partnership; the other argues they are thin and frail, with shared resistance to the United States. the only thing binding them together. As Bobo Lo argued in his 2008 book, this view sees the relationship as an “axis of convenience.”
While useful as shorthand descriptions of the relationship, both the strategic partnership and axis of convenience views are limited in their ability to explain it. A more nuanced view of China-Russia ties emerges from examining their interaction “on the ground” in regions where both have important interests at stake.
Both sides may be doing some wishful thinking in the debate between the strategic partnership and axis of convenience camps. The “strategic partnership” camp includes many Chinese and Russian government officials and analysts who see close ties as the best way to challenge the United States. The statements of the Chinese and Russian governments on their relationship tend to be full of superlatives and light on substance: Xi has called Putin his “best and bosom friend” and Putin has remarked that their views on all major international issues are “identical or very close.”
The “axis of convenience” view is popular among Western government officials and analysts who prefer not to consider the negative ramifications of a true China-Russia alliance for their own countries. In this view, the Sino-Russian relationship is “highly constrained” and limited to “their mutual interest in undermining the US-led liberal international order, which promotes democracy, human rights and free markets.”
Proponents of the “axis of convenience” view tend to believe that authoritarian regimes cannot have a relationship defined by the common values and shared connections they claim define relations among democratic states. Instead, autocracies are guided by the naked pursuit of national interests. Where those interests align, short-term cooperation is possible and may even flourish. But once the “binding agent” of shared interests is removed, competition and even conflict between authoritarian states are likely. Since authoritarian states use coercion to solve domestic political problems, the argument goes, they are more likely to use it to solve problems in international relations, making long-term cooperation between them unlikely.
But there is another view, which argues that authoritarian states can and do have stable, productive relationships. From this perspective, put forth most cogently by political scientist Mark Haas, it is not the content of two states’ ideologies (democratic or authoritarian) that determines how well they get along, but the “ideological distance” between them. States separated by little ideological distance see no threat from each other. States separated by significant ideological distance suspect each other of threatening their external security and internal political stability. So, autocracies get along well with other autocracies, making a China-Russia strategic partnership not only conceivable but likely.
Understanding the nature of the China-Russia relationship is of vital importance to US national security. A true strategic partnership between them would be a grave threat to American interests. On the other hand, a relationship that lacks depth would lower the threat of a Beijing-Moscow alliance directed against the United States. Almost two decades of debate between the “strategic partnership” and “axis of convenience” camps have yielded plenty of strong opinions, but no clear conclusion. This is because neither view is entirely correct.
Although the strategic partnership and axis of convenience narratives are useful simplifications of reality, in practice the relationship between Beijing and Moscow is neither strictly a strategic partnership nor an axis of convenience. Like many bilateral relationships, it is a complex and dynamic mixture of cooperation, compartmentalization, and competition that is heavily influenced by the context in which interaction occurs. The best way to test China-Russia ties is not to read their summit communiques, measure the volume of trade between them (trading partners have gone to war with each other quite often throughout history), or measure the scale and frequency of their joint military exercises. Instead, the best window into the China-Russia relationship is to study how they interact in regions of the world where both have interests at stake. And here four regions emerge as critical: Central Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and East Asia.
These regions provide a strong test of Chinese-Russian relations because they provide varied environments for the two to interact, and the variation tests some of the core hypotheses of each approach. Africa and Central Asia test the hypothesis that the main driver of Chinese-Russian ties is shared resistance to what both claim is “US hegemony.” In these regions, America’s diplomatic, military, and economic presence is lighter than in much of the world. China and Russia, on the other hand, have important interests at stake and a correspondingly heavier presence. In the absence of a significant US presence, the nature of Chinese-Russian interaction should yield important insights about the true nature of their relationship.
Russia has a long history of political and military domination of Central Asia and has seen the region as its “soft underbelly” due to its proximity to Afghanistan. In the Kremlin’s strategic calculus, only strong political influence and military presence in the Central Asian states can protect Russia from the cauldron of instability Afghanistan has often represented to Russian leaders. Three of the five former Soviet Central Asian States are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian-dominated military alliance. Russia maintains military forces and bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
China’s interest in Central Asia has been primarily economic—the region has been a significant recipient of Chinese investment in infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In fact, China chose Kazakhstan as the site to formally unveil the BRI. The region also figures prominently in China’s energy policy—60 percent of China’s natural gas delivered through pipelines comes from Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan export gas to China, often as payment in kind for economic assistance from Beijing. Collectively, the Central Asian states send 22 percent of their total exports to China and get 37 percent of their imports from there, and this trade dependence is rising.
The roles of Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia are so distinct that the two have been called “the sheriff and the banker.” In this view, Russia focuses on security and political stability and China focuses on economic development. If the two can maintain these roles, coordinating their activities in Central Asia to their mutual benefit, this argues their relationship is more robust than many Western analysts and government officials claim it is.
But it is not clear if this will be the case. China has recently expanded its diplomatic and security role in the region, moving into areas that Russia had dominated. Xi’s first post-COVID foreign trip was to Central Asia last fall. And in 2016, China established the first military base outside its borders in Tajikistan. How Russia responds to these Chinese forays into its traditional areas of influence will convey much about the sustainability of their partnership in Central Asia.
Africa is another place where China and Russia interact against the backdrop of a light US military and diplomatic footprint. Africa mirrors Central Asia in some ways and differs in others. As in Central Asia, Moscow’s focus has been propping up friendly governments and selling itself as a provider of security, while Beijing has focused on economic development. But the means Russia uses in Africa differ from those it uses in Central Asia. In Central Asia, the Russian military is the primary tool, but in Africa the Wagner Group has taken center stage.
Although recently known for its so-far unsuccessful scorched earth campaign to take the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and its chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s public feuds with Russia’s military leadership, Wagner has been present in Africa since at least 2017. Here Wagner trades its services for resource extraction deals, in the process using misinformation to undermine the relationships of Western states with African governments. Wagner is believed to have some 5,000 fighters in Africa, located in Burkina-Faso, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Eritrea, the Central African Republic, and Cameroon. Wagner focuses its African operations in three areas: combat operations, providing security for local regimes and training their security forces, and disinformation campaigns. Payment for these services is either direct or through resource extraction deals.
China’s presence in Africa is more overt and traditional. Focused on BRI-linked infrastructure development, Chinese activities are often couched in “win-win” language and focused on tangible, high-visibility infrastructure projects. Some forty-six African countries have signed on to the BRI—collectively they represent over a billion people and cover 20 percent of the earth’s landmass. As of 2017, there were approximately 10,000 Chinese enterprises in Africa generating $180 billion per year in revenues, a figure projected to increase to $250 billion by 2025. Chinese lending to Africa reached $153 billion between 2010–2019 but may have peaked as China calculates that some African governments have reached the limit of their borrowing capacity. At the 2021 Forum for China-Africa Cooperation Summit, Xi pledged $40 billion in loans to Africa, a 33 percent drop from the pledges at the two previous Summits.
While the roles of China and Russia in Africa may appear similar to their “sheriff and banker” arrangement in Central Asia, there are important differences. In Central Asia, Moscow sees its own security as directly tied to the security of regional states, whereas in Africa Russia’s provision of security is—literally—more mercenary in its character. Russia’s interest in the security of African states is instrumental: it matters only if is profitable for the Wagner Group and undermines Western relationships with African governments. Public opinion polling indicates that Africans are becoming aware of Russia’s attitude toward their security: between 2021 and 2022 approval of Russia in sub-Saharan Africa declined from 45 percent to 35 percent.
In an interview with me in August 2022, Dr. Paul Tembe remarked on the difference in perceptions of China and Russia among Africans and the overall inequality of their relations there. “The Russian footprint … is rather too crude to be long-lasting and create a type of soft power and the leverage that China has got at the moment.” He added that the Russians “are not sheriffs because they want (to be); they are sheriffs because that’s the only position available to them.” This arrangement makes it easy for China to “throw Russia under the bus” and “bankroll a new type of security.” As in Central Asia, China is becoming willing to take a more direct security role in Africa rather than rely on Russia: It opened a naval base in Djibouti in 2017 and there are persistent reports that it is planning one on Africa’s west coast, in Equatorial Guinea.
Eastern Europe and East Asia present a different sort of test of China-Russia ties. In each of these regions, either Beijing or Moscow is locked in a struggle for supremacy with the United States. And in each region, the United States and either China or Russia believe vital interests are at stake.
In Eastern Europe, Russia’s war on Ukraine is the crucible of Chinese-Russian relations. The United States and Russia have framed the war as a competition for the future of the world order, and Russia claims its fighting the war for its own survival. Chinese interests in Eastern Europe are of a much lower order—important but certainly not vital. And China certainly knows that if it provides military aid to Russia, it will pay a price in terms of reputational damage and in the form of Western-imposed secondary sanctions.
For this reason, Beijing’s actions bear close watching. A continuation of the Chinese approach that provides rhetorical support to Russia but eschews material support implies that Beijing is not willing to bear costs on Moscow’s behalf, undermining the strategic partnership narrative. For example, the Chinese proposal to end the conflict repeats much of the Russian narrative about the causes of the war and would legitimize Russia’s seizure of parts of Ukraine, but also reiterates China’s support for “respecting the sovereignty of all countries” and cautions against the use of nuclear weapons. In any case, Beijing knows the plan is dead on arrival in Kyiv and Western capitals, making it less a serious plan to end the war on Russia’s terms than an attempt to undermine accusations that China is Russia’s silent accomplice.
On the other hand, Chinese material support to Russia—especially given that Beijing knows the costs it will bear for such support—would provide strong support for the strategic partnership narrative. The US intelligence community and Treasury Department have concluded that although China has considered Russia’s request for material support, Beijing has so far been unwilling to provide it, leaving Russia to turn to states like Iran and North Korea. If China’s calculation changes and Beijing does end up providing material support to Russia, it strengthens the argument that China and Russia are true strategic partners. If not, it suggests that Beijing is not willing to underwrite Moscow’s adventurism and allow Russia to pull it into a conflict in which it has no vital interests at stake.
The situation in East Asia mirrors that in Eastern Europe. Here, the United States and China are locked in a struggle for supremacy, with each claiming a vital interest in the outcome. Russia, on the other hand, has lower-order interests at stake. If Russia chooses to give more than rhetorical support to China’s territorial claims in this region, Moscow knows it would create an even wider confrontation with the West than it is already facing over Ukraine. Although Russia has lent rhetorical support to China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, it has taken no concrete action that would signal a willingness to incur costs on China’s behalf there. In fact, Russia’s support appears more designed to delegitimize America’s presence in the region than concretely support China’s claims.
Moscow has caused concern among Chinese analysts—and presumably government officials—by its outreach to some of China’s biggest adversaries in the region. Russian arms sales to Vietnam represent 84 percent of that country’s arms imports and have helped Hanoi transform its armed forces into some of the region’s most modern and capable, giving it a “limited but potent deterrent against China.” Aside from its relationship with Vietnam, Moscow has increased its arms sales to Malaysia and has sought to expand its defense ties with the Philippines and Indonesia, all of which are sure to cause concern in Beijing.
Russia has also sought to make inroads in the energy sphere. In 2018, Russia and Vietnam announced plans to jointly develop gas fields in the South China Sea, prompting “strong protests from China, which claims most of the vast body of water and has been building military facilities in the area.” In 2021, China demanded that Indonesia halt oil and gas exploration off its northern coast, in what Beijing claimed was “Chinese territory.” Often overlooked in what is described as a bilateral dispute between Jakarta and Beijing is the fact that Russia’s state-backed Zarubezhneft is funding the project.
The relationship between China and Russia is neither a strategic partnership nor an axis of convenience. It is complex, dynamic, and contingent upon the environment in which the two interact. And contingency happens on the ground, not in summits and bilateral visits. In other words, in the regions of the world where China and Russia are both actively pursuing their national interests through political, military, and economic activities, interactions between them are less scripted and therefore more likely to reveal truths about the nature of their relationship.
Rather than trying to reduce their relationship to a bumper sticker, analysts should identify areas where their interests in key regions converge and diverge. This could allow for pragmatic, evidence-based predictions about the future trajectory of the relationship in those regions.
Central Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and East Asia are the key regions to watch going forward. In these regions, the role of the United States and the intensity of Chinese and Russian interests vary, allowing for tests of the relationship under different conditions. Beijing and Moscow are both expanding into domains where the other has long been dominant—China’s security presence in Central Asia and Africa is expanding, while Russia is making forays into economic investment in East Asia. To this point, the two have been able to compartmentalize their differences and maintain their cooperation against what they label “US hegemony.” But that is not a given in the future.
What the United States should not do is explicitly try to “drive a wedge” between Beijing and Moscow. Their differences in key regions of the world may drive them apart or at a minimum limit their cooperation. If that happens, Washington should be prepared to adjust to the new normal. But by inserting itself into the equation, American policymakers will only serve to remind Chinese and Russian leaders of their shared animosity toward the United States, binding them closer together.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.