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Michael Cox

April 13th, 2021

Comrades Putin and Xi

1 comment | 36 shares

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Michael Cox

April 13th, 2021

Comrades Putin and Xi

1 comment | 36 shares

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

  • There has been a persistent reluctance in academic and policy circles to recognise the gradually consolidating China-Russia relationship over the past two decades as more than an “axis of convenience”.
  • While closer ties between China and Russia over the last five years have led to rethinking among some observers, sceptics continue to evince a “realist” reading, pointing to Beijing’s and Moscow’s adversarial history, and entrenched and competing national interests.
  • The misconception of treating China and Russia separately has constrained the formulation of effective policy responses to this emerging coalition in the UK and beyond.


Beyond convenient?

“The character, culture, history and interests of these countries…..are just too different for them to make common cause."

Mary Dejevsky [1]

Five years ago I authored what turned out to be a controversial paper on the China-Russian relationship.[2] In it I made three large claims challenging the then conventional wisdom: the first was that the relationship had moved from being what Bobo Lo had earlier termed as ‘convenient’ to becoming strategic;[3] the second was that there was every indication that the relationship would persist and possibly become even more significant over time; and finally that such a relationship would pose a serious challenge to the liberal world order led by the United States. Indeed, it was precisely their opposition to liberalism and to the role played by the US in an international system it dominated, and whose rules it had been writing for over fifty years, that had made Russia and China such close partners in the first place.

I was certainly not the first writer to suggest that something looking and sounding like an ‘alliance’ was in the offing. The Princeton sociologist Gilbert Rozman made a similar argument in an article he published in Foreign Affairs in 2014 (which he then developed into a book length study in the same year). Michael Lubin then followed up with a study of his own making much the same point, as did the Russian writer Alexander Lukin in his 2018 volume describing “the new rapprochement” between China and Russia.[4] One of the great writers on geopolitics even warned that such an alliance was a distinct possibility. In fact, according to Brzezinski, “the most dangerous scenario” would be a “grand coalition of China and Russia united not by ideology but complementary grievances”. But as was remarked at the time, “few observers heard his admonition” and even if they did, seemed to ignore it.[5] Few of course disagreed with the argument that relations between the two states were getting better. But the dominant view remained that even if there had been a significant improvement in this once difficult relationship it would never amount to much. To quote Bobo Lo (again) it would in all likelihood remain “non-committal and asymmetrical”.[6] Nor it seemed was there much chance of it becoming especially close going forward. Indeed, according to the many writers at the time they were just as likely to become rivals than friends; and even if the relationship did manage to endure this would not necessarily pose a serious challenge to the West or the United States.[7]


The sceptics

“This relationship is still more of an alignment rather than an alliance.”

Dimitri Trenin [8]

The argument that the relationship could never be anything other than transactional or transitory (or both) struck me as being a somewhat curious one. After all, most of the evidence by then seemed to point to the two countries and the two leaders becoming increasingly close. Indeed, whenever the opportunity presented itself whether at yet another military parade to celebrate the wars in which China and Russia had fought side by side, or another Sino-Russian summit in one of the two capitals, the leaders of both countries could hardly contain their enthusiasm.[9] Yet the more Xi and Putin stood side by side announcing their ‘global partnership’ and undying friendship for each other, the more western experts seemed determined to throw cold water on the whole thing. But why these doubts? There were, I think, a number of reasons.

One of course was the persistent influence of ‘realism’ in foreign policy discourse and the view it propagated that states were bound to compete with one another rather than cooperate. According to theorists of an alternative theoretical persuasion Russia and China could never become allies for another very different reason – namely that only liberal democracies could ever build the bonds of trust upon which solid alliances could be founded. To this was added a third argument derived from power shift theory. This insisted that as Chinese power grew in the coming decades leaving Russia far behind, Russian anxieties were likely to grow, and as they did Moscow would begin to distance itself from Beijing. Economists then pointed to yet a fourth reason why the two states would remain distant: that there was (to paraphrase David Ricardo) no comparative economic advantage in them getting any closer. Moreover even if they did manage to improve their economic links, the economic disparities between China and Russia rendered such connections incredibly tenuous over the long term. In fact, according to one report, “China’s sheer mass, proximity, and willingness to economically coerce its partners could eventually compel Russia to look again to the West, where most of its trade remains despite its growing ties with China”.[10]

Finally, there remained the large shadow of the past hanging over of the relationship. An article in the South China Morning Post published in late 2019 may have been overstating the case somewhat by insinuating that “Xi’s courtship of Moscow” made “no sense” at all because it ignored “the animosity” that had defined “Sino-Russian relations” going all the way back to the “the Treaty of Nerchinsk in the 17th century.”[11] Nevertheless, it did at least point to the complicated relationship between these two states which had seen Russia participate in China’s century of humiliation in the 19th century and later witnessed an ongoing conflict between Beijing and Moscow following the great Sino-Soviet dispute, an event that kept the two countries apart for the better part of thirty five years after 1960.[12]


New consensus?

“But this skeptical view is giving way to an emerging predominant consensus that the Beijing-Moscow axis is built on real commonalities, has a strong foundation, and a positive future”.

David Shambaugh [13]

The last five years has shown that nearly all these assumptions have turned out to be rather poor guides to understanding the evolution of the relationship. Thus far from their illiberal regime type making them suspicious foes, it appears to have led to the opposite. Furthermore, in spite of what most economists predicted, the two have become measurably closer. With both countries working closely in a number of international fora, from the UN to the BRICS, the realist view would also appear to have been put to the sword. In fact, China and Russia have become past masters at using their combined weight to prevent the West getting its way in the world. They have moreover engaged in several military exercises together, and whenever the opportunity has presented itself (which it has on many occasions) have made it abundantly clear how much they value the other’s support. Finally, rather than ‘history’ weighing the relationship down, as some predicted it was bound to, both sides have stressed how much history actually unites them from the founding of the Chinese Communist Party back in 1921, through the Second World War, when they were allies against fascist aggression and on to the early years of the Cold War, when they stood together against the United States and western imperialism.

Inevitably, the increasingly close relationship between the two states has caused something of a change in the conversation about Russia and China, leading to a partial (but only partial) shift in the debate, moving it from where it once was – that is thinking of the relationship as being little more than expedient – to thinking of it as becoming a much more serious affair. As David Shambaugh pointed out, the relationship, and perceptions of the relationship in the West, had undergone an important change over the years. Initially the importance of the relationship for both actors had in his view been “underappreciated in Washington and the West”. However, as he went on to point out (and he was writing in the middle of 2019) there was now “increased awareness – and rising concern – about this partnership, particularly in Washington”.[14]

Yet in spite of his wise words there were still those who persisted in thinking that the relationship did not amount to a great deal. Thus, according to a fairly typical piece published by the Council on Foreign Relations in 2018 the author (Sophia Lin) insisted that it was “unlikely” that Russia now “considered its long-time adversary an ally”. The well-known writer on global affairs, Robert Kaplan, agreed. On the surface it looked as if relations between China and Russia were improving. But what was going on “below the surface” he warned was “serious geopolitical competition”.[15] A year later an expert at Chatham House (Mathieu Boulegue) also noted that it might look as if it’s “all nice and rosy in Russia-China relations in military terms – but it’s not”. Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), then added that the relationship between Russia and China was mainly a “utilitarian” one and that their alliance shouldn’t be overplayed by analysts. Nor did the scepticism end there, and in an article published in the influential CFR journal Foreign Affairs Leon Aron attacked all those so-called “foreign-policy experts” who were convinced that “an anti-U.S. alliance between the two countries” was emerging. Such an assessment he went on stretched “the evidence beyond” what it could bear. If anything, what the evidence pointed to was the opposite. “Chinese-Russian economic, foreign policy, and military cooperation” he noted was less than impressive. The history of relations between the two countries was “fraught”. And the two also played “vastly different roles in the world economy”. In other words, there was no ‘alliance’ in the making.[16]


Denying the obvious?

“Divorcing policy toward one country from policy toward the other not only distorts policy toward each country, it also leaves neglected, or perhaps unrecognized, the overarching challenge of the escalating strategic rivalry between the United States and the world’s two other most formidable military powers, whose polices are increasingly aligned”.

Thomas Graham and Robert Legvold [17]

Whether or not there was (or was not) a formal alliance in the making remains a moot point depending in large part on how one defines an alliance. Either way, most governments in the West still seemed to be reluctant to treat Russia and China as if they were united together. As Natasha Kuhrt has pointed out in her assessment of the recently launched UK report on British foreign policy, the “Integrated Review” views Russia and China “very differently”, with the former being designated as an “acute and direct threat” (thus implying it was the more dangerous of the two states) and China as a “systematic competitor”. In fact, not only is China now regarded in London as being less of an immediate danger, but according to the Review might also be seen as “an increasingly important partner” in terms of trade and investment and in tackling “global challenges” such as climate change.[18]

A desire to keep China in play while consigning Russia into that proverbial dustbin of history also appeared to animate recent discussions within NATO. The challenge posed by China could not be ignored and nor of course has it been. Yet it should hardly be viewed as a “threat” according to NATO, quite unlike Russia which as Jens Stoltenberg pointed out in March seemed to be up to all sorts of mischief.[19] Even in the US where the pendulum has clearly swung against the PRC over the past few years there would appear to be a reluctance to place Russia and China in the same camp. Thus even though both are seen as rivals, in the US Interim National Security Strategic Guidance published in March 2021, Russia significantly was described as a “disrupter” and China interestingly as a “challenger”. Moreover, even if China was becoming more assertive as everybody in Washington accepted it was, this did not preclude the US working with or engaging with the PRC. As the new US Secretary of State rather artfully put it, the US would compete with China when required but cooperate when necessary.[20]

Keeping the door open to China while effectively closing it on Russia may of course make perfect strategic sense from the point of view of the West. After all China has a lot more to offer the West and Russia very little at all. Yet one is still left wondering why there remains what can only be described as a reluctance in some quarters (including governmental) to accept the fact that after nearly twenty years of very careful nurturing on both sides the partnership between China and Russia has become a profoundly close one.[21] Nor is there much hope of them becoming any less close as time goes on. Indeed, if the past is any guide to the future (which it may not be) as the two leaders consolidate their respective positions at the top while implementing more and more repressive measures at home, the more united they are likely to become. Well intentioned analysts may of course try to reassure themselves (and others) that the two countries are not “natural allies” and that “deep cultural differences between the most influential elite groups in China and Russia impede cooperative initiatives”.[22] Others may also point (not unreasonably) to areas where China and Russia do not agree.[23] But as any student of international relations will tell you, even the closest of allies are bound to have differences as indeed do Russia and China. But this has hardly prevented them becoming closely aligned and to have done so against the expectations of most experts who a few years ago assumed that for whatever reason Moscow and Beijing could never become serious partners. Perhaps therefore it is time for the sceptics to recognise that they may have got it wrong and start thinking of ways in which an emerging coalition of two very illiberal states can be managed effectively, rather than repeating what by now seems the less than credible line that what separates and divides Russia and China will in time turn out to be more significant in shaping the future than what now (very obviously) unites them.



[1] Mary Dejevsky, ‘Axis of Convenience by Bobo Lo’, The Independent, 9 December 2008.

[2] Michael Cox, ‘Not just “convenient”: China and Russia’s new strategic partnership in the age of geopolitics’, Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, Vol. 1:4, 2016, pp. 317-334. See also my chapter ‘Axis of Opposition: China, Russia and the West’ in Asle Toje ed, Will China’s Rise be Peaceful? Oxford University Press, 2018, pp.321-347.

[3] Bobo Lo, Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing and the New Geopolitics, Brookings Institution, Chatham House 2008.

[4] See Gilbert Rozman, The Sino-Russia Challenge to the World Order, Stanford University Press, 2014; Michael Lubin, Russia and China; A political marriage of convenience – stable and successful, Barbara Budrich Publishers, Berlin and Toronto, 2017; and Alexander Lubin, China and Russia: The New Rapprochement, Polity, Cambridge, 2018.

[5] See Graham Allison, ‘China and Russia: A Strategic Alliance in the Making”, Belfer Center, November 6, 2018.

[6] Bobo Lo, ‘How the Chinese See Russia’, IFRI, Russian, NIS Centre, Report no. 6, December 2010.

[7] Rajan Menon, ‘The Limits of Chinese–Russian Partnership’, Survival, Vol. 51, No.3, 2009, pp. 99-130.

[8] Dimitri Trenin, ‘Russia analyst: China and Russia are partners, not quite allies’, Defense News, 2 December 2019.

[9] Speaking in 2019 at yet another meeting between the two leaders Xi admitted, “In the past six years, we have met nearly 30 times. Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague.” Mr Putin echoed the praise saying he was “pleased to say that Russian-Chinese relations have reached an unprecedented level. It is a global partnership and strategic cooperation.” China’s Xi praises ‘best friend’ Putin during Russia visit, BBC, 6 June 2019

[10] Jonathan E.Hillman, ‘China and Russia: Economic Unequals’, CSIS Report, July 2020.

[11] Chi WangRussia is no friend to China. In fact, Xi’s friendship with Putin is a betrayal of the Chinese people’ South China Morning Post, 10 December 2019.

[12] There is a vast (and now largely unread) literature on the Sino-Soviet dispute. The standard work on the origins of the split is probably Donald S. Zagoria, Sino-Soviet Conflict, 1956-1961, Princeton University Press, 1962.

[13] David Shambaugh, ‘China-Russia relations: the new Axis’.

[14] David Shambaugh, ibid.

[15] Nyshka Chandran, ‘Serious rivalry drives China-Russia relations despite improving ties’, CNBC, September 14, 2018.

[16] Leon Aron, ‘Are Russia and China Really Forming an Alliance: the Evidence is Less than Impressive’, Foreign Affairs, April 4, 2019.

[17] Thomas Graham and Robert Legvold, ‘It’s better to deal with China and Russia in tandem’, Politico, 2 April 2021

[18] Natash Kuhrt, ‘Why the Integrated Review treats Russia and China differently’, 10 March 2021. King’s College London.

[19] See my ‘No Banquo at this Feast: NATO Ministerial Meeting Brussels 23-34th March 2021’. Brexit Institute Dublin City University, Blog 7 April 2021.


[21] For an assessment of the relationship between the PRC and Russia see Hearing Before The US-China Economic and Security Review Committee. Washington D.C, March 21, 2019.,%202019%20Hearing%20Transcript.pdf

[22] Pavel Baev, ‘The limits of authoritarian incompatibility; Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia’, Brookings, June 2020.

[23] Natasha Kuhrt, ‘Russia and China present a united front bit there’s plenty of potential for friction’, The Conversation, 29 March 2021.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.

“File:With President of China Xi Jinping before a roundtable meeting of leaders during the Belt and Road international forum.jpg” by The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office is licensed under CC BY 4.0

“4. Super powers” by Mark Turner is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

About the author

Michael Cox

Professor Michael Cox was appointed to a Chair at the LSE in 2002. He was a Founding Director of LSE IDEAS and is now Emeritus Professor of International Relations. He has served as Senior Fellow at the Nobel Institute in Oslo and is now a visiting professor at the Catholic University of Milan. He is the author, editor and co-editor of several books including works on E.H.Carr, Keynes, US foreign policy and the Cold War. His most recent volume, Agonies of Empire: American Power from Clinton to Biden was published in 2022. It is now being translated into Italian and will be published by Vita E Penserio Press. He has also just completed a volume for LSE Press entitled Afghanistan: Long War – Forgotten Peace and is now working on a study of the China-Russian relationship entitled, Comrades? to be published by Polity Press in 2023.

Posted In: Diplomacy