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Foreign policy scholars examine the China-Russia relationship

An expert panel discussed the strengths, and limits, of the alignment between the two world powers and U.S. rivals.
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Illustration of two shaking hands. Both wear suits, while one hand is in the colors of the Russian flag and the other is in the colors of the Chinese flag. A graphic of world continents is behind them.
A public panel discussion at MIT featuring foreign policy scholars examined China-Russia alignment.
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What is the nature of the relationship between China and Russia today, and how extensively will the two countries keep cooperating in the future? It is a leading question of international relations.

On Thursday, a public panel discussion at MIT offered some answers, with foreign-policy scholars offering that China and Russia do not really have an “alliance” in a traditional sense, although they maintain a durable alignment based on not merely convenience but also some deeper common interests and perspectives.

“The partnership with Russia is big priority for China despite the fallout for certain foreign policy goals from the war in Ukraine, and that’s because there’s a certain amount of interdependence between China and Russia, shared goals, despite differences in many areas,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, an expert in Chinese foreign policy. “The limits to the partnership have always been apparent, but sometimes I think we underestimate its staying power.”

Those shared goals are apparent for both parties, including from the Russian point of view, as the panelists emphasized.

“Ultimately this certainly is not just a transactional relationship; it’s a relationship that’s been evolving for quite some time,” said Natasha Kuhrt, a scholar specializing in Russian foreign policy and security.

The question of how world powers engage and align themselves is certainly topical, with U.S. President Joe Biden meeting China’s president, Xi Jinping, on Thursday in California, a development that might offer a slight thawing of U.S.-China relations. Among other things, China has remained neutral about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the U.S., the Biden administration has adamantly opposed the invasion.

The event, titled, “A permanent partnership? How Xi and Putin are shaping a turbulent world,” was held online as part of MIT’s Starr Forum series, an ongoing series of public discussions about pressing international matters. The Starr Forum is organized by MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS), and Thursday’s event was co-sponsored by MIT’s Security Studies Program and the MISTI MIT-Eurasia program.

Wishnick is currently a senior research scientist in China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses, while on leave as a professor of political science at Montclair State University. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy and China-Russian relations, as well as Arctic geopolitics.

Kuhrt is a senior lecturer of international peace and security in the Department of War Studies at King's College London. She focuses on Russian and Eurasian security matters and foreign policy, especially pertaining to Asia.

The event was moderated by Carol Saivetz, a senior fellow in the MIT Security Studies Program and an expert on Soviet and Russian foreign policy.

The speakers noted that China and Russia are certainly linked by, among other things, economic interests. As Wishnick pointed out, China gets 19 percent of its oil and 25 percent of its coal from Russia; with coal accounting for about half of China’s energy consumption, those import levels are very significant. Indeed, while Russia is only China’s 10th-largest trade partner — behind Malaysia — its role as an energy supplier gives it a crucial role in the Chinese economy.

What Russia gets out of the partnership is not just an export destination for fossil fuels, however. A better relationship with China means Russia needs to commit fewer troops to its 2,300-mile border between the countries. In turn, that has freed up more Russian troops for the war in Ukraine.

“We’ve seen also the way in which Moscow deployed a large number of troops from the Russian Far East to the Ukrainian battlefield, and that hardly would have been possible 20-odd years ago,” Kuhrt said. “So, just that fact itself is of great significance.”

Whatever China’s own high-level assessment of Russia’s invasion, China has kept to its neutral public position with regard to the war.

“Clearly China is concerned about what’s happening in Ukraine but happy to project this kind of neutral stance,” Kuhrt said. “They do come together, Russia and China, in their view of the war essentially as being a proxy war, and being a war against western hegemonism. So, while China does profess to be neutral, I think it seems to be clear that they have a very similar view of the kind of underlying causes of this war, despite Chinese concerns about sovereignty.”

She added: “I don’t think it’s an alliance, otherwise China might have come to Russia’s assistance, and I don’t think it will ever be an alliance. The military level of cooperation is not at such a level that we can really call it an alliance relationship.”

And yet, as both scholars noted, the seemingly elusive sense of definition behind the relationship may help both partners in it.

“There is a strategic ambiguity about the partnership that increases its deterrent value even without a full-scale alliance,” Wishnick said. “For China, I would say that Russia is a consequential partner, though a problematic one.”

During a question-and-answer session following the presentations, Saivetz asked the panelists which issues could damage the China-Russia relationship. Wishnick suggested that nuclear security issues were “the main red line” in the partnership, along with China’s territorial integrity; both agreed that Arctic geopolitics could also be a source of tension, among other things.

The scholars were also asked if Xi’s visit to Biden in the U.S. had any bearing on China-Russia relations. They largely concurred that it represented a straightforward matter of China trying to findways to re-engage with the world in order to emerge from its economic doldrums.

“I don’t think that this visit was meant to signal anything to Russia,” Wishnick said. “I think it was, for Xi Jinping it was an opportunity to help revive old economic ties, not just with the U.S. but globally, at a time when the Chinese economy is struggling.”

Still, Xi’s visit might reflect one thing about the China-Russia relationship: the altered size of the countries’ economies. For decades after World War II the U.S. and Russia were the superpowers in the Cold War world, but China’s economic growth has altered that. Now, the U.S. and China have the biggest economies, in that order.

“This is maybe becoming a G2 world, even if they’re not really actually articulating it in that way,” Kuhrt said.

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