What Drives the Russia-China Relationship

Konark Sikka, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

In the past decade, China has developed its reputation on the global stage as an influential actor with initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the One Belt, One Road initiative and military presence in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Russia has also been increasingly active in Ukraine and Syria. The two nations have a relationship that has had its ups and downs, but in a changing world, how does China’s rise and Russia’s recent events play into the relationship between the two nations, and what geopolitical implications does it have for the wider world? The relations between the two nations have always been complicated and it stands to reason that complications could arise in the future.


Russo-Chinese history is speckled with contention and numerous territorial conflicts. Beginning from the time that Russia expanded into Siberia and continuing onto the colonial era when China was both technologically and economically disadvantaged, in part due to imperialism.

This power dynamic shifted when the Kuomintang regime revolted against the ruling Qing Dynasty in China in 1911 and the Soviets rose to power in Russia in the 1920s. The Communist Party of China (CPC) was allied with the Kuomintang during the initial revolt, but the Kuomintang turned against the CPC, resulting in a Civil War in 1927 that lasted many years due to World War II. An end to the conflict took place in 1949, when the CPC controlled mainland China, relegating the Kuomintang’s power to Taiwan. It was then that Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

With Communists ruling in both the Soviet Union and the PRC after World War II, they formed an alliance officiated through The Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. This partnership increased economic and military ties between the two countries. However, tensions, emerged after Joseph Stalin’s death, when Mao Zedong rejected the post-Stalin Soviet economic model and ideological differences arose between Nikita Khrushchev (Stalin’s successor) and Zedong, as Khrushchev focused on de-Stalinization. Furthermore, Zedong’s China was hostile toward the United States, but Russia under Khrushchev was not as antagonistic towards the United States as Zedong, driving a wedge further in their alliance. There was also a border conflict between the two nations highlighting a frail time between the two countries. This era also witnessed an opening of China’s relations with the United States, that  had previously been non-existent leading up to  President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 China visit. It wasn’t until the dissolution of the Soviet Union that Russo-Chinese relations showed any signs of improvement.


Ties between the two nations normalized in the aftermath of the Cold War. Leading up to the 2000s, the two countries conducted military trade, with Russia supplying  China with much needed modern weaponry in return for welcomed cash. By the end of the 2000s once Vladimir Putin came to power, the relationship started to take off in earnest and direct trade increased as a result. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization substantiated the arrangement and border disputes were ironed out.

However, there have been obstructions in the relationship. While there is cooperation between the two on trade and energy, Russia put limitations on other Chinese businesses to counter their growing influence in Russia. What has fuelled Putin’s current increased cooperation with China in the past couple of years though has been the sanctions applied by the United States and the EU in 2014, after the Crimean annexation.

An increase in trade in the energy sector and cooperation in the infrastructure and technology sectors have also proceeded as the two countries strengthen ties. A new gas pipeline called Sila Siberi was planned for construction to deliver gas from Russia to China. However, the pipeline construction recently got stalled due to economic problems in Russia. Meanwhile, China has been allowed to construct new  metrorail stations in the Moscow  system as well as more opportunities for Huawei to expand in the Russian markets. China constructing new stations for the Moscow metro system could signal potential for increased cooperation between the two countries when it comes to lucrative infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, allowing companies such as Huawei to expand in the Russian market, as well as financial cooperation, can be seen as a consequence of the Western sanctions on Russia.

None of this has greatly impacted the countries neighboring Russia and China in both Asia and Europe or the United States. Europe  wants to move away from reliance on Russia and the United States is increasingly building ties with nations surrounding China, with initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Increased trade between Russia and China majorly impacts the power balance between the two nations more than it does the United States or the rest of the global community. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization can be seen as an instrument by China to increase regional power in Central Asia, but Russia touts the Eurasian Economic Union, which can be seen as Russia’s instrument to increase power in that region as well.


Ties between the two nations have historically been driven by geopolitical and economic interests. There have been issues such as border disputes, ideological differences, and conflict of interests since the beginning. The current relationship is a seemingly strong one, but  is driven by separate goals from both countries. If either country starts to flourish and gain more power than the other, the  relations are likely to sour as has been the case historically.

Common sense dictates that countries will make deals that benefit them or serve mutual interests. However, neither country can be seen as relying too much on the other as that would cause a power differential. With Russia facing crippling sanctions from the west and challenges in Europe and China aiming to increase its global footprint, both economically and militarily around the world, there is the potential to create a power differential in favor of China, which would strain the relationship. Thus, even though there might be a growing partnership presently, the history of the two nations and their somewhat competing interests will surface as soon as there is a conflict of interest, which would likely damage relations. Given Russia’s waning power in Europe and China’s increasing power and global moves in Asia and Africa, there is probable cause for another breakdown in relations in the future.

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