8 November 2022

China and Russia – Friends or enemies?

China and Russia have a complicated relationship. But one important thing they have in common is that they want to reshape today’s world order, dominated by the West. FOI researchers have looked at the two countries’ relations from a Chinese point of view.

A Chinese and a Russian flag.

China has six basic motives for friendly cooperation with Russia. Image from Shutterstock.

The relationship between Russia and China has seen both conflict and friendship. In modern history, they entered into a formal alliance after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949. However, the relationship soon deteriorated and in 1969 a brief border war broke out between the countries. During the 1980s, relations were normalised and have gradually improved since the end of the Cold War. Today, they regard each other as their most important international partners.

Six motives

According to FOI’s report, China’s perspective on Russia, China has six basic motives for friendly cooperation with Russia:

  • to maintain a stable and peaceful neighbourly relationship
  • to gain political support and legitimacy for its own regime
  • to improve military cooperation to counterbalance the US
  • to maintain stability in Central Asia
  • to deepen cooperation in terms of economic and technological exchange
  • global governance.

“If there is a peaceful relationship, China does not need to spend resources on guarding the 4200-kilometre border with Russia, but can focus on the United States and national modernisation,” said, Christopher Weidacher Hsiung, the report’s author and a security policy analyst at FOI with a focus on China.

The motives also reflect that China and Russia are authoritarian states, where the elites are afraid of losing power.

“That is why the two countries support each other diplomatically and try to lend each other political legitimacy, especially against the ‘democratic West,’ which they believe wants to undermine their own rule and ultimately bring about regime change,” says Christopher Weidacher Hsiung.

Four challenges for the relationship

The report identifies four challenges for the relationship between the countries:

  • history and mutual suspicion
  • competing regional interests
  • limitations in the economic exchange
  • different approaches to the future global order.

Their suspicions arise from old antagonisms and regional interests that may collide. A key area is Central Asia, where Russia has long been the dominant superpower, but is now being challenged by China.

The economic exchange between China and Russia reflects today’s bilateral balance of power and points to how dependent on China Russia has become.

“China buys oil and gas from Russia, Russia buys finished products such as electronics from China. In both cases, Russia becomes dependent on China, not least now that it is subject to sanctions. The fact that it is now China that exports more advanced goods also means a partial reversal of roles; it was not so long ago that Russian technology was at the forefront, compared to China’s,” says Christopher Weidacher Hsiung.

The war’s importance

The war against Ukraine, however, casts shadows over the countries’ relationship. The invasion has forced China into a delicate balancing act between safeguarding its strategic partnership with Russia while not risking a deterioration in its relations with the U.S. and Europe, on which China is dependent, economically and technologically.

“I think the Chinese are surprised at how badly things are going for Russia in the war, because if there was something they looked up to in Russia, it was their military capability. The setbacks are likely to worry them, too, because China has plenty of Russian weapons, and has militaries who have been trained in Russia, who have been inspired by Russian military strategic thinking. I think that the unity of the West has also made a big impression on China,” says Christopher Weidacher Hsiung.

What the war means for the Sino-Russian relationship in the long run probably depends on how it develops.

“I think even China has red lines: Russian use of nuclear weapons could be one. I also think that China is worried about what is happening domestically in Russia and especially with regard to Putin’s future," says Christopher Weidacher Hsiung.

China in the driver’s seat

The report outlines future scenarios for the Russian-Chinese relationship by discussing three different roles that Russia can play for China, as:

  • formally allied
  • competitor
  • strategic supporter.

The report describes the role of strategic supporter as the most likely one. But that Russia will also become increasingly dependent on China.

“Russia’s isolation and weakening due to the war will probably increase. China will thus dictate more and more of the content of relations. And as long as China’s elite regards the United States as the most pressing ideological and geopolitical threat, Russia will play an important role for China,” says Christopher Weidacher Hsiung.