Debate: Russia and China—How Close Are They?
Few watchful observers of international affairs would deny that Russia and China have grown closer over the past 20 years. But there is still considerable debate about the depth of this rapprochement. Below, we present two facets of this discussion. In one, Harvard’s Graham Allison argues that, although China and Russia are geopolitical rivals whose long-term prospects for an alliance are “grim,” they are nonetheless entering into a “grand alignment of the aggrieved … drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the ‘American threat.’” He emphasizes the role successive U.S. administrations have played in nurturing “the formation of this grievance coalition” and warns that continued missteps by the West could turn the alignment into a dangerous “grand coalition.” Another two authors, Russia Matters founding director Simon Saradzhyan and Ali Wyne of the Atlantic Council and the RAND Corporation, focus more on the growing disparities between Russia and China, especially in terms of their economies and demographics. While these authors describe significant convergence in the two states’ national interests, they also see plenty of divergence, ultimately arguing that a formal military-political alliance does not seem imminent in the absence of two specific conditions—both of them unlikely.
Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.
The year before he died in 2017, one of America’s leading twentieth-century strategic thinkers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, sounded an alarm. In analyzing threats to American security, “the most dangerous scenario,” he warned, would be “a grand coalition of China and Russia…united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.” This coalition “would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower.”
Few observers heard his admonition then. Even fewer today recognize how rapidly this grand alignment of the aggrieved has been moving from the realm of the hypothetical toward what could soon become a geostrategic fact. Defying the long-held convictions of Western analysts, and against huge structural differences, Beijing and Moscow are drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the “American threat.”
China-Russia Relations: Same Bed, Different Dreams? Why Converging Interests Are Unlikely to Lead to a Full-Fledged Alliance
Well before the crisis in Ukraine reinforced Russia’s pursuit of closer ties with China, Moscow had been forging an increasingly cooperative relationship with Beijing. This is hardly surprising considering that China in recent decades has become arguably the world’s foremost rising power. But what are the chances that the ongoing rapprochement could blossom into a full-fledged military-political alliance? This paper tries to answer that question by comparing trends in the two countries’ development and by considering the convergence and divergence of their vital national interests.
Today we see many shared interests between the two in the areas of economy, security and geopolitics. China has an impact on most of Russia’s vital interests, making constructive relations with Beijing a priority for Moscow. Russia’s effect on China’s interests may be smaller, but is far from negligible. Some Western policies are also nudging the two deeper into each other’s arms—notably, sanctions against Russia and Washington’s new policy of lumping China and Russia into a collective adversary.