Russia and China seem to be growing closer by the day. In May 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Russia. As China’s official media opined at the time, “China and Russia are deepening and celebrating their old friendship marked by successful cooperation and win-win results, while simultaneously adding new facets to their strategic partnership.”
Maybe, maybe not. There are two schools of thought about the likely trajectory of the Sino-Russian relationship. The first, which could be called the “fatally flawed” school, includes former senior U.S. officials and luminaries, such as Joseph Nye. It holds that the Sino-Russian relationship is a marriage of convenience—riven with mistrust—and consequently, as one author wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “China and Russia are unlikely to forge a sustained strategic partnership.” The second school of thought could be called the “mighty axis” school. It tends toward the view that China and Russia are building a lasting partnership to challenge U.S. dominance. That partnership will become “a feature of a new, post–Cold War geopolitical order,” as Princeton’s Gilbert Rozman wrote in a Foreign Affairs article. Russia and China will start in Eurasia, the thinking goes, but they have global aspirations.
Both of these views overstate the reality, which lies somewhere in the murky middle. The existence of conflicting interests does not preclude cooperation between China and Russia. And cooperation has clearly grown. Witness, for example, joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean and planned follow-ons in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan. On the economic front, the two sides recently announced that they would join China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union to integrate all of Eurasia. At the same time, however, analysts should avoid overestimating the extent and staying power of Sino-Russian ties. The notion of an authoritarian axis that will rewrite global order ignores the reality that China and Russia are competing with one another, too.
To be sure, some areas of
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