Are Russia and China Really Forming an Alliance?

The Evidence Is Less Than Impressive

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, September 2018 Mikhail Metzel / TASS / Pool via REUTERS

In March of 1969, Chinese troops ambushed and killed a Soviet border patrol on an island near the Chinese-Russian border. Fighting on and near the island lasted for months and ended with hundreds of casualties. Fifty years later, the ferocity of the skirmish between Mao Zedong’s China and Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union seems to belong to a very distant past—so distant, indeed, that many foreign-policy experts are convinced that an anti-U.S. alliance between the two countries is emerging. Yet even half a century on, such an assessment stretches the evidence beyond what it can bear. On closer inspection, Chinese-Russian economic, foreign policy, and military cooperation is less than impressive. The history of relations between the two countries is fraught, and they play vastly different roles in the world economy, making a divergence in their objectives all but unavoidable. In short, reports of a Russian-Chinese alliance have been greatly exaggerated.


Economic relations between Russia and China are rapidly expanding, and some experts have cited these ties as evidence of a growing closeness between the two countries. Indeed, just last year, bilateral trade increased by at least 15 percent compared to 2017 and reached a record $100 billion. Yet asymmetries in the scale and structure of bilateral commerce suggest caution: although China is Russia’s second-largest trading partner (after the EU) and Russia’s largest individual partner in both exports and imports, for China the Russian market is at best second-rate. Russia ranks tenth in Chinese exports and does not make it into the top ten in either imports or total trade.

The structure of the trade is similarly skewed. More than three-quarters of Russia’s exports to China are raw materials, specifically crude oil, wood, and coal. China’s sales to Russia are 45 percent consumer goods and 38 percent electronics and machinery. The completion this year of the Power of Siberia natural gas pipeline will further widen the disparity by facilitating the export of $400 billion worth of Russian raw materials to China over

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