Recently, China and Russia have challenged the international order by giving each other diplomatic backing to confront Ukraine and Hong Kong, respectively. But Western observers have mostly misunderstood the countries' reasons for building closer ties with each other. They have been motivated less by shared material interests than by a common sense of national identity that defines itself in opposition to the West and in support of how each views the legacy of traditional communism. Moscow and Beijing have disagreements about the future order they envision for their regions. But they agree that the geopolitical order of the East should be in opposition to that of the West—and that has led to significantly closer bilateral relations.
Some Western observers have placed an excessive emphasis on Sino-Soviet tensions during the Cold War era, also arguing that the relationship between Beijing and Moscow is likely to remain fragile because of developments in both countries since the 1990s, including democratization in Russia, globalization in China, and the rapid rise of a middle class with access to outside information in both countries. To the extent that China and Russia built ties, these observers believed that the relationship would be a marriage of convenience that would be trumped by other national interests, including good relations with the West.
But most Westerners have failed to understand that, since the 1990s, officials in China and Russia have deeply regretted the Cold War tensions between their countries. They understand that the problem was less a lack of overlap in national interest than national identities skewed by ideological claims to leadership. Moscow made a critical mistake in expecting that Beijing would acquiesce to its leadership, accepting a role as a junior partner. China's leadership did not accept that role, given its obsession with ideological superiority.
Current policymakers in both countries are determined not to repeat these problems. Although China is now in the position to act as the dominant partner in the relationship, it has shown restraint. Leaders in