There is a widespread perception, particularly in parts of Europe and North America, that an unprecedented Sino-Russian strategic objective of cooperation and world reordering has emerged since China’s President Xi and Russia’s President Putin met in February 2022 preceding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This brief report assesses this perception’s accuracy by comparing Chinese and Russian visions of world order and actual cooperation across security and political economy dimensions.
It is important to note that Russia and China signed a joint declaration on promoting multipolarity and establishing a “new, just, and democratic” world order in 1997. They have since continuously reaffirmed the declaration’s tenets, and joint official references to “world order” have significantly picked up since 2014. Declarations, however, have only marginally translated into substantive cooperation on security and the political economy. The Xi–Putin meeting and following depositions since the invasion have not resulted in a constitutive break from this pattern. Nor is there evidence of a new grand strategy for world order. While overlaps in the Russian and Chinese respective visions are ample—driven mainly by a mutual desire to erode what Russia and China perceive as a US hegemonic role in the international order—these stem from individual opportunism and tactical pragmatism. Furthermore, China, which unlike Russia is a major beneficiary of the international order, prefers gradual reform over sudden disruptions.
China therefore approaches reordering much more cautiously and patiently than Russia. It tries to reconfigure the international order by actively partaking in and promoting its preferences in existing bodies, and encouraging and building new regional and international institutions to fill voids. Russia, on the contrary, has come to hold a more “negative agenda.” Russian leadership sees the international order as the platform on which the US and the West can sustain primacy and continue to thwart core Russian security interests. Consequently, Russia does not refrain from undermining, spoiling, and attacking the current international order, as it did in Ukraine.
On regional order, especially in their respective neighborhoods, Chinese and Russian reordering efforts share more in common, predominantly through shared antipathy toward US-led alliance structures. Consequently, both actors have increased their security and military–technical cooperation since 2015. However, beyond a degree of coordination on strategy and defense in, mostly, continental Asia, they do not operate as a joint force. Russia and China are much closer to a non-aggression pact with close strategic coordination, rather than a military alliance. Compared to full-fledged alliances such as NATO and even the US-led so-called Hub-and-Spokes alliance system, China and Russia still lack critical components, including a common defense policy, shared permanent military infrastructure, and adequate interoperability between their armed forces.
Similarly, across the political economy, China and Russia have enhanced their trade relations in recent years, with a dramatic spike since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the value of Russian exports to China was greater than that of Chinese exports to Russia in the last year, both countries have clearly stepped up their economic cooperation, especially in the area of oil and natural gas trade. Despite the uptick in trade relations and some monetary cooperation, Chinese firms and banks have been careful not to run afoul of international sanctions, limiting the nature and scale of the China–Russia economic partnership. More importantly, Russia has become more economically dependent on China in recent years, giving China structural advantages compared to Russia’s sclerotic, commodity-dependent, and increasingly isolated economy. Considering their divergences in vision, methodology, and practical cooperation, the two neighbors are not partners “without limits,” but clearly are partners with limits regarding world reordering.