Assessing strategic cooperation in post-Cold War China–Russia relations appears to be a difficult task. There has been a striking lack of progress in understanding China–Russia alignment and the degree to which it has increased over time, as manifested in the titles of leading books on the relationship. In 2000, the pervasive question was “Rapprochement or Rivalry?”Footnote 1; twelve years later, the question had barely changed to “Rivalry or Partnership?”Footnote 2 Numerous underspecified and contrasting terms have been used to describe this bilateral relationship. Since the mid-1990s, China–Russia relations have been referred to as “partnerships”—simply “partnership,”Footnote 3 “limited partnership,”Footnote 4 “strategic partnership,”Footnote 5 or “limited defensive strategic partnership”Footnote 6–—and a variety of “axes”—“axis of convenience,”Footnote 7 “axis of necessity,”Footnote 8 or “axis of insecurity.”Footnote 9 To add to the lexical confusion, the term “alliance” has also often been a reference point in scholarly discussions of China–Russia relations.Footnote 10

None of these or any other applied terms have been defined in a manner that is sufficient for making them subject to systematic empirical examination. There have been multiple descriptions and examinations of various empirical aspects of China–Russia strategic interactions.Footnote 11 However, attempts to develop an analytical framework to assess the degree of alignment between the two countries have been scarce and lack objective measurements.Footnote 12 Against the backdrop of intensifying Russia–US rivalry after the Ukraine Crisis and China–US competition in East and Southeast Asia, as well as new arms deals and joint military drills between Moscow and Beijing, more attention has started to be paid to the comprehensive military cooperation between the two countries.Footnote 13 Some observers have raised straightforward questions, such as “Is there a China–Russia alliance?”Footnote 14 and “Are China–Russia relations an alliance or not?”Footnote 15 However, as in the case of broader assessments mentioned above, there has been no comprehensive framework for assessing military cooperation that would demonstrate the level of China–Russia military cooperation and its progress over time. In sum, our knowledge of the strength of contemporary China–Russia strategic cooperation has been rather limited and unmethodical. Rozman’s assessment from twenty years ago remains accurate today: analysts “have reached little consensus on what the [China–Russia] partnership is, why it has developed, what it signifies, and how firm it is likely to be.”Footnote 16

Referring to the international relations (IR) literature does not resolve the confusion and reveals even more problems for defining and measuring interstate strategic cooperation. A careful look at the “alliance” literature results in more than 30 different definitions of the term (China–Russia relations meet some, but not others) and only two attempts to develop an objective indicators-based taxonomy, both of which are now quite dated.Footnote 17 Walt uses “alliance” interchangeably with informal “alignment” and does not provide indicators for either.Footnote 18 Ward documents that “much written work use the three different orientations—alliance, alignment, and coalition—as though they were identical.”Footnote 19 According to Wilkins, despite multiple publications, there is little understanding of “alliances” and other “alignments” between states, and there is no credible taxonomy.Footnote 20 At the same time, “strategic partnership,” which is the official name for China–Russia relations, has been surrounded by even greater confusion and presented as playing the role of not more than “simply a rhetorical devise used by diplomats to help them around the rough edges of shifting global politics.”Footnote 21

There are two related goals of this paper: one narrow and one broad. The narrow objective is to accurately assess the degree and trajectory of strategic cooperation in post-Cold War China–Russia relations. The goal is not to rename the relationship, but particularly to measure the change in cooperation over time while also providing a rough point estimate of the absolute degree of cooperation. As such, the analysis below is more descriptive/typological than causal. This is not meant to imply that the causes behind China–Russia cooperation are irrelevant for understanding this bilateral relationship. However, one must first define a variable before one can embark on explaining it, especially given the state of the filed as mentioned above. Therefore, the primary focus here is on describing and measuring China–Russia strategic cooperation, not explaining its causes.Footnote 22 Yet because there are no current frameworks for assessing alignment, this narrow goal entails first fulfilling a broader one: to construct an objective and deductively justifiable framework to assess strategic cooperation, which can then be applied to other cases in the future. Of course, the framework introduced below is a preliminary first cut that will likely (and hopefully) invite additional refinement, but it represents a necessary attempt to fill a crucial gap in the IR literature. “Cooperation,” military or not, is a core dependent variable that pervades the IR field. However, attempts to objectively measure it have been scant, which has serious implications for the IR research. Thus, it is possible that some of the “puzzles” of increasing or decreasing cooperation that scholars have sought to explain do not actually exist by objective measures, while others might have gone unrecognized.Footnote 23

The suggested framework offers a way to systematically and objectively assess the degree of military alignment between states. It moves beyond the existing practice of simply extracting and listing different indicators of cooperation, and adds an ordinal dimension to the indicators by introducing objective definitions of “early,” “moderate,” and “advanced” stages of alignment. To more effectively trace the trends over time, this framework qualitatively assesses changes within each stage rather than dichotomously coding the presence or absence of these indicators. While the main emphasis is on military cooperation as the backbone of strategic alignment in general, and between China and Russia in particular, the paper also assesses China–Russia cooperation on economic and diplomatic dimensions as a “robustness check” to show that the improvement in bilateral relations is not limited to the military realm.Footnote 24

The paper is organized as follows: Section one synthesizes the literature on alliances, alignments, strategic partnerships, and other forms of interstate relations to develop an ordinal and empirically operationalizable framework that assesses military cooperation. Section two applies the framework to demonstrate the developmental trajectory since the end of the Cold War and the current state of China–Russia military alignment. Section three uses existing quantitative indicators of economic and diplomatic cooperation to show that China and Russia are becoming more aligned on other dimensions as well and that the upward trend is not only on the military dimension. Section four concludes. Throughout the analysis, the paper draws on multiple original Chinese and Russian language documents, reports, and publications that, to date, have been absent from English language studies of China–Russia relations. To substantiate the analysis, the author also conducted several rounds of interviews with Chinese and Russian foreign policy experts in both China and Russia in 2015 and 2016.Footnote 25 The analysis demonstrates that post-Cold War China–Russia relations have, from a low starting point, grown steadily stronger, and is close to surpassing what is defined here as the “moderate” stage of alignment. Furthermore, there exists a strong basis for even more advanced forms of bilateral cooperation.

The military alignment framework

The present study is guided by two methodological considerations. First, its primary concern is the actual working of military cooperation that has come to fruition, rather than the promises of formal treaties. As emphasized by Snyder and others, discussions on this subject must not be limited to formal alliances because “what we really want to understand is the broader phenomenon of ‘alignment,’ of which explicit alliance is merely a subset.”Footnote 26 Alliance “merely adds formality and precision” to alignment.Footnote 27 Alignments are “not signified by formal treaties but are delineated by a variety of behavioral actions.”Footnote 28 Relying only on formal treaties can also be misleading. Some informal alignments, such as the US–UK, US–Israel, or US–Taiwan alignments, far surpass some formal alliances, such as the China–DPRK or US–Thailand alliances, in terms of de facto levels of security cooperation. As such, the lack of a clear mutual defense pact between China and Russia does not necessarily indicate weak military cooperation.Footnote 29

Second, to reflect the trajectory and degree of development of China–Russia military alignment, the developed framework is ordinal, as some indicators precede the others. The formation of a functioning alignment takes time, and strategic cooperation must pass a moderate stage before it moves into an advanced stage or tighter alliance. States are not likely to become closely aligned overnight; however, they may rush into a tight alliance treaty in response to an external threat or shock. In a sense, every strategic partnership has a “life cycle” and progresses through stages. Greater institutionalization of an alignment over time affects its reliability, credibility in deterring challenges, and performance in potential military conflicts.Footnote 30 Formal alliance is a more advanced stage of alignment because it primarily serves “to strengthen preexisting alignments by introducing elements of precision, legal and moral obligations, and reciprocity.”Footnote 31 The institutional structure of an alignment or strategic partnership can gradually develop into a closer alliance, or it can move in an opposite direction toward less cooperation. Therefore, some indicators that imply improvement in relations from low initial levels of cooperation (such as confidence building measures) may indicate increasing tensions if they emerge when cooperation is already quite high.

Given these considerations, the present study develops a framework to assess trends in bilateral military cooperation over time, which it then applies to post-Cold War China–Russia relations. Figure 1 identifies seven indicators of military cooperation and groups them into the three clusters of early, moderate, and advanced cooperation. Each indicator is ordinal, that is, the early-stage indicators precede the moderate and advanced indicators. In turn, the presence of advanced indicators, even at lower levels, indicates a higher overall degree of military cooperation. In other words, the degree of cooperation is determined by the highest stage that is manifested, and higher stages subsume lower stages. For example, stages 3 and 4 require stage 2, and stages 5, 6 and 7 necessitate stages 2, 3, and 4. However, some early-stage indicators can be expected to fall off when they are no longer necessary, and their continuous presence might indicate backsliding rather than development. It is the expansion of higher-level indicators that reflects increasing alignment. Importantly, it is hypothetically possible to see “moderate,” or even “advanced,” indicators without “early” ones depending on peculiarities of a particular case. However, as argued below, there is a sound rationale behind these indicators and their ordering, such that in most cases we should expect to see lower stages of cooperation exhibited at high levels before alignment enters the moderate and advanced stages.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Ladder of military cooperation

This framework, while consisting of generalizable and objective measures of military cooperation, can offer only a rough assessment of military alignment. The ultimate goal would be to devise a comprehensive index consisting of more fine-grained measures of the degree of cooperation within each category and a weighting system to aggregate degrees of cooperation across stages, which could then be used to compare degrees of military alignment across dyads. However, this is a monumental task that is beyond the scope of this article. The more limited goal here is to take the first step of systematically identifying and operationalizing the indicators of military cooperation with rough ordinal weights, which establishes a baseline typology that can be built upon in subsequent work. Bearing this caveat in mind, the below discussion explicates the framework.

CBMs (confidence building measures) are the first early indicator of a cooperative trend. This is an indicator of weak alignment because via implementing CBMs, the parties are attempting to overcome initially high degrees of mistrust or resolve highly contentious issues, e.g., border disputes, and thus remove them from bilateral agendas. Early, low-level CBMs can be “emergency contacts” that are aimed at, for example, preventing dangerous military activities or resolving border disputes. When these problems become resolved and the cooperation moves forward, higher-level CBMs can include measures of demilitarization and de-securitization of the common border, the routinization of mechanisms for resolving disputes or regularly sharing defense-related information, which indicates higher levels of trust.

Mechanisms of inter-military consultations follow CBMs as indicators of early alignment. According to Snyder, the consultation among allies is an indispensable aspect of an alliance.Footnote 32 This mechanism enhances mutual understanding and increases the predictability of intra-alignment dynamics, which can be important assets when joint actions are required. The transition from CBMs to regular consultations is marked by a shift in the agenda from the existing problems between the consulting parties to broader issues of regional and global politics. A shift from low to high levels of cooperation in consultation occurs when the parties begin to create unique platforms—that they do not have with other foreign states outside of the alignment membership—which provide for regular meetings and deeper cooperation.

The third indicator, which reflects the beginning of the moderate stage of strategic cooperation, is military-technical cooperation (MTC), which is accompanied by regular exchanges of military personnel. MTC increases mutual dependence and the compatibility of military hardware, which may be crucial for allies in times of war when shared supplies of equipment and logistical and technological support may determine the alliance’s performance. Simultaneously, exposure to technological expertise requires a considerable amount of trust. Moreover, the proper organization of MTC requires a high level of coordination across multiple institutions (research centers, manufacturers, and various government agencies), shared procedures, and standardized training. These are important parameters of MTC that take time to develop. In turn, the active exchange of military personnel and opening military educational institutions and curricula to a foreign state that accompanies MTC also requires significant trust in the partner. The progress from low to high levels of cooperation within MTC is indicated by the transition from only providing technical training and assistance related to purchasing arms to actual military technology transfers and long-term projects for joint design and the production of arms and their components. For personal exchanges, advancing to higher levels is manifested in the progress from short-term visits for technical training to joint military education programs.

The fourth indicator, which closes the moderate cooperation stage, is regular joint military exercises. These are important for the alignment’s functioning because they reflect a specific degree of military compatibility and interoperability, increase coordination, and practice joint techniques. Thus, they open the door to a stage for more advanced forms of military cooperation. They also often send important signals, admonitions, or assurances to certain countries or groups of countries. The progress from low to high levels occurs with changes in the geographic range and the content of military exercises. For example, expanding the geography of exercises from the parties’ immediate geopolitical environments to distant seas, especially in response to new developments in international politics, would indicate a significant advancement. Similarly, changes from simple joint maneuvers to the actual establishment of joint military command centers and the introduction of command code sharing systems, as well as other forms of interoperability, would reflect a high level of cooperation.

The advanced stage of military cooperation is assessed using three criteria—an integrated military command, joint troop placements or military base exchanges, and a common defense policy. The integrated military command provides the organizational framework for fulfilling joint military tasks by the aligned parties. In these circumstances, each country’s military forces, which regularly remain under respective national controls, become available to the joint operations and are placed under the responsibility of either one side’s commanders or a joined command structure on an agreed basis. Examples of integrated military command could include introduction of a shared system of command codes or adopting an operating language allowing the transmission of orders and communications between the involved militaries; episodes of merging the allies’ army units into a single operational grouping with a purpose of practicing joint interoperability; establishing joint command centers staffed with officers from both sides working together. There is also variation in the degree to which military commands can be integrated. A relatively low degree of integration would occur episodically and without long-term commitments, as characterizes joint military exercises. A higher level, in turn, would be characterized by permanently operating command structures that are consistently deployed, and thus would entail long-term commitments.

Joint deployments and base sharing are a step forward because these measures include sensitive issues of territorial sovereignty. The establishment of military bases abroad enables a country to project power in the recipient country and influence political events there. Also, the existence of bases abroad implies rights to military facilities in the foreign territory. These are highly sensitive issues, in general, and in the context of China–Russia relations, in particular. A low degree of base sharing occurs when mutual deployments are small and do not include air force or other sophisticated weapons, whereas high-level base sharing occurs when the size of the deployed contingent is large and accompanied by the significant allocation of advanced military hardware.

Finally, the highest form of military cooperation is a common defense policy at the executive and strategic levels. It requires the most binding commitments between allies with a purpose of joint fulfillment of the most demanding military missions. This also involves pooling resources for defense equipment acquisition as well as obligations to supply combat units for jointly planned missions within a designated period of time. Most importantly, this level of cooperation requires synchronized and harmonized actions with regard to the allied parties’ national security. This indicator may also be manifested at higher and lower degrees, depending on the scale and content of cooperation, but it always requires extensive investments in joint actions and indicates in-depth military cooperation. The decision to enter this stage requires strong incentives and resolve from policy makers, and cannot occur without first achieving a high degree of cooperation on the more moderate indicators described above.

An empirical assessment of China–Russia military alignment

Since the end of the Cold War, China–Russia relations have progressed from “good neighborliness” in the early 1990s, to “constructive partnership” in 1994, to “strategic partnership” in 1996, to “a comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2001, then to “a comprehensive strategic partnership and coordination” in 2012, and, most recently, to “a comprehensive strategic partnership of equality, mutual trust, mutual support, common prosperity, and long-lasting friendship.”Footnote 33 While these formal “names” indicate an upward trend, How close are China and Russia based on the objective indicators of military cooperation that were discussed above?

Figure 2 chronologically displays the trajectory of post-Cold War China–Russia military cooperation and shows that the ordinal framework presented above largely conforms to reality. While there are chronological overlaps between the indicators, the transition into higher-level cooperation in each stage requires that the previous stage of cooperation has become high.

The early stage: CBMs and regular consultations

Most of the CBMs in China–Russia relations are concentrated in the 1990s. The earliest, low-level CBMs were joint attempts to normalize relations through a series of measures that were aimed to settle the China–Soviet border dispute and demobilize military forces along the 4300-km-long joint border. These were highly contentious and sensitive issues, and their resolution was necessary before there could be progress in the relationship.

On December 18, 1992, Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin signed “The Memorandum of Understanding on the Guiding Principle for the Mutual Reductions of Armed Forces and the Strengthening of Trust in the Border Region,” which intended to create a “common border of trust.”Footnote 34 Negotiations to reduce the border-area military forces and strengthen inter-military trust continued for the next two years and resulted in a visit from Russia’s Chief of General Staff, Mikhail Kolesnikov, to Beijing in April 1994. In July 1994, the two countries signed “The Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities,” with the main goal of further de-securitizing the border and creating procedures for dealing with “accidental border crossings,” which occasionally occurred along the long border. This agreement also established regular information exchanges regarding the movements and activities of the two countries’ border army units.Footnote 35 Two months later, Jiang Zemin visited Russia and the two countries signed two additional important documents: the “Joint Statement on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons against East Other and Not Targeting Strategic Nuclear Weapons at Each Other” and the “Agreement on the Western Part of China–Russia Border,” which successfully settled the western segment of the border.Footnote 36 As a result, the bilateral relations were upgraded from “good neighborliness” to “constructive cooperation.”

On November 10, 1997, at a summit in Beijing, Yeltsin and Jiang signed a new border agreement, which settled the demarcation of the longest eastern sector of the China–Russia border, with the three islands that were in the border rivers being subject to future negotiations. This diplomatic breakthrough indicated that almost the entire China–Russia border had been virtually settled. This was also a turning point that introduced bilateral CBMs of a higher level—which were aimed toward demilitarizing the border and information sharing. In August 1998, the two countries signed the “China–Russia Protocol on Border Defense Information Exchange,” which enhanced the procedures for mutual notifications about military activities that were close to the border. In December 1999, there were agreements for the complete removal of Chinese and Russian operational army units to 100 km away from the border, which created a vast demilitarized area.Footnote 37 The formal and final resolution of the border issues occurred on October 14, 2004, through signing the “Agreement on the Eastern Segment of the China–Russia Border,” which resolved the issue of the two islands—the Bolshoi Ussuriisky Island and Bolshoi Island—and closed the book on territorial disputes in China–Russia relations.

With the border issues resolved, there was a considerable decrease in the number and frequency of bilateral CBMs in China–Russia relations, with the CBMs simultaneously becoming more sophisticated and gaining a broader, non-contentious agenda, thus gradually evolving into regular consultations.Footnote 38 Subsequently, these consultations developed into a comprehensive, routinized mechanism of contacts at all levels. The mechanisms of consultation developed into a multi-level institutionalized infrastructure of contacts that guaranteed regular information exchanges among almost all major government agencies and organizations—from the top decision makers and their administrative apparatuses to the Defense Ministries and their subdivisions as well as regional military districts and border garrisons and military educational institutions. Arguably, there is only one state in addition to Russia with which China has military interactions that are of comparable depth and comprehension: Pakistan.Footnote 39

Formally, China–Russia military consultations began in 1992, when the then-Chinese Defense Minister, Qin Jiwei, visited Moscow and established official relations between the militaries of the two countries. On October 11, 1993, during the Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev’s visit to Beijing, the two countries signed the “Military Cooperation Agreement between the Ministries of Defense of China and Russia,” which laid the formal foundation for bilateral inter-military cooperation.Footnote 40 The mechanisms of regular consultations that were first established were the Regular Meetings Between Defense Ministers of Russia and China, established in 1993, and Annual Strategic Consultations among Chiefs of the General Staff, established in 1997. Both mechanisms are annual meetings that occur in Moscow and Beijing on a rotating basis with regular agendas that range from issues of general strategic orientations and military strategies in the two countries to military-technical cooperation. These mechanisms guarantee a stable flow of information between top military officials and assist in attaining a joint understanding of foreign policy orientations. However, given their relatively broad agenda and the presence of similar consultation practices in China’s and Russia’s interactions with other countries, they do not reflect actual high-level cooperation.

A shift to the high level of cooperation in terms of military consultations began in the early 2000s (after the CBMs resolved contentious border issues) and manifested in creating more focused mechanisms that China and Russia do not have with many foreign states. An important step in this direction was establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, which significantly expanded and institutionalized the interface of China–Russia military consultations. It introduced multiple platforms for regular interactions between Defense Ministers and other military officials of different levels and generated what can be called the Mechanism of Inter-Military Consultations within the Functioning Structure of the SCO. This mechanism includes the SCO’s Annual Summits, which have been held each year in one of the member states’ capital cities since the day that the SCO was established, the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structures (RATS), which were established as a permanent body within the SCO in June 2004,Footnote 41 the Meetings of Heads of Ministries and Departments, which provide an extra platform for consultations between the two countries’ Defense Ministers, and the traditional bilateral military consultations “on the sidelines” of the SCO—which are similar to the already routinized special “Putin-Xi forums” that regularly occur during multilateral meetings to demonstrate the special relationship between the two leaders.Footnote 42

Additional progress occurred with the establishment of a new mechanism focusing on China’s and Russia immediate national interests in October 2004—RussiaChina Consultations on National Security Issues.Footnote 43 This mechanism operates at the level of Heads of the Security Council (on the Russian side) and State Council representatives (on the Chinese side) and became a format that China only has with Russia. According to China’s State Council representative, Tang Jiaxuan, the new mechanism is “the first precedent in which China creates an interstate mechanism of consultations on its national security issues with a foreign state.”Footnote 44 This indicates the “convergence of Russia’s and China’s positions on major global and regional security issues” and “the transition of bilateral security cooperation into a new quality.”Footnote 45 According to the documents, both countries intend to use the new communication channel to jointly react to the new challenges and protect their national security interests.Footnote 46 On December 8, 2009, at the fourth annual consultation in this format, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, and Chinese State Council member Dai Bingguo announced that this bilateral security dialogue should occur no less than four times a year.Footnote 47

The breadth and depth of China–Russia security consultations continued to increase, in response to the contingencies of the international environment in the Asia Pacific. The case in point is the China–Russia Northeast Asia Security Dialogue—a new platform for regional security consultations, which was launched in April 2015 and aimed to “create effective security mechanisms in Northeast Asia.”Footnote 48 This is the most tightly scheduled format, with the frequency of meetings varying based on the urgency of regional issues, and, at times, having a bimonthly schedule, which immediately occurred after the US decision to launch the THADD missile shield in South Korea.

Since the early 1990s, China and Russia have been launching new or enhancing existing consultation mechanisms every 3–4 years. Currently, all the mechanisms combined generate a frequency of 20–30 high-level security-related consultations per year; this number excludes the entire body of regional cooperation formats that occur between provinces and cities, educational exchanges, and military exercises. Thus, a high-level inter-military contact between China and Russia occurs almost every two weeks. Most of these end with a joint statement or declaration that reflects the two countries’ shared view on the issues of international politics. These mechanisms have been consistently operating since the date of the establishment, and none have ceased to function.

Moderate cooperation: MTC and regular military exercises

While episodic military-technical exchanges between China and Russia began to occur in the 1990s, MTC fully flourished in the late-2000s, after bilateral consultations were already institutionalized. Around this time, regular joint military exercises began to be launched.

In the early 1990s, when Russia was experiencing severe economic hardships, China–Russia military-technical exchanges contained some barely legal practices, which created a large and hard-to-assess “gray area” in their bilateral relations. In addition, tragically comic cases are well known in Russia, such as bartering the Russian civilian jet airliner Tupolev Tu-154 for two freight cars of Chinese cucumbers.Footnote 49 Those were years of chaotic exchanges between China and Russia, and their actual impact on MTC remains unknown.

An attempt to regularize the China–Russia MTC occurred in 1992, with the signing of the “Military-Technical Cooperation Agreement” and establishing the “Russia–China Mixed Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation,” which became a formal platform for discussions of arms sales to China and contributed to the overall normalization and regulation of the bilateral MTC.Footnote 50 By 1996, the two sides agreed on the Su-27 project—hitherto, the largest agreement for defense technology transfers from Russia to China, according to which China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) procured a license to assemble 200 Russian supermaneuverable Su-27 jet fighters. The acquired technology has subsequently been exploited for developing the Chinese Shenyang J-11 B fighter.Footnote 51 These were signs of significant progress. However, these were sporadic episodes of MTC.

Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in 2000 put a start to a complete overhaul of Russia’s arms export agencies and supervisory bodies. The Russian Federation Committee for Military-Technical Cooperation with the Foreign States was established and empowered with broad control and supervisory functions.Footnote 52 This measure allowed for an increase in the volume of arms exports and improved quality controls. In addition, it set the stage for more advanced forms of MTC. As a result, by the mid-2000s, technology transfers and joint ventures amounted to 30% of the overall transfer and sales of Russian military equipment to China.Footnote 53 In 2006, Russia’s former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov emphasized that in the sphere of MTC, China is Russia’s “privileged partner” and the MTC constitutes the backbone of the China–Russia strategic partnership, which elevates the entire spectrum of the bilateral relations.Footnote 54

An important turning point was on December 11, 2008, during the 13th meeting of the Mixed Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation in Beijing, for the signing of the “Agreement of Intellectual Property in Military-Technical Cooperation,” which significantly alleviated Russia’s concerns about the Chinese replicating its weapon systems and facilitated exports of more advanced arms and technologies to China.Footnote 55

Since then, the China–Russia MTC has transitioned to a high level, as actual military technology transfer and long-term cooperation projects constitute the bulk of the cooperation. The list of China–Russia long-term MTC projects is long and growing. According to Rosoboronexport (Russia’s sole state intermediary agency for military exports and imports), the largest China–Russia MTC programs are currently related to aircraft engines and anti-aircraft weapons, which constituted 90% of Russia’s arms-related exports to China in 2012. The Chernyshev Moscow Machine-Building Enterprise and the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation are performing a joint program to modernize the Russian Klimov RD-33 turbofan jet engine for a lightweight fighter jet that has become the primary engine for the Chinese CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder lightweight multirole combat aircraft. In 2011, the Russian Military Industrial Company launched the assembly of GAZ “Tigr” (Tiger) multipurpose, all-terrain infantry mobility vehicles in China.Footnote 56 In August 2015, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitry Rogozin, named the four primary joint projects in the China–Russia MTC.Footnote 57 The first addresses the space program and includes building a joint base on the moon, producing Russian rocket engines in China, and joint projects in satellite navigation, remote earth sensing, producing electronic components and space equipment, human spaceflight, and others.Footnote 58 The second project is the joint construction of a large military helicopter, which was signed into an agreement by Xi Jinping and Putin in May 2015, when Xi was attending the May 9th Victory Parade. According to the Chairman of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, Lin Zuoming, who visited the “Russian Helicopters” company to meet with its General Director, Alexander Miheev, in 2015, the two parties agreed to accelerate the process and specified the tasks.Footnote 59 The third project addresses the two countries’ agreement for jointly designing and producing a wide-body aircraft, which was signed into an agreement during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Moscow in 2014. Additionally, the fourth project is exports to China and maintaining Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system. Given Ivanov’s reference to China as a “privileged partner,” China became the first foreign purchaser of the previous generation of these systems—the S-300. This is also the case with the S-400 deal. In addition, according to officials from Rosoboronexport, the J-31 Chinese fifth-generation aircraft, which is considered an export program for competing with the USA on regional markets, will be powered by Russian RD-93 engines.Footnote 60

It is important to emphasize Russia’s changing attitude toward comprehensive military-technical cooperation with China, specifically the disappearing caution about relying on China in this area. When meeting with the Chinese Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xu Qiliang, the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoygu, stated that “The level of our relations demonstrates that we do not have unsolvable problems. Our work will be aimed at the realization of our MTC projects.”Footnote 61 In turn, Sergei Kornev from Rosoboronexport stated that the forefront of the China–Russia MTC is increasingly represented by the joint production of weapons in Chinese territory.Footnote 62 According to the chief editor of the Moscow Defense Brief, Vasili Kashin, “if previously Russia was constrained by political factors in its MTC with China, now those factors have disappeared. We are now too interlinked with the Chinese.” Moreover, China currently has much to offer, for example, electronic components, including those for the space program, composite materials, drone technologies, and engines for warships.

Russia’s tendency to consider China as not only a market but also as an indispensable MTC partner strengthened after the Ukraine crisis and the deterioration of Russian–Western cooperation. The China–Russia MTC has increasingly become a reciprocal “two-way street.” Given the current dynamics, even if Russia–Western political relations stabilize at some point, Russia has already passed the point of no return in its MTC with China.Footnote 63 Moreover, according to Russian officials, the Kremlin trusts China and is going to consistently work to enhance bilateral MTC, disregarding Western provocations in the form of reconstructing “China’s threat for Russia.”Footnote 64 An example of this perspective was the Russian Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov’s speech about the development of Russia’s comprehensive partnership with China on November 22, 2014, in which he noted that: “We can now even talk about the emerging technological alliance between the two countries.”Footnote 65

The development of military personnel exchanges paralleled the development of the MTC and evolved from short-term visits for technical training to longer-term military education programs. Russia was the first foreign destination for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers’ military education. The official statistics on the number of personnel who are involved in military educational exchanges are classified, mostly at China’s request.Footnote 66 However, the existing open sources suggest that bilateral military personnel exchanges have been considerably increasing. Moreover, interviews show that China does not have similar types of military personnel exchanges with any other major power. Although short-term exchanges and visits by PLA officers to different countries, including the USA, are very common, long-term educational programs in which officers are methodically trained to later join the PLA’s commanding staff only exist in China’s relations with Russia. It is not likely that military cadres that have extensive exposure to Western education will smoothly move to top-ranked commanding positions. This is because China does not trust the USA and its Western allies in military relations.Footnote 67

There are a few military educational institutions that are the primary destinations for Chinese PLA officers. Top-ranking officers typically go to the General Staff Academy of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, which provides general programs in strategic and tactical aspects of warfare and, according to some estimates, accepts up to 20 high-ranking PLA officers every year.Footnote 68 Other important institutions are the Combined Arms Academy of the Armed Forces, the Gagarin Air Force Academy, and the Military Academy of Rear Services and Transportation. They provide 2- to 3-year programs, and each accepts 40–60 PLA officers every semester (mostly mid-career-level commanding officers and General Staff officers who are between 35 and 45 years of age).Footnote 69 Although the Chinese officers typically attend classes separately from their Russian peers, the actual content of the curriculum is similar to what is taught to Russian officers.

Education in Russia has helped many PLA officers make significant career leaps. For example, Lu Chuangang, a Senior Colonel, studied at the Russian General Staff Academy and became the Head of the PLA’s Command Group for the 2008 “Peaceful Mission” China–Russia joint military exercises. Xu Linping was promoted to Major General of the PLA in 2007 and served as a Commander of the 38th Army Group of the Beijing Military Area of the PLA during 2011–2014, also studied in Russia. In January 2014, he became the Vice-Commander of the PLA’s Lanzhou Military Region. Chen Zhaohai became the Director of the Military Training and Arms Department of the PLA General Staff Headquarters. Remarkably, China’s Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan (2003–2008) studied in Russia for six years and became the primary facilitator of China’s purchases of Russian arms.

Transitioning to the next substage in the moderate stage of strategic cooperation occurred by introducing joint military exercise. On December 13, 2004, the two countries announced a decision to conduct the first large-scale joint military exercise, which were named the “Peace Mission.” The first exercise—“Peace Mission 2005”—occurred on August 19–25, 2005, in China’s Shandong Peninsula and Russia’s Vladivostok, and engaged 10,000 soldiers and officers (8000 Chinese and 2000 Russians). The official reason for the new exercises was counter-terrorism. However, the large scale and the use of heavy firepower, including long-range bombers, as well as practicing air and naval blockades, amphibious assaults, and occupying region demonstrate that the actual goals must have been more broad.

“Peace Mission”-type large-scale joint military exercises became a regular practice, and now occur every one or two years. Some were held within the SCO format, and most included strategies and tactics for resisting the danger of “color revolutions” and curbing political turmoil in Central Asia. It is important to note the “Peace Mission-2009,” which occurred in China and after which the first Chinese calls to abandon the “non-alignment strategy” could be heard.Footnote 70 “Peace Mission-2010” was the longest exercise and lasted 17 days, from September 9 to September 25, 2010, and included approximately 5000 servicemen, more than 300 military vehicles, and an excess of 50 aircraft and helicopters.Footnote 71 During the subsequent “Peace Mission-2012” and “Peace Mission-2014,” the militaries from the two countries further practiced cooperation and interoperability and solidified the mechanism of joint military exercises.

In 2012, another type of regular China–Russia military exercises—“Joint Sea”—was introduced. While the “Peace Mission” is predominantly ground and air exercises, the “Joint Sea” aims to achieve better coordination between the two countries’ navies. The first “Joint Sea” occurred on April 22–27, 2012, in the Yellow Sea and included practicing convoying, anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare, anti-piracy and rescue activities, and naval logistics. The “Joint Sea” naval exercises occur every year in different locations. “Joint Sea-2015” was a geopolitical game changer, as it became the largest naval exercise undertaken by the PLA Navy with a foreign navy and, occurring in the post-Ukraine context, the second stage of it was located in the Mediterranean, which is considered the heart of NATO. Before heading out with Russian ships to the Mediterranean, Chinese military vessels entered the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. This military visit was also the first in the history of China–Russia relations and was symbolically connected to Xi Jinping’s attendance at the Victory Parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015. During the drills, the two navies demonstrated a high level of coordination in foreign waters.Footnote 72 In turn, “Joint Sea-2016,” which occurred on September 12–19, 2016, included surface ships, submarines, fixed-winged aircraft, helicopters, and amphibious vehicles and became the first major exercise of its type that included China and a second country in the disputed South China Sea after the Hague-based tribunal overruled China’s claims on the waters under its nine-dash line claim.Footnote 73 Combined, the “Peace Mission” and “Joint Sea” exercises guarantee that, every year, China and Russia have one to two large-scale joint military exercises, which include thousands of servicemen and hundreds of military vehicles, aircraft, helicopters, and naval ships.

In May 2016, China and Russia launched a new joint military exercise, “Airspace Security 2016,” which took place in the Central Research Institute of the Russian Armed Forces and became the first Russia–China computer-simulated missile defense drill. “Aerospace Security—2017” was located in Beijing in December 2017. According to China’s Defence Ministry, the main task of the exercise is “to work out joint planning of combat operations when organizing air missile defenses, operation, and mutual fire support.”Footnote 74 While both countries emphasize that the drills are not directed against third countries, they occur in the context of China–Russia joint opposition against the American global defense system and seek to strengthen bilateral military interoperability.

Around the same time, China and Russia began to conduct another joint exercise—regular exercises for internal security troops, which includes Russia’s National Guards and China’s police units.Footnote 75 The inclusion of these activities increases the number of Chinese–Russian joint military drills to 5–6 per year.

Advanced cooperation: the growing interoperability of military forces

The problem with assessing advanced levels of military cooperation is the lack of data. One way to address this situation is to more carefully examine the details of joint military activities. Although there is no current evidence of either military base exchanges (indicator 6) or a common defense policy (indicator 7), the increasing comprehensiveness and regularity of China–Russia military exercises reveal certain elements of episodic military interoperability and an integrated military command (indicator 5).

According to some assessments, there is a modest degree of compatibility and interoperability between Chinese and Russian forces.Footnote 76 Thus, during the above-mentioned “Peace Mission-2005,” a new system of command codes was introduced to allow for the transmission of orders and communication between Russian and Chinese pilots. “Peace Mission-2009” was also characterized by the improved coordination of military forces with elements of a joint defense simulation. More elements of interoperability and integrated command were observed during “Peace Mission-2010,” in which two Russian Mig-29s and three Chinese H-6 jet bombers were merged into one squadron and performed joint tasks to practice joint command codes and interoperability.Footnote 77 It is also worth emphasizing that all China–Russia joint tasks during the drills operate in the Russian language.Footnote 78

During “Joint Sea-2014,” the exercises included the joint defense of warships in anchorage, convoying and rescuing captured naval ships, elements of anti-aircraft warfare, and several rescue operations. All operations were coordinated from a joint command center. “Joint Sea-2015” marked a step forward because it included the joint command of warships in the foreign waters of the Mediterranean Sea. For that purpose, a joint command center was established in the Divnomorskoye Coordination Center of the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.Footnote 79 According to the Chinese Defense Ministry, one of the aims of the exercise was “to increase our navies’ ability to jointly address maritime security threats.”Footnote 80 During the post-Hague tribunal, “Joint Sea-2016,” which occurred in the South China Sea, the Chinese and Russian navies engaged in a range of activities, including search and rescue drills, anti-submarine warfare, and, remarkably, “joint island-seizing missions,” which appear to be a new addition to the “Joint Sea”-type drills.

The above analysis demonstrates that, since 1991, China and Russia have constructed comprehensive mechanisms of inter-military cooperation that have started to move into the initial stages of advanced cooperation, as defined in the present framework (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Development of China–Russia military cooperation since 1991

Robustness check: diplomatic and economic cooperation

As a robustness check on the comprehensiveness of the upward trend in China–Russia cooperation, this section considers other non-military aspects of bilateral cooperation on economic and diplomatic dimensions. Indeed, it has been argued that alignment “does not focus solely upon the military dimension of international politics”Footnote 81 but spreads across security, diplomatic, and economic spheres.Footnote 82 The importance of trade, for example, has received a fair amount of attention in multiple alliance studies.Footnote 83 Echoing Montesquieu’s famous dictum that “the spirit of commerce unites nations,” some scholars have used economic logic to explain states’ security concerns and alignment patterns.Footnote 84 Thus, the gains from trade are likely to bolster the aggregate political-military power of the alliance and enhance the allies’ security.Footnote 85 In turn, a lack of trade can undermine the foundations of an alliance. Economically interdependent states may view threats to their economic partners as threats to their own material interests. Hence, governments become more willing to accept the costs of alliance with valuable economic partners, to deter attacks on them, and defend them in the face of war.Footnote 86

Alliances also entail diplomatic cooperation that displays a degree of mutual support and coordination in the international institutions. Alignments should provide members with “mutual expectations of support” that can contain elements of both “hard” balancing and “soft” balancing.Footnote 87 Alignment parties should also display some degree of policy coordination and manifest a “willingness to commonly pursue joint interests and mutual goals.”Footnote 88

Therefore, theoretical and empirical assessments of alignments often move beyond narrowly defined security guarantees.Footnote 89 In the assessment of the military component of China–Russia cooperation, it is particularly important to consider economic and diplomatic aspects of cooperation because China–Russia relations are often presented as being military dominated and lacking other foundations.Footnote 90 The analysis below uses existing quantitative indicators, such as the volume of bilateral trade and its share in each country’s total external trade. To assess the degree of diplomatic cooperation, in turn, this paper explores the pattern of China–Russia joint voting behavior in the UN Security Council (UNSC). It also briefly explores the agendas of regional blocks in which China and Russia are core players.

Diplomatic cooperation and converging perceptions of threats

In the sphere of diplomatic cooperation, China and Russia display joint resistance against the West’s attempts to use force to remove recalcitrant regimes or exert economic pressure on states reckoned by the USA and its Western allies as guilty of human rights violations. Thus, in 2007, a China–Russia joint veto stymied the UN over Myanmar. In 2008, a similar veto was imposed to protect Mugabe’s Zimbabwe from censure. The most telling example is China and Russia jointly vetoing four US-backed resolutions on Syria—on October 4, 2011; February 4, 2012; July 19, 2012; and May 22, 2014Footnote 91—that thwarted US-led efforts, combined with France, the UK, Germany, and Portugal, to topple the Assad regime. The USA and its allies lambasted the vetoes and accused Moscow and Beijing of buying time for President Assad to smash the opposition.Footnote 92 Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, stated that the USA was “outraged” and “disgusted.”Footnote 93 Hillary Clinton indicated that Russia and China would “pay the price” for supporting Assad.Footnote 94 According to UN envoys, efforts by the USA and its allies to impose sanctions on Syria were met with “fierce resistance” from Russia and China.Footnote 95 However, at a 2014 meeting in Beijing, Russian and Chinese leaders appeared to congratulate each other for preventing a western intervention, which, from their perspective, would have made matters much worse, and would have undermined any moves toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict.Footnote 96

Table 1 shows the veto records of the UNSC since 1991, which demonstrates the emergence of the China–Russia power axis within the UN. In the early 1990s, there were no joint China–Russia vetoes; however, after 2007, half of Russia’s and all of China’s vetoes in the UNSC were joint China–Russia vetoes. In addition to the UNSC, in the period of 2006–2012 (after its first six years on the UN Human Rights Council, China had to leave the council after six years in compliance with a rule that was set by the Council for each member state), out of a total of 120 voting occasions, China was never on the same side with the USA. However, there was a 99% rate of agreement between China and Russia.Footnote 97

Table 1 Veto records of UN Security Council (1991–2017)

Russia and China also enhanced cooperation within multilateral formats, such as the SCO and BRICS. On July 15, 2014, the two countries established an agenda for the BRICS Development Bank (New Development Bank), with a reserve currency pool, which was called the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) and was equal to $US100 billion. Headquartered in Shanghai, the Bank represents an attempt to break the dominance of the US dollar in global trade, as well as dollar-backed institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, both of which are US-led institutions in which BRICS countries have little influence.

This institutional cooperation between the two countries is accompanied by converging assessments of external threats in Moscow and Beijing. The analysis of the meeting protocols from China–Russia security consultations reveals increasing concerns over the “American factor” in world politics, and agreement on the necessity of a China–Russia joint reaction. For example, during annual strategic consultations among Chiefs of the General Staff on May 24, 2016, the two parties confirmed their common concerns with American attempts to increase its influence in the Asia Pacific, and the Chinese side stated that China is willing to be strategically “on the same page” with Russia.Footnote 98 The 2015 consultations within the SCO members stressed that economic sanctions without authorization by the UN Security Council were unacceptable.Footnote 99 Several China–Russia Northeast Asia Security Dialogues throughout 2016 and 2017 emphasized that the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea would undermine security in Northeast Asia; that THAAD is the continuation of Washington’s unilateral worldwide deployment strategy and is an attempt to tilt the regional balance of power in its favor; and that China and Russia must consolidate mutual coordination to better respond to the new threats.Footnote 100

Arguably, the critique and condemnation of US policies in Asia and elsewhere as “increasingly threatening” as well as the display of intentions to counter the increasing American threat have become embedded norms in the China–Russia security relationship. This is where China–Russia relations contrast sharply with China–US relations: in interactions with the USA (or any other country), China never calls Russia a “threat.” Likewise, in its formal contacts with other countries, Russia does not call China a threat. Rhetoric is, admittedly, a secondary indicator, but it points in the same direction as the other above-mentioned indicators.

Economic cooperation: from trade to unequal interdependence

According to China’s trade statistics in the pre-crisis year of 2014, China–Russia trade was less than one-fifth of China–US trade (95.3 vs. 555.1 billion USD)Footnote 101 and only one-fourth of Russia–EU trade (380 billion USD),Footnote 102 which shows relatively low levels of economic cooperation. However, a more careful look at the data reveals that the situation with China–Russia trade is rather mixed.

First, the total volume of trade has been increasing relatively fast since the early 1990s. As shown in Table 2, in the 1990s, China–Russia bilateral trade remained within a meager 5–7 billion USD. In 2000, total bilateral trade reached only 8 billion USD, but by 2011 it increased tenfold and reached 80 billion USD. In the pre-Ukraine Crisis in 2014, China–Russia trade exceeded 95 billion USD, and, in terms of total volume of trade, China became Russia’s biggest single trade partner.

Table 2 China–Russia trade (1992–2017)

Second, as also shown in Table 2, there have been several significant proportional changes. While Russia consistently occupies only 2% of China’s total external trade, the share of China in Russia’s external trade has been steadily increasing, from 5% in 2001 to 14.76% in 2016. The Ukraine Crisis, low oil prices, the war of sanctions between Russia and Europe, and the devaluation of the ruble in 2014–2015 caused a 30% decrease in Russia’s total external trade. At the same time, Russia–EU trade decreased by 40% (it plummeted from 380 billion USD in 2014 to 230 billion USD in 2015), which is more than the overall decline of Russia’s external trade, while China–Russia trade in 2014–2015 shrunk only by 28%, which is less than the overall decline. In fact, Russia–EU trade almost halved when compared to 417 USD in 2013. At the same time, the volume of China–Russia trade in the post-Ukraine Crisis context is recovering rapidly by growing more than 20% from 69.53 billion USD in 2016 to almost 85.72 billion USD in 2017. Therefore, Russia’s trade with China has increased vis-à-vis its trade with the EU. China, by all evidence, was able to partially fill the niche that emerged in Russia’s foreign trade due to Western sanctions and Russia’s retaliatory embargo. At the same time, in terms of trade, Russia depends on China much more than China depends on Russia.

Particularly important in terms of generating economic interdependence are long-term projects, such as in China–Russia energy cooperation. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the two countries were not significant to each other’s energy sectors. Interactions in this sphere were sporadic, small in scale, and often undisclosed.Footnote 103 Highly dependent on the export of mineral resources and recovering from the Soviet collapse, Moscow attempted to enlarge its oil and gas export to Asian countries, but, until recently, it remained largely reluctant to increase the level of energy cooperation with China.

Things began to substantially change by the end of Putin’s second term, and China–Russia energy cooperation further moved forward in the context of Russia’s subsequent “reorientation to Asia” strategy.Footnote 104 The new projects went far beyond simple trade transactions and established a long-term energy cooperation that includes creating large-scale, on-land energy infrastructure that cuts across the China–Russia border and, thus, connects the two countries for the foreseeable future. Russia has become a major oil and gas supplier for China, while the Chinese energy market has become one of the major destinations for Russia’s energy exports.

The first project that changed China–Russia energy cooperation was the construction of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline, which includes a 1056-km-long pipeline from Skovorodino (Russia) to Daqing (China) and was jointly constructed by the Russian Transneft and the China National Petroleum Corporation. The construction was completed in 2010 and, on January 1, 2011, the pipeline started scheduled oil shipments to China.Footnote 105 The ESPO pipeline has had a considerable impact on Russia’s oil export to China, which more than doubled between 2010 and 2015, and exceeded 800,000 barrels per day in some months of 2016 (in 2000, Russia’s oil export was only 88,000 barrels per day). In 2014, due to the increased capacity of the ESPO pipeline, Russia became China’s third largest supplier and accounted for 11% of China’s total oil imports. In 2015 and 2016, however, Russia continued to take market share from other oil exporters and managed to overtake Saudi Arabia for several months as the largest crude oil exporter to China.Footnote 106

Another important shift in China–Russia energy cooperation occurred in 2013 when Beijing received access to Russia’s gas fields, which was always cautioned by the Kremlin. At the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg on September 5, 2013, in the presence of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and NOVATEK (Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer) concluded an agreement on the purchase of a 20% equity share in the large Yamal LNG project by CNPC. The project includes constructing a large LNG plant that has a capacity of 16.5 million tons per annum, based on the feedstock resources of the South-Tambeyskoe field near Sabetta in the Yamal peninsula, and the construction of a transport infrastructure, including a seaport for large-capacity LNG carriers and an airport.Footnote 107

Energy cooperation with China dramatically increased with the signing of the $400 billion gas and $270 billion oil megadeals in 2014 and 2013. Some analysts argued that practical agreements about Russian natural gas supplies to China along the eastern and western (via the Altai) routes ranked among the primary successes in China–Russia trade and economic cooperation in 2014.Footnote 108 For example, the gas deal provides for annual supplies by the Russian state-controlled gas company, Gazprom, of 38 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas for 35 years via the “Sila Sibiri” (the Power of Siberia) gas pipeline the construction of which is also part of the signed deal.

These projects are in sharp contrast to Russia’s caution vis-à-vis China in the energy sphere in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Arkady Dvorkovhich, who is responsible for overseeing Russia’s gas and oil industries, stated in February 2015 that there are no more psychological barriers or political obstacles in the sphere of energy cooperation between China and Russia. China is Russia’s strongest partner in Asia, and Russia will consider allowing China to have more controlling stakes in strategically important energy projects.Footnote 109 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in turn, stated that important bilateral decisions “pave the way to an energy alliance between Russia and China.”Footnote 110 The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts considerable increases in the Russian pipeline gas supply to China and estimates that it will reach 80 bcm by 2040 and will account for 30% of Russia’s total gas export.Footnote 111 In the energy sector, China and Russia are becoming more dependent on each other, with Russia willing to tolerate a greater degree of economic vulnerability in front of China.


The extant literature on China–Russia relations has mostly been unable to bear any significant theoretical fruit and contribute to conceptual generalization in IR. In other words, such important case as China–Russia relations has produced very little in conceptualization and theory building that can transcend the case itself. The present study attempts to address this problem by symbiotically synthesizing both the existing theoretical knowledge and the empirical analysis of China–Russia relations. It endeavors to go beyond China–Russia relations per se to start qualifying and quantifying strategic alignment in IR. While it does not purport to fully resolve the debate about how close China and Russia are to a real alliance and what such terms as “alliance” or “alignment” mean in contemporary international politics, it is intended to be seen as a necessary step in enhancing our understanding and measurement of alignment, in general, and China–Russia alignment, in particular.

Empirically, the analysis above shows that since the end of the Cold War, China and Russia have constructed comprehensive strategic cooperation, of which some aspects are more advanced than others. However, all aspects have consistently progressed over the last two decades. Military cooperation has advanced furthest. A comprehensive and multi-level mechanism of inter-military consultation, which is responsive to international contingencies, has been put in place and institutionalized. Large-scale MTC and military personnel exchanges have increased the level of inter-military compatibility. Since 2005, due to regular joint military exercises, China and Russia have achieved a certain degree of episodic interoperability of their military forces. On the plane of diplomatic cooperation, China and Russia do not behave as true allies. However, due to the gradual convergence of their perceptions of threats and interests, the two increasingly support each other in relevant international organizations and make efforts to create new international institutions that are allegedly capable of providing better representation for the voices of the “non-West.” Economic cooperation is the weakest aspect of the China–Russia alignment, although in no way does it lack substance. Large-scale, long-term, costly energy projects inevitably generate bilateral interdependence under which the leadership from either side will at least think twice before seriously undermining the positive dynamics of the relationship.

The current upward trend in China–Russia strategic cooperation should not be viewed as irreversible. Snyder has emphasized that depending on both external and internal factors alignments may start to move in the opposite direction vis-à-vis the prior pattern.Footnote 112 Therefore, it is not impossible for Moscow and Beijing to start moving apart. At the same time, China–Russia strategic cooperation should not be viewed as ad hoc or impulsive. The two countries have travelled a long way, and where they are now in terms of alignment formation—the level of their technical preparedness for tighter forms of military cooperation—allows them having a significant impact on international politics and should be taken seriously. Given the geopolitical parameters and military capabilities of China and Russia, their evolving alignment is an important factor that has a direct bearing on the entire structure of the contemporary international system and can challenge the existing US-led international order in the most fundamental ways. Russia can gain access to more instruments for promoting its agenda of balancing the USA and enhancing its version of multipolarity in Europe. China, in turn, receives Russia’s political backing and access to Russia’s energy resources and military technologies, which are essential assets for China in its growing tensions with the USA in Asia. Closer alignment between China and Russia can also accelerate the merging of their flagship geopolitical projects, such as China’s Silk Road Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which has a potential to strategically reshape the Eurasian space.Footnote 113 Closer China–Russia relations can also mean very limited Russia–US and China–US cooperation on issues of crucial strategic importance for the USA. Thus, without methodical assessment of China–Russia strategic alignment, the field might be miscalculating the overall tendency of power relations within the international system as well as the current dynamics of China–US and Russia–US relations.

Theoretically, this article offers a framework for assessing interstate alignment dynamics that can be applied to various cases. To test and further refine the suggested framework, the next step would be applying it to the cases of, e.g., US–India and China–Pakistan alignments, which would allow locating China–Russia cooperation in a comparative context and further generalizing the indicators of alignment suggested in this research. The US–India alignment is a new development in the post-Cold War international politics that can also be interpreted as an ad hoc phenomenon (as a reaction to China’s assertiveness in the Asia–Pacific region), whereas China–Pakistan alignment is an important regional security arrangement that requires better understanding and invites more research efforts. Both provide useful reference points for assessing the relative depth of China–Russia strategic cooperation. The list of potential cases to which the suggested framework can be productively applied can also include multilateral alignments, such as Shanghai Cooperation Organization, US–Japan–Australia Security Dialogue, and the ASEAN Security Community, for a more systematic understanding and comparative mapping of alignment dynamics in different regions.