– China’s reliance on Russia in security and defense will further decrease.

– Russia will gradually become China’s junior partner in all domains, including in the military.

– This power asymmetry will stymie the further deepening of Sino-Russian ties.

As Russia and China challenge the American hegemony in the post-Cold War international system, they have more reasons to deepen their bilateral cooperation. Over the last decade, the reinforcement of their military ties has been such that the borderline between ‘strategic partnership’ and ‘military alliance’ is blurred. Officially, neither side has embraced a full-blown alliance or demonstrated the will to do so. In practice, the Sino-Russian cooperation has reached a historical zenith and current trends suggest expansion of the existing cooperation to further security arrangements, many of which would resemble a military alliance. The recent strengthening of their defense cooperation and its implications for the future of the liberal international order begs the question: how will the Sino-Russian relations look like in the next decade? This question is critical for the future of the international relations and the world writ large since, arguably, Russia and China constitute the two most powerful revisionist forces in our time. In addressing this question, an underlying-often ignored- factor should be considered: the role of prestige. As two proud nations with distinct strategic cultures and a bitter past in their relations, prestige has always played its part in their dealings with each other. Today, prestige seems once again likely to pose obstacles to the strengthening of the Sino-Russian alliance.

Prestige as a Strategic Culture Attribute 

Strategic culture is a set of ideas, shared values, and assumptions that shape a country’s behavior in the world scene and influences its foreign policy conduct. These ideas, values, and assumptions are mainly formed by history, cultural traditions, and geography. Prestige weighs immensely in both China and Russia to a magnitude rarely found in other countries. History, distinct geopolitical conditions, a unique culture, and old customs have shaped the Russian and Chinese mentalities. Both countries have a long tradition of centralized power and authoritarian rule. They have learned to exist as great empires with vast territories which require that their leaders be constantly on alert to maintain them. Additionally, there are unique factors for each that explain the special importance China and Russia place on pride and prestige. For the former, it was Confucianism’s emphasis on the pursuit of personal excellence that instilled into the Chinese the mindset of competition and prestige. For the latter, it was the sheer size of its land and its geographical position between Europe and Asia that gave it a sense of uniqueness, which progressively translated into the ‘Russian pride’.

Shifting Dynamics

At the moment, Russia remains an indispensable provider of military technology to China. On the other side, China is Russia’s largest trading partner. With Moscow militarily superior and China economically stronger, a balanced interdependency has been created, not by design but by circumstances, in which both sides need each other. Although Russia’s need of the Chinese market and capital is not likely to fade in the coming years, especially as long as Moscow faces heavy sanctions, this will not be the case for China’s reliance on Russian arms and technology. The Chinese military industry has greatly benefited from the Russian arms exports of the last decades, and it is now evolving rapidly into a self-sufficient arms powerhouse. The Chinese increasing self-sufficiency in military equipment is evidenced by the dramatic drop in arms imports from Russia after 2018. In fact, Beijing is now even exporting some armaments to Russia, such as the Type 054A frigate. The dynamics in the field of military technology are also shifting in China’s favor. Harnessing its astounding economic growth and its ability to reverse engineer Russian technologies, Beijing has leapfrogged to one of the most technologically advanced military industries in the world, not too far behind Moscow. Russian experts have even admitted that in some areas, such as the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), China is technologically superior to Russia. China still needs Russian radars, submarine technology, air missile defense systems, and aircraft engines. However, the pace of China’s development in military technology and production capacities suggests that, eventually, Beijing will not only catch up with Moscow technologically and in terms of armaments production, but it will almost certainly supersede its former patron emerging as a peer arms exporter. Besides, China is already committing considerable resources to buttress its military modernization. The research and development expenditure (R&D) data, which is the most reliable indicator when trying to gauge a state’s future technology capacities, ascertains that China has the will to invest in improving its military technology. According to the World Bank, Beijing has been spending more than 2% of its total GDP on R&D since 2012 and the figure for 2020 stood at 2.4%. At the same time, Russia has been spending barely more than 1% of its considerably smaller GDP on R&D and the number for 2020 was just 1.1%. The R&D expenditure trends for Beijing and Moscow indicate that while the latter has stagnated the former will continue to spend significantly more on R&D supplanting Russia in terms of military technological prowess. The consequences of the inevitable rise of China above Russia in military power correlations are indeed bound to be detrimental to the Sino-Russian military ties. Russia will no longer have anything tangible to offer in the partnership and the current mutually beneficial interdependence will turn into a one-sided dependency akin to the one in the 1950s that led to the Sino-Soviet split. This time, the roles will be reversed. Russia will be the junior partner and China will be the overwhelmingly powerful ‘big brother’.

The Potential Rift

Given Russia’s proud strategic culture of derzhavnost– that is the persistent desire to be a great power but also to be perceived as such- it is almost certain that the Kremlin will not tolerate to become a mere client state patronized by China. Similar to Russia, China has its own proud strategic culture of fuqiang. Fuqiang (stands for ‘great power’ in Mandarin as a shortened version of the ancient motto fuguo qiangbing that means rich country, strong army) and derzhavnost respectively are products of the aforementioned experiences that synthesize the strategic cultures of China and Russia. Russia’s strategic culture leads it to always seek a seat at the table for all the global issues that need to be addressed by the great powers of the world. It will always want to maintain an independent foreign policy and to shape the international system. China could, possibly, accommodate Russia’s great power ambitions by keeping the partnership in balance and not stripping Moscow of having a say in regional and global developments, even on matters that are of paramount importance to Beijing. However prudent this sounds, there are two gravitational powers that will not let the Sino-Russian balance remain intact:

The opportunity of the strong

Historically, countries that found themselves in a position of power vis-à-vis adversaries and allies, they took advantage of the privilege that their power afforded them and gradually imposed their own terms. Some indicative cases of hegemonic attitude toward allies are: Denmark toward Sweden and the subsequent dissolution of the Kalmar Union in the 16th century, France toward Italy in the immediate aftermath of the latter’s unification in the late 19th century, and Russia toward its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies in the post-Soviet era. Another contemporary example is the transatlantic alliance. The United States emerged from World War II as the undisputed leader of the Western block that included erstwhile hegemons, such as the United Kingdom, or traditionally influential states, such as France. With both European powers ravaged from the war, the United States took charge in constructing the new world order. Washington was the architect of the international system in all domains, from financial to military arrangements. The American hegemonic tendencies caused frictions within the Western block when De Gaulle’s France felt like a second-tier power. Prestige drove France out of the military component of NATO in 1966. No matter how closely aligned the United States and its allies were in terms of values and fundamental principles, Washington did not maintain a balanced partnership. Rather, it created a hierarchy with itself at the top. This behavior is not to be attributed to a sort of American megalomania nor is it a trait of the American strategic culture. It is an instinct of the strong to dictate their terms simply because they can. On the contrary, it is very difficult to find a peacetime example of a powerful state that had the power to impose its will on its allies but chose not to do so. Hence, China is more likely to act hegemonically in its relations with Russia than maintain a balanced partnership once it becomes significantly more powerful in the military domain. Sino-Russian past animosity and current differences in both their ends within the existing international order and the means they employ to achieve them will probably push China to take full charge of its partnership with Russia, thereby creating the sense of superiority that will prove corrosive to their bilateral relations.

China’s fuqiang strategic culture

Enunciated to attest China’s determination to avoid a remake of the tragedies that had befallen upon it during the ‘century of humiliation’, fuqiang implies that Beijing desires to lead as a great power. China’s eagerness to wield influence on the world stage and reshape the global order in accordance with its own aspirations will let little room for a sort of a ‘power sharing’ arrangement with Russia in leading a revisionist bloc as an alternative to Washington. The residues of the past Sino-Russian confrontations will only reinforce Beijing’s tendency to lead Russia rather than treat it as an equal partner.

Even if China somehow resists the power of the instinct to which the strong succumbs restraining the policy options of its allies and leading them as the undisputed hegemon- or if China somehow weathers the impetus of its fuqiang– the relations with Russia are likely to get shaky. Russia will grow insecure when China will not need it militarily. Not unlike the 1950s, when Soviet Union’s proposals were regarded as diminishing by China even if they were not aiming at belittling Beijing, Chinese policy suggestions or actions will be placed under scrutiny by Moscow and will be deemed unilateral and demining of the Russian status. The mentality of derzhavnost will make Russia hypersensitive in matters where China will inevitably have a bigger say because of its sheer political, economic, and military (pending) clout compared to Moscow.

Unlike Western powers, for which economic stability outweighs prestige as their democratic governments are aware that bleak financial circumstances domestically might cost them the elections, China and Russia have demonstrated the will to deprioritize the economic prosperity of many of their people in pursuing the objectives demanded by their strategic cultures. Russia, for instance, has confirmed the above statement multiple times in an unequivocal fashion. With its military interventions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria while its economy was bleeding, Russia repeatedly belied those Western experts who rushed to call it weak and incapable of projecting power abroad because of the poor state of its finances. In tune with its strategic culture, Russia is very unlikely to accept anything less than complete equality in its relations with China, while China is almost certainly going to take advantage of its future position of power, thus not letting Russia get what it wants. Within this context, the Sino-Russian partnership will indeed suffer the moment that China will attain military self-sufficiency or supersede Russia in terms of military capabilities. Other great powers, such as the United States and India, should embark on efforts to underscore the growing power disparity between Russia and China by occasionally approaching the latter on issues of common interest, such as trade, space exploration, and climate change, a tactic that will drive Beijing away from a weakened and increasingly less influential Moscow. This requires Washington to abandon the myopic strategy of double confrontation and ease tensions with Beijing.

* Vasilis Petropoulos is a Washington DC-based international relations analyst currently working at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He has published numerous opinion pieces, including with Foreign Brief, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Foreign Affairs, and The Warsaw Institute of Geopolitics. Vasilis has a Master’s Degree in Law and Diplomacy with a focus on Conflict Resolution & Great Power Competition from The Fletcher School at Tufts University.