Russia China Relations: From Strategic Partnership to Regional Rivalry? (Part 2)

Part 2

Scenarios of Deteriorating Relations

The Chinese-Russian relationship has been stable over the last two decades and continues to improve. Even the Russian interventions in Ukraine and in Syria did not lead to deteriorating relations, a scenario some western analysts predicted (Fu Ying, 2016). However, the Chinese response to the crisis in Ukraine gives an insight into the limits of their relation. China was very cautious not to get involved too deeply into the conflict, neither taking a pro-western nor a pro-Russian stance and instead called for both sides to take steps toward a political solution to the ongoing conflict (Edwina Gibbs and Michael Perry, March 9, 2014). This reflects China’s pragmatic approach to the relationship. The same logic applies to Russia. The partnership is built on overlapping security concerns and a mutually beneficial economic partnership. Therefore, the possibility remains that if security interests diverge, the partnership will devolve into rivalry. Hence, it is important to identify possible circumstances which could trigger the deterioration of the partnership. This does not mean that China and Russia will ultimately end up being rivals. Nevertheless, given the rather unusual nature of the relationship with regard to balance of power and balance of threat theory and the long history of conflict between the two countries, it would not come as a surprise if the two countries became rivals. Furthermore, given Russia’s own great power aspirations it can be questioned whether Russia would be willing to act as the „junior partner“ in the relation. This could lead to tensions if Russia feels that its interests are not respected appropriately. Additionally, the recent actions of Russia in Ukraine and Syria show Russia’s willingness to go to great length when it sees vital interests at stake. In both cases Russia was and is willing to defend its interests by force.

Scenario I: The Quest for Central Asia

The developments in Central Asia could become the single most important factor influencing the development of the Chinese-Russian relationship. At the moment both countries’ interests in the region align. Both China and Russia want a stable region. First, because they fear that destabilized Central Asian states would harm their economic interests. Central Asian states play an important role for Russia as transit countries for critical oil and gas pipelines. For China the Central Asian states are important energy exporters and China has heavily invested in the energy sector in the region. Second, both countries fear that if the region becomes unstable, this would spill over into China and Russia. China especially tries to avoid this scenario, because one of its most vulnerable regions, the region of Xinjiang, is directly bordering Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan among others. China’s Xinjiang province has a long history of conflict between state authorities and parts of the ethnic Uighur minority.

Apart from their interest in a stable Central Asia, both countries want to keep the United States’ involvement in the region at a minimum. China and Russia would both prefer no involvement of the United States and especially do not want any American military bases in the region. This is to prevent a kind of encirclement by the United States.

Nonetheless, there are two possible scenarios which could lead to worsened relations between China and Russia. First, it is possible that one of the two over-lapping security interests could disappear. This could be triggered by a withdrawal of troops out of Afghanistan by the United States, which would dissolve the „anti-American stimulus“ (Eder, 2014, p.128) or by diverging interests in the event of renewed conflict between Central Asian states, for example provoked by border disputes (International Crisis Group, 2002). Second, Russia views Central Asia as one of its „spheres of influence“ and the growing influence of China in the region (Mankoff, 2009, p.81), especially in the energy sector, could lead to declining Russian leverage in the region. Eder (2014, p.128) argues that in the Central Asian energy sector Chinese and Russian interests collide which in the long-term will lead to open conflict between these two states.

With the growing power gap between China and Russia, China will be able to take a more assertive stance securing its interests in the region. Additionally, Central Asian states welcome China in the region as a counterbalance to Russia, they see China as a way to diversify their exports and reduce their own dependence on Russia (Eder, 2014, p.39). The combination of these two circumstances could build up tensions between China and Russia. In the worst case, one of the Central Asian states would try to increase its independence by playing off China against Russia. Under these circumstances it would be possible that Russia reacts in a similar fashion as in Georgia in 2008, which would threaten Chinese interests in the region and would trigger a response by China.

While China’s primary focus in the region is to use the Central Asian states to diversify its energy import routes it also views it as a „sphere of influence“ (Mankoff, 2009, p.81). Even though China has been cautious not to alienate Russia by taking steps to reduce Russian influence, the growing economic engagement in Central Asian states is already reducing Russian influence. This trend is going to continue with even more trade and more foreign direct investment on part of China in the region (Bellacqua, 2010, p.252f). With more economic involvement China will also seek to secure its interests by using its influence in the region. Hence, tensions between China and Russia could emerge when their interests collide.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which includes China, Russia and the Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and the acceding states India and Pakistan has the potential both to reduce chances of conflict and to produce tensions. On the one hand, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation can serve as a platform to resolve differences, strengthen trust and increase areas of cooperation between its members. On the other hand, China and Russia do have different views about the role the SCO should play (Mankoff, 2009, p.218). China sees the SCO as a tool to increase economic cooperation, to increase its influence and to tackle common security threats like terrorism. For Russia, the SCO is a vehicle to preserve its influence in Central Asia and a channel to engage with China (Mankoff, 2009). Therefore, the SCO could be another forum where the growing gap in power could lead to tensions.

Title picture source: By, CC BY 4.0,




Bellacqua, J., ed. (2010), The Future of China-Russia Relations, Asia in the new millennium, University Press of Kentucky.

Eder, T. S. (2014), China-Russia Relations in Central Asia, Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden.

Edwina Gibbs and Michael Perry (March 9, 2014), ‘China’s Xi urges political solution to Ukraine crisis’.

Fu Ying (2016), ‘How China Sees Russia: Beijing and Moscow Are Close, but Not Allies’, Foreign Affairs 95(1), 96–105.

International Crisis Group (2002), ‘ICG Asia Report Nr.33:  CENTRAL ASIA: BORDER DISPUTES AND CONFLICT POTENTIAL’.
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Mankoff, J. (2009), Russian foreign policy: The return of great power politics, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Md.