Is there a grand Sino-Russian plan?

argues that it is more an alliance of convenience – with its own strains and fissures

Is there a grand Sino-Russian plan?
After decades of Cold War rivalry and mutual suspicion, the China-Russia relationship has been ameliorated by strong economic, military and political ties.

In 1969, limited but intense clashes between the USSR and China fed the hostility and mistrust till the mid-1980s. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union that diplomatic tensions thawed.

Several ideological similarities have driven the Sino-Russian relationship to reach ‘unprecedented’ heights: their support in the suppression of foreign influence, total control over their region, belief in a ‘sovereign’ internet, and the most important factor of their cooperation – improving their geopolitical standing to offset the dominance of the United States.


A dynamic Sino-Russian trade relationship has flourished over the past few years. After the annexation of Crimea, Russia faced severe sanctions from its largest trading partners, the EU and the US, in 2014. EU-Russia bilateral trade of goods reached its zenith in 2012 at € 322 billion, but it dropped by 43% to € 183 billion in 2016. The bilateral trade in 2019 was valued at € 232 billion. Similarly, Russia’s trade value with the US fell by almost 50% between 2012 and 2016.

Deteriorating relations with the West propelled Russia to depend on the ever willing and able China, to fill the vacuum.

China’s trade relationship with Russia has seen an ascending trajectory since the economic cooperation pact in 2014. The trade value has rapidly expanded by 47% in the last five years. It crossed the $ 100 billion mark in 2018, up from $ 84 billion in 2017. Russia, the second-largest crude-oil-exporting region, witnessed a positive trade balance with China, the biggest importer of crude oil, for the first time in 2018.

China and Russia are also incorporating a financial alliance in their multifaceted relationship. Their trade in the US currency fell below 50% for the first time in history. In 2013, 90% of trade was in dollars compared to only 46% in 2020. This drastic decline in the use of the US currency will challenge the dominant position of the dollar in the market.

Russia has also appealed to BRICS member nations to ditch the dollar and use their national currencies in trade instead.

Military relationship

China’s independence in the defense sector led to the decline of Russian arms exports from 60% in 2005 to around 14% by 2018. Until the mid-2000s, arms sales were the most crucial ingredient of the bilateral trade. Despite this drastic fall, Sino-Russian military ties have seemed to grow stronger.

In recent years, Russia has overcome its hesitation in selling high-end weapons to China, like the Su-35 fighter aircraft, jet engines and the S-400 air defense system. In 2019, Putin revealed Russia’s assistance to China in acquiring an anti-ballistic missile system, making China and Russia the only 2 states of the total of 7, who possess ICBMs and are not US allies.

Both sides have been conducting joint military exercises for a decade under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with the addition of the naval component in 2012. However, they have increased in numbers and sophistication in recent years. In 2018, China sent more than 3,000 troops for Vostok, Russia’s biggest wargame. In the Tsentr 2019 military exercises, the People’s Liberation Army had the largest presence of any of Russia’s partners including India and Pakistan. In the same year, Chinese and Russian warplanes conducted joint air patrols over the Sea of Japan, signaling a strong “strategic partnership.”


Russia and China’s similar views and position on political issues have made them natural allies. They oppose the installation of US missile defense systems in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia and regard US foreign policy towards the Middle East, North Korea and Iran as destabilizing.

In the UN

China’s 13 recent vetoes in the United Nations have aligned with Russian vetoes; the majority of them pertained to the ongoing conflict in Syria. In April 2018, China abstained from a draft resolution, vetoed by Russia, to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Soon after, China voted in favor of a Russian-backed resolution condemning US-led airstrikes against Syria. In 2020, the two nations vetoed a UN resolution to maintain two border crossing points to deliver aid to northwest Syria from Turkey.

In a dramatic turn of events, in August 2020, China, Russia, and virtually all other 15 members of the Security Council opposed the US decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

The Arctic

The United States, China and Russia are also increasing their involvement in the remote and inhospitable region of the Arctic. According to US estimates, some $1 trillion worth of rare-earth metals, 30% of the world’s untapped natural gas and 13% of undiscovered oil reserves could be in the region.

The strategically important region can be further used for refueling ships and planes, as well as storage facilities. From 2014 to 2019, Russian cargo shipments via the Northern Sea Route have increased by almost 8 times. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that up to 10% of that country’s GDP and 20% of its exports come from the North of the Arctic Circle.

China stepped up to fill the technological and infrastructural hole left by the withdrawal of Western companies. In return, China got access to the much valued Northern Sea Route. It reduces the travel time from New York to Shanghai by 7 days.

In 2018, China declared itself a near-Arctic state, although the nearest Chinese border is at least 1,400 km from the Arctic circle. In 2019, Putin mentioned the plan to connect the Northern Sea Route to China’s Maritime Silk Road. China, since then, has been heavily investing in projects in that region – for instance, the Yamal LNG project.

U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, admitted that the US was slow to react to Chinese and Russian interests in the Arctic region. However, to tackle the Russian fleet of 40 icebreakers, in July 2020, President Trump announced the building of the largest icebreaker which will play a vital role in keeping the Northern Sea route open throughout the year. This could be setting the stage for potential clashes.

Cracks in the relationship

On the flip side, experts believe that relations might not be as rosy as portrayed. In June 2020, Russia suspended the delivery of the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, soon after accusing China of espionage. The chief of intellectual property projects at the Rostec corporation, Yevgeny Livadny, said that more than 500 incidents of illegal copying of Russian armaments and weapons by China have been reported in the past 17 years.

In 2020, the Russian Embassy in Beijing commemorated the 160th anniversary of the founding of Vladivostok – formerly part of the Qing Empire’s Manchurian homeland - prompting an online backlash. It was annexed by the Tsarist Empire in 1860 following China’s defeat in the second Opium War. Labeled as insensitive and humiliating, the Russian embassy was denigrated online.

Russia even upped its arms sales to India after Chinese soldiers clashed with Indian soldiers at the Galwan Valley, sparking a huge wave of backlash in China. Moreover, Russia, unlike others, has never imposed arms sanctions on India. Russia sells more high-end weaponry to India than to China.

As China and Russia seek closer relations, Japan and India feel pressured to side with the US.

Japan in its 2020 Defence White Paper stated, “The authorities of both countries denied that they would form a military alliance, but attention should be paid to future developments in light of the recent advancement in their military cooperation.”


A popular narrative in the West suggests that a rising China and a resurgent Russia are the main cause of the destabilization of the world order by collaborating in exporting authoritarianism, ignoring human rights and subverting multilateral institutions. These narratives are a key part of the Trump administration’s posture in foreign policy. However, such scapegoating diverts attention from the failures of the NATO bloc.

In reality, despite the numerous convergences in the Sino-Russian relationship, there is no grand conspiracy to bring down the liberal order. Instead, it is an alliance based on convenience to support the legitimacy and stability of their regimes – which has been accentuated by a US strategic posture deemed hostile.