The China-Russia’s Alignment A 21st Century Neorealist Tandem

Author: Gabriel Gervais

Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are” teaches us Carl Schmitt. Since 2008, this seems to apply to an Eurasian tandem emerging on the international stage, namely China and Russia. The rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow was  counterintuitive at first glance. Indeed, since the Sino-Soviet split, a deep distrust had been poisoning their relationship. Nevertheless, the end of the USSR had constituted a powerful game-changer. Thus, one of John Mearsheimer’s post-Cold War hypothesis has predicted a progressive Sino-Russian rapprochement.

On the geopolitical chessboard, following the friend-foe axis, playing on the limits of the liberal international order, they have managed to challenge a Western “diplomacy of connivance”. Their cooperation occurs within the UN Security Council or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And their ambitions Eurasian heartland has paved the way to the One Belt One Road Initiative connecting Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Their geostrategic complementarity is provided through their respective access to the Rimland: Indo-Pacific and Arctic. 

Thus, China and Russia have succeeded, thanks to Statecraft, to play their cards right within a structural anarchic international order. The Sino-Russian complementary duo seems to encompass a singular hedging characterized by a respective regional leeway. Indeed, their power strategy avoids any clashing incoherence between their common interests and their national interests. Thereby, we may wonder to what extent does the Sino-Russian tandem fall into a distinctive neorealist synergy? Their alignment is shaped by a common power understanding as two Civilization-States. And a deep asymmetry appears in their double-edged relationship. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in China for state visit ...


Beijing and Moscow cannot be reduced to mere nation states owing their anthropological imperial tradition. Indeed, China has been united during the 3rd century BC under an Imperial framework. Until the 1911 Revolution, a myriad of dynasties had governed Huaxia (华夏). And the Imperial continuity seems to have been rejuvenated since the Xi Jinping’s 2013 assumption of duties. Concurrently, Russia emerged during the 9th century AD after the Vikings’ creation of Kievan Rus’. Then, the Grand Duchy of Moscow under Ivan the Terrible had consecrated its imperial feature. The Soviet Union kept this trait in particular in the Communist Bloc in the context of the Cold War. To this day, Putin has fostered an imperial revival influenced by the Pan-Russian notion conception (общерусский народ) and Eurasianism. 

In addition, new nationalisms have embodied the spearhead of this new political paradigm. The two neo-nationalist narratives encompass a triptych:

  •  The Ethnic Nationalism founds the tandem’s Gemeinschafts (Communities) in the Ferdinand Tönnies’ sense. Indeed, their Weberian Vergemeinschaftungs (Communitizations) rely respectively on the sense of belonging to the Han People (汉族) and to the national spirit (Narodnost). And, Hanization and Russian irredentism are its levers. 
  • The Imperial Symbolism constitutes another face of this new tool in Identity-Politics. Xi Jinping seeks to build a dynastic legitimacy to the CCP. He does not hesitate to bring the Mandate of Heaven up to date. Besides, Putin brings back the Tsarist motto “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” into fashion. And thanks to a hyper-presidentialism, he joins the Tsarist historical continuity. 
  • The Illiberal State framework is characterized by technological nationalism. Indeed, the Chinese and more recently the Russian Regime have developed their own Internet Great Firewall. And, China has added to the self-promotion of national companies, a technological population control influenced by neo-Confucianism. Russia has enhanced its technological autarky in particular regarding social networks. 

The common matrix of their Power Rebuilding leans on Humiliation. Indeed, as Bertrand Badie highlights Humiliation is a pathological drift of International Relations. China has been traumatized by the “Century of Humiliation” (百年耻辱) following the Opium Wars against the Westerners Colonial Powers on the ruins of a Confucian Tributary System. This historical period lasts from Unequal Treaties to the PRC’s birth. It has destroyed the Chinese Asian hegemony. The Russian perception of the post-Cold War under Boris Yeltsin has drawn the picture of a Russian State’s decline in aid of the West. The exclusion of the G8 after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea has acted as the rupture. Nowadays, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are rethinking their respective power in the light of emotional geopolitics. According to Karl Haushofer, if a State’s Power may be deconstructed, a State may be able to rebuild it. From its standpoint, this desired Power’s (re)building is shaped by four main criteria:

  • Economic Development
  • (Re)militarization
  • An Ideology
  • A Strong Leader

Thus, the Sino-Russian tandem seems to fall into such  pattern when viewed from the perspective  of Xi Jinping’s “Rejuvenation” (中华民族伟大复兴) and Putinism (путинизм). Their intent to develop their economies creates the OBOR Initiative and the EAEC. The development of the Chinese hard power has been emphasized by the 2015 and 2019 Chinese white papers. Moscow has advanced its military R&D underlined by the 2019 Severodvinsk nuclear accident. The ideological framework appears through the development of nationalism backing a long-term geostrategic vision. Finally, Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart have managed to enhance their autocratic way of ruling.


The Neorealist paradigm adopts a structural understanding of the Balance of Powers. Furthermore, two schools of thought have emerged. The defensive realist school, led by Kenneth Waltz, presents States as security-maximizers favoring bandwagoning. Where, the offensive realist school, led by John Mearsheimer, assumes that States are power maximizers favoring balancing. The concept of hedging has appeared to qualify the asymmetrical duo. Indeed, China is a rising power which is jeopardizing the American superpower. Whereas Russia is a stagnant power which is trapped by its lack of economic diversification. Nevertheless, Beijing and Moscow maintain their reciprocal autonomy. This political paradigm escapes from the classical bandwagoning and balancing schemes due to its complementarity and to their respective regional leeway.

Each part of this twosome follows its own realist agenda playing on the Defense-Offense balance. According to Friedrich Ratzel, Power obeys to a Darwinist analogy with the “Struggle for Life”. Indeed, expansionism and aggression trends answer to the struggle between States for access to resources for their own security’s sake. And, the Imperial contiguity provides a polarity center-peripheries:   

  • The Russian disruptive chess player adopts an aggressive strategy. On the one hand, in its margins, the 2007 Estonian cyber attacks and the Ukrainian crisis since 2014 have shown the Russian defensive realist response to an NATO encirclement threat. On the other hand, the Muscovite offensiveness has appeared. The American progressive disengagement from the Middle East has rolled out the red carpet to the Kremlin in the region since the 2015 Syrian War. And, the use of the Wagner Group has embodied the Russian gateway from all angles to Africa. For not only ensuring Maduro’s security, the CHVK Wagner has been well-known for its 2018 intervention in Central Africa challenging France or for its support in Libya to Field Marshal Haftar. Furthermore, the increasing resort to sharp power, for example during the American Presidential, has emphasized the Russian pugnacity. 
  • The Chinese go player bets on its assertiveness. On the one hand, in its margins, the Indo-Pacific region has become the theatre of the development of the Chinese Power. Indeed, challenging a regional Pax Americana, Beijing has increased its maritime power through the “String of Pearls” and the “Third Alliance Chain” strategy. On the other hand the Chinese Mahan’s Doctrine derives from a new methodology of Warfare based on the new types of War as expressed in 1999 by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui in their Unrestricted Warfare. Furthermore, this regional offensiveness leans on the rejuvenation of a Tributary System. For instance, the eleven-dash line in the South China Sea clashes with its former tributary neighbors like Vietnam. And, in the East China Sea, the bone of contention on the Ryukyu Islands follows the same path with Japan. On the other hand, the BRI relies on an economic-based defensive realist strategy. In effect, this initiative projects the Chinese economic power globally and ensures the Chinese energetic security. In Africa, this mercantilist strategy is under the IMF’s criticism arguing it is  a debt trap. The Chinese sharp power corresponds to the mastery of information fueling its new aggressivity in the context of the covid-19 pandemic. Still and all, an increasing structural asymmetry emerges in the Sino-Russian relationship. The long march of the Bear and the Panda is deeply unbalanced. Their individual particularities explain the dual ambivalence:
  • The specialized regionalization of each party constitutes their complementarity with a convergence in the Eurasian center. Indeed, Russia inherits military and diplomatic capacities from the Soviet Union’s aches. Thus, the lasting Russian specialized regionalization remains military-focused. The Kremlin supports the pro-Russian separatists  in Georgia and in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Besides, the Muscovite pied-à-terre in the Middle East relies on its army projection. For example, Moscow intervened in 2014 to support the Ba’athist regime which was jeopardized by the Syrian Civil War. The Israeli-Russian ties and the 2017 pragmatic Russo-Turkish rapprochement express this dynamic. More recently, the deployments of the paramilitary Wagner Group in Central Africa has been a breakthrough. And in the Libyan conflict has been the coronation of a Russian comeback to Africa. China exceeds a military-based speciatilization. Indeed, as an emerging power, it has developed its economic development through the ambitious BRI project since 2013. Beijing has enhanced its concentric economic projection on Central Asia, on Indo-Pacific and on “Chinafrica”. The “win-win” partnership fostering a “community of shared future for mankind” has conveyed a massive infrastructural plan. In addition, the Chinese military projection is mainly concentrated on its margins through the String of Pearls. And the Chinese militarization has an economic security feature highlighted by the 2016 opening of a military base in the Djibouti choke point.
  • The power-level gap between the Middle Kingdom and the Varangian Heir has grown since the 1990’s. The structural factor of this gulf has come from the Chinese economic superiority. Consequently, Russia has lost its global projection as seen during the era of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Russia has been progressively locked in a regional military projection. Besides, the Russian economic capacities constitute an Achilles’ heel. And, the progressive loss of Russian influence in Central Asia as compared to the increasing Chinese influence has underlined this weakness. Indeed, the BRI has limited the Russian “pivot to the East” to a Regional Security realm. Furthermore, the economic Chinese rise based on the flying geese paradigm has embodied the stepping stone to a continental and maritime global strategy. For instance, Beijing has built the first diplomatic network. Whereas, referring to the Global Diplomacy Index made by the Lowy Institute,  Moscow has been ranked as the fifth. Besides, the Chinese power development from all angles has been hitherto unseen. Moreover, the ability of the Chinese power to effectively challenge the American regional hegemony in Indo-Pacific and the American power globally has put China in a stronger position as compared to Russia. Therefore, the Chinese power influences the global agenda-making structurally. The Chinese relational power has increased within the UN framework within either the WHO or the P5. In parallel through the BRI, the BRICS and the SCO, the Chinese relational power has been developed. The result is a Beijing’s idiosyncrasy. 


Russia and China  adopt a strategic approach to weaken the American Imperial Republic and its NATO allies. Indeed, according to General Beaufre, strategy might be reduced to an Einstein-type formula: S=k∙Ϝ∙Ψ∙t. He denotes the strategy S. k is an independent variable depending on the application domain. Ϝ equates to the military material force. represents the psychological factor. Then, t is time. Knowing that k is an independent variable and the factor Ϝ is limited since the American military power remains comparatively superior for the moment. In order to maximize their strategic payoff S, the Sino-Russian tandem sounds to play on two allowances giving a wide freedom of action: the non-military factor(s) and the long-run t. Thus, the twosome seems to follow the Liddell Hart’s indirect strategic approach:

  • External maneuvers imply the use of Statecraft within the international legal framework. Indeed, the depreciation of the Chinese currency challenges the American economic competitiveness. The Sino-American Trade War demonstrates Beijing’s mastery of geo-economics. For instance, China does not hesitate to sue the USA before the WTO as in 2019 in response to an increase of trade-tariffs. Inside the UN Security Council, the Russian vetoes, sometimes backed by China, undermine the institutional American leeway concerning the Middle-East and Venezuela.
  • The artichoke strategy presents the American power containment with a done deal. Indeed, Beijing pulls the rug out from Washington in the South China Sea through the sudden concretization and militarization of the Spratly and Paracel Islands. The Russian re-militarization follows this pattern in the Arctic. In addition, the annexation of Crimea highlights the psychological strength of the fait accompli. 
  • The information offensive allowed by the sharp power unsettles the USA and its allies. The Russian hacker group, known as “Fancy Bear” is well-known for its cyber-attacks against the OSCE. However, China is a new-comer in this domain. In Europe and Australia, the Chinese networking targets entrepreneurs and media groups to foster its agenda. This new method is also used to spin the Covid-19 pandemic to its advantage.

From the Sino-Russian perspective, Washington and its allies contain the development of their respective power regionally. Furthermore, due to their geographic proximity, China and Russia have overlapping regional interests. In this peculiar case, they seem to follow a dual strategy in order to maximize their regional leeway (cf. figure 1):

  • At the macro level, a collective strategy appears at the light of the twain’s total leeway denoted Lr encompassing the Chinese one Lr( )C and the Russian one Lr( )R at a moment t or t’. This total leeway is constant : Lr=Lr(t)C+Lr(t)R= Lr(t’)C+Lr(t’)R. But, each State’s leeway may evolved through time: Lr(t)C<Lr(t’)C and Lr(t)R>Lr(t’)R. Thus, the collective choice is to maximize the total leeway Lr giving L’r, through cooperation: Lr<L’r. And the outcomes satisfy each part. Indeed, it maximizes their individual leeway at the moment t:  Lr(t)C<L’r(t)C and Lr(t)R<L’r(t)R. In the Arctic, the Chinese Regime supports the Russian development of a new seaway allowed by Global Warming. The rentier State looks upon that this project will constitute an opportunity to diversify its economy. China as a “near Arctic State” wishes to spread its BRI and to gain access to new hydrocarbon resources. The overall idea is the containment of the American claims to the scramble for the Arctic.  
  • At the micro level, inside their overlapping spheres of influence, the National Interest prevails. Indeed, each part’s leeway is Pareto efficient:  Lr( )C and  Lr( )R. Consequently, the challenge of each State is to maximize its own freedom of action through time: Lr(t)C<Lr(t’)C, Lr(t)R>Lr(t’)R and t<t’. Besides, this winner-loser game is independent from the Sino-Russian cooperation: Lr<L’r, L’r(t)R<L’r(t”)R, L’r(t)C>L’r(t”)C and t<t” . 

Russia seeks to maintain its dominance in the North-Pacific and its monopoly on the Arctic. The BRI decreases the Russian leeway in Central Asia embodied by the EAEU. The Siberian territory provides agricultural and energetic resources. And the Chinese presence challenges the Russian interests in Siberia. Thus, it explains why Moscow de-dollarizes its economy with the Euro and not Renminbi. This freedom of action seeking is also shown by the Russian development of missiles leading to the American withdrawal from the INF. The aim is to prevent Chinese and American weaponizations. 

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The assessment of the Sino-Chinese partnership underlines that each part does not act naively. Their cooperation is pragmatic, undermining the White House. And they have more to gain and less to lose. However, each state remains lucid and manages to maintain their own freedom of action inside their overlapping geopolitical spheres. 

Then, at the light of a Chinese strategic window, the future evolution of the Sino-Russian tandem should be asked. Two dynamics are at stake drawing its destiny:

  • An endogenous factor. The Russian structural power-delay questions the Kremlin’s future autonomy. And the Russian power-gap compared to the Chinese one may be denoted: Rg.
  • An exogenous Factor. The US are their common structural adversary. The Washington’s response contains Chinese and Russian powers inside their sphere of influence. Then, the American offensive response toward China and Russia may be denotes: Ar.

Thus, assuming that the day-today tandem’s evolution has the following coordinates (0;0), the hypothetical outcomes would follow one of those 5 hypotheses (cf. figure 2):  

  • Hedging creating a status quo
  • Russian bandwagoning toward China
  • Soft-Internal Balancing within the tandem
  • Hard-Internal Balancing which may lead to a Sino-Russian chain-ganging
  • Buck-passing where each part lets manage alone its American threat and which may fragilize the tandem


Nowadays, Russia and China are objective complices challenging Washington. And, the return of geopolitics within the Global Space has invited the tandem to adopt a  power spatial thinking. The outcome has been a neo-realist strategy adopted by each State. Notwithstanding, a long-running structural asymmetry has shaped their convergence since the 1990’s. Indeed, China has become a superpower relying on its economic growth challenging Washington, while Russia has been progressively limited to a regional military-based power.
In addition, their partnership remains pragmatic and gullibility-free. They have more to gain in bilateral cooperation. Indeed, the Chinese industries need the Russian energy resources. And the Chinese market and investments might rescue a Russian economy suffering from the Dutch Disease. However, sources of friction exist within their shared neighborhoods. It shows that Moscow must secure its strategic leeway toward China and reversely. Besides, the tandem shows how International Relations are de-Westernized progressively. And the SARS-CoV-2 might be a powerful game-changer which jeopardizes the Washington’s superiority. In the era of the Chinese Dream, would Russian Teddy Bear become a Beijing’s power booster or the Chinese Achilles’ heel?

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