Russia and China, a New Model of Great-Power Relations

By Nina Bachkatov

The continuing calm of Chinese-Russia relations is the subject of a recent study in Survival (Survival, Feb.-Mar. 2017), the bi-monthly journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The article’s writers* focus on the way in which the two countries have avoided any turbulence that might have resulted from their imbalanced economic and strategic relationship.

Among other important things, they point out how a ‘pragmatic behind-the -scenes approach’ to the resolution of disputes has helped to mitigate the geopolitical tensions created by Russia’s relatively weaker international position after the 2014 Ukraine crisis. At the same time, China has contributed by not abusing its stronger position.

Most importantly the Survival article focuses on ‘two particularities about the two powers’ relationship’, say the Survival editors. First, China has no intention of making Russia the centrepiece of its foreign policy, which is increasingly multi-dimensional and global. Secondly, in any case, Russia is outclassed by the United States in Beijing’s estimation of its global and regional interests, both economic and strategic.


In a detailed entry covering many aspects of the China-Russia relationship prominence is given to the question of China’s production and exportation of gas, beginning with the ‘Power of Siberia’ agreement signed at a presidential summit in Shanghai in May 2014. By the agreement, China’s national gas authority, the CNPC, undertook to buy 38 billion cubic metres of gas annually from Russia’s Gazprom – a volume due to be attained about 2025.

According to Survival, the Chinese-Russian gas relationship does not provide balance to an otherwise asymmetrical relationship, but it is nevertheless an important element of the two countries’ broader economic asymmetry. Russia needs to export the gas much more than China needs to import it, and for Beijing, this asymmetry is a factor that has to be carefully managed.

Key element

A key aspect of this management was the tortuous process of negotiating the ‘Power of Siberia’ agreement in the first place. Negotiations on the relevant Russian-Chinese pipeline lasted more than ten years in a changing geographical and international energy landscape – until the Ukraine crisis made the deal a strategic priority for Moscow.

The terms initially offered by CNPC were not acceptable to Gazprom. The project was simply too costly to make Russian gas competitive in China in the current energy market. But, as Survival puts it, eventually ‘both countries twisted the arms of their national energy companies to sign a deal that makes little commercial sense.’

‘A powerful illustration of the two countries’ structural complementarity, ’says Survival.

‘But while the de-commercialisation of Gazprom may have created the conditions for the Power of Siberia deal to be signed, it does not provide a guarantee that the long-term gas relationship will be stable.’

A question of time

In a conclusion to their wide-ranging piece on Chinese-Russian relations, the authors note that while Beijing made so far unsuccessful attempt to form a great-power relationship with Washington, a working model already exists in the case of the Russia and China.

In their relationship, China and Russia have learned to work with each other and accommodate each other’s interests. By accommodating each other’s strategic interests, they have achieved an effective partnership despite significant imbalances. They treat each other as great-power equals and give priority to ‘positive sum’ interactions.

In due course, Russia will be less capable of asserting its strategic independence vis-à-vis China. At the same time, although Beijing is unlikely o abuse its position in the short term, it remains to be seen whether it will exploit its upper hand in the future.

* Samuel Charap is Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the IISS. John Drennan is a Research Analyst and Programme Officer at the Institute, and Pierre Noel is a Senior Fellow for Economic and Energy Security.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *