Should China and Russia Form an Alliance?

In Chinese and Russian academic circles, views advocating such an alliance have existed for a long time, but they are not mainstream. The governments of both countries have always adhered to the policy of strategic partnership rather than alliance, and the issue of the alliance is not on the agenda of China-Russia dialogue.

However, at the plenary meeting of the Valdai Club, which was held in October 2020, President Putin said that theoretically the possibility of a China-Russia alliance is not ruled out, although it’s unnecessary right now. It received positive, albeit implicit response from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, which was intensified by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, saying that there was no restricted area for bilateral strategic cooperation, rather than repeating the usual rhetoric of non-alignment. This is a delicate change in the official statements of the two countries, and thus made the issue of the China-Russia alliance relevant.

A Brief History of the China-Russia Alliance

In history, China has formed alliances with Russia more than with any other countries. The two countries formed alliances three times, respectively, during the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China, and the People’s Republic of China.

In June of 1896, China and Russia signed the Li-Lobanov Treaty in Moscow, also known as the Sino-Russian Secret Treaty. This was the first official alliance in the history of Sino-Russian relations. The Treaty was suggested by Russia in defence against Japan for a period of fifteen years. From Russia’s perspective, the main purpose of the Treaty was to make an inroad into northeastern China to gain a competitive edge against Japan in China and the Far East. Following the Chinese defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, China was bullied into ceding the Liaoning peninsula, Taiwan, and the Penghu (Pescadores) Islands to Japan, in addition to paying huge sums in reparations. In 1895, Russia united with France and Germany to force Japan to return to China the Liaodong peninsula, which had been ceded to Japan via the Treaty of Shimonoseki. This action led China to the hope and expectation that Russia would help China to resist Japan.

This alliance was only illusory. In 1898, Russia forced the Qing government to lease Port Arthur. In 1900, following the Boxer Rebellion, Russia sent soldiers to occupy all of Manchuria (Northeast China) and even participated in the attack on Beijing. The Sino-Russian alliance was over.

According to the Sino-Russian Secret Treaty, Russia obtained rights to construct the China Eastern Railway, a railway through Northeast China to Russia’s Vladivostok. It was presumed that the construction of the China Eastern Railway would allow Russia to send soldiers and material aid to China when necessary. Once the railway was completed, however, this capability was never utilized. In fact, the railway was a source of conflict between the two countries. China and Russia ceaselessly disputed over ownership and rights to the China Eastern Railway, eventually leading to the Sino-Soviet Conflict of 1929, the largest armed conflict between the two countries in all history. The issue of the China Eastern Railway lasted for half a century, until 1950, when the Soviet Union returned the railway to China.

On August 14, 1945, the Chinese Nationalist government and the Soviet Union signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in Moscow. This was the second official alliance between the two countries, valid for a period of 30 years. This alliance was based upon the mutual war against Japan, but the next day after the Treaty was signed, Japan announced capitulation. Although this Treaty was titled as one of friendship and alliance, according to Chiang Kai-shek, the president of the Republic of China at the time, this Treaty was neither one of friendship nor alliance. The Soviet Union signed the Treaty in order to ensure the independence of Mongolia from China in addition to once again gaining special rights in Manchuria. The goal of the Chinese government at the time was to prevent the Soviet Union from remaining in Manchuria once Japan’s Kwantung Army was defeated. Furthermore, it hoped that the Soviet Union would support the Nationalist Party in its war against the Chinese Communist Party. Through this alliance, Russia received official Chinese recognition of Mongolia’s independence, joint ownership and operation of the China Eastern Railway, the right to use Dalian port and a tariff exemption, in addition to allowing the lease of Port Arthur as a military port.

The second Sino-Russian alliance was short-lived. In 1949, after the creation of the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with the new Chinese government. It broke off relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s government, annulling the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in 1950.

In February of 1950, the Soviet Union and China signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. This was the third and, to the present day, last official Sino-Russian alliance. The Treaty was to extend for a period of thirty years. According to the Treaty, neither country would enter an alliance against the other, would participate in any activities against the other country, and if either was attacked by Japan, the other would use all its efforts to supply military and other aid. According to the agreement, the Soviet Union promised to turn over all rights and property of the China Eastern Railway to China without compensation, to withdraw from its naval base in Port Arthur, and even to transfer all Soviet property in Dalian to China. In addition, the Soviet Union would supply China with a loan of USD 300 million.

This alliance was significantly different from previous Sino-Russian alliances. It was a comprehensive alliance that touched on political, economic, security, diplomatic, and ideological interests, and it brought huge benefits to China. Although this alliance lasted longer than the previous ones, it was still unable to be carried out from start to finish. As the alliance reached its ten-year mark, cracks in the relationship began to appear. In the early 1960s, the relationship between the two countries publicly ruptured, and by the end of the 1960s, China and the Soviet Union had become enemies. The alliance existed in name only. In 1969, tension between China and the Soviet Union erupted into a military conflict in Zhenbao Island, Heilongjiang province, in the Tielieketi region, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The danger of a large-scale war hung over both countries. China and the Soviet Union each became the other’s most dangerous enemy, even more dangerous than the targets against whom the original alliance was supposed to defend. The alliance was completely meaningless, and the two countries entered a long-term period of mutual isolation. In 1980, when the term of the alliance was reached, it was not extended.

From the above-illustrated examples, we could see, though different in times and certain context, the three alliances shared some similarities in terms of their destiny. All three were short-lived, with the longest only lasting about ten years and the shortest ending almost as soon as it began. All three alliances began with many hopes and ended on bad terms before they had run out. The cause of the disintegration of these alliances was not because the outside threats had disappeared, but due to issues in bilateral relations. All three brought bilateral relations to a higher point for a short time, after which they fell to an even lower level than before the alliance had been formed.

Advantages and Disadvantages of an Alliance

Under the condition that the Chinese government insists on the policy of non-alliance, the proposition for an alliance is marginal in the Chinese academic circle. Nevertheless, it still has some influence.

According to the views of alliance theory, the alliance between China and Russia is in both countries’ interests. Neither China nor Russia could join the western camp. The United States could not accept either as an ally, which blocked the way for China and Russia to enter the international coalition dominated by the U.S. At the same time, with the deterioration of Sino-U.S. and Russia-U.S. relations, both China and Russia are facing more and more serious strategic pressure and security threats. In this context, the demand for an alliance has become more and more important for China and Russia. They need to form an alliance with countries of similar strategic interests, especially powerful ones, to ease international pressure.

They believe that the China-Russia alliance will not substantially change the nature of great power relations, nor aggravate the structural contradictions between their relations with the United States, nor is it likely to create confrontation between China and Russia and the United States.

They argue that the alliance is not a new Cold War, but behaviour in line with the trend. It has no necessary connection with the Cold War mentality.

Since China’s military strength does not exceed that of Russia, the Sino-Russian alliance will not be an alliance of unequal partners, and neither side will be suppressed. However, objectively, the comprehensive power balance will be tilted towards China.

The Sino-Russian alliance will be an alliance of allies, not of friends. It will be based on common interests, not affection. Therefore, “trust” is not a problem, as long as the common interests exist, the alliance can continue.

Finally, the advocates of alliance believe that China should give up its non-alignment policy because it is not a consistent policy of China all the time, nor is it a policy adopted by most countries in the world.

The above mentioned undoubtedly points to the favourable conditions and positive effects of the alliance. However, the question is that the rationality and possibility of the alliance have not been fully proved. More importantly, there is a lack of investigation on the possible negative effects and side effects that the alliance may produce. It is difficult to make a comprehensive assessment of a policy by highlighting only its potential positive effects and ignoring the negative ones.

The alliance between China and Russia can lift the theoretical level of bilateral relations. Still, it is unlikely to significantly improve its actual level and will not promote bilateral cooperation in various fields. A strategic partnership is already a high position, which has no restrictions on the cooperation between the two countries. If the potential for such collaboration between the two countries has not yet been fully realized, then the alliance is not the key to unlock this path. Therefore, the alliance will have little impact on China-Russia cooperation in practical areas.

In the past years, China and Russia give each other support to the extent that possible by their domestic policies in their conflicts with the other major powers, such as in the Diaoyu islands dispute between China and Japan, China and the United States military confrontation in the South China Sea and Taiwan strait crisis, the Russia-Georgia war, Crimea issues. The alliance will not make the two countries take a completely different policy on similar issues. That is to say, the alliance will not help significantly change both countries’ positions in similar situations.

Alliance and strategic partner are quite different statuses and have very different psychological expectations and requirements for them. Being allies, the two countries will see each other with different visions and demands and set a higher standard for their relations. It is simplistic to think that the alliance will just function in the security sphere and will have no impact on the other bilateral relations areas. Although the alliance is mainly a strategic security concept, it will also create new political, diplomatic, economic, and other requirements for China-Russia relations.

As the standards and expectations rise, it is easier for disappointments and dissatisfaction to appear in the bilateral cooperation, and their gradual accumulation will eventually erode the relationship. Therefore, the alliance is a double-edged sword which, on the one hand, is a way to deepen the bilateral relations. Still, on the other, it could also be a way to hurt the bilateral relations in the pessimistic scenario. What result it will produce depends on the specific situation and conditions.

The alliance between China and Russia will profoundly impact international politics and great power relations. It would be rash to assume that it will not substantially change world politics. The pros and cons of such an effect, however, can be debated. The alliance between China and Russia will undoubtedly stimulate the formation of two camps and promote international politics’ development towards two systems. Simultaneously, both China and Russia are big countries, which is very different from the alliance between a big country and a small country. It will definitely affect the two countries’ foreign policies, even their development strategy and direction, as well as their relations with other big countries. While improving the two countries’ strategic capabilities, it will also put certain restrictions on their space of strategic manoeuvre, which is undesirable for them.

Alliance may create benefits, but not without costs and risks, and it may bring adverse side effects.

For China and Russia, the alliance is mortgaging trust and the long-term future of the relationship between them. According to alliance theory, there are two major worries about alliance: one is the fear of being abandoned by allies when in a crisis situation; the other is the fear of being dragged down by allies to undesired war. The China-Russia alliance would also face these tests. An alliance is a military bloc, which requires the two countries to form a united front in military security and support each other in case one side is attacked. It is safe to say that neither China nor Russia is ready for this. It is rash to bet on the assumption that the other side will not fight a war, or that a small war will not require the support of the other side. This not only means not being prepared to perform the alliance treaty when need to but also risks default of the Treaty. In fact, one side in a war, no matter big or small, will demand the support of the other side. Without such political preparation, the foundation of the Sino-Russian alliance will be unreliable and fragile, and it will inevitably end sadly, destroying the mutual trust between China and Russia that accumulated in decades. To rebuild it won’t be easy.

The Flexible Strategic Partnership Model is Still Preferred

In order to enter into an alliance, the decisive factor is whether China and Russia will change their current policy and shift bilateral relations to suit the alliance. The transition from non-alignment policy to alignment is easy to do in theory, but in practice is much more complicated. Such change requires careful consideration of various factors and a careful weighing of the pros and cons.

So far, there is no sign that China is preparing to ally with Russia. From Russia’s side, although President Putin has softened his position on this issue in theory, it is not enough to prove that it has become Russia’s policy, and it is not clear whether Russia wants to align itself with China. In the Russian academic circles, those who advocate an alliance with China are not mainstream. Many people worry that an alliance with China would make Russia a “junior partner” of China, and fear that Russia could be drawn into a possible confrontation between China and the United States. They prefer a policy of “sitting on top of the mountain to watch the tigers fight”.

Taking all these factors into consideration, strategic partnership is still the optimal form for China and Russia. Although the level of the strategic partnership is not as high as an alliance, it is more in line with the logic of development of China-Russia relations, closer to its current level and state, and more suitable for the domestic political ecology of the two countries. It is readily accepted and supported by the elites and public of different views inside the two countries. It is more inclusive and can accommodate problems and contradictions in bilateral relations to a greater extent so that it is less likely to be politicized or emotional. Therefore, the strategic partnership model has more robust survival flexibility than alliance and can be applied to different domestic and international environments to be maintained over a long period. In contrast, it is not easy for China and Russia to maintain alliance for a long time.

Simply put, Sino-Russian relations have a very complex past, and trust is both a precious and valuable asset. Only by ensuring the continuous accumulation of mutual trust and not interrupting this process again can we ensure the long-term stability of China-Russia relations. The strategic partnership model is the best fit for this goal.

Although the strategic partnership has several advantages, the question now is whether or not such a partnership may become relevant due to deteriorating Sino-U.S. and Russia-U.S. relations. In the case of a worsening security situation, should China and Russia seek an alliance?

For Russia and especially for China, an alliance would mean breaking the long-held principle of non-alignment. In the abstract sense, non-alignment is of value meaning.

But in real international politics, it has both the value meaning and the tool attributes. One of the purposes of non-alignment policy is not to engage in confrontation. However, an alliance is not always about confrontation, and self-defence may also be the goal. That is to say, alignment or non-alignment is not a priori right or wrong, just or unjust, but depends on particular situations and purposes. Since international relations are far from their ideal state, its instrumental nature in international politics is inevitable, so it is a policy option for countries, rather than a fixed dogma. Therefore, theoretically, the principle of non-alignment is not an insurmountable obstacle.

Although China and Russia have the opportunity to form an alliance, from the perspective of the possible effects, that may not be the most favourable option for China-Russian relations.

The most essential function of an alliance for China and Russia is, first of all, to ensure the support of the other side in the event of war, and second of all, to neutralize the security threats presented by the United States. In the former case, it is hard to imagine either side will join the other side fighting war with third countries, though the odds of war between great powers are not high. The latter is the normal function of the alliances. However, with the alliance being formed, this function of checks and balance has reached its limits.

The United States is worried about the possibility of an alliance between China and Russia.Now, since such a partnership has come to light, the worry has become a reality and thus disappeared.

In this regard, drawing the bow without shooting is an even more powerful and effective way to counterbalance the security threats. That is to say, not entering into an alliance but keeping the door to one. This format possesses great expansionary possibilities and allows China and Russia to have broader freedom of strategic manoeuvre. The strategic partnership model could have this kind of effects. The China-Russian strategic partnership includes security and military cooperation, and now it only needs to strengthen it. The main difference between it and the alliance is that there is no compulsive obligation of military support for the other side in case of war. Still, there are no restrictions on not providing such support.

China and Russia had a practice of military support without a formal alliance. In July of 1937, the War of Resistance against Japan officially broke out in China. In the second year, China and the Soviet Union signed the Sino-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and the Sino-Soviet Commercial Pact. Following this, the Soviet Union supplied China with a loan worth 250 million U.S. dollars to purchase weapons from the Soviet Union. As a result, China bought large amounts of tanks, planes, artillery, firearms, and other materials from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union even dispatched a Soviet volunteer Air Force group to aid China. Over 1000 Soviet pilots came as volunteers to fight against the Japanese on Chinese soil directly. Military aid to China from the Soviet Union continued until April 1941 when the Soviet Union and Japan signed a neutrality pact.

It is equally important that, while creating needed strategic security functions, the strategic partnership model can avoid a series of adverse effects that may result from an alliance, and it does not have to cross the political principle of non-alignment.

An alliance is a possible option, but the last resort. The possible condition for the Sino-Russian alliance is that the United States pose a serious direct security threat to China and Russia at the same time, and military confrontation may occur, making security the overriding strategic need for both China and Russia.

In the context of current China-Russia-U.S. relations, once China and Russia align, it means that the United States is an open enemy. Although the threat of the United States can be alleviated through an alliance, the fact that a great power becomes an enemy itself constitutes huge strategic pressure. This is just like the case of the triangle of China — U.S. — USSR during the Cold War. The triangle reduced the security threat from the Soviet Union to China. Still, it did not solve China’s security problems, because it did not eliminate the threat itself, but merely increased its ability to deal with it. This threat was indeed removed only after normal relations between China and the Soviet Union were restored. The same was true of the Soviet Union. The strategic confrontation between China and the Soviet Union ended only when the two countries regained friendship.

From this point of view, for China and Russia, a normal relationship with the United States is the ultimate way to eliminate the strategic pressure and threat. Undoubtedly, both China and Russia wish cooperative relations with the United States. It’s in their interests. But it depends on the intentions of the U.S. as well. Without mutual positive interaction, it’s impossible to foster cooperative relations. Now the ball is on the side of the U.S. Surely the U.S. thinks it is the other way.

The conclusion is simple. China and Russia should maintain a strategic partnership, take full use of the possibilities it contains, and leave the door to alliance open. The two countries should not set limits on their strategic choices. Under the condition that international situation continues to deteriorate, China and Russia’s strategic and military security threats are likely to increase. At a certain critical point, the alliance may become a practical need for China and Russia.

From our partner RIAC

Zhao Huasheng
Zhao Huasheng
Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, Expert of the China Forum