The data shows that China-Russia relations have shifted from focusing on bilateral political and economic relations to adopting a global perspective with obvious geopolitical ramifications. An increasing bilateral focus on the US, on opposition to things like unilateralism and internal interference, and on geopolitical frontiers, leads to two crucial insights.
On the one hand, the China-Russia relationship can be seen as defensive. Both regimes crave stability and strive to dominate their regions politically. They see regional actions of the US and its allies as security threats – and the democracy and human-rights agendas of the West as attempts to discredit them, impinge on their sovereignty and weaken their regimes.
In Chinese discourse, the China-Russia relationship is often described as a “back-to-back” strategic collaboration, denoting that both countries have each other’s backs. This is meant to free them from the necessity of military deployments on their shared 4,000-kilometer border – and allow them to jointly oppose the international order upheld by the US and the West.
At the same time, the China-Russia relationship can be seen as an offensive one. Both countries have started countering the West and wish to shape the future global order on their terms. They have increased cooperation in frontier areas where governance is yet to be cemented (cyberspace, outer space, the Arctic), and they are promoting their own versions of human rights and democracy – Russia talks about “sovereign democracy,” China about “whole-process people’s democracy.” Both are joining forces more and more to amplify their messages, engage in disinformation and counter Western-controlled narratives.
These changes have all come under Xi’s leadership, suggesting that the central aim of his Russia policy has been to join forces, oppose the US and its allies, and shape the global order according to Sino-Russian narratives, concepts and interests. It demonstrates how much the China-Russia relationship is shaped by personal dynamics. Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin are both authoritarian strongmen, who have tightened their grip on power over time. The fall of the Soviet Union has had a formative effect on both of them. Putin has called it the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and Xi sees it as a cautionary tale.
In 1972 Henry Kissinger, US President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, was crucial in bringing the US and China together. In past years, there have been debates in Germany and the US about pursuing a “reverse Kissinger” to get Russia on their side against China. There are now hopes for a “Kissinger somersault” to win over China again to put pressure on Russia, especially as it is now waging war on Ukraine. Both are very unlikely scenarios, as our textual data analysis shows: China and Russia have come together under Xi, and their relationship looks set to continue being defined by their opposition to the US and the West.