Comrades to Calculated Partners: How different Strategic Cultures Endanger China Russia Relations?

It is frequently stated that in international politics, there are no permanent friends or foes, only permanent interests. This proverb is coming to life in the delicate relationship between China and Russia as the Russia-Ukraine conflict progresses. The notion of a unified front, with China and Russia standing shoulder to shoulder, may be dissolving faster than expected. While there is a shared ambition to confront the West, their strategic cultures, or deeply rooted views that govern foreign policy, are divergent presumably leading to future friction.

Ever since the foundation of their political systems, China and Russia have had very different experiences that shape their strategies. The Chinese approach to strategic thinking is deeply rooted in historical events and philosophical concepts.  Confucianism and Legalism have molded the Chinese strategic outlook, which combines moralist and realist elements. Confucianism, on the one side, teaches people the value of an ordered society and good leadership. Legalists and other strategists, including Sun Tzu, teach how to win without going to war. Liu has accurately pointed out that Chinese strategic culture is characterized by its long history and civilization that focuses on stable order and long-term planning. The notion of “Comprehensive National Power” (CNP) symbolizes China’s holistic approach to power, combining economic, military, and diplomatic capabilities in a long-term goal to reestablish its historical status of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ in global arena. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reflects this strategy, which aims to exert influence through the construction of new infrastructure and trade ties without having recourse to war.

On the other hand, the strategic culture of Russia has been bounded by the history invasions and the tradition of power demonstration of fleet and depth. Russia’s approach is based on a zero-sum view of international relations, with security achieved through dominance and control over its periphery. This has resulted in a combative approach, particularly toward the West, and a dependence on military force to protect its interests. ‘Near Abroad’ as envisaged in the Russian strategic plan is thus primarily defensive in nature focusing on maintaining Russian influence over the countries in its vicinity. It has at times called for a more assertive and often confrontational foreign policy as has been recently seen with Ukraine and Syria crises.

The intent of Sino-Russian collaboration is clear. Both are motivated by a deep antipathy of the liberal international system dominated by the US. They share an interest in changing the system to their advantage and reducing America’s supremacy. This alignment of interests has resulted in actual collaboration, such as increased commerce and investment. Nonetheless, it is also clear that the historical and structural components that shape China and Russia’s strategic cultures serve as a source of distrust. The historical perception of Russia can be linked to the fact that China still cherishes the implications of Russia’s “unequal treaties” imposed in the nineteenth century. Russia, on the other hand, sees itself as a junior partner to China, whose strength is fast expanding.

While China and Russia are tightly united in their efforts to undermine the United States’ worldwide influence, their strategic objectives diverge on most occasions. For example, China’s principal aim is to assert its dominance in Asia, particularly in relation to Taiwan and the South China Sea. Russia, for its part, is more concerned with maintaining its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and preventing future NATO expansion. This has been demonstrated by the conflict in Ukraine. Although China has publicly supported Russia, it has not fully supported Moscow’s actions, which may be attributed to a variety of factors, including China’s strategic interests and the need to maintain positive relations with the West.


Putin’s Russia has definitely been on the rise over the last decade, driven by a complex of anti-western feeling and a desire to reestablish Soviet Union superpower influence. This translates into aggressive steps – the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine – that prioritize national security over economic development. China, on the other hand, can combine the concepts of long-term planning with economic success and hegemony through deliberate diplomacy and investment. The Russia-Ukraine war has changed Europe’s geopolitical environment while also serving as a litmus test for the Sino-Russian alliance’s future dynamics. The savagery of the fight, as well as its geopolitical repercussions, have called China and Russia’s strategic relationship into question. As the battle progresses, various elements will influence whether this partnership strengthens or weakens.

The Chinese may love the fact that the West is uneasy with Russia, but unlike the USSR, China will not jeopardize its newly formed economic strength by being embroiled in a bombastic military expedition unlike the USSR’s misadventure in Afghanistan during 1979.  In that Ukraine war, China serves as a wake-up call. The era in which people could believe in the power of Russian military forces without questioning the outcomes is over. The battle revealed what many Western leaders did not want to believe: a slow, ill-prepared army and skepticism about Russia as an ally. China may even regard a shaky Russia as a potential security liability in the future, rather than an ally. This is considerably different from the Soviets’ early triumph in Afghanistan in December 1979, when China actually supported them.

The economic dimension of the Sino-Russian relationship is another important aspect influenced by the Ukraine conflict. Russia, which has been isolated by Western sanctions, is increasingly relying on China for economic support, offering a market for its energy exports as well as a supply of technology and goods. This reliance may strengthen the partnership, as Russia strives to offset its economic isolation by deepening ties with China. However, China’s global ambitions require solid economic relations with the West. The possibility of secondary penalties on Chinese enterprises doing business with Russia is a serious danger. China’s economic reliance on Western markets makes it hesitant to completely commit to a cooperation that could imperil its economic progress and technological advancements.

The Ukraine war has already caused changes in China’s economic strategy, such as looking into other trade routes and diversifying energy supplies. These changes reflect China’s strategic decision to reduce the dangers associated with over-reliance on Russia, implying a pragmatic approach to its partnership. Despite common strategic goals, the Ukraine conflict may increase existing difficulties in the Sino-Russian partnership. China’s hesitancy to extend unequivocal backing to Russia reveals a possible fault line. If the issue lingers on or worsens, Beijing may face further pressure to adopt a firmer stance, straining its balancing act.

Central Asia looms as another possible source of contention. Russia’s obsession with Ukraine may erode its influence in Central Asia, leaving a power vacuum that China may aim to fill with its Belt and Road Initiative. This shift could result in competition and mistrust between the two major powers in an area that both view as strategically significant.

This does not indicate a full split. Both still dislike American domination. But the blissful period is over. Their relationship is now one of convenience rather than comradeship. China may view Russia as a valuable tool to keep the West busy, as evidenced by their recent joint military exercises. However, any support will be carefully calibrated to avoid backlash, unlike the USSR’s persistent military and economic support for North Vietnam throughout the Vietnam War. Russia, weaker and isolated, has few options but to accept this new dynamic.

A few crucial things determine the future direction. The war’s result is crucial. A defeated Russia strengthens China’s position greatly. It is also important to consider the Western attitude. A more cooperative posture toward China may further isolate Russia. In contrast, sustained pressure may force them back together, resulting in a hazardous alliance born of desperation.
The China-Russia relationship is one of changing sands. A weakened, unpredictable Russia combined with a calculating China results in a multipolar world fraught with potential confrontation. Understanding these changing strategic cultures is no longer optional; it is required for navigating the intricacies of the current geopolitical environment.


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