Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

By Graham Allison, a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School.

MARCH 23, 2023, 5:42 PM

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to visit Moscow this week in his first trip abroad since his reelection comes as no surprise to those who have been watching carefully. When one steps back and analyzes the relationship between China and Russia, the brute facts cannot be denied: Along every dimension—personal, economic, military, and diplomatic—the undeclared alliance that Xi has built with Russian President Vladimir Putin has become much more consequential than most of the United States’ official alliances today.

Many observers still find this alliance hard to believe. As former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis put it in 2018, Moscow and Beijing have a “natural nonconvergence of interests.” Geography, history, culture, and economics—all the factors that students of international relations focus on—give both nations many reasons to be adversaries.

On today’s map, large swaths of what was in earlier centuries Chinese territory are now within Russia’s borders. This includes Moscow’s key naval base in the Pacific, Vladivostok—which on Chinese military maps is still labeled by its Chinese name, Haishenwai. The 2,500-mile border between the two nations has repeatedly seen violent clashes, most recently in 1969. On the Russian side, the land east of the Ural Mountains is full of natural resources but has a population of just 32 million people, while on the Chinese side, hundreds of millions of people live with few natural resources.

On the broader canvas of history, Russia was a prime antagonist in China’s “century of humiliation,” joining forces with Western imperialist powers to put down the Boxer Rebellion and forcing China to sign eight “unequal treaties” during the second half of the 19th century. In recent decades, the status inversion resulting from Russia’s decline from its position as the second superpower in a bipolar world, combined with China’s meteoric rise, must cause a leader as status-conscious as Putin some consternation.

But while history deals the hands, human beings play the cards, and Xi has defied expectations to masterfully build a relationship with Putin that matters deeply to both. Putin was the first leader Xi visited after becoming China’s president in 2012. Since then, the two have held 40 one-on-one meetings, twice as often as either has met with any other world leader. Putin calls Xi his “best and bosom friend,” who, as Putin noted in 2018, is the only world leader with whom he has celebrated his birthday. When Xi awarded Putin China’s Friendship Medal in 2018, he called the Russian president his “best, most intimate friend.”

In recent years, Sino-Russian economic ties have grown. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China had displaced the United States and Germany to become Russia’s No. 1 trading partner and top buyer of Russian oil and gas. In the past year, China has provided an economic lifeline for Russia, buying everything the West won’t and helping Russia maintain access to financial markets amid sweeping Western sanctions. Chinese purchases of Russian energy last year were up 50 percent from 2021 levels while bilateral trade hit record highs. China was not only the world’s largest exporter to Russia in 2022, but it also accounted for the largest year-over-year increase in export volume to Russia of any country in the world. Last month, the yuan overtook the dollar as the most traded currency on the Moscow Exchange for the first time ever, representing almost 40 percent of total trading volume.

And despite Western sanctions intended to eliminate Russia’s access to critical technologies, Chinese exports of integrated circuits to Russia doubled in 2022. Indeed, in every area where China can support Russia without incurring major costs to itself—unlike lethal arms sales to Russia that violate U.S. sanctions, which CIA Director William Burns recently said China was “considering” but “reluctant to provide”—it has done so.

Furthermore, while many Americans discount Sino-Russian military cooperation, as a former Russian national security advisor has put it to me, China and Russia have the “functional equivalent of a military alliance.” China regularly participates in joint military exercises with Russia that dwarf those the United States conducts with its much more publicized “strategic partner,” India. It sent soldiers to Russia’s annual Vostok exercises in September and conducts joint air and naval exercises on a near-monthly basis. Russian and Chinese generals’ staffs now have candid, detailed discussions about the threat U.S. nuclear modernization and missile defenses pose to each of their strategic deterrents. While, for decades, Russia was careful to withhold its most advanced technologies in arms sales to China, it now sells the best it has, including S-400 air defenses. The two countries share intelligence and threat assessments as well as collaborate on rocket engine research and development. More recently, Beijing and Moscow have collaborated to compete with Washington in a new era of space competition. 

Their diplomatic coordination has also ramped up as Xi and Putin become increasingly convinced Washington is seeking to undermine their regimes. The two countries almost always vote together in the United Nations Security Council and reinforce each other’s political narratives. For instance, China has repeatedly refused to call Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a war, instead labeling it an “issue,” “situation,” or “crisis.” Its diplomats and propaganda megaphones echo even Russia’s most extreme claims about the war, blaming NATO for ignoring Russia’s “legitimate concerns” and suggesting the United States wants to “fight till the last Ukrainian.”

Neither leader has made a secret of his ambitions to end U.S. hegemony and create what Xi called on Monday a “new model of major-country relations.” Their success in forming new alignments of nations—including the so-called BRICS bloc and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose citizens make up two-thirds of the world’s population—demonstrates that their declarations are not merely aspirational. While U.S. talking points highlight the world’s condemnation of Putin’s invasion, Chinese and Russian diplomats note that many countries have not joined in, including the world’s largest country, the world’s largest democracy, Africa’s leading democracy, and most nations in the global south. 

An elementary proposition in international relations 101 states: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” By confronting both China and Russia simultaneously, the United States has helped create what former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski called an “alliance of the aggrieved.” This has allowed Xi to reverse Washington’s successful “trilateral diplomacy” of the 1970s that widened the gap between China and the United States’ primary enemy, the Soviet Union, in ways that contributed significantly to the U.S. victory in the Cold War. Today, China and Russia are, in Xi’s words, closer than allies.

Since Xi and Putin are not just the current presidents of their two nations but leaders whose tenures effectively have no expiration dates, the United States will have to understand that it is confronting the most consequential undeclared alliance in the world.

Graham Allison is a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was the founding dean. He is a former U.S. assistant defense secretary and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Twitter: @GrahamTAllison


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