The Symbiotic China-Russia Partnership: Cautious Riser and Desperate Challenger
That Russia, a declining power, has emerged as the most assertive challenger to the US-led global order, while China, the most dynamic rising power, has largely worked within the established order, is surprising. It contradicts the expectations of power transition theory, which sees rising powers as the most likely challengers. This article tries to tackle this puzzle by examining the two states’ relative positions in the international system. China can grow and prosper by free-riding on the hegemonic order established by the United States, and is thus cautious about challenging it. As a declining power, Russia is dissatisfied with the order and determined to change it to reverse its decline and maintain its great power status. For the time being, the two great powers’ interests align. China uses Russia to push back against the aspects of US hegemony it dislikes (thereby avoiding the costs of a direct challenge), while Russia needs China’s backing to mount its challenge. However, going forward, the same structural dynamics that now favour the relationship may work against it: should Russia’s challenge start to destabilize the system it may also jeopardize China’s peaceful rise, causing rifts between the two powers. New US president Donald Trump has promised to seek a tougher line towards China and a rapprochement with Russia. However, given its strong structural foundations these policies are unlikely to weaken the China–Russia partnership, and could even strengthen it.