Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

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

| Mar. 23, 2023

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

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.”

About This Analysis & Opinions

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World.” Foreign Policy, March 23, 2023.