Russia and China. Allies or Competitors?

The Future of Sino-Russian Relations from a Neorealist Perspective

Term Paper, 2014
20 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction
1.1 Neorealist theory: a brief introduction

2. Main section
2.1 Russia: power resources in the international system
2.2 China: power resources in the international system
2.3 Polarity of the international system

3. Conclusion

List of figures


1. Introduction

Russia and China share a long common history since official relations started in 1683 with the Treaty of Nertschinsk[1], which marks the first bilateral agreement between China and a western state. Since that time, Russia has been a colonial power, a communist sister country, a revisionist and eventually a reliable partner for China. Sino-Russian relations underwent many breakings and challenges, making both countries’ common history one of the most changeful one could imagine. Nowadays their relation seems to be at an all-time high. Notwithstanding the Ukrainian crisis, Russia and China signed several important cooperation and investment agreements in May[2] and in October[3] 2014, including a giant gas deal for which both countries drove a ten years hard bargain and a cross-currency swap[4]. This crushed western hopes for a growing gap between “bear and dragon” in face of Crimea annexation and caused observers to talk of a Sino-Russian “honeymoon”[5]. However, under the surface their relation is not without any problems. First of all there is a problem of the base: the lack of a common strategy. Beyond opposing the US and the opaque overall idea of a “multipolar world”, both countries do not share a clear vision of a future international system. Moreover, there is a growing dissent in Central Asia[6] as well as growing Chinese nationalism in combination with the unresolved “Siberian question”[7] leading to worries in Russia. Above all, increasing economic asymmetries[8] in China’s favour nurture Russian fears of becoming a “junior partner”[9] or a “resource appendix”[10] to China.

Thus, the future of Sino-Russian relations remains a controversial subject: Is it a natural partnership or just lack of alternatives? Will they be allies or competitors? To answer these questions I will use the method of comparative foreign policy analysis[11], proceeding from a neorealist perspective. Therefore, after a short introduction into the neorealist framework, I will contrast China’s with Russia’s position in the international system to provide future prospects on their behaviour with regard to foreign affairs.

The advantages of the neorealist approach in this case are obvious: It is a simple, clear and comprehensive framework but still relatively rich in content, thus suitable for a rather short term paper. Moreover, it centres states[12] and draws the picture of a work-sharing and centralized domestic political process[13]. This matches China and Russia whose political systems, particularly the domain of foreign policy, are dominated by a strong executive. Eventually, it is a reasonable approach in respect of the central question of this paper, as it gives indications on general paradigms and long-term trends of states foreign policy[14].

1.1 Neorealist theory: a brief introduction

Founder and best-known exponent of neorealist theory is Kenneth N. Waltz, who stated its basic principles in his main work “Theory of International Politics” in 1979. First steps on the way to a neorealist theory were already made in Waltz’ dissertation in 1959[15], where he identified three main explanatory approaches for the reasons of war[16]:

1. Human nature
2. Internal order of states
3. Structure of the international system

The first two of these so-called “images”[17] are disqualified by Waltz[18], which leaves the structure of the international system as the pivotal variable for the explanation of war and peace between states. Hence, the first thing Waltz is concerned with in “Theory of International Politics” is the question how the international system is structured. In analogy with microeconomic theory[19], he draws the picture of an anarchical international system characterized by competition of rational[20] actors (“units”).

Major actors in the international system are states[21], which are competitors for power resources in a zero-sum game. Due to the anarchical structure of the international system and the unequal distribution of power resources (“capabilities”), the only way for the states to guarantee their security is self-help[22], means the accumulation of power in relation to other actors (“relative gains”). In order to achieve this, states can either choose the external (forming alliances, conquest) or the internal (rigging, develop economy, strategy) way[23] to gain relative power.

However, anarchical in the sense of the absence of a super-ordinate authority does not mean that there are no regularities. A central principle of neorealist theory by Waltz is the formation of a “balance of power”[24], as states always try to balance against or in some cases bandwagon with dominant states in order to offset others’ power advantages and guarantee their own security[25]. The systems polarity and thereby the behaviour of its units can change according to the number of dominating powers (“poles”). Thus, one can see that not the internal order of states, but their constellation is essential.

Summing up, it can be said that the relative power position and therefore the foreign policy behaviour of states is deducible from the polarity of the international system[26] and the distribution of “capabilities” between its units[27]. In the following, both will be analyzed with regard to China and Russia. An emphasis will be put on not only giving a state of affairs but also depicting future tendencies.

2. Main section

At the outset it has to be said that, although ”power” is a central analytical category in neorealist theory, Waltz does neither give a concept of capabilities, nor how they can be measured. However, at least he names seven different capabilities: “size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence”[28]. Due to reasons of practicality, I will analyze size of population, resource endowment, economic capability and military strength. Firstly, most neorealists see military and economical capabilities (I also count population and resources as such) as core capabilities[29]. Secondly, political stability and competence are hardly measureable, while the size of territory is irrelevant in this case, as both Russia as well as China are countries of continental dimensions and face similar challenges or advantages here. Therefore, political stability, competence and size of territory will not be analyzed. As “power” is a relative concept, one must also take a state’s major competitors as a reference group into account[30].

2.1 Russia: power resources in the international system

Natural resources

Thinking of Russia’s power means first of all thinking of its natural resources. Russia’s vast territory covers many resource-rich regions, such as western Siberia, the Caucasus/Caspian Sea region or Volga-Ural[31]. The Russian Federation possesses 16.8 percent of the world’s natural gas-, 5 percent of the world’s crude oil- and 17.6 percent of the world’s coal reserves[32]. Besides this fabulous wealth in energy resources, there are less well known but equally important natural resources which Russia is endowed with, for example fresh water (20 percent)[33], forests (22 percent)[34] and mineral resources[35]. The Russian Federation is the world’s largest producer of natural gas[36] and the second largest producer of crude oil[37]. Furthermore, Russia belongs to the world’s top ten producers of each of the following resources[38]: coal, iron ore, copper, uranium, gold, diamonds and timber. All natural resources are state property. Temporary licences are given for the exploitation, on which the Russian state holds considerable, though not overwhelming, influence through state owned or parastatal companies[39].


Seeing population as a kind of resource, things look less bright. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation had to face a serious demographic decline from 148.6 million in 1993 to 143.7 million in 2014[40] and it is prospected to shrink further if not decisive measures are taken[41]. The Russian leadership acknowledged the problem, in his state of the nation address 2006 President Putin warned: “The most urgent problem facing Russia is the demographic crisis”[42]. Although fertility rate could be raised by 30 percent from 2006-2012[43], it is still too low for reproduction[44] and a high mortality rate is exacerbating the problem[45]. Therefore, Russia today has only the ninth-largest population of the world[46], although its territory is by far the largest. Additionally, ethnic minorities have far larger rates of growth[47] than ethnic Russians, which can lead to a shift of majorities and thereby to conflicts. Above all, there is the problem of Russia’s sparsely populated Siberian Provinces, covering three quarter of the Russian territory but accommodating only one quarter of its population[48]. The most obvious disparity exists at the Russian-Chinese border: while in the whole Far Eastern Federal district of Russia has only 6.7 million inhabitants, about 110 million people live in the adjacent Chinese provinces[49].


Although the global financial crisis in 2009 hit Russia hard, its economy has altogether posted robust growth since the beginning of the last decade. Within fifteen years, Russian economy grew with a yearly average of 5.5 percent[50], more than decupling the GDP[51] from 196 billion in 1999 to 2.1 trillion in 2014[52]. The Russian Federation is now the 8th-strongest economy[53] world-wide, with a gross national dept of only 13 percent[54] and foreign exchange reserves of 454 billion US-dollars[55]. However, the growth model of the past years, literally “fuelled” by prices in energy and raw materials as well as private consumption, is reaching its limits: Russian economy depends too much on the export of hydrocarbons and features an overweighting public sector[56] which inhibits competition and decelerates innovation. The German foreign office states: “there is a considerable need for modernization in all sections of Russian economy”[57]. Besides the reform backlog, the Russian economy is suffering from an enormous exodus of capital, mainly because of legal uncertainty: approximately 100 billion USD will flow out of the country in 2014 alone[58], seriously harming the economy. Moreover, the Ukrainian crisis is exacerbating the problems: due to the western sanctions, the IMF lowered the prospected growth rate in 2014 from 1.3 to 0.2 percent and down to 0.5 instead of 2 percent 2015[59]. Confrontation with the west worsens the problem of capital flight, as investors are alienated, and reduces FDI[60] which is strongly needed to modernize the economy. In summary it can be said that Russian economy is fairly stable at the moment, but future prospects are rather gloomy. Although Russian leadership realized that reforms are urgently needed, its resolute implementation is questionable as there is powerful opposition in the bureaucracy[61] and the liberal reform section in the Kremlin has been enfeebled due to recent events. Additionally, time is running out: with Duma elections in 2016 and presidential elections 2018, painful reforms become more and more improbable, some experts fear stagnation for decades[62].


Russia’s military capability increased significantly since an extensive and ambitious reform has been launched in 2008, a consequence of experiences from the Georgian war[63]. Main aim of this first serious reform attempt since 1991 is to restructure and professionalize the armed forces until 2020, enable them to conduct highly technical “sixth-generation wars”[64]. Additionally, a big weapons procurement programme with a volume of 730 billion US-dollars has been launched to equip 70 percent of the military units with modern arms[65] until 2020. Altogether, the Russian Federation will command forces of 1 million soldiers, the fifth-largest world-wide[66], plus 700-thousand reservists[67] by then. These forces are kept up with the third-largest military budget world-wide, currently 87.8 billion US-dollars[68]. However, this spending still pales in comparison to China and the USA, as we will see later on. Additionally, Russia possesses a considerable nuclear deterrent: 4.850 combat-ready warheads, both strategic and tactical, as well as 8.150 as a reserve[69] even outnumbers the arsenal of the USA. Though, bare numbers say nothing about the state of the arsenal and indeed a large share of it needs to be overhauled. Therefore, since 2011 increased efforts have been undertaken to modernize the weaponry[70] and so far Russia is even more advanced than the USA in some sectors, such as sea-launched missiles[71]. To sum up, one can say that Russian military power should not be underestimated, its military clout is of a dimension only few nations can compete with.

2.2 China: power resources in the international system


While Russia is emblematic for natural resources, thinking of China’s power means first of all thinking of its people: China today is the most populous country and home to almost one fifth of the world’s population, 18.8 percent[72] or 1.367,52 billion[73] people. Still, before attesting China the maximum capability here, one should recognize that significant change is taking place: Due to one-child policy, Chinese society is one of fastest ageing world-wide[74] and total population will shrink to 1.295 billion in 2050[75]. Until then, India will have overtaken China as the most populous country[76]. Besides, China is a multiethnic state: 55 minority groups with ca. 123 million or 9.4 percent[77] of the total population live in “autonomous districts”[78] which cover 64 percent[79] of the states territory. On account of the demographic change of the Han population, their share will increase[80], which may exacerbate social tensions and separatist tendencies. The central government in Beijing already has to face serious separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet.


Anyway, the rapid economic development will soon, if not already, make the link of China’s power with the sheer mass of its people an out-dated stereotype. Nowadays, its power resources lie elsewhere: China as “export champion” and “manufactory of the world” supplies the entire globe with its products. During the last twelve years, China’s export volume decupled to 2 trillion US-dollars[81], which makes a trade surplus of 260 billion US-dollars[82] after subtracting the imports. The exports drove the stunning growth of the Chinese economy over the past 30 years, providing average annual growth rates of 9.8 percent[83] and thereby becoming the world’s second-largest economy[84] with foreign exchange reserves of 3.8 trillion US-dollars[85]. The global financial crisis of 2008 notwithstanding, China unabatedly continues its way to the top and is forecasted to surpass the USA in nominal GDP by 2025[86], while it is already the world’s largest economy in purchasing-power parity based GDP[87]. Although the economy cooled down recently, it is expected to prosper for at least another 20 years, with annual growth rates of 7-8 percent[88]. This will be urgently required, as China is still a developing country in many respects, for instance its GDP per capita is still not even half of Russia’s and only one seventh of the USA’s[89]. Moreover, there is a widening gap between rich and poor people as well as between coast provinces and vast inland territories[90], which, together with grave environmental problems[91], set up enormous future challenges for Chinese government. Nevertheless, China’s economic achievements are indisputable and so far unchallenged, within just 30 years it arose from an underdog to the budding power of the 21st century.

Natural resources

China is one of the world’s biggest extractors of natural resources as well as a leading producer of raffinates[92]. This is due to the country’s rich endowment with especially coal[93] and rare earths[94], but it also possesses significant reserves of other metallic ores, oil and gas[95]. However, this endowment of natural resources is dwarfed by the immense consumption of China’s rapid growing industry: today it is the world’s biggest consumer of coal, tin, zinc, nickel, plumb, copper and the second largest consumer of oil[96]. Hence, Chinese economy becomes more and more dependent on imports: within 20 years there was a twentyfold increase on imports of raw materials, reaching about 200 billion dollars in 2008[97]. Among these are not only energy resources or raw materials, but also agricultural products[98]. This growing dependency as a weak point has been noticed by Chinese leadership as well. Therefore, reliable supply with natural resources has become a major concern to Chinese foreign policy, notably shown by a growing commitment in Africa and South America[99].


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as China’s military forces are called, underwent a remarkable transformation after Deng Xiaoping’s reform programme was launched in 1978. Observers state not less than a “revolution in doctrine and operations”[100] as well as “substantial progress toward waging wars under ‘informationized’ conditions”[101]. This has been achieved by a significant increase of the military budget by double-digit growth rates in the last 20 years, up to 188 billion in 2013, the second largest in the world[102]. Thereby, China strives for matching the “requirements of exercising global military influence”[103]. It already commands the world’s largest armed forces, 2.3 million soldiers[104]. But besides sheer mass, it also built up considerable capabilities in the high-technology sector, exemplified by the successful testing of a new hypersonic ballistic anti-ship missile “DF-21”, able to destroy a whole aircraft carrier by one hit[105]. This caused a serious shock in the US-Navy, some even called it a “Game Changer”[106], not simply a weapon, but a revolution changing the rules of the (military) game. Furthermore, China is investing in technologies for cyber and space warfare, stealth aircraft, super-silent submarines and aircraft carriers[107]. In addition, the nuclear arsenal, though not big[108], has been modernized[109]. Nevertheless, China will not be an equal military opponent to the USA in near future, especially at global level. Currently, it is a rapid rising regional power but with the undoubted will and potential to become a leading global power.


[1] Cp. Fenster 2001: 366

[2] Cp. Mercator Institute for China Studies 2014a: 1-2

[3] Cp. Mercator Institute for China Studies 2014d: 4

[4] Cp. Ibid.

[5] Instituto Espanol de Estudios Estratégicos 62/2014: 1, cp. Sturm 2014

[6] Cp. Godehardt 2008: 1

[7] Cp. Trenin 2012: 20

[8] Cp. Mercator Institute for China Studies 2014c: 1

[9] Burakov 2014

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cp. Brummer/Oppermann 2014

[12] Cp. Waltz 1979: 93

[13] Cp. Waltz 1979: 88

[14] Cp. Brummer/Oppermann 2014: 22

[15] Waltz 1959: Man, the State and War

[16] Cp. Waltz 1959

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cp. Waltz 1959: 29, cp. Masala 2014: 42

[19] Cp. Waltz 1979: 89

[20] Actors will choose the alternative which optimizes their benefit, cp. Brummer/Oppermann 2014: 18

[21] Cp. Waltz 1979: 93

[22] Cp. Waltz 1979: 72, 91

[23] Cp. Masala 2014: 76

[24] Waltz 1979: 102

[25] Cp. Waltz 1979: 118, 126

[26] If it is either uni-, bi or multipolar, Cp. Waltz 1979: 97-99

[27] Cp. Waltz 1979: 96, 105

[28] Waltz 1979: 131

[29] Cp.

[30] I will come to this in section 2.3

[31] Cp. Baumann 2008: 24-25, Götz 2006: 3

[32] Cp. Auswärtiges Amt, Russische Föderation: Wirtschaft

[33] By lake Baikal alone cp. Jennings 2013

[34] Cp. Convention on Biological Diversity

[35] 7-8 percent of iron ore, 12-20 percent of nickel and cobalt over 10 percent of wolfram, 6 percent of phosphorus concentrate, 12 percent of potassium salts cp. Kotov 2002

[36] Cp. Auswärtiges Amt, Russische Föderation: Wirtschaft

[37] Cp. Ibid.

[38] Cp. Baumann 2008: 24

[39] Cp. Götz: 4

[40] Cp. Russian Federation State Statistics Service: Population

[41] Pessimistic: 100 mil., optimistic (with measures): 150 mil. In 2050, Cp. Koshkin 2013

[42] Heinemann 2011

[43] Cp. Koshkin 2013

[44] Fertility rate 2014: 1,59 (2,1 needed for reproduction), cp. Statista 2014a, Statistiken zu Russland

[45] Cp. Koshkin 2013

[46] Cp. Statista 2014b, Die 20 Länder mit der größten Bevölkerung im Jahr 2013

[47] Cp. Stadelbauer 2010

[48] Cp. Baumann 2008: 10

[49] Cp. Mansourov 2008: 92

[50] Cp. Mangott et. al. 2005: 23, Statista 2014c

[51] Gross Domestic Product

[52] Cp. Mangott et. al. 2005: 23, Statista 2014d

[53] Cp. Statista 2013

[54] Cp. Statista 2014e, cp. Germany 2012: 77.6 percent cp. Statista 2012

[55] The fifth-largest world-wide cp. Statista 2014f

[56] Cp. RIA Novosti 2013

[57] Auswärtiges Amt, Russische Föderation: Wirtschaft (own translation)

[58] Cp. Neuerer 2014, and approximately 800 billion since 1991 cp. Russland-Aktuell 2012

[59] Cp. Neuerer 2014

[60] Foreign Direct Investment

[61] Cp. Bidder 2014

[62] Cp. ibid.

[63] Cp. Grätz 2014

[64] Ibid.

[65] Currently 19 percent cp. Grätz 2014

[66] Cp. Statista 2014g

[67] Cp. Klein/Pester 2013

[68] Cp. Statista 2014h, nearly tripled since 2000 cp. Statista 2014i

[69] Cp. NRDC Nuclear Notebook 2001-2010

[70] Cp. FAZ.NET 2009

[71] Cp. RIA Novosti 2012

[72] Cp. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2012

[73] Cp. Statista 2014j

[74] Cp. Engdahl 2013, the mean age of Chinese population will increase from 30 years in 2000 to 43.8 years in 2050 and the share of 60+ years old people will increase from 10 percent to 30 percent, migration movement not included, cp. UN World Population Prospects 2002

[75] Cp. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2012

[76] Cp. Statista 2014k

[77] Cp. Baumann 2008: 86-87

[78] A real autonomy does not exist, moreover the Han population by now represents a majority in most of these regions, cp. Baumann 2008: 86-87

[79] Cp. Baumann 2008: 86

[80] Ethnic minorities are excluded from one-child policy and allowed to have 2 children, cp. Baumann 2008: 88

[81] Cp. Auswärtiges Amt 2014

[82] Cp. Ibid.

[83] Cp. Lin 2013, Adolf 2011: 174

[84] Nominal GDP, cp. Statista 2013

[85] Cp. Statista 2014l

[86] Cp. Frost & Sullivan 2012

[87] Cp. Mercator Institute for China Studies 2014b: 1

[88] Cp. Lin 2013, Adolf 2011: 174

[89] Cp. Statista 2014m, Statista 2014n

[90] Cp. Baumann 2008: 112-115

[91] Ibid.: 116-117

[92] Cp. Eurasisches Magazin 2014

[93] China possesses the world’s second largest coal reserves cp. Schernikau 2013

[94] China possesses 23 percent of the world’s rare earth reserves cp. Gong/Zhu 2014: 163

[95] Cp. CRI online, Bodenschatzressourcen

[96] Fähnders 2011

[97] Cp. Baumann 2008: 108

[98] 20 percent of raw material imports are agricultural products, eg. 40 percent of global soy bean exports go to China cp. Baumann 2008: 108

[99] Cp. Ibid.: 108-109, Adolf 2011: 440-441

[100] Fisher 2011

[101] Ibid.

[102] Cp. Statista 2014h

[103] Fisher 2011

[104] Cp. Statista 2014g

[105] Cp. Vestring 2012

[106] Ibid.

[107] Krauel 2014

[108] China possesses 400 nuclear warheads, both tactical and strategic cp. NRDC Nuclear Notebook 2001-2010

[109] Especially strategic rockets cp. Fjodorow 2012

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Russia and China. Allies or Competitors?
The Future of Sino-Russian Relations from a Neorealist Perspective
Martin Luther University  (Institut für Politikwissenschaften und Japanologie)
International Relations: Russian Foreign Policy
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Russia, China, Russian Foreign Policy, Chinese Foreign Policy, Sino-Russian Relations, Neorealism, Chinese-Russian Relations
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Maximilian Mai (Author), 2014, Russia and China. Allies or Competitors?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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