Symbolism over Substance: Sochi Showcases China-Russia Pragmatic Partnership

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 5


President Xi Jinping’s February 6–8 trip to the 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi again shows how China uses symbolism to promote its pragmatic partnership with Russia. PRC rhetoric and actions suggest that Beijing considers relations with Russia important enough to warrant pursuing a variant of the “New Type of Great Power Relations” approach with Moscow, marked by comprehensive engagement and high-level attention. Although their substantive cooperation is in most cases far below what their rhetoric would lead one to believe, as is seen at present by Beijing’s standoffish approach toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (see “With Allies Likes These, Who Needs Rivals?,” in this issue), Beijing’s goals regarding Moscow are largely negative—seeking to keep relations with Russia from becoming as adversarial as those with most of China’s other neighbors. With a quiet northern front that extends to Central Asia, Chinese policy-makers can concentrate on expanding China’s influence towards the west, east and south.

For the most part, Chinese leaders appear satisfied with their current Russian ties, which have remained non-confrontational and pragmatic. In calling for a “New Type of Great Power Relations” with the United States, Xi might aspire to the same type of relationship with Washington, in which the United States would adopt a more neutral stand regarding China’s territorial conflicts with its neighbors, and in which the public rhetoric would move away from mutual criticism towards a discourse marked by more mutual respect and understanding. But the United States is not contemporary Russia. U.S. policy-makers will invariably contest Chinese territorial assertiveness in Asia and challenge Beijing to elevate its human rights policies towards Western standards.

Much Symbolism

The Sochi summit, like previous high-level China-Russia gatherings, was marked by anodyne comments about bilateral ties being their “best ever.” The PRC Ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, told the Chinese media that Xi’s visit demonstrates the “high level and uniqueness” of Sino-Russian ties, manifested by a good working relationship and friendship between their leaders, and by close cooperation between their countries regarding important issues (Xinhua, January 25). In an interview with Russian television, Xi said he was “very satisfied” with their bilateral ties, which he stated had achieved “the most solid foundation, the highest level of mutual trust and the greatest regional and global influence ever” (Xinhua, February 9).

Chinese and Russian diplomacy has been skilled at using symbolic gestures to highlight the value of this connection. Only eight days after becoming president last March, Xi went to Moscow, where he called Putin “a good friend,” and was the first foreign leader to the Kremlin greeted by an honorary cavalry escort that Putin had created a decade earlier (Reuters, March 22, 2013). Since that March 2013 visit, the two leaders have met in person half a dozen times and exchanged more than a dozen letters (China Daily, February 8). Xi and Putin have already scheduled five high-level meetings for this year (RIA Novosti, February 7).

Xi’s trip to Sochi represented the first time that a Chinese head of state had attended a major international sporting event outside China (People’s Daily Online, February 10). Terming their countries “good neighbors, good partners and good friends,” Xi said that hosting the Games was yet another sign that “Russia is on its way to prosperity under the leadership of Putin” (Xinhua, February 7), As the Chinese media noted, Xi’s high-profile participation and meeting with Putin helped negate the de facto U.S. and European political leadership boycott of the Olympics over human rights and security concerns (China Daily, February 8). Xi called his Sochi trip a “good start” for Russia-China relations in 2014 (Global Times, February 9). The Chinese media ran interviews with Russian scholars praising Xi’s knowledge of Russia’s culture and history (Xinhua, February 4). Russian leaders also regularly stress their knowledge and admiration of Chinese culture and history in their interviews with the Chinese media (Xinhua, October 22, 2013).

In addition to advancing their mutual interests, Chinese writers state that “a more robust and productive China-Russia partnership… meets both the economic and the political needs of the world” by promoting global economic development, strengthening the United Nations and offering other nations “an alternative path aside from the Western way” at a time when global diversity is an unavoidable imperative (Xinhua, October 22, 2013). In his New Year’s message to Putin this January, Xi said that “a strong, high-level China-Russia relationship is a blessing for both peoples and also the peoples of the whole world” (Xinhua, February 6) At Sochi, Xi told Putin that, “China and Russia should from this day forward continue deepening our consultations and cooperation on major international issues and together maintain world and regional peace, security and stability” (Associated Press, February 7). Highlighting their claims to be making major contributions to maintaining international security and averting Western military intervention in Syria, Putin and Xi at Sochi jointly spoke by videoconference with the captains of their two warships that are supporting the international mission to remove chemical weapons from that country (Xinhua, February 7).

The Chinese media cite the Sino-Russia partnership as a model for relations between great powers—the kind PRC leaders say they want to achieve with the United States. “With each being the other’s most important strategic partner, the China-Russia relationship has grown into a paragon of major-country relations on today’s world stage,” a Xinhua commentary opined last October. “It is distinguished for high mutual trust, fruitful bilateral cooperation, and deep sentimental attachment between the two nations” (Xinhua, October 22, 2013). Ambassador Li said that, “China-Russia relations have become a model of harmonious coexistence and win-win cooperation between neighboring countries, major powers as well as emerging economies” Xinhua, January 25). According to Xing Guangcheng, an expert on Russia with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “China and Russia set a new model of relations between major powers after the end of the Cold War and found a way of treating each other with respect and cultivating sustainable cooperation” (Xinhua, February 2). Arguing that Xi’s going to Sochi “manifests the importance of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination,” You Sui, a professor at the China Center for Contemporary World Studies, explicitly argued that, “based on the principle and spirit for constructing the new type of big-power relationship between China and the U.S., President Xi Jinping would do the same thing if the Winter Olympics were held in the United States” (China-U.S. Focus, February 17).

That the Chinese believe that Russia, like the United States, also warrants a “new type great power relations” marked by high-level personal diplomacy by Chinese leaders is unsurprising given the strong mutual interests both countries share, and the disaster that could befall Beijing should it alienate what is its arguably least hostile neighbor. Following Vladimir Putin’s early observation about Russia’s expecting to benefit from China’s rise, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last year that his government had no “concerns about this trend” since Russians “believe that it is always better not to try to restrain the growth of someone’s influence, but to find common ground. In that respect, we have complete mutual understanding with China” (

Less Substance

One must be careful to distinguish between style and substance in analyzing the China-Russia relationship. It is probably true that the relationship is now “the best ever.” The current lack of conflict between the two countries is historically atypical; in the past, China and Russia have engaged in major wars; numerous border clashes; and ideological and racial confrontations. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Moscow, but it was only after the Cold War that the two countries restructured their previously hostile relationship. During the past two decades, China-Russia relations have seen numerous high-level political exchanges, lengthy joint declarations, and meetings at international gatherings; foreign policy coordination in the UN and elsewhere regarding various regional issues; and comprehensive, if not always deep, economic and security cooperation ( But when one looks below the surface, and places the China-Russia relationship in comparative context, it appears that bilateral substantive cooperation is not great in many areas and that, in many cases, Beijing and Moscow have more important partners elsewhere.

For example, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently asserted that, “China-Russian relations stand at an unprecedented height driven by trade and energy cooperation” (Xinhua, October 22, 2013). China has been Russia’s leading trade partner since 2008. Under Hu, two-way commerce had reached $88 billion by 2012; but last year, the figure was only one percent higher, reflecting the figures’ close association with volatile world energy prices (Associated Press, February 7). Both governments have reaffirmed the goal of bilateral trade reaching $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion by 2020, but China’s bilateral commerce with the United States, Europe, and even Japan is already much higher (Xinhua, October 22, 2013). Chinese investment in Russia, which currently amounts to little over $5 billion (Xinhua, October 22, 2013), is laughably small compared with the volume of PRC capital flowing to Western counties. Russian investment in China is even less.

The unbalanced terms of trade between the two countries remains an area of mutual concern. At present, their economic exchanges mostly involves China’s buying oil, gas and other natural resources from Russia, while selling consumer goods and other high-value products—a source of resentment in Russia, whose economic managers want to increase the share of machinery and high-technology exports to China. To counter Russian anxieties about becoming a raw materials appendage to China, Xu and other Chinese officials join their Russian colleagues in calling for increased high-tech investment and trade (RT, March 24, 2013). In practice, China continues to obtain most of its advanced technology from Western and other Asian countries.

A new focus of Chinese reassurance has been Xi’s concept of a “Silk Road economic belt,” which he highlighted during his triumphal September 2013 trip through Central Asia. PRC writers insist that the concept is not directed against Russia or other countries. Feng Yujun, director of the Institute of Russian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, recently argued in a Global Times editorial that “the concept is not a geopolitical strategy, but more a grand economic vision that promotes the development of China’s western areas and further opens Eurasian inland or even European markets.” Feng further insists that, “The Silk Road economic belt is not like regional organizations like the EU or Russia’s Customs Union… it can find common ground with these projects and seek a win-win way of cooperation” (Global Times, February 17). At Sochi, Xi again welcomed Russian participation “in the construction of the Silk Road economic belt and a maritime silk road, so as to make them new platforms for the development of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” (Xinhua, February 7). Russian policy has instead focused on developing a Customs Union and, more recently, an expanded Eurasian Union as a means of ensuring that the former Soviet republics remain close economic and security partners of Moscow.

The modest cultural and social ties between ordinary Chinese and Russians has remained a source of concern to both governments. They have made a concerted effort to strengthen mutual ties. In addition to various student scholarships and state-sponsored foreign language programs, they have been promoting annual reciprocal theme years to showcase each other‘s achievements. The reciprocal China-Russia National Years of 2006–2007 were followed by the China-Russia Years of Language 2009–2010 and of Tourism in 2011–2012. This and next year will see each country host a Youth Year of Friendship Exchanges (Xinhua, February 2). Some 1.3 million Russian tourists visit China each year, while almost one million Chinese nationals enter Russia annually ( Chinese writers note parallels between Xi’s “China Dream” and Putin’s own vision for Russia’s future socioeconomic development (People’s Daily Online, February 10). Nonetheless, their cultural ties, like their economic relations, remain heavily oriented towards other partners. Most Chinese and Russians still see Europe and the United States as their preferred locations for foreign study and business.


Despite their sometimes lofty rhetoric, Chinese leaders hold modest expectations regarding the substantive benefits of cooperation with Moscow. PRC energy managers want to obtain more Russian oil and gas but strive to limit their dependence on any single external energy source. PRC leaders remain wary about how Russia’s attempts exploit its oil and gas exports for political leverage, as in the case of Ukraine and other European countries, and of Moscow’s effort to leverage Japanese, South Korean and other Asian customers in price negotiations with China. PRC policy makers would like Russia’s support in managing their territorial disputes with other Asian countries, but Moscow has carefully balanced sustaining good ties with China with parallel outreach efforts regarding Japan, India, Vietnam and other Asian countries. Though Putin agreed at Sochi to hold joint commemorative activities with China on the 70th anniversary of their joint victory over Japan in 1945, he again declined to comment on the China-Japanese maritime dispute (Xinhua, February 7). Japanese leader Shinzo Abe also attended the Sochi Games, and the Russia-Japan relationship is on the rebound (Stephen Blank, Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 24)—something that would concern China more if its leaders actually saw Moscow as a close regional security partner, which is not presently the case.

The author would like to thank the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago for supporting this research as well as Hudson interns Wang Su, Man Ching Lam, Song Guangyi, Ryan Chou and Jon Mitchell for assisting with research for this article.