Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands during a signing ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands during a signing ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023. VLADIMIR ASTAPKOVICH/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

A Slim Rhetorical Wedge Could Drive China and Russia Apart

U.S. officials must skip no opportunity to remind Moscow that it is Beijing's junior partner.

For anyone looking beyond the glowing words used by President Putin and President Xi to discuss their bilateral ties, it is apparent that a deep imbalance—strongly favoring Beijing—has developed between Russia and China. While the “junior partner” moniker is often used by journalists, analysts, and retired military leaders, it has yet to become the default expression for policymakers and administration officials when discussing Russia-China ties. The Kremlin’s notoriously thin skin leaves no doubt about its insecurity over how it is perceived internationally, especially when dynamics of strength and weakness are concerned. Historical rifts between Russia and China can fill more than one volume, and Russia’s junior status is too large for either party to overlook in the context of each state’s history. By repeatedly noting Moscow’s secondary status to Beijing, the U.S. and allies may reap important strategic benefits in the years ahead.

America’s rhetorical influence in this regard should not be underestimated. The U.S. has been successful in identifying and framing geopolitical dynamics in its favor before. In 2017, with the help of Japan, the “pivot to Asia” that began under the Obama administration took on a clearer shape with the rebranding of the Southeast-Asian region as the Indo-Pacific. By opting for a term that included more states partial to the liberal international order, the U.S. has been able to garner greater support for multilateral initiatives and regional alliances that are pushing back against Chinese growing assertiveness. Along with its allies, the U.S. can once again use its influence to reframe the Xi-Putin “no-limits partnership” to better reflect the actual dynamic between China and Russia: one consisting of an opportunistic superpower that seeks to take advantage of a declining state with very limited options.

For all the gracious words and promises of friendship during President Xi’s visit to Moscow, gone are the days of genuine bilateral engagements where each party viewed the other as an equal. Now, Beijing must weigh any agreement or support extended to Moscow against the reputational and sanctions risks that the West is willing to impose. Russia, conversely, must be willing to offer its natural resources to China at steep discounts in recognition of the limited markets available for its products. While bilateral relations remain mutually beneficial, they are no longer the constructive and comprehensive engagements that resolved border disputes and jointly financed large-scale development projects spanning both countries.

Further, whether Russia and China will remain close partners is an open question. In 1961, despite similar authoritarian models and ideological outlooks, the Sino-Soviet split occurred, providing the U.S. an opportunity to capitalize on bilateral tensions by establishing ties to Beijing and weakening the Soviet Union’s image abroad. At the time, among the many reasons for the decline in Sino-Russian relations were competing perceptions of who held the mantle of global Communist leader. Now, both Moscow and Beijing believe they are solely at the helm of the authoritarian anti-West coalition, with the other party playing the role of an important but lesser accomplice. The impact of a concerted effort to insistently allude to Russia’s subservient role would serve to exacerbate these underlying tensions.

If Western leaders commit to labeling Russia as nothing more than China’s junior partner, the Kremlin will undoubtedly remain defiant in public. In private, however, Russian leaders will likely worry about how the junior status fits with the country’s view of itself as a world power of the first order. Indeed, there are already commentaries in Russia’s closed media space that express suspicion of China’s self-interest and growing role in determining Russia’s future. It is now up to the West to capitalize on the Kremlin’s weakened position with its most important international partner.

Artur Kalandarov is a senior associate at The Cohen Group, a strategic business advisory firm based in Washington, DC, where he advises clients on business operations in Eastern Europe. He has previously been published in Newsweek, The National Interest, The Defense Post, Small Wars Journal, and several academic publications. The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.