Delving Deeper into Putin’s “Turn to the East”: Sino-Russian Asymmetry Reinterpreted and Up for Debate


A review article by Ka Ho Wong at the end of 2023 interpreted and challenged the arguments in the book, Putin’s “Turn to the East” in the Xi Jinping Era, a volume drawn largely from articles in The Asan Forum.The Wong article goes further, offering a different interpretation of the nature of asymmetry between China and Russia. In this combined article, the editorial staff summarizes and responds to Wang’s analysis. This is followed by Ka Ho Wong’s response. Through this brief debate, we endeavor to promote exchange with those with a different view of Sino-Russian ties.

The Wong review article, “Russia’s Turn to East and ‘Asymmetrical’ Sino-Russian Relations: History and Facts,”1 extensively explains that in comparison to prior research on “what” is the “Turn” and “why” it has occurred, the Asan book assesses “how” Russia’s “pivot” has been put into practice and whether it aligns with the stated objectives. He refers to three parts of the book co-edited by Rozman and Christofferson: a conceptual and theoretical foundation, six empirical case studies, and exploration of the connections between the pivot and the Ukraine conflict.2 He is correct in stressing “how,” although that actually is critical to grasping “what” the pivot was at various points in time. The book is, in fact, not much concerned with theory apart from refuting realist theory in favor of different explanations of “why” centered on national identities. Most of the first part focuses instead on differentiating Russian mainstream praise from commentaries on problems. Wong says the book is an “objective and critical assessment of the implementation of this flagship Russian policy over the past decade, within the context of China’s rise,” and that it draws extensively from Russian publications. Wong’s summary, chapter-by-chapter, accurately conveys a substantial number of the key arguments.

Wong finds the “Turn” to have exacerbated five problems: the sluggish development of the Russian Far East, an unfavorable division of labor with China in Central Asia, an absence of accord with Beijing on Eurasian integration, an asymmetrical Sino-Russian relationship, and the lack of leverage in the grand strategic triangle. Also, he observes, it found in the stage from 2020 that Moscow abandoned its quest for Asian multipolarity and joined the Chinese camp against the United States amid the emergence of a new Cold War. Throughout all four stages of Russia’s “Turn to the East, it argues that Russian initiatives were largely reactive to Chinese, he adds. Many of the shortcomings in Russian policy were not new findings in the book, but rather arguments of the “intellectual debate within Russia about its Asia policy…well documented, through the regular updates in ‘Country Report: Russia’… critics cautioned against the cost to the modernization of Russia, expressed disappointment over cooperation with China among other Asian partners, warned of Sinocentric infrastructure projects, and were concerned about the implications of the new bipolarity for Russia’s quest for autonomy. Despite acknowledging the relevance of these Russian publications, he [Rozman] points out the critics refrained from crossing three red lines, including criticizing Putin’s foreign policy decisions, suggesting improving Russian-American relations, and challenging the close ties with China.”

Although the book points to many Sino-Russian differences over regional policy, Wong finds that its coverage of power asymmetries does not lead to a finding that the outcome necessarily would be a Sino-Russian split or Russia perceiving China as a threat. Rather, “bad memories from the Sino-Soviet conflict are replaced by a shared antagonism toward the United States, while the worldview of Putin and Xi is complementary and reinforces each other. Taking these factors into consideration, the authors perceive the realist suggestion to drive a wedge between Russia and China as futile.” This holds especially because “Beijing remains preoccupied with issues such as reunification with Taiwan…[and] relies on Moscow to enhance its military capabilities and energy security.” Wong agrees that driving a wedge has little chance of success.

Wong also finds a national identity explanation for Russia’s Korea policy, rooted in thinking about Moscow’s historical bond with Pyongyang and Seoul’s alliance with Washington. Yet, he eschews talk of identities when he comments on coverage of Russia’s Japan policy as affected by “frustration about Japan’s limited sovereignty and foreign policy independence due to American influence.” His summary of Japan’s reassessment of its relations with Russia likewise underplays identity issues and Russian offensive words and behavior by attributing it to three developments, “the departure of Shinzo Abe, the realization that a Sino-Russian split was unlikely, and the restoration of trust with the Biden administration.” Noting Russian disinterest in Abe’s meager, eight-point economic offer, Wong blames Kishida for backtracking on the “two-plus alpha” formula for a territorial deal, as if Putin had not so unnerved Japan with his own backtracking that Japan had little choice. Wong’s summary also veers to one-sidedness in coverage of the Mongolian chapter, as if a positive Russian image accounts for an unexpectedly close relationship rather than fear of China, not just counterbalancing its rise. Summaries of the loss of ties to India and ASEAN center on failure to play an independent role due to priority to China without doing justice to alarm over China’s behavior and perceived Russian complicity.

While capturing many of the book’s arguments, Wong is wary of delving into the essence of its critique of Russian policy extremes (as toward Japan and North Korea), the way China impacts how Russia is perceived (as in Mongolia, India, and ASEAN), and the implications of criticisms in Russia toward how the “Turn to the East” has evolved. Such limitations should not take away from the merits of conveying so much of a book that must arouse controversy in some circles.

Wong casts doubt on the final chapter’s suggestion that “the Russian intervention in Ukraine [should be seen] as a sign of Putin’s desperation to reset an overly asymmetrical relationship with China, which entails his drastic decision to shift to the West to alter the balance in the East… winning back respect from Beijing by a swift and glorious victory in Ukraine.” This strategy is seen in the Asan volume as backfiring, leading to a more serious power asymmetry with China. Wong discerns in the book the “bleak prospect of Russia’s more asymmetrical partnership with China, in which Moscow would be obliged to accept unfavorable terms for closer bilateral relations, such as economic or even territorial concessions.” This is the critical argument with which he takes exception as he sets forth an alternative view of asymmetries.

The review article’s summary concludes with a set of questions. What lessons can we learn from Russia’s historical turns towards Asia? Why is Russia’s turn to the East centered on China and not Japan? What is the true nature of an asymmetrical Sino-Russian partnership? Is there an alternative explanation for the connection between Sino-Russian relations and the Ukraine conflict. Wong proposes answers to each of these queries, suggesting either that the book has not covered them adequately or has missed a line of analysis critical to Sino-Russian relations.

What lessons can we learn from Russia’s historical turns towards Asia?

Looking back to previously well-documented attempts by Russia to turn to Asia, Wong suggests that new light can be thrown on the ongoing “Turn.” He points to three cases: construction of the Trans-Siberian railway by the Russian Empire with its impact in the 1890s-1900s, the spread of socialism in the early Soviet period of the 1920s-30s, and Gorbachev’s “new thinking” in the late 1980s followed by the Primakov doctrine of the late 1990s. There is value in comparing the various pivots eastward, but does a retrospective approach change any arguments in this book?

Wong identifies three historical generalizations. First, pivots to Asia have consistently been responses to geopolitical crises, particularly misadventures in Europe or strained ties with the United States, including defeat in the Crimean War, failed socialist uprisings in Europe, and the reelection of Reagan, who denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” That only begs the question what geopolitical crisis existed in the 2010s or even in Reagan’s second term, when the US welcomed Gorbachev’s reforms and “new thinking.” Second, Russian elites kept overstating the economic benefits, as ambitions in the region were not supported by Russia’s weak economic base, and the focus on the defense sector worked against trade with Asian countries. That argument misses the very real problem of not making the economic reforms necessary to realize the main benefits. Third, Russia persistently justified its past turns by adopting a Eurasian vision and emphasizing the Asianness of the country when it was perceived as a Eurocentric power. A contrary view is that Russia has never stressed its Asianness except for stray remarks without real substance and follow-through. While Wong claims that his three historical generalizations provide valuable insights into Russia’s current “Turn to the East,” this is not explained. What are those insights? The first “Turn to the East” ended with a disastrous war against Japan and the expulsion of Asians from the Russian Far East, but the lessons from these moves are missing. The second “Turn” was all about exporting revolution, which came to be acknowledged as a failure in 1927. No criticism is indicated about making Mongolia a “quasi-protectorate” or Stalin approving Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea, neglecting to draw negative lessons from such expansionism. A different set of lessons would seem to be in order.

In Wong’s third turn eastward, no praise is given to “new thinking” for tearing down the “iron curtain” through opening to South Korea, whose offer of $3 billion in loans and trade is seen as leading to diplomatic normalization at the price of alienating North Korea. Was that alienation bad, given the North’s hostile thinking to the world? As for Japan, the attempted breakthrough is depicted as resulting in humiliating demands for territory. Given the record of 1945 and 1956, why should Russians have felt humiliated. They could have refused without demonizing Tokyo.

Soon, the Westernizers were discredited, Wong notes without explaining what lessons are warranted from the failures to protect Russia’s vital interests in the world and alienating old partners. The corrective to these failures is seen as the Primakov doctrine, balancing foreign policy between East and West, laying a foundation for Putin’s vision, stressing the Russia-China-India triangle. Russia had neglected its great power status, not building a great power coalition to balance the United States. It is unclear why that should be the lesson from the third turn. This shifts all the blame to the outside world, ignoring the eagerness in Seoul, Tokyo, and even Washington for Russia to reform its economy and not try to exert more military pressure in Northeast Asia. If the Asan book had drawn lessons from the past, they would have differed.

The lessons Wong draws from history, however unsystematic, fly in the face of analysis in the West, Japan, and South Korea. Foreign investments, as in Vladivostok, were stymied by a lack of reform and corruption. Goodwill was met by distrust. Japan’s historic case for recovery of islands, reinforced by the treaty Moscow signed in 1956, is ignored, as is its willingness to develop economic ties and provide assistance even without a breakthrough. Although the book on Putin’s “Turn to the East” does not look back to earlier turns, if it had, the lessons uncovered would be strikingly at odds with the ones apparently drawn here from the earlier experiences.

Why is Russia’s “Turn to the East” centered on China and not Japan?

Wong correctly summarizes the book as saying Russia has turned to China rather than “the East,” attributed to Putin’s misjudgment of Chinese intentions and the power asymmetry, which undermined the necessity of balancing the uneven Sino-Russian relations by diversifying ties in Asia. “Getting China wrong and prioritizing the country too much in its reorientation to Asia… Russia deeply restrained its relations with Japan and South Korea and loosened ties with India.” Disagreeing that this was a strategic misjudgment, Wong attributes it to strategic considerations and focuses on the capacity for leverage against the United States, explaining, “Russia’s engagement with Asia was less intended for economic integration due to its concern that other Asian countries would capitalize on Russian economic weaknesses. Instead, Moscow sought more great power leverage in the region to advance the agenda of a multipolar world, in which Russia could find its rightful place in the post-Cold War period.” Japan’s economic stagnation proved it was a lesser state, not a major power that could help Russia achieve its ends, as did its lack of interest in becoming a pole in a multipolar world rather than part of the West. It is viewed as an American satellite, not fully sovereign. Under the veneer of support for “multipolarity,” Moscow has revived its worldview of all-out antagonism to the US or dismissal of Japan as too close to its ally, thus necessitating closeness to those who most oppose the US, from China to North Korea to Iran. In fact, Japan was seeking some autonomy in regional affairs and would have taken a somewhat independent role with Russia, as after 2014, but that would not satisfy the Soviet legacy worldview of rallying states against the United States. Wong’s view of Japan epitomizes a mindset steeped in bipolarity hiding under the pretense of multipolarity.

In adding that Moscow successfully resolved territorial disputes with Beijing (making several concessions) and failed with Tokyo, Wong makes no mention of Abe’s flexible position from 2013 that would have likely led to basically accepting Moscow’s 1956 and 1992 positions and what Putin led Japan to believe was Russia’s position in 2001 and 2012. Indeed, Wong makes clear that Russia’s military elite was opposed to such a deal without noting why it accepted a deal with China under the influence of reviving a coalition antagonistic to the West. If Japanese rigidity mattered in some periods, Wong acknowledges a more telling factor: Tokyo’s failure to put strategic interests first, i.e., Russia’s obsession with building an anti-US coalition. He argues, “mutual distrust between Tokyo and Moscow persisted because both perceived compromising on the territorial dispute as an abandonment of national dignity within a zero-sum mentality.” This applies to Putin, not to Abe, who was serious about great power balancing versus China.

If misunderstanding Japan is pervasive, no less serious is misunderstanding the United States in Wong’s analysis. He writes that the “Tiananmen Square incident unleashed a new implicit ideological struggle” between the United States and China. True, US criticism of mass murder and human rights occurred, but for nearly a quarter century after 1989 US officials and experts were loathe to consider ideology a factor in relations. They were often hopeful about economic ties building trust and lowering strategic tensions. Wong is correct in looking behind Chinese rhetoric that ideology no longer matters to discern a rising ideological element in criticisms of the US. Other misunderstandings of US thinking and policies are implicit in the review article.

Even asking the question “why center on China, not Japan?” is misleading. A better question is “why leave Japan out entirely and rely exclusively on China?” This was not a zero-sum choice for Japan, and if it was for China, which insisted that Russia join its side, Wong should say so.

What is the true nature of an asymmetrical Sino-Russian partnership?

Why does the debate over asymmetry matter? Critics of it in China and Russia consider it aimed at driving a wedge between the two. Invocation of it is often linked to an argument that Russia is becoming increasingly dependent and losing leverage; therefore, it should hedge its bets. In the review article, this viewpoint is mentioned with awareness that the “Turn to the East” book rejects the conclusion that asymmetry has potential, in current circumstances, for driving Putin to distance Russia from China, given the national identity forces behind his foreign policy. Those who minimize asymmetry also are often under the influence of a political agenda. They largely divide into two camps: (1) US comprehensive power and threatening intentions are so serious that the gap between China and Russia pales before their gaps with the leading power; and (2) asymmetry needs to be calculated differently, sharply diminishing the Sino-Russian gap. Wong takes the second tack, presenting some elements of his new framework to analyze asymmetry.

Wong calls Russia’s ties to China asymmetrical but still independent, rejecting the book’s warning that Moscow may have little leverage. What constitutes an independent power? Its foreign policy must be meaningfully different from its closest great power partner. It should be at liberty to criticize that power in some circumstances. Finally, it must seek to maneuver for more influence separate from its closest partner. By those standards, I would argue that Japan is no less independent of the United States than Russia is of China. Japan pursued a distinct policy toward Russia in 2013 to 2020 at odds with US policy. Russia in 2013 to 2016 may have shown signs of doing the same, but that was scarcely in evidence later. Japanese criticize the US approach to the Global South, albeit often implicitly. Russians do not even criticize China’s India policy when it sharply contradicts Russian interests, as in 2020. Finally, Japanese long aspired to a distinct policy toward Southeast Asia and take satisfaction in Japan’s greater popularity there than the United States. Russian writings convey no suggestion of breaking from China there. If Trump were to be elected again, of course, the push for autonomy from the US would intensify.

US relative power has slipped substantially. Many countries have leverage to ignore US policy preferences. There is no more talk of unipolarity. China has emerged as a peer rival. Japan and South Korea maneuvered for triangular leverage on the US in the 2010s. Yet, it is hard to detect another pole apart from Russia’s efforts to behave as one. India is the next candidate, but its fear of China limited ties to Russia (apart from refusing to vote against it over the Ukraine invasion), and its still narrow foreign focus limit its potential as a pole for the time being.

Wong devotes much of his article to rebutting the idea of power asymmetry between Russia and China, dismissing economic asymmetry, concentrating on military and political influence. He says that Moscow and Beijing equally depend on each other for strategic purposes, as if wars are a normal part of international relations today, perhaps implying that China may soon go to war over Taiwan, raising its dependency on Russia. Finally, Wong claims that China has made no substantial policy concessions to China. As China ups the pressure on Japan in the East China Sea, on Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea, and on India on its border, Wong takes as proof of Russia’s independence that it is neutral, a claim doubted in much of the area.

Wong rejects the usual definitions of power asymmetry as oversimplified and too economic. He proposes a different framework, comprising the diversity of capability (in shaping the policy of others), unevenness of dependence, and imbalance of influence. Applying this framework, he finds that in 2021 “there existed a disparity of capability between Russia and China in the economic, financial, and technological dimensions.” However, he argues, “Russia held a clear lead overwhelmingly in overseas military deployment and combat experience compared to China. If the strength of armies is assessed based on the sum of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry fighting vehicles, then the Chinese advantage was not clear, as they had only 1.2 times more than the Russians. Similarly, the Chinese navy’s supremacy over the Russian was not apparent… Russia maintains an overwhelming dominance over China in the number of nuclear warhead inventories.” Also, “it performed better in reputation, governance, international relations, cultural heritage, media communication, values, pandemic response, and sports achievements.” Summing up his measurements, Wong declares that Russia’s asymmetrical dependence on China is almost nonexistent in all dimensions. In 2021, he also reported that trade dependency was not serious, since trade with the EU remained twice that with China. Acknowledging some asymmetry, Wong concludes that it was not so threatening as to leave Moscow no choice but to take the risk to launch a military campaign in Ukraine.

Putin’s “Turn to the East” did not base the argument that Russia launched its full-scale war primarily on a realist analysis of asymmetric power but mostly on a national identity argument about Putin’s aspirations to make Russia a Eurasian pole in a strategic triangle with China and the United States, which would be taken seriously, including by China, which was proceeding on regional and bilateral issues without regard to the interests Putin advocated. He saw the asymmetry widening, Chinese arrogance intensifying, Russia’s claims to influence eroding, and bipolarity accelerating. Seizing all of Ukraine held promise to reverse these trends.

Wong’s analysis of asymmetry adds an additional element. He argues, “The asymmetrical U.S.-China-Russia triangle, rather than unbalanced Sino-Russian relations, would be more sufficient in explaining the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict.” Disagreeing with the book’s argument that Moscow could not distance itself from Beijing to improve relations with Washington because of the long history of anti-Western thinking, Wong contends that “Putin kept expressing his openness to develop an equal partnership with the West, but Washington did not consider a weak and declining Russia as an equal.” He says that strategic triangle theory did not operate because the US underappreciated the Sino-Russian partnership, downplaying the significance of Russia. This deprived Moscow of the ability to maneuver in the Sino-US rivalry, as the weakest state China had been able to do in the US-Soviet rivalry a half century earlier, leading it to act in Ukraine to address the asymmetrical relationship with the other two. Preferring this outlook, Wong still favors the view that “Russia’s diversification in Asia and a consolidated Sino-Russian partnership made Moscow more confident about the military action as it secured some sort of economic lifeline from its Asian partners.”

What is meant by an “equal partnership?” It assumes that relations between the United States and its allies, in Europe or Asia, are unequal. Moreover, it harks back to the era of the Cold War, when relations were, for the most part, presumed to be equal between two superpowers. In that era, the Soviet Union demanded entitlement to a sphere of influence, which again is on the table. Given recognition of China as a great power warranting equality and claims that Russia’s ties to it are equal, demands for full equality are equivalent to insistence on a Grand Strategic Triangle, where Russia, despite its relative weakness, is one of three leading nations as well as civilizations. This is essentially what is meant by multipolarity, with India’s place left somewhat vague. No other supposed poles are raised to a similar pedestal. Equality in Europe is not just about reversing NATO expansion; it is granting Russia a sphere regardless of what states think. In light of its weakness in the West and turn toward the East, Russia labels itself a “Eurasian” great power, as if the US-led West, and China-led East leaves room for a Russia-led region too. 

Wong asserts that Russia operates a foreign policy independent of China, one mark of equality. Where is that the case? Two types of evidence for that are Russia’s “neutrality” on territorial claims by China opposed by India, Vietnam, Japan, etc., and China’s deference to Russian claims as in political leadership in Central Asia. Neutrality is questionable when Russia cooperates with China in preventing oil exploration in Vietnam’s EEZ, joins with China in military flyovers nearby Japan, and never criticizes aggressive Chinese moves where it claims sovereignty. Moreover, as China operates with more impunity in Central Asia, casting doubt on traditional Russian claims, deference is more common than pushback. Disavowing outreach to US allies and refusing to use India’s favorite term, the “Indo-Pacific region,” are not marks of an independent power.

The pretext that Russian foreign policy is independent of China and that relations are equal defies serious scrutiny. Whether maneuvering, de-risking, or voicing, standards for autonomy are nowhere being met. Despite claims of multipolarity in Asia, signs of Russian maneuvering to realize that goal have faded since the “Turn to the East” was launched. The Ukraine war leaves Russia much more vulnerable to Chinese economic pressure, something many states are eager to reduce. Finally, Russian narratives demonstrate deference to China not real independence.


The above presentation by the editorial staff of The Asan Forum offers an excellent opportunity to exchange views on Russia’s “Turn to the East” and Sino-Russian relations. Due to the word limitation, the focus of my response is on the nature and understanding of power asymmetry in the Sino-Russian partnership. The development of asymmetrical Sino-Russian relations with its theoretical implications is beyond the scope of this response, but it should undoubtedly be the subject of future research (including my dissertation).

As stated above, the debate over asymmetry indeed matters for empirical and policy analysis, since asymmetry could potentially lead to Russia’s hedge against China or drive a wedge between the two countries. More fundamentally, the asymmetry debate is of conceptual significance since it reflects the lack of a consistent definition and systematic assessment of asymmetrical international relations. In the literature, Sino-Russian asymmetry often refers to the imbalances of capabilities, dependencies, or influence between the two countries interchangeably and inconsistently. This is likely a result of power as a contested concept that lacks a universal definition. In response, I distinguish these power imbalances and characterize them as three (potential, emerging, and actual) stages of asymmetrical relations. Conceptually speaking, a state cannot obtain submission from another state without first creating asymmetrical dependence, while the establishment of asymmetrical dependencies presumes the existence of a disparity of capabilities between the two.

There is a common conceptual fallacy to minimize the Sino-Russian asymmetry that all international relations are asymmetrical because the capabilities of each state are rarely the same in reality.3 However, Brantly Womack makes an important conceptual clarification by finding asymmetry when “there is a clear and relatively stable disparity between the capabilities of the states.”4 He proposes that power asymmetry exists when the larger state surpasses the smaller by one-half in quantitative terms at least in the short term.

The summary above holds that I dismiss economic asymmetry and concentrate on military and political influence when challenging the notion of power asymmetry between Russia and China. Yet, what I would like to emphasize is that the conventional measurement of state power based on total GDP alone appears misleading. Michael Beckley argues that such a method exaggerates the capabilities of populous countries, including China, which might bear a larger burden for domestic security and welfare that takes away their resources to project power worldwide.5

Nevertheless, the alternative power formula he proposes to multiply total GDP by GDP per capita, which identifies a power transition in Sino-Russian relations after the 2008 global financial crisis, runs the risk of overstating their asymmetry, too. This is especially the case when asymmetry is also a perception, and Chinese author tend to emphasize the use of GDP per capita in estimating China’s economic capability, according to which China surpassed Russia for the first time in 2020.6 Consequently, in most of their writings on Sino-Russian relations published before the 2020s, they stated that the power gap of China with Russia has shrunk but not yet reversed.

Besides, I stress that power is a multidimensional concept and national power should be measured beyond economics to include military, soft, financial, and technological dimensions. Since the early 1990s, Chinese analysts have adopted the concept of comprehensive national power (CNP) and kept adding some new power resources, such as ecological power, informational power, and government capacity into their CNP assessments.7 They consistently ranked Russia higher than China until the mid-2010s, when they were more confident about their motherland being the first among other great powers in the “yichao duoqiang” (one superpower and several great powers) system. Likewise, a group of Russian authors from MGIMO University developed the Political Atlas project to provide a multidimensional quantitative assessment of country rankings based on five indices, including “stateness” (gosudarstvennost’), external and internal threats, the potential of international influence, quality of life, and the institutional basis of democracy.8 At the time of their writing in 2007, China achieved a higher ranking than Russia in “stateness” and the potential of international influence rather than the other three indices.9 (For non-Russians unfamiliar with “stateness,” it is a composite of factors, including foreign military presence, external debt dependence, and patent applications filed by non-residents.10)

Although a multidimensional assessment of power paints a more complex picture of the Sino-Russian asymmetry, determining the weights of different dimensions remains a methodological challenge (if not an impossibility). As a response, the robustness check approach proposed by Alexander Korolev is worth considering, which puts the primary focus on the military dimension and treats the economic and political dimensions as a robustness check.11 I would also add the financial and technological dimensions as an additional level to check for robustness given their growing relevance in the digital age. This is because asymmetry in the military dimension poses the greatest threat to the weaker state’s survival. The military asymmetry is likely accompanied by economic, political, financial, and technological asymmetries, but not the other way around.

Moving on to the issue of independence, I highlight that Russia “gives Beijing limited leverage to interfere with (itself)” instead of “rejecting the book’s warning that Moscow may have little leverage” as noted above. I decided to leave the second claim merely untouched because to prove that Russia is independent of China, it appears more crucial to assess Beijing’s leverage over Moscow than the opposite. There is also a possibility that both Russia and China have little leverage over the other since the two situations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The above challenges the idea of Russia’s independent ties to China and outlines three standards for constituting an independent power, including the existence of foreign-policy differences, the freedom of criticism, and the maneuver to have an influence distinct from its closest partner. Nonetheless, it seems that Russia’s relations with China can fulfill these standards as well.

Firstly, there is a sharp contrast between Russia’s defensive regionalism and China’s open regionalism, as evidenced by their different visions of Eurasian integration.12 Although Moscow and Beijing agreed to dock the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt, Russia has not formally joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a member state until now.

Secondly, China has faced no lack of implicit criticism from Russia in recent years, even though both sides show an unwillingness to publicly criticize the other for face-saving. A notable example occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic when there was a public exchange of hard words with the Chinese embassy. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin refuted the charge that the city’s preventive measures against Chinese citizens (such as raids on their residences and checks on them on public transport) were “excessive” and told the Chinese ambassador to show “understanding.”13

Finally, Russia’s launch of a special military operation in Ukraine seeks to maneuver for more influence separate from China, as argued in Putin’s “Turn to the East. It is reported that Putin did not inform Xi about his plans for Ukraine beforehand, and the Chinese leader expressed concerns about the situation afterwards.14 There is also a report that Moscow’s rapprochement with North Korea after the Russia-Ukraine conflict has distressed China, which finds its sphere of influence being encroached.15

The three standards might set the bar too high and exclude the reactive form of independence, but there is value in stimulating a conceptual debate about the status of an independent actor in international relations. My conceptualization of independent power is rooted in an understanding of power as resistance and autonomy. According to the feminist Amy Allen, power as resistance is “the ability of an individual actor to attain an end or series of ends that serve to challenge and/or subvert domination.”16 It involves the assertion of a state’s capacity to act in response to domination by another state. Similarly, Benjamin Cohen defines power as autonomy which means “not allowing others to influence you–others letting you have your way.”17 Thus, a powerful state can exercise policy independence and act freely without external constraint. The concept of independent power is grounded in both dispositional and episodic measures of independence. On the one hand, a state can accumulate independent power by pursuing self-sufficiency or diversification, factors boosting “stateness” in Russian. A state’s exercise of policy independence can be manifested by its resilience against influence attempts made by another state. Thus, the stronger state fails to achieve unilateral policy concessions from the weaker by coercion.

In summary, it is necessary to make a conceptual distinction between disparity, dependency, and submission in the debate over Sino-Russian asymmetry. It is beyond doubt that asymmetry between Russia and China is growing deeper and wider, but I would argue that they remain at the potential stage of asymmetrical relations, although a loss of ties with Europe now matters.


The review article recognizes the book on Putin’s “Turn to the East” to be a “high-quality scientific contribution of significant value to scholars interested in Russian foreign policy, Asian politics, and Sino-Russian relations. It calls the volume an “essential guidebook on one of the most important Russian foreign policies in the 21st century,” which “paves the way for further studies of Russia’s turn to the East following the ending of its conflict with Ukraine.” Wong also acknowledge that “given the power asymmetry between Moscow and Beijing, Putin’s strategy to prioritize a rising China in Asia is not without risk.” Along with the largely accurate comments on the contents of the book, this opens the door to candid exchanges of opinion that were all too rare in Soviet-US and recent Russo-US and Sino-US interactions. That makes this a review to be taken seriously with the prospect of further exploration of differences of opinion ahead. The Wong rebuttal above carries this exchange, focused on asymmetric relations, a step further.

1. Ka-ho Wong, “Russia’s Turn to East and ‘Asymmetrical’ Sino-Russian Relations: History and Facts,” The China Review, Vol. 23, No. 4 (November 2023), 287–314

2. Gilbert Rozman and Gaye Christofferson, eds., Russia’s ‘Turn to the East’ in the Xi Jinping Era (London: Routledge, 2024).

3. In the spring of 2023, one prominent Russian sinologist presented this idea to refute the idea of power asymmetry between Russia and China in a roundtable discussion held at the Centre for Comprehensive Chinese Studies and Regional Projects at MGIMO University.

4. Brantly Womack, Asymmetry and International Relationships (Cambridge University Press, 2016), p.7.

5. Michael Beckley, “The Power of Nations: Measuring What Matters,” International Security 43, no. 2 (2018): 7–44,

6. Qi Haixia, “Disputing Chinese Views on Power,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 10, no. 2 (2017): 211–39,

7. Chen Zhimin, “China’s Power from a Chinese Perspective (II): Back to the Center Stage,” in Jae Ho Chung, ed., Assessing China’s Power (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 279.

8. Andrei Melville, ed., Politicheskij atlas sovremennosti: opyt mnogomernogo statisticheskogo analiza politicheskikh sistem sovremennyk gosudarstv (Moscow: MGIMO, 2007), p. 16.

9. Based on the same methodology, I extend this assessment to the most recent years and find a similar result. There is a growing gap between Russia and China in the potential of international influence but Moscow has acquired a higher level of stateness after more than 15 years.

10. Andrei Melville, et al., “‘Politicheskij atlas sovremennogo mira 2.0’.”

11. Alexander Korolev, China-Russia Strategic Alignment in International Politics (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022), p. 23.

12. Marcin Kaczmarski, “Non-Western Visions of Regionalism: China’s New Silk Road and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union,” International Affairs 93, no. 6 (2017): 1357–76,

13. Ka-ho Wong and Lawrence Ka-ki Ho, “China’s Strategic Partnership with Russia amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The China Review 22, no. 2 (2022): 285–313,

14. James Kynge, Sun Yu, and Xinning Liu, “Xi Jinping’s Plan to Reset China’s Economy and Win Back Friends,” Financial Times, January 10, 2023,; Max Hunder, “Putin Acknowledges China’s Concerns over Ukraine in Sign of Friction,” Reuters, September 16, 2022, ]

15. Katsuji Nakazawa, “Analysis: China’s Rising Star Visits U.S. over Warming Putin-Kim Ties,” Nikkei Asia, February 1, 2024,

16. Amy Allen, The Power of Feminist Theory: Domination, Resistance, Solidarity (Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1999), p. 126.

17. Benjamin J. Cohen, “The Macrofoundations of Monetary Power,” in David M. Andrews ed., International Monetary Power (New York: Cornell University Press, 2006), p. 32.

Now Reading Delving Deeper into Putin’s “Turn to the East”: Sino-Russian Asymmetry Reinterpreted and Up for Debate