Strategic partnership in great power relations

A partnership can be defined as an engagement where parties, known as partners, agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests.


The partners in a partnership may be governments, interest-based organizations or combinations. Organizations may partner to increase the likelihood of each achieving their mission and to amplify their reach.

Partnership is an important form of engagement in a today’s world. Many governments have devised a number of “special relationships” in the framing of their foreign policy, with neighbouring and distant countries, as well as with some multilateral organizations. The proliferation of partnerships over the last two decades exposes both the relevance of this trend and the great heterogeneity of these relationships.

The definition of the key features of a partnership can be formulated in many ways but Chinese leaders have expressed rather clear views on this issue. In 2004, during his first European trip as Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao defined the Sino-EU comprehensive strategic partnership as follows:

 By “comprehensive”, it means that the cooperation should be all-dimensional, wide-ranging and multi-layered. It covers economic, scientific, technological, political and cultural fields, contains both bilateral and multilateral levels and is conducted by both governments and non-governmental groups.

 By “strategic”, it means that the cooperation should be long-term and stable, bearing on the larger picture of China-EU relations. It transcends the differences in ideology and social system and is not subjected to the impacts of individual events that occur from time to time.

 By “partnership”, it means that the cooperation should be equal-footed, mutually beneficial and win-win. The two sides should base themselves on mutual respect and mutual trust, endeavour to expand converging interests and seek common ground on the major issues while shelving differences on the minor ones.

The practice of strategic partnerships has been manifested in diverse spectrum with manifold definitions. Strategic partnerships are typically publicly announced by the president or the premier and are established by well-prepared joint statements during top leaders’ state visits. The joint declarations establishing these partnerships vary in form and content. Usually they mention trade, investment and economic cooperation, sometimes various specific political or military issues.

Building a strategic partnership is not a one-off deal. Most such accords are built upon existing “friendly relationships”, “cooperative relationships”, or “partnerships”. It is also commonplace to upgrade the strategic partnership to a comprehensive one a few years after its launch.  

 China’s partnership policy since 2000

China has established strategic partnerships with 47 countries and three international organizations, mostly since the early 2000s. The strategic partnership boom is a product of China’s embrace of globalization and multidimensional diplomacy, reflecting China’s adaptation to the world and its efforts to shape a favorable world order according to China’s interests.

The concept of “partnership” emerged within Chinese diplomacy after the end of the Cold War. China established its first strategic partnership with Brazil in 1993. Since then, building strategic partnerships has become one of the most notable dimensions of Chinese diplomacy.

Initially, strategic partnerships were used by Beijing to regulate relations with great powers.

In the 1990s, China had envisaged only three strategic partnerships: with Brazil, with Russia and with the US. Beijing’s real attention was focused on Russia and the US. China wished to maintain stable and amicable relations with the global powers as the new world order was taking shape.

China’s US-relation has been changing powerfully up and down in last 30 years but the relationship with Russia has developed in special way. China has institutionalized its relations with many important players in the world. New bilateral mechanisms have been designed to strengthen mutual trust and to achieve the purposes of the strategic partnerships, in particular regional stability and economic development.

In 1997, China and the US issued a joint statement (President Jiang Zemin and President Bill Clinton) in which both leaders vowed to boost cooperation and build a constructive strategic partnership. However, when George W. Bush took office in 2001, Sino-US relations took a step back. In 2001, presidents Jiang and Bush expressed only the intention to build a ‘constructive relationship of cooperation’. The word ‘strategic’ has not been included in official documents ever since. In 2013, Chinese and the US leaders agreed to build a “New Type of Major-Power Relationship” to guide the Sino-US relationship but analysts are not unanimous on the development of relations in recent years.

Since 2017 under Trump Presidency, the relationship has been deteriorating considerably. In autumn 2019, one can hardly call the relations as a strategic partnership any more. On the contrary, an open hostility and fierce competition are characterizing the present Sino-American relationship.

China-Russia diplomatic relationship

Since the establishment of China-Russia diplomatic relations in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two countries have officially established a series of partnerships. The “threat-interest” model can be used to examine how the divergence and convergence of perceptions of external threats and economic interests shape the ups and downs in China–Russia relations.

In order to streamline the conditions of partnership evolution, the Sino-Russian relations can be divided into six consecutive phases in the period of 1990 – 2019:

  • the transition period 1990-1993, the 1994 simple partnership,
  • the 1996 the security partnership,
  • the 2001–2004 economic partnership,
  • the 2010 full partnership,
  • the 2014 upgraded full partnership.

This topic is closely studied in the point of “Present alliance” on this website.

Sino-Russian partnership is institutionalized in manifold ways, the mechanisms established with Russia being the most comprehensive and effective. In fact, China and Russia had developed unparalleled measures to strengthen their ties during last ten years.

The Russian-Chinese relationship is officially focused on the strengthening of a multipolar world order. It is a new type of “alliance” that allows the two countries to pursue their national interests while also creating space for each other through mutual support and foreign-policy coordination to maneuver optimally in the prevailing volatile international environment.

The present Moscow-Beijing relationship, while not an alliance, is today more than the strategic partnership. It may be described as an entente, a basic agreement-like state of affairs about the fundamentals of world order supported by a strong position of common interests.

When China adopted a new diplomatic paradigm in early 2000s, it required also new diplomatic instruments. According to Chinese researcher Chen Zhimin, China had five policy options: unilateralism, balance of power, partnership diplomacy, multilateralism and bandwagoning. In a 1999 article, he argued for mainly using partnership diplomacy, while complementing it with elements of balance of power and multilateralism.

China’s role in the world has been a central topic of many scholarly debates. “The status quo school” holds that China is adapting to the existing world order, while “the revisionist school” believes that China wants to challenge this order. Recently, “the third school” has emerged arguing that although China has been socialized by the international community, at the same time it is trying to change the international system from within. China’s strategic partnership diplomacy is an embodiment of the third school. Although the calculations behind each strategic partnership vary and can change over time, in general there are two main logics underlining these calculations: one defensive and one assertive.

According to the defensive logic, China will continue to merge into the world peacefully so long as its core interests are protected. Beijing identified these core interests as: state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and national reunification, China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability.

Beijing pursues economic and social development but not at the cost of undermining sovereign integrity and state security. Countries that are considered to be crucial for the protection of such core interests are likely to become China’s strategic partners. State security is a top concern for China’s ruling elites. Strategic partnerships have thus become a leading diplomatic tool for Beijing in defense of its political system.

According to the assertive logic, aside from protecting core Chinese interests, China’s strategic partnership diplomacy also seeks to create a better environment for China’s continuous rise. Beijing tries to shape a world order more in line with its long-term interests. The defensive and assertive logics form the substance of China’s strategic partnerships.

From Beijing’s point of view, the Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership and the Sino-Pakistani Strategic Partnership are unique and unparalleled. These two partnerships stand out from the rest.

And among the rest, “comprehensive strategic partnerships” seem to be given more importance than “strategic partnerships”. The Chinese do not expect every strategic partnership to carry the same weight. They accept that some partnerships are going to be less substantial than others.

The biggest deficiency of China’s strategic partnership policy is that it has not prepared China to become a real great power in the coming years. Building strategic partnerships is almost the only method China employs in managing important bilateral relations. As China rises, a more sophisticated use of its diplomatic toolkit is required. The strategic partnership network needs to be upgraded as part of a broader design that goes beyond strategic partnerships themselves.