Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo/Getty
By Minxin Pei
May 22, 2014

FORTUNE — For those who remember the days when Chinese leaders were supplicants to Moscow, seeking economic aid and diplomatic favors, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Beijing this week was astonishing, even surreal.

On the surface, Putin remains as confident as ever. But everyone watching the swaggering Russian president knows that he had come to Beijing with the proverbial cup in hand. Isolated internationally after his land grab in Crimea, Putin is desperate for support abroad, particularly from China, now one of the world’s most powerful countries.

While the role reversal would have delighted the late Mao Zedong and infuriated the late Josef Stalin, the world has yet to digest what Putin’s trip to Beijing has actually accomplished and whether a new Sino-Russian strategic alliance is a geopolitical possibility.

At the moment, the logic for an alliance seems compelling, at least on the surface. Both China and Russia need each other to counter the West. Economically, Russia hopes to turn China into a huge market for its energy products, reducing its reliance on Europe for energy exports. Geopolitically, Moscow seeks closer coordination with Beijing so that they can jointly frustrate the West’s efforts to promote democracy and economic liberalism around the world.

As for China, having Russia’s abundant natural gas and oil would increase its energy security. In particular, China urgently needs to reduce its consumption of coal to alleviate its air pollution woes. Its only short-term solution is increasing the use of natural gas. On the geopolitical front, China faces renewed American pressure in response to its growing power in Asia. China’s ongoing maritime territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have gained America’s attention. So if Putin can create trouble in Eastern Europe, China would benefit. Likewise, if China ratchets up tensions in East Asia, Putin would gain.

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But even compelling geopolitical logic does not necessarily lead to a real strategic alliance. The fragility of the budding Sino-Russian partnership was on full display during Putin’s visit, the centerpiece of which was supposed to be the signing of a long-term agreement for China to purchase Russian natural gas.

At first, negotiations were deadlocked, with neither side willing to budge on prices. The Russians were insisting on setting a high price while the Chinese, sensing Russian weakness, were trying to bargain the rate down significantly. Disaster was averted at the last minute when both sides reached an opaque agreement that would enable Russia to export $400 billion worth of gas to China over 30 years, starting in 2018.

Although the price was not disclosed, Russian media reported that it will be around $350 per thousand cubic meters, roughly the average for Russian gas exports to Europe but lower than the price for gas exported to Germany and other rich Western European countries (which have to pay over $400 per thousand cubic meters).

If anything, the Sino-Russian gas deal epitomizes the nature of the ties between Moscow and Beijing. Their relationship is purely utilitarian and lacks enduring foundations of mutual interest and shared values.

Nations become strategic allies not simply because they share the same potential opponents. They need to have deep trust in each other. At a minimum, trust is easier to build when potential allies have no fear of each other. And such trust becomes unshakeable if they share the same values.

Unfortunately, none of these conditions applies to the Sino-Russian relationship. Russia fears China, which borders on Russia’s sparsely populated far eastern region, part of which was, in the eyes of the Chinese, stolen from China in the late 19th century. Many Russians worry that China will take over that land, either through migration or more sinister means.  Unlike the West, which has facilitated China’s rise and has come to recognize it as a reality, the Russian elite has trouble accepting China, impoverished and impotent only a generation ago, as a great power.

Likewise, Chinese leaders are acutely aware of Russia’s quiet strategic balancing aimed at countering Chinese power. For instance, Russia has been the main supplier of arms to India, China’s long-time rival. Russian military hardware exported to India is superior to what it has sold to China. Russia has also provided Vietnam, which is now embroiled in a dangerous confrontation with China in the South China Sea, with advanced submarines and jet fighters that could give the Chinese military a bloody nose if a fight breaks out.

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In terms of political values, Putin and the Chinese Communist Party are united in their hostility toward Western democracy. But hatred, unlike love, does not form lasting bonds. In the contemporary world, democracies forge enduring ties because their values are founded on the love of freedom. Dictatorships, by contrast, have no such positive values as the basis of trust — otherwise, Hitler would not have invaded Stalin’s Soviet Union.

So while the West needs to remain vigilant toward both Russia and China, they should not lose sleep over a new Moscow-Beijing axis. Russia and China are tactical partners, pure and simple.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States


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