While it was impossible during much of the Cold War period to think about international cooperation absent the term ‘alliances’, over the past two decades strategic partnerships have occupied a central position in many states’ diplomatic toolkit. This article sheds light on such international alignment decisions by examining the case of China’s partnership diplomacy during the period 1990 to 2015. Theoretically, the analysis draws on scholarly insights into alliance formation and international cooperation to formulate two broad assumptions about partner choice which are based on interest-driven and ideology-based rationales of alignment. Binary regression estimations highlight the importance of economic interests in explaining partnership onset. In contrast to common arguments about alliance formation, partnerships seem unlikely to be driven by shared domestic ideologies. In fact, bilateral partnerships help to bridge ideological gaps and to enable, at least in the case of China, the respective partners’ pursuit of economic gains and diplomatic preferences. With regard to the presumed payoffs of partnerships, the analysis further suggests that partnerships mean more to bilateral relations than purely nominal titles. Rather, they have measurable impact on partners’ economic relations as well as on convergence regarding their views on the international order. China’s growing spectrum of partnerships, therefore, expands the country’s potential to exert impact on international political outcomes.