A China-Russia Alliance?

The debate in Beijing continues to heat up.

The scenario that must concern American defense planners above and beyond all others is that dark, yet still rarely discussed possibility that China and Russia could somehow become engaged in simultaneous armed conflict against the United States. While neither Moscow nor Beijing are strong enough by themselves to go toe-to-toe with Washington, DC in a high intensity long-duration war, a well-coordinated tandem effort could undoubtedly pose major problems to the long-time superpower. Such a scenario has rightly been seen as extremely remote, in part because a major lesson of the Cold War seems to have been the fallacy of viewing the communist bloc as monolithic, when in fact it was deeply fractured. Arguably, the tragic Vietnam War would never have been fought if such fractures had been better understood in Washington.

But this is a new world and evidence is everywhere apparent that Moscow and Beijing are growing closer by the day. Some of the latest examples of their geostrategic coalescing are, for example, the large Chinese delegation at Russia’s recent Arctic conference in Archangelsk, China’s increasingly vocal support for Russia’s intervention in Syria, as well as the common refrain in both Russia and China that both powers are strongly opposed to U.S. deployment of the THAAD system into South Korea. I have previously mentioned the surprising candor with which strategists in Beijing are debating the future of China’s long-time policy of disavowing alliances [不结盟]. Once again, the vigor of this debate is on display in a 2017 article that appeared in Chinese Foreign Policy [中国外交] under the title: Make an Alliance with China? Russian National Interests and the Likelihood of a China-Russia Alliance [与中国结盟吗? 俄罗斯国家利益与中俄结盟概率].

The article offers a candid and relatively objective argument on this issue, which is of major importance to the future of global politics, and so this edition of Dragon Eye will summarize the contents of this fascinating paper. At the outset, the author suggests that the potential of a China-Russia alliance could be a transformative strategy [改变现状的战略]. It is, moreover, suggested that other significant Beijing strategists, such as Zhang Wenmu, have favored this approach, since Zhang apparently has said that “U.S. containment invites China-Russia counter-containment” [即美国遏制与中俄反遏制]. The author of this article concludes that alliance could be “an effective tool” for coping with “American pressure.” The issue of Russia’s immense natural resource base is also considered quite relevant to Beijing’s future deliberations on the issue.

And yet much of this paper is devoted to “pouring cold water” on the proposal to align China formally with Russia. A theme discussed widely in the paper is the possibility that the alliance would not be viewed as a defensive reaction, but rather as an offensive [具备一定的攻击性] and aggressive step. On the one hand, the author identifies a classic “entrapment” argument against alliances, noting that China could get pulled into unnecessary military conflicts. On the other hand, the author notes that Russia hardly requires the assistance of Chinese military forces. Moreover, the point is made repeatedly in the article that China’s conversion of economic power into military is a relatively slow process [经济实力向军事实力转化的速度相对更慢] resulting in a lag, even as its economic ascendance is more obvious. While not stated explicitly, the author seems to imply that China’s continuing military weakness is an obstacle to a China-Russia alliance, perhaps because China is not seen as a sufficiently capable partner. However, the author nonetheless is surprisingly explicit in stating that China would be the more senior partner in a hypothetical alliance, largely due to its economic heft [中国…占优势的情况]. Yet, Beijing would also inevitably demand more help from Moscow within this alliance, given the already evident strategic pressure placed on China by Washington’s “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.” Indeed, the author illustrates the inherent tensions of a China-Russia alliance, by suggesting that Russia has actually benefited strategically from the American “rebalance” and that a China-Russia alliance would create certain contradictions in Russian diplomacy, for example in Moscow’s quite extensive dealings with Southeast Asian nations.