Should America Fear the China-Russia Relationship?

Beijing and Moscow are working well together, for now.

China and Russia have increased their security, economic and diplomatic relationship, complicating an already fragile Asia-Pacific region. Many analysts have viewed this enhanced collaboration as the beginning of a partnership set on destabilizing the Western-led order and diminishing the capacity for the United States to influence strategic outcomes in the region. But this line of reasoning affords primacy to the material components of Beijing and Moscow’s newfound affection for each other, neglecting the salience of the historical and normative elements that inform their relationship.

In fact, the perceived belligerency of this China–Russia nexus is driven by a shared historical and ideological connection, which has manifested in both states adopting an authoritarian style government. Some analysts perceive this rigid style of governing as a representation of their mutual mistrust of the West, and a shared desire to rewrite the rules that shape the global order.

The willingness of Russia and China to deploy, or threaten the use of, military force to further their national interest, and challenge existing regional security orders, appears to confirm such pessimistic assessments. Whether it is Russia in Ukraine, or China in the South China Sea, both have demonstrated a militaristic disposition to resolving their historical territorial grievances. According to one such view, “Russia and China are now competing to arm anti-democratic and anti-U.S. regimes in Latin America, and may be cooperating to help Nicaragua build a trans-ocean canal, which may yield port access for Russian and Chinese warships. Both countries actively support U.S. enemies in Syria and Iran.”


An Axis of Convenience

Notwithstanding such commonalities between Moscow and Beijing, however, there are reasons to believe that the current status of the China–Russia relationship will remain an “axis of convenience.” This representation acknowledges that while both Putin and Xi have developed a stronger connection, which now recognizes each other’s core interests, it nonetheless fails to raise the relationship to one of alliance status.

Diplomatically, Russia and China have often exhibited their shared interests through the use of their veto power in the U.N. Security Council. In the past decade, China has used six vetoes, each in concert with Russia, which has used its veto eleven times in the same period. Most recently, this alignment was exhibited in Moscow and Beijing’s vetoing of four U.N. resolutions on Syria since 2012. This excessive use of the veto has been understood as both a challenge to Western leadership and a tool to slow down the pace of American military interference in the Middle East.

Yet, as Daniel Brumberg and Steven Heydemann have argued, this is a negatively-oriented alignment derived from “opposition to the universal norms of democracy, global governance, and human rights promoted by the West and by multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court”. This stance ultimately results in a diplomacy that defends “a distinctly status-quo or conventional notion of state sovereignty that is at variance with new global conventions” such as Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This is reflected in, for example, Beijing’s insistent calls for the principle of “non-interference” to be upheld throughout the Syrian crisis.

Economically, China and Russia are collaborating on the development and maintenance of new commerce institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the New Development Bank BRICS. Furthermore, both states have developed a consensus on China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt” and Russia’s “Eurasian Economic Union”—where a willingness to coordinate the two projects in order to build a “common economic space” has begun to emerge.