How Xi’s Russia Trip Heralds a Pax Sinica
Russia’s transformation into a quasi-Chinese vassal state is a harbinger of a new geopolitical era.
Winds of change blow through the arena of international affairs, as the global balance of power shifts dramatically. March 22, 2023, marked the beginning of an unprecedented era as Russia’s slow descent into vassalage under China—a process that began when the former decided to invade Ukraine—reached a tipping point. This transformation not only signifies the formation of an unofficial alliance between these two powers, but also the dawn of a new era—a “Pax Sinica.”
Russia, once a formidable superpower with imperialist ambitions in China now finds itself in a position of dependence on a country it once bullied. How did this happen? For years, Russia’s witnessed a steady erosion of its influence on the global stage, resulting from a combination of economic stagnation, international sanctions, and waning soft power. As the West has sought to isolate and punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, Georgia, and other areas, China has stepped in to fill the void.
While it’s true that Russia and China have a long history of diplomatic cooperation, what we are witnessing now is a much deeper and more significant partnership. As the West continued to squeeze Russia economically, Moscow’s had no choice but to pivot eastward, seeking solace in China's embrace. Today, it is evident that the relationship has evolved from a mere partnership to a dynamic where Russia has become increasingly beholden to China.
The Sino-Russian alliance is solidified by their shared interests, such as the desire to challenge the U.S.-led international order and create a multipolar world. This is not an opinion, but rather the global ambition that has been stated by both leaders, with Xi Jinping directly claiming that together, the two countries will create “changes not seen in a hundred years.” The interdependence between these two nations is evident in their booming bilateral trade and coordination on regional and global issues. However, this partnership comes at a cost, especially to Russia’s sovereignty.
China’s economic clout has allowed it to invest heavily in Russia’s energy sector, infrastructure, and defense industries. As a result, Beijing now wields considerable leverage over Moscow's political and economic decisions. Moreover, as Russia’s economy is heavily reliant on its energy exports, China’s voracious appetite for natural resources has made it the primary consumer of Russian oil and gas. This dynamic has led to an imbalance in the relationship, rendering Russia increasingly subservient to China.
The unofficial alliance between Russia and China marks the beginning of Pax Sinica: a Chinese-dominated era of relative peace and stability, akin to the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire or the Pax Americana of the post-World War II era, at least in the Eastern Hemisphere. This new era is characterized by China’s rise as a serious global superpower, with a sphere of influence extending across Asia, Africa, and even into Europe.
As China expands its global reach, other nations, especially those in Asia, will be compelled to accept its hegemony—either willingly, under duress, or naturally out of circumstance. Russia’s gradual submission to Chinese authority is a stark example of this new order. The West, too, must now reassess its approach to international relations, as the dawning of Pax Sinica will challenge the liberal, rules-based order that has shaped the world for decades.
As the Pax Sinica takes hold, it is not only Russia that will find itself within the orbit of China’s expanding influence. Southeast Asia and China’s neighboring countries are highly likely to be enveloped by this new era of Chinese dominance, effectively reinstating China as the center of the Asian world; a position it hasn’t been in since the High Qing era (1783–1799), when China possessed the fourth-largest empire in history.
No one will feel the dawn of the Pax Sinica as much as Southeast Asia. China has long maintained an interest in region, given its strategic location along vital trade routes, its abundance of natural resources, and its rapidly growing economies. Through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China has been positioning itself as the primary driver of regional development in the area, providing much-needed infrastructure and investment to these countries. This economic engagement extends beyond Southeast Asia, reaching into South Asia, Central Asia, and even Africa, thus amplifying China’s influence on a global scale.
The Pax Sinica is also likely to see China continuing to assert its dominance over the contested South China Sea, a region rich in resources and a critical artery for global trade. We already know of China's construction of artificial islands and military facilities in the area, and how that’s alarmed Southeast Asian neighbors and raised tensions with the United States. However, as the Pax Sinica unfolds, smaller nations in the region may find it increasingly difficult to challenge China’s claims and actions. This development will further cement China’s position as the regional hegemon, with the potential to reshape the maritime security landscape in the Asia-Pacific.
It is important to note that China’s rise is not solely predicated on its economic and military prowess. The propagation of its political ideology and the projection of its soft power also play crucial roles. As China’s neighbors become more intertwined with its economic and political systems, they may find themselves gradually adopting aspects of the Chinese model, including its authoritarian tendencies and strict control of information. Sinicization of the region is not new, but Marxist-Leninist Sinicization is, and could slowly but surely alter the political landscape of the region, further entrenching China’s dominance.
Through a combination of economic engagement, military assertiveness, and soft power projection, China is poised to reclaim its position as the center of the East Asian world. Russia’s transformation into a quasi-Chinese vassal state is a harbinger of a new geopolitical era, and marks the beginning of both an unofficial alliance between these two powers and the emergence of Pax Sinica. This transformation will have far-reaching implications for the region's political and economic landscape, heralding a new era of Chinese dominance that will demand careful navigation by both regional and global players.
Symington W. Smith is a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations.