WASHINGTON’S CONVENTIONAL wisdom views a Chinese-Russian alliance as a remote prospect. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is generally both pragmatic and strategically-minded, sees “little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.” Yet a deeper look at their relations suggests that China and Russia may well build a united front to confront the United States and its allies. Even if such an alignment doesn’t last, it could have dangerous consequences.
With short exceptions at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early 1950s, China and Russia have never been close. On the contrary, they have a long history of mutual animosity. While Americans tend to see them as similar because of their authoritarian politics, the truth is that their cultures and values are quite distinct. Beijing, after long resenting Russian power, tends to look down at Moscow’s inferior economy, relatively small population, and inability to develop vast regions of Siberia bordering China. Chinese academics who study in Russia report personally experiencing xenophobic nationalism that their Western counterparts rarely encounter.
Nor is this all. Russia is a reluctant admirer of China’s recent successes, particularly its effective adoption of elements of the Western economic system without embracing a democratic model. Still, Russians show little affection for the Chinese way of life and, despite the growing pressure they face in United States and Europe, seem uninterested in purchasing property in Beijing, Shanghai or even Hong Kong.
In private, Chinese and Russian officials and experts express scant confidence that their two countries can build a lasting alliance. Russians who claim on domestic television that Moscow and Beijing have already established such a relationship in all but name will admit sotto voce that China’s investment in Russia has been disappointing, that Chinese banks fear exposing themselves to U.S. sanctions by working in Russia and that Russian officials are leery of a settlement of their country’s territorial dispute with Japan (over the Kuril Islands) because any cession of Russian-held lands could encourage new Chinese claims. Moscow’s foreign policy commentators similarly acknowledge that a U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty would allow Russia to strengthen its nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis China and—so long as the United States and Russia can develop new understandings and Washington avoids actions that threaten Russia—that it may be better off without INF limits.
Still, this hardly offers ground for American complacency. While the NATO alliance is built not only on a common threat but also on common values, most alliances throughout history have been based on mutual needs, not mutual love. The pre-World War I Triple Entente included democratic Britain and France alongside a repressive, authoritarian Russian Empire. Their shared fear of a rising Germany sufficed to bring them together.
CHINA AND Russia are different in many respects, but so were Britain and Russia in the early 1900s. Despite past animosities and cultural differences, today’s China and Russia share authoritarian rule (though China’s is notably stricter) and resentment of what they see as U.S. efforts at military containment, if not encirclement, and overt and covert political attacks on their systems of government. Each rejects arguments that U.S. support of their neighbors often follows from the neighbors’ uneasiness with these two powers and their regional conduct, such as Beijing’s recent efforts to dominate 2018’s ASEAN and APEC summits or Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships in the Azov Sea.
At the same time, Moscow’s discomfort with China and, for that matter, Russia’s generally Western cultural orientation, matter much less now than they might otherwise. If Russian officials do not see acceptable and feasible changes in their policies that could facilitate a better relationship with the United States and its allies, they may believe that they have few options other than closer relations with Beijing to protect Moscow’s security, sovereignty, political order and great power ambitions. What’s more, Russia-China trade has grown significantly. China is now Russia’s top trading partner, responsible for 15 percent of Russia’s foreign trade in 2017; Moscow expects bilateral trade to reach $100 billion in 2018. Though there are some weak areas in Russia-China economic relations—Chinese investment in Russia fell significantly from 2014 to 2016—the two are drawing closer together.
Of course, neither Moscow or Beijing are currently discussing formal mutual security obligations. But there is more and more talk of a political, economic and military partnership between the two nations. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said that China’s relations with Russia are “at the best level in history,” while Russian president Vladimir Putin has asserted that “China is our strategic partner and the level of relations between our countries is unprecedentedly high.” Well-connected, prominent Russian experts go even further; on a recent episode of The Great Game, a program on Russia’s Channel One, each of the four Russian politicians and specialists participating in the discussion spoke of a Chinese-Russian alliance as an emerging reality. While discounting prospects for a formal treaty, they saw a broad partnership unquestionably directed against the West and, first and foremost, the United States.
Should such an alignment come to pass, the dynamics of global geopolitics and economics would change profoundly to America’s and the West’s disadvantage. Since the Nixon administration directed America’s foreign affairs, it has been the policy of the United States to strive for better relations with China and Russia than the two powers have with one another. Yet America’s current policy seems to amount to a simultaneous frontal assault on both countries, at least as they see it.
Nevertheless, neither the administration nor Congress seem to have made a deliberate strategic choice to confront China and Russia concurrently. On the contrary, consequential geopolitical shifts may flow from what amounts to Washington’s failure to connect the dots between U.S. actions and statements in dealing with these two governments.
DURING THE 2016 campaign, Donald Trump depicted China as the paramount challenge to the United States and declared that changing the trade relationship with Beijing was among his top foreign policy priorities. Soon, combined inputs from the bureaucracy, Congress and Asian allies persuaded the president to strengthen military deterrence of China as well. Congress eventually made human rights an issue—for example, in its attention to Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur minority. Thus, Vice President Mike Pence recently pronounced that “authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific.”
As the Trump administration has indicated no interest in combating authoritarianism in the Persian Gulf, at least as far as American allies and partners like Saudi Arabia are concerned, China’s leaders may interpret U.S. aims more expansively than we intend. Notwithstanding public warmth at the 2018 G20 summit, America has sent a clear message to Beijing that correcting trade imbalances alone may be insufficient to maintain business as usual with Washington. This could have an even greater impact if the interaction between the media and members of Congress and government officials hostile toward Beijing were to follow patterns already established in discussions of Russia and U.S. policy toward Russia during the last two years. A repeating and escalating series of leaks and investigations of China’s conduct could have explosive political repercussions in the United States and in China.
Unlike in the case of China, President Trump came to office calling for improvement in America’s relationship with Russia. He seemed indifferent to Russia’s autocratic practices, heavy-handed treatment of neighboring countries or even allegations that Moscow sanctioned the murder of political opponents outside its borders. As candidate Trump put it in a 2017 interview, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” In 2015, he dismissed Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “Europe’s problem.”
Trump’s critics have accused Trump of being a Russian puppet, or at a minimum possessing a misplaced affinity for Putin based on shared autocratic instincts. Instead, Trump saw that Russia, a nation with a GDP roughly a tenth the size of America’s and with whom the United States produced only $24 billion in bilateral trade in 2017, does not pose a threat to American economic interests. Trump appears to see Russian territorial disputes with Ukraine and Georgia as more like local Eastern European squabbles than genuine dangers to the United States. Nor has Trump seemed particularly moved by concerns of NATO allies who he thought were grossly underperforming on their commitment to self-defense enshrined in Article Three of NATO’s founding treaty. He has viewed Putin more as a possible asset in challenging a rising China than as a true competitor to the United States.
Still, the combination of Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 presidential elections, the partisan exploitation of this interference by Congressional Democrats, and hostility from the bulk of the national security establishment to Trump’s worldview has prevented him from reshaping American policy towards Russia. Furthermore, Trump’s own inability to articulate a vision for U.S.-Russian relations and to recruit a critical mass of people who share his perspective to his administration has produced a continuation of Obama-era hostility towards Russia. Trump’s commitment to improving U.S. military capabilities and dismantling the U.S.-Russian arms control regime as we know it has intensified this, particularly when paired with Congressional efforts to punish Moscow and constrain Trump that often seem based on emotional reactions and domestic political calculations rather than thorough consideration and debate regarding U.S. national security priorities and the unintended consequences of American actions.
After expecting America’s new president to take a friendlier approach to U.S.-Russian relations, the Kremlin has responded to Trump’s maintenance of a tougher and less nuanced version of the Obama-era Russia policy with a combination of anger and concern. Some Russian politicians and experts advocate a major overhaul of Russia’s foreign policy and a tough response to the United States to demonstrate that Mother Russia cannot be pushed around. This could include a more assertive military posture in Ukraine, a seizure of more territory to create a land bridge to Crimea, a shift to a mobilization economy, and an end to cooperation with the United States and key NATO members on almost all issues in the United Nations, particularly on sanctions against other states. The more liberal economic bloc in the Russian government has vigorously opposed such an approach, arguing that it could wreck the Russian economy and even threaten political stability.
President Putin kept his national security team intact after his re-election in 2018 and has so far emphasized a continuation of his foreign policy: refusing to surrender under pressure but demonstrating openness to dialogue if the United States and its European allies appear genuinely prepared for it. But as a result, the Kremlin has been under pressure to redouble its efforts to cultivate relations with China. This embrace of Beijing seems intended to demonstrate that Moscow can outlast U.S. pressure and even work together with China to tilt the global balance of power against Washington.
IT WOULD be a mistake for U.S. policymakers not to take this latter prospect seriously. As the report of the Congressionally-mandated Commission on the National Defense Strategy for the United States asserts,
Today Russia and China are capable of challenging the United States, its allies, and its partners on a far greater scale than any adversary since the Cold War. These countries are also leveraging existing and emerging technologies to present U.S. forces with new military problems, such as China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities and the Russian hybrid warfare approach employed in seizing eastern Ukraine.
Imagine the consequences if China and Russia became allies of convenience united by a perceived common threat. The Commission recommends the Department of Defense (DOD)
more clearly answer the question of how it intends to accomplish a core theme of the NDS [National Defense Strategy]—defeating major power rivals in competition and war. Without a credible approach to winning a war against China or Russia, DOD’s efforts will be for naught.
That makes perfect sense. But it would be even sounder to combine improvements in military posture with innovative strategic thinking and diplomatic approaches that do not encourage a Chinese-Russian alignment that could threaten America far more than either nation might on its own.
Such an alignment is not just a theoretical possibility or a dream resulting from Russian bravado and wishful thinking. While China has not always supported Russia in the United Nations (Beijing abstained during the 2014 vote calling on states not to recognize Russian ownership of Crimea and the 2017 and 2018 votes condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria), China was confident that Moscow would use its veto power to render Chinese abstention moot. More generally, however, China and Russia regularly vote in tandem in the UN Security Council. They blocked an American bid for the United Nations to stop all deliveries of refined oil to North Korea in July 2018 and have signaled their opposition to further UN sanctions against Pyongyang, supporting sanctions reductions instead. China and Russia also opposed President Trump’s proposal to place additional sanctions on Iran in 2018, voted to condemn America’s 2017 decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and openly opposed American calls for UN hearings and briefings on the violence and instability plaguing Nicaragua and Myanmar. They have also voted together several times to block UN briefings, investigations and sanctions focused on Syria’s civil war and the Assad government’s conduct. Finally, in late November, 2018, China backed Russia on a UN Security Council motion to condemn Ukraine for violating Russian territorial waters in the Sea of Azov.
On the military front, more than 3,000 Chinese troops participated in major Russian military exercises in September 2017 that have been described as the biggest Chinese/Russian military maneuvers since the days of the Soviet Union. Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu left little to the imagination: “There’s no question that international tensions have contributed to the tightening of Russian-Chinese bonds.” More ominous are growing Russian military sales to China, which include sophisticated S-35 fighters and S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. Russia has seemingly acquiesced to China’s proclivity for reverse-engineering Russia’s military technology. Hitherto it was reluctant to provide China with its most modern weapons. This concern still exists, but Russia’s desire to compensate for American efforts to limit Russian military sales whenever possible has resulted in Moscow adopting a more permissive attitude about selling sophisticated weaponry to the People’s Republic. If Moscow were not simply to sell weapons, but to share key technologies, such as those needed to build critical components like jet engines and missile guidance systems, the United States could face qualitatively new threats.
How far the Chinese government is willing to go to support Russia in a potential confrontation with the United States is unclear and obviously depends to a significant extent on China’s evaluation of its relationship with America. Should Washington and Moscow indeed confront one another, China would have to consider hopes that its relationship with the United States could still improve as well as fears that becoming too involved with Russia might permanently damage these relations. Even today, however, the very possibility of a Sino-Russian alliance of convenience emboldens Moscow in facing American pressure and makes Russia more willing to target U.S. interests worldwide if the relationship further deteriorates.
Ignoring possible Sino-Russian cooperation against the United States, and the factors that can exacerbate it, could be very costly. Nevertheless, many in Congress and the media are strongly disinclined to admit the obvious consequences of U.S. policy decisions if this also requires acknowledging any limits on U.S. power in confronting regimes they despise other than those established by our military and economic capabilities. Yet there is no path to responsible policymaking that does not begin with understanding and accounting for the unintended consequences of confronting two great powers simultaneously.
Dimitri K. Simes, publisher and CEO of the National Interest, is president of the Center for the National Interest.