Dangerous Liaisons

December 16, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: RussiaChinaSino-SovietGreat PowersUnited States

Dangerous Liaisons

Ignoring possible Sino-Russian cooperation against the United States, and the factors that can exacerbate it, could be very costly.

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.

Image: Reuters.