The partnership between Moscow and Beijing has broadened and significantly strengthened during the past decade. President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping support forecasts of closer relations. The momentum is based on:
It no longer is an “axis of convenience” with limited impact; growing convergence points to de facto alliance with broad negative implications for the West.
Russia and China now pose increasingly serious challenges to the U.S. supported order in their respective priority spheres of concern - Russia in Europe and the Middle East, and China in Asia along China’s continental and maritime peripheries. Russia’s challenges involve military and paramilitary actions in Europe and the Middle East, along with cyber and political warfare undermining elections in the United States and Europe, European unity, and NATO solidarity. China undermines U.S. and allied resolve through covert and overt manipulation and influence operations employing economic leverage and propaganda. Chinese cyber attacks focus more on massive theft of information and intellectual property to accelerate China’s drive to dominate world markets in key advanced technology at the expense of leading U.S. and other international companies. Coercion and intimidation of neighbors backed by an impressive buildup of Chinese military and civilian security forces expand Beijing regional control and influence.
Russia and China coordinate their moves and support one another in their respective challenges to the United States, allies and partners. These joint efforts also involve diplomatic, security and economic measures in multilateral forums and bilateral relations involving U.S. opponents in Iran, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela. The two powers also support one another in the face of U.S. and allied complaints and countermeasures regarding Russian and Chinese coercive expansion and other steps challenging regional order and global norms and institutions backed by the United States.
Key questions determining future collaboration
How much do China and Russia need each other?
Russia has become heavily dependent on Chinese economic support, needing China to cope with western sanctions and international isolation. China also is an important partner/collaborator in Russian probes/expansion in Europe and the Middle East and in their mutual resistance to US-led standards in global governance, involving promotion of human rights and democracy, sanctions and other pressures against violations of existing global norms, and setting rules for internet use, space, and international trade, investment and foreign assistance.
China is not nearly as dependent on Russia. Russian energy and military supplies remain important to China. Russian assertive behavior in Europe and Middle East preoccupies the US in ways easing China’s advances in Asia and in other policy arenas. Also, Russia could change and even pose trouble for Beijing, especially as China advances along Russia’s rim and strategic periphery; China works hard to insure Russia is not a source of such trouble.
What are their relative strengths and vulnerabilities?
Russian strengths center on military and political strengths. Moscow is able and willing to take aggressive actions and face-off with the US/West. These steps are backed by nuclear weapons that deter the US and allied countries, and could pose a problem for China. Russia is a recognized leader in the UN Security Council. For China, Russia is a source of needed oil and gas, advanced military technology and cyber expertise. Russia shares common authoritarian values and world outlook with China.
Russian vulnerabilities focus on diplomatic and economic isolation. Moscow has little soft power and a limited tool kit of hard power to advance Russian interests. Despite some strong points, Russia overall remains in economic, social and demographic decline. Ever more dependent on China in the face of US-led sanctions, Russia needs to compromise with Beijing as China spreads its influence and Russian influence declines along Russia’s strategic rim in ways that undermine Russia’s important great power ambitions.
Chinese strengths center on China’s comprehensive economic, political and military power. Beijing has a wide array of policy tools—both positive and negative-- to use in advancing incrementally to regional dominance and global leadership, challenging the US in high technology and military development. Russia is viewed as an important partner, albeit with limited abilities. China is highly integrated into world economy and international governance—the international economy in particular is influenced by what happens in China. China massive ambitions notably in its global Belt and Road Initiative endeavoring to steer world commerce to center on China have reached a stage of directly challenging the US-backed international order through rival regimes and norms and through undermining US-led organizations and alignments.
Chinese vulnerabilities focus on economic interdependence. China remains very dependent on the world and seeks to avoid disruption of vital international economic interchange, including notably with the US. The Trump administration trade tariffs, investment restrictions and export controls continue in the Biden government and remain a major problem for the Chinese government. Beijing also seeks to preserve a stable international environment that it can manipulate from a position of ever growing strengths, especially economic leverage. Achieving stability is hard because China’s top priority nearby periphery remains full of areas of important instability and strategic uncertainty as far as China is concerned involving disputes with Japan, Taiwan, India, Korean peninsula, Vietnam, Australia and the South China Sea. Behind this instability is an aroused and deeply suspicious American government, which unlike in the recent past is able and willing to take very negative actions in pressing China to change. Adding to China’s international vulnerability are its domestic preoccupations which remain strong. Notably they involve enormous expenditure on domestic control, very difficult problems with Xinjiang and Hong Kong, corruption, pollution, lagging reform of a flawed economic model, and a rapidly aging population.
In what areas will bilateral cooperation most likely deepen in the next 5-10 years?
Many areas of cooperation seem likely to grow because of overlap of interests. And Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have built close personal ties based on common interests and world views; they will remain in power for the foreseeable future. Areas of cooperation include energy supplies, arms and military technology, and cyber techniques. Both support norms and international institutions at odds with US-favored norms and institutions; they back authoritarian regimes opposed by the West—e.g. Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and they oppose US backed human rights, democracy promotion and related international intervention. Meanwhile, China will continue to advance along the Russian strategic periphery and Russia probably will continue to feel it has to cooperate.
What are the most significant tensions in the relationship?
The growing asymmetrical China-Russia power relationship means that Russia is on a path to playing an ever more subordinate role. This tension will play out notably in traditional areas of Russian influence along its strategic periphery and even in Europe, the Middle East and the Arctic as China’s steady incremental expansion undermines Russia’s leadership role. To protect its interests and avoid dominance by China, Russia may be increasingly open to compromise that would allow for better ties with the US and West that would improve Russia national capacity and reduce dependence on China.
China’s support for Russia’s very disruptive expansionism in Europe and the Middle East upsets Chinese development plans in these regions. A combination of regional blowback and US pressures on China to avoid such support for Russia could prompt a Chinese decision to reduce China’s support for Russia’s disruptive behavior.
Can the West seek advantage in manipulating China and Russia against each other?
Western efforts to woo China or Russia with concessions in order to divide the powers and weaken the alignment face the reality that the main driver of their recent mutual advances has been Western weakness and decline. Under these circumstances, western concessions to China or to Russia are likely to be interpreted as a further sign of weakness, prompting enhanced collaboration among the two powers seeking opportunistic advances. A more prudent course for the time being is for the United States and those many countries with strong interests in curbing the expansionism of Russia and China in Eurasia at their expense to work more closely together in building national power and resolve in a longer term rivalry to counter the challenges coming from Moscow and Beijing.
NOTE: Robert Sutter is a Professor of Practice of International Affairs, George Washington University, USA. The issues raised in this article are treated in his latest book Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy of an Emerging Global Force fifth edition (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021)