By James Stavridis
Through the latter decades of the Cold War, there was little cooperation or alignment between the Soviet Union and China. The Russians had a far more developed global military presence, a higher level of ambition to impose their ideology on others, and a much bigger economy. China was primarily focused inwardly, struggling (and eventually succeeding) in lifting most of its massive population out of poverty and in building an economy that could support it. By the early 1960s, the communist powers had decisively split.
The world has moved on, and today there is a rapidly growing rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing, most recently seen in China’s firm support of the Russian-led intervention in Kazakhstan’s civil unrest.
How serious is this relationship, and what does it imply for the US and its democratic allies?
Russia and China share a long tradition of authoritarian rule and communist ideology. They have a general antipathy for any international action that allows interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, especially when it involves human-rights violations. (Chinese President Xi Jinping has assured Russian leader Vladimir Putin of “China's firm opposition to any attempt by external forces to provoke unrest and instigate ‘color revolutions’ in Kazakhstan.”) In the United Nations Security Council, they generally vote in sync, jointly vetoing resolutions on everything from Syria to Venezuela to Myanmar.
Diplomatically, China and Russia are both interested in building new international organizations as alternatives to the American-led, post-World War II Bretton Woods institutions. These include the Collective Security Treaty Organization of six ex-Soviet states (under which the Kazakhstan intervention was carried out), the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (the largest nongovernmental group in the world based on population of member states), and the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an Asian free-trade group.
Then there is the growing military relationship. The largest military exercises conducted since the end of the Cold War were held on the border of Russia and China in the fall of 2018, dubbed Vostok-2018. They consisted of over 300,000 Russian and Chinese troops, nearly 40,000 vehicles, 80 warships and thousands of planes, helicopters and drones. Xi and Putin both attended. The publicity photographs of Russian and Chinese soldiers hugging each other after joint exercises are striking.
Russian and Chinese warships routinely train together not just in the north Pacific, where you might expect it. They have deployed together to the Eastern Mediterranean, the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea, in the heart of Europe. In space, they recently announced a joint mission to put a manned station on the moon.
Naturally there are areas of disagreement and competition. The two nations are not as aligned on climate, for example, with China taking a more forward-leaning stance on curbing carbon emissions. Putin wants to tightly bind the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to Russia, while China seeks to broaden economic and security relations with many of them. China is pushing hard for primacy in Afghanistan in the wake of the US withdrawal, with Russia less inclined to become involved given its own bad history there.
But in a geopolitical sense, the two nations complement each other. China has a huge population, a lack of vital natural resources such as oil, a powerful and diversified economy and strong influence in much of East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Russia has a stagnant population, massive natural resources in oil and gas, a poorly diversified economy and strong influence in parts of Europe, Central Asia and the Caucuses. Together, they are a formidable pair.
From a US and Western perspective, this growing condominium is alarming, especially if Xi and Putin increase policy coordination, share military basing, offer each other discretionary economic concessions and exchange military technology such as hypersonic missiles and cyberweapons.
Closer Sino-Russian ties will have major impact on a host of significant issues facing the international community, from Taiwan and Ukraine (considered wayward provinces by China and Russia, respectively) to global human rights to nuclear proliferation by North Korea and Iran.
In response, the US needs to push global democracies toward unity of purpose in facing aligned action by Moscow and Beijing. Key elements should include pulling India in the direction of the West through trade and military cooperation; strengthening collaboration in cybersecurity among the techno-democracies; building new free-trade organizations (oh, where is the Trans-Pacific Partnership when we need it?); and strengthening security and multinational institutions like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
As the two authoritarian superpowers draw closer together, the West must respond collectively — starting with a unified front in the face of Russia’s growing threat to Ukraine.