Fresh off his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled this past weekend to Beijing.
The purpose of his trip was to attend the Belt and Road Forum, an event aimed at highlighting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious plan to enhance China’s economic influence worldwide. At a time when the Chinese initiative faces mounting criticism in the West and Asia, Putin defended it as “an important platform for expanding international cooperation.” More broadly, he stated that Sino-Russian relations are currently at “the best they have been in their entire history.”
The intelligence community and a growing number of foreign policy specialists identify this convergence as the greatest threat facing the United States today.
Over the past several years, Moscow and Beijing have increased their political, economic, and military cooperation. Washington is starting to take notice. The intelligence community and a growing number of foreign policy specialists identify this convergence as the greatest threat facing the United States today. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats expressed concern in January that Russia and China “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.”
Human Events spoke to several former officials and scholars to better understand the current state of the Sino-Russian relationship and its implications for the United States.
“What you have is a very formidable global anti-American alliance of these two states,” warned Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. “I don’t know that they’re strong enough to overcome the United States and its allies, but they’re the strongest competitor out there.”
Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, told Human Events that while he does not think that the Sino-Russian relationship constitutes an alliance, that could change if relations between Moscow and the West remain cool: “If the so-called new Cold War continues to escalate, it is a possibility.”
Improved relations between Moscow and Beijing are by no means a recent development.
After several decades of tensions following the Sino-Soviet split during the late 1950s, relations began to thaw under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who visited China in 1989. This upward trend continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Russia and China gradually resolved past disputes and sought to counterbalance the United States.
However, the Sino-Russian relationship gained its strongest momentum in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The United States and its European allies denounced the move as a flagrant violation of international law and imposed wide-ranging sanctions against Russia. China, on the other hand, refused to condemn Russia’s actions. This did not go unnoticed in Moscow. In his speech immediately following the annexation of Crimea, Putin thanked China’s leaders for their neutrality.
Since 2014, Russia and China have considerably strengthened their economic ties. Faced with Western sanctions, Moscow turned to Beijing as an alternative source of commerce and investment. While China has yet to economically supplant the West for Russia, the People’s Republic is now Russia’s largest trading partner. At the same time, Russia is playing an ever-greater role in helping China meet its energy needs. Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia in 2016 to become China’s top oil supplier.
Military cooperation between the two countries has also increased. Although Russia once had reservations about exporting its most sophisticated weaponry to Beijing, that is starting to change. Russia and China have reached agreements for the delivery of Su-35 jets and S-400 missile defense systems. Global Times reported recently that Russia plans on offering China the Su-57, its newest fighter jet. Joint military exercises are also becoming more common and larger in scale. In October 2018, over 3,000 soldiers and 900 tanks from China joined 300,000 Russian troops for the biggest military exercise in the post-Cold War era.
“If we’re going to be equally hostile to Moscow and Beijing, well of course they’re going to cooperate.” – Lyle Goldstein
Washington’s foreign policy played a major role in bringing Russia and China together. According to George Beebe, former director of the CIA’s Russia analysis and Special Advisor to Vice President Cheney, Moscow and Beijing believe that the United States has a “revolutionary approach to the world that threatens both of their interests, and because they perceive a shared threat, this has encouraged greater cooperation to contain that threat.”
Likewise, Goldstein argues that the United States’ tense relations with both Russia and China incentivizes the two to unite. “If we’re going to be equally hostile to Moscow and Beijing, well of course they’re going to cooperate,” he said.
Other analysts emphasize that Russia and China began collaborating because they saw an opportunity to expand their influence. Robert Sutter, the principal investigator for a National Bureau of Asian Research project that examined the implications of growing Sino-Russian ties for the United States, contends that Russia and China “saw weakness in the U.S., and they saw weakness in Europe, and Japan, and just all-around China’s periphery and Russia’s periphery.”
For Sutter, the primary danger of the current Sino-Russian dynamic is that having Moscow as a partner helps Beijing challenge the United States far more effectively. He told Human Events, “Russia is significant, it’s not like it’s not a problem, but China is the one to worry about as far as I’m concerned.”
Beebe shared Sutter’s concern about Russia empowering China.
“If you start from the premise that the key international power that threatens the United States, its interests, and the stability of the world system is China, then a much a closer relationship between China and Russia certainly tilts the playing field to China’s advantage in ways that we should be wary of,” he said.
Blank predicts that should Sino-Russian ties continue to deepen, Moscow could eventually endorse Beijing’s positions on Taiwan and the South China Sea. He asserts that these moves, combined with greater Russian arm sales and military collaboration, could produce “a bipolar situation” in East Asia with an American bloc on one side and a Sino-Russian bloc on the other.
Beyond East Asia, Russian support could provide China with greater flexibility to pursue its global agenda. “The Chinese get the benefit of having the United States contend with Russia in Europe and the Middle East at the same time as the Chinese are trying to advance their interests everywhere else,” Blank said.
“The Chinese side has come to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia, especially in this situation.” – Wei Fenge
Meanwhile, China provides Russia with growing political support, even when doing so could alienate important Western partners. Sutter notes that Chinese leaders “support [Russia] in Europe in ways that really aren’t in the interests of China.” In July 2017, Russia and China held their first joint naval exercise in the Baltic Sea. Several weeks after attempted poisoning of former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and the ensuing international outcry, newly appointed Chinese Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe traveled to Moscow. While there, he declared, “The Chinese side has come to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia, especially in this situation. We’ve come to support you.”
Despite the potential national security implications of a Sino-Russian alliance, the prospect has received scant attention from policymakers. The experts Human Events spoke to noted that neither the Trump administration nor Congress have made any moves to prevent the development of closer ties between Russia and China or to deal with the challenges posed by a Sino-Russian entente.
“What I’m seeing is the United States government gearing up for simultaneous great power competition between the U.S. and Russia and between the U.S. and China in parallel, but I don’t see us taking any steps to mitigate the growing warmth between Moscow and Beijing,” Beebe said. “If anything, I think we’re continuing to feed that.”
In large part, this lack of attention to the increasing ties between Moscow and Beijing is due to the widespread skepticism regarding the feasibility of an alliance. Then Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke for many in Washington when he stated last October, “I see little in the long-term that aligns Russia and China.” Skeptics frequently point to the two countries’ historical rivalry, conflicting interests in regions such as Central Asia, and vast power gap as reasons to temper expectations for their relationship’s future.
Although the experts acknowledged that Russia and China had serious differences, they contended that they were very much manageable. They noted that both countries have shown a willingness to defer on issues of crucial importance for the other. Furthermore, they emphasized that Russia and China have already gone farther and faster in their relationship than many observers thought possible.