Members of an honour guard stand in formation ahead of a welcome ceremony for Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, October 11, 2011.
Jason Lee / Reuters

Russia and China seem to be growing closer by the day. In May 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Russia. As China’s official media opined at the time, “China and Russia are deepening and celebrating their old friendship marked by successful cooperation and win-win results, while simultaneously adding new facets to their strategic partnership.”

Maybe, maybe not. There are two schools of thought about the likely trajectory of the Sino-Russian relationship. The first, which could be called the “fatally flawed” school, includes former senior U.S. officials and luminaries, such as Joseph Nye. It holds that the Sino-Russian relationship is a marriage of convenience—riven with mistrust—and consequently, as one author wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “China and Russia are unlikely to forge a sustained strategic partnership.” The second school of thought could be called the “mighty axis” school. It tends toward the view that China and Russia are building a lasting partnership to challenge U.S. dominance. That partnership will become “a feature of a new, post–Cold War geopolitical order,” as Princeton’s Gilbert Rozman wrote in a Foreign Affairs article. Russia and China will start in Eurasia, the thinking goes, but they have global aspirations

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves upon his arrival before attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS summits in Ufa, Russia, July 8, 2015.
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves upon his arrival before attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS summits in Ufa, Russia, July 8, 2015. 
Reuters
Both of these views overstate the reality, which lies somewhere in the murky middle. The existence of conflicting interests does not preclude cooperation between China and Russia. And cooperation has clearly grown. Witness, for example, joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean and planned follow-ons in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan. On the economic front, the two sides recently announced that they would join China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union to integrate all of Eurasia. At the same time, however, analysts should avoid overestimating the extent and staying power of Sino-Russian ties. The notion of an authoritarian axis that will rewrite global order ignores the reality that China and Russia are competing with one another, too.

To be sure, some areas of Sino-Russian cooperation do threaten U.S. interests. Beijing and Moscow have, for instance, joined forces to normalize “cyber sovereignty,” that is, to increase national governments’ power over digital activity within their borders and thereby further fracture the free and open Internet. Likewise, Russia’s sale of the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system to China has the potential to seriously complicate U.S. military planning in Asia-Pacific.

The United States should focus on isolating China and Russia together rather than trying to pry them apart.
But other types of cooperation either do not affect U.S. interests or could further them. For example, both countries played key roles in bringing to fruition the recent nuclear deal with Iran, and they will be needed for the deal’s implementation. Meanwhile, speaking in broad terms, economic development across Asia, which both Russia and China have pledged to work together to further, is in the interest of all countries. 

Sino-Russian cooperation is a mixed bag for the United States, which is why the existing schools of thought fall short when it comes to policy recommendations. The “fatally flawed” school (at least tacitly) argues that the Sino-Russian relationship will falter of its own accord, and thus does not, in itself, merit a concerted U.S. policy reaction. The “mighty axis” school recommends that the United States should structure its foreign policies to avoid a Sino-Russian axis, and in that way, mirror the primary strategic approach the United States took during the Cold War. As international relations theorist John Mearsheimer put it in a recent interview, “driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese…is strategic foolishness of the first order.” In this school, the fear is that, if the United States takes too hard a line toward Russian actions in Ukraine and other parts of its near abroad, it will hasten Moscow’s embrace of Beijing. Likewise, standing up to Chinese assertiveness in Asia would persuade China to support Russian malfeasance. In other words, don’t push either of them individually, lest they be pushed together.

The United States needs a new approach—one based on two principles. First, the United States should focus on isolating China and Russia together rather than trying to pry them apart. 

For one, no school advocates the use of force to attack the partnership itself, although they do see sticks as a way to pressure Russia and China individually on specific issues. That leaves carrots; but any concessions made to try to coax China from Russia or vice versa are also likely to fail. In many cases, concessions would undermine vital U.S. interests in the process. For example, accepting territorial revisionism from Russia in the hope of bringing it back into the Western fold would embolden China and fail to incentivize Russia to restrain Chinese claims in return. The reverse is also true. 

Instead of trying to break up the two powers, the U.S. goal should be to provide the opportunities and space for China and Russia to create distance between themselves.
The United States simply lacks options attractive enough to pull Russia and China apart. That is because the structure of the two countries’ relationship today differs from the Cold War era in meaningful ways. In the Cold War, the United States and China could form a quasi-alliance against Russia because, at the time, China was the weaker power and it was increasingly resentful of Moscow’s attempts to run China like a puppet state. Today Russia is the weaker power, China does not attempt to run it, and the Putin regime gains strength from both its ideological stand against the West and its growing ties with China. Meanwhile, there is little the United States could offer China to make it give up or rein in Russia, since for China, the more headaches Russia causes in Eastern Europe, the more the United States’ focus is drawn away from Asia.

This is not an argument to abandon engagement with China on Russia, Ukraine, or other issues. Rather, it is an argument to avoid delusions that, in the current environment, either county will see value in pulling back from the other. Instead the United States should work with its allies and partners, as well as with other countries, to push back against both Chinese and Russian bad behavior on its own merits and in their own regions, including through pressure and force where necessary. At the same time, the United States should tolerate Sino-Russian cooperation that does not negatively affect its interests or those of its allies.

The second principle for dealing with the Sino-Russian entente should be to look for the natural divisions between Russia and China where they do arise. Instead of trying to break up the two powers, the U.S. goal should be to provide the opportunities and space for China and Russia to create distance between themselves. This means not opposing—and even tacitly encouraging—each power’s efforts to extend its influence in the other’s backyard. For example, Russia remains worried about its vulnerability to Chinese military power in the Russian Far East, and so it has maintained strategic ties with countries around China’s border, including India, North Korea, and Vietnam. The Ukraine crisis has frozen Russia’s relations with Japan, but it is worth remembering that even those two were drawing closer prior to 2014. The United States should do nothing to stop such engagement, and it might even make clear through back channels that it does not oppose these ties if they allow Russia to pitch in with balancing Chinese power in Asia. 

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping review an honour guard contingent during a welcoming ceremony at the Xijiao State Guesthouse ahead of the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit, in Shanghai, May 20, 2014.
Carlos Barria / Reuters
In Central Asia, despite public statements by Chinese and Russian officials about their desire to coordinate Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union with China’s plans for a Silk Road Economic Belt, Russia will almost surely feel that China is encroaching on its traditional sphere of influence. Feeling trapped in the west by NATO, Russia desires to push east. The current tacit agreement—that Russia will dominate security affairs while China drives economic growth in the region—has served well until now. But it is likely to start to crumble once the Chinese desire to protect its investments through bilateral security partnerships with Central Asian governments grows beyond Russia’s comfort. As China becomes more involved in the region, the Central Asian governments will most likely start playing Russia and China off each other, which won’t help matters.

The United States should get out of the way and allow the regional competition to play out. Good strategy means knowing what not to do, and the United States should know not to contest Russian and Chinese power in the deep heartland of Eurasia. Let them balance each other and fight the counterterrorism battles the United States has already sunk so many resources into. If China and Russia want to become primary security partners in Afghanistan or fund infrastructure construction in the region, the United States should welcome it. The more attention and resources Russia and China devote to Central and South Asia, the less they will have to devote to Europe and East Asia. That is not an argument for ignoring the region. The United States should keep watching it closely, perhaps as an observer of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, if for no other reason than as a barometer of the larger Sino-Russian relationship.

Sometimes, facilitating natural divisions will mean attacking the drivers of Chinese-Russian cooperation indirectly in a way that does not involve concessions. One such driver is energy. Growing oil and gas trade will support broader cooperation to some degree, even if it fails to reach the levels envisaged in the slew of pipeline deals struck in 2014. Broadly speaking, diversified global energy markets are a good thing, but neither China nor Russia should be overly dependent on the other. To this end, Sino-Russian energy trade could be limited if Washington starts exporting its own unconventional oil and natural gas to China. Washington cannot compel U.S. businesses to do so (in the same way that Beijing or Moscow could) but it should seek to create the conditions for U.S.-Chinese energy trade, including by lifting its current ban on exporting crude oil.

Tightening Sino-Russian relations should be cause for measured action, not derision or alarmism. The United States’ interests and values demand that it push back against the bad behavior of both great powers including with force where necessary, and the appearance of a new Russian-Chinese condominium should not override that logic. Attempts to make concessions to Russia in Europe or China in Asia in order to split them apart will fail. Quietly encouraging the fissures between them is the best bet; done right, it could lead the United States to major successes—like during the Cold War, just with different tactics.

  • JACOB STOKES is an Associate Fellow in the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security.
  • ALEXANDER SULLIVAN is an Adjunct Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS.
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