Russian and Chinese actions are converging to challenge the U.S.-led global order. Last month, China joined Russia in conducting the latter’s largest military exercises since the Cold War. As the war games kicked off, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shared pancakes and vodka in Vladivostok in yet another public display of their rapport. In addition to enhanced military cooperation, the two nations’ collaboration in international institutions and remarkably frequent high-level engagements reflect their growing agreement about how the world should be ordered. Central in this shared view is the belief that weakening democracy can accelerate the decline of Western influence and advance both Russia’s and China’s geopolitical goals.
Russia and China view efforts to support democracy—especially U.S. efforts—as thinly veiled attempts to expand U.S. influence and undermine their regimes and have consistently sought to counter Western democracy promotion. These efforts are not new, but they are changing in scope and intensity. Since 2014, Russia in particular has been taking the fight to Western democracies. Because Moscow and Beijing gauge their power in relation to the United States, they view weakening Western democracy as a means of enhancing their own standing. The Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, was intended, at least in part, to tarnish U.S. democracy and allow Moscow to claim that Washington has no right telling other nations how to conduct their elections. For their part, Chinese leaders have sought to gradually weaken democratic norms as a way to enhance the international legitimacy of China’s Leninist-capitalist brand of governance.
A GROWING THREAT
Although these efforts are long-standing, two factors are increasing their threat to democracy. First, Russian and Chinese foreign policy tactics are converging in new and synergistic ways. Russian foreign policy is confrontational and brazen. China, so far, has used a subtler and more risk-averse strategy, preferring stability that is conducive to building economic ties and influence. Although these two approaches are
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