The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Russia and China are strengthening ties across virtually every dimension of their relationship. Yet Washington is divided over what these growing ties portend. The conventional wisdom has long held that the Chinese-Russian relationship will remain distant and distrustful—that each country will keep the other at arm’s length. Observers such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Aron (“Are Russia and China Really Forming an Alliance?”) cite a litany of barriers—historic mistrust, economic and military asymmetries, and lingering tensions on several foreign policy issues—that make the Chinese-Russian partnership an unnatural and unlikely one. In short, today’s skeptics argue that concerns about deepening Chinese-Russian relations are overblown and that the two powers are unlikely to enter into a formal alliance.
The conventional wisdom no longer applies. Already, the depth of relations between Beijing and Moscow has exceeded what observers would have expected just a few years ago. Moreover, the two countries acting in concert could inflict significant damage on U.S. interests even if they never form an alliance. In fact, whether Russia and China are becoming formal allies is not really the relevant question today. Rather, the questions policymakers should be asking are how deep their partnership will grow, how it will affect U.S. interests, and what Washington can do to shape its trajectory and ameliorate its negative effects on the United States and other democracies.
Russia and China have long shared a common complaint: since the end of the Cold War, both powers have been uneasy with the United States and the international order it dominates, which they feel disadvantages them. But although Russia and China may have initially banded together in discontent, their repeated interactions are fostering a deeper and enduring partnership. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it in a press conference in March, Beijing’s relations with Moscow are increasingly “steady and mature.” As Moscow and Beijing work together on areas of mutual interest, from North Korea to the Iran nuclear deal, they lay the foundation for a deep and enduring partnership.
As Aron highlights, the camaraderie between Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Xi Jinping, the president of China, has provided much of the impetus for cooperation. The two leaders meet with remarkable frequency. Putin recently attended the second summit celebrating China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Xi will reciprocate with a visit to Moscow later this year. But perhaps more important, the two states interact across all levels of their governments, working closely in such areas as investment, transportation, space navigation, and the development of sensitive technologies with potential military applications. Such a broad—and growing—base of cooperation suggests that ties between Moscow and Beijing will outlast both Putin and Xi.
Moreover, the Russian and Chinese regimes increasingly resemble each other. The two bureaucracies speak the same authoritarian language. Putin resides over a highly personalized authoritarian system where power is highly concentrated in his hands. Xi has similarly consolidated power and dismantled the consensus-based decision-making that dominated China’s post-Mao political system. Although meaningful distinctions between the two governments remain, Xi has personalized his power such that China’s political system now approximates Putin’s strongman authoritarianism. Research suggests that shared regime type enhances cooperation between states. There may be no common authoritarian worldview, but both regimes seek to legitimize their nondemocratic rule and promote a shared vision for reforming the U.S.-led global order.
Aron notes that Russia and China are far from equals in economic and military might. But the convergence of the two countries’ authoritarian systems may help to neutralize this obstacle. As strongmen, Putin and Xi prioritize their survival in office above all else. For Putin, a far-off and uncertain threat from a more powerful China—to Russian control over its Far East, its dominance in Central Asia, or ultimately the Kremlin’s influence on the global stage—is preferable to the immediate and certain threat he perceives from Washington or his own stagnating economy. China helps Putin on both counts. In his State of the Nation address in February, Putin underscored that ties with China would foster Russian security and prosperity, in particular as he harmonizes his Eurasian Economic Union plan with China’s vast Belt and Road Initiative. Although such cooperation has yet to amount to much, Putin’s willingness to sync his economic union with Belt and Road suggests that he does not view his relationship with China as zero-sum—a view that stands in stark contrast to his attitude toward the United States. Putin has grown more accepting of his role as junior partner in his relationship with China.
China, for its part, very well may seek to shake Russia off down the line. But for now the Chinese leadership appreciates Putin’s support in countering Washington, reforming global governance, and questioning the values that underpin the liberal order. Although China may be warier of antagonizing the United States than Russia is, Beijing benefits from Putin’s ability to expose the cracks in Washington’s alliances and distract the United States from China’s rise.
Not even cultural dissonance necessarily creates a barrier to closer relations between two countries with authoritarian leaders determined to paint their governments as partners in fending off Western subversion. After all, Putin’s and Xi’s control over their political systems allows them to reshape public attitudes, should they decide to. Already, Pew Research Center survey data from 2018 show that 65 percent of Russians hold a positive view of China—almost the same as the percentage of Russians who hold negative views of the United States (66 percent).
There’s no debating that Russia and China are drawing closer. What is debated, however, is how significant this development is. Unfortunately, the kind of compelling evidence, such as unvarnished views into intentions of the leadership circles of these regimes, that would enable analysts to confidently assess the nature of the relationship is hard to come by given the opaque nature of the regimes in question. Even the U.S. intelligence community lacks consistent insight into the leadership intentions of these hard-target regimes. The rising hostility between the United States and Russia and, increasingly, China has led these countries to enhance their counterintelligence, hurting U.S. collection efforts. At present, U.S. policymakers risk arguing over the nature of the Russian-Chinese relationship until they can no longer prevent its most malignant implications—most notably the potential that Russia and China will collude to undermine U.S. and European security and democracy.
While Washington takes a wait-and-see approach, Moscow and Beijing could be coordinating to significantly thwart U.S. interests over the next 15 to 25 years.
While Washington takes a wait-and-see approach, Moscow and Beijing could be coordinating to significantly thwart U.S. interests over the next 15 to 25 years. The two powers may never forge a formal military alliance, but they could still work together in ways that cause major headaches for the United States. Imagine, for example, that Russia and China coordinate the timing of hostile actions on their peripheries. If China made aggressive moves in support of its sovereignty claim in the South China Sea at the same time that Russia made further incursions into Ukraine, U.S. forces would struggle to respond effectively to either gambit.
Nonmilitary collaboration between Russia and China could weaken the United States and even threaten its way of life. Both countries are likely to use their cyber and disinformation capabilities to, as the director of national intelligence put it in January, “steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure.” China currently does not exhibit Russia’s zeal for using such measures, particularly against the United States; but if U.S.-Chinese relations darken, Beijing could plausibly take a page from Russia’s playbook and mount coordinated, deniable cyberattacks or interference campaigns against the United States.
China and Russia behave very differently in pursuit of their foreign policy objectives, but the combined effect of their actions is often greater than the sum of its parts. In Europe, for example, China has amassed economic influence through growing trade relationships and Belt and Road–related infrastructure investments not contingent on standards for democratic governance and human rights, particularly in eastern Europe, Greece, and Italy. This engagement will ultimately translate into political leverage, as it already has in many countries in Asia. Russia, for its part, appears intent on pursuing hybrid tactics that disrupt democratic processes. On their own, each of these activities is already worrisome for the United States and Europe. But a scenario in which each country’s actions amplify the other’s is not hard to imagine. China, for example, could eventually use its growing ownership of European ports and rail lines to slow a NATO response to Russian aggression. Likewise, Beijing could use the economic leverage it has accrued to quietly dissuade an already reluctant NATO member state such as Hungary or Turkey from responding to Russia’s hybrid tactics, which could ultimately serve to discredit NATO’s commitment to collective defense.
Washington needs to prepare for the possibility that Russia and China’s partnership will only get stronger. There are no easy fixes to this situation. Efforts to split Moscow and Beijing are unlikely to be effective. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the United States is a far less predictable partner than China, and Putin’s anti-Western views run deep. Xi, for his part, views Russia as useful in undermining U.S. global dominance and countering U.S. efforts to limit Chinese leverage in multilateral institutions.
Still, Washington should seek to stoke tensions between the two and strain the seams in their relationship. In communicating with Beijing, Washington should underscore Russia’s proclivity for wreaking havoc in democracies that oppose its interests. These interference campaigns will increasingly conflict with China’s preference for stability in the many countries where it is engaged economically. Identifying and exploiting potential points of friction will require U.S. intelligence, policy, and military minds to consider Russia and China both together and as separate entities. Until now, the United States has cultivated expertise on Russia and expertise on China but has made limited efforts to study the nexus of their capacities and interests or generate strategies to counter them.
U.S. policymakers will also have to take care not to drive Russia and China together and consider how policies designed to confront one country could inadvertently hinder efforts to confront the other. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, for example, was designed to deter Russian aggression by limiting the Kremlin’s revenue from arms exports. Yet these sanctions have prevented some countries, including India, Indonesia, and Vietnam, from purchasing the Russian arms they need to deter China.
The United States must not find itself alone in a world where Russia and China collaborate to achieve common ends and undermine U.S. interests. In this era of great-power competition, the United States must strengthen its own partnerships—those with allies who share American concerns about an international order reshaped by authoritarians. U.S. allies in Europe, including Germany and France, have grown more sober in their assessment about the threat that China poses and share the U.S. imperative to compete with Russia and China and curtail the reach of their partnership. Even if analysts can’t agree on the likelihood of a Russian-Chinese entente, the impact that such a scenario would have on U.S. interests means that policymakers cannot afford to write off the possibility. The United States should work now to both prevent and prepare for growing synergy and coordination between Russia and China.