The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
On March 23, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, sat down for an auspiciously timed meeting. The high-level talks came just a day after an unusually heated public exchange between senior U.S. and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, and in sharp contrast, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers struck an amicable tone. Together, they rejected Western criticism of their human rights records and issued a joint statement offering an alternative vision for global governance. The U.S.-led international order, Lavrov said, “does not represent the will of the international community.”
The meeting was noteworthy for more than its rhetoric, however. Within days of it, Russia began amassing troops along Ukraine’s border—the largest number since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Simultaneously, China began conducting highly publicized amphibious assault exercises and air incursions into Taiwan’s so-called air defense identification zone at the highest frequency in nearly 25 years. These military moves have reignited concerns in Washington about the potential depth of Chinese-Russian coordination.
For the United States, confronting these decidedly different adversaries will be a tall order, and the two countries will inevitably divide Washington’s attention, capabilities, and resources. The events of the last several weeks make clear that the administration of President Joe Biden will have difficulty managing Chinese behavior without addressing Moscow’s support for Beijing and that Washington must now calculate how its response to one adversary will shape the calculus of the other.
The problems the two countries pose to Washington are distinct, but the convergence of their interests and the complementarity of their capabilities—military and otherwise—make their combined challenge to U.S. power greater than the sum of its parts. China, in particular, is using its relationship with Russia to fill gaps in its military capabilities, accelerate its technological innovation, and complement its efforts to undermine U.S. global leadership. Any effort to address either Russia’s or China’s destabilizing behavior must now account for the two countries’ deepening partnership.
The Biden administration has signaled that China is its number one foreign policy priority. The president has called Beijing Washington’s “most serious competitor” and emphasized that China’s economic abuses, human rights violations, and military capabilities pose a threat to U.S. interests and values. At the same time, the administration has rightfully downgraded Russia to a second-tier concern. But Washington shouldn’t underestimate Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin oversees over a highly capable military and has shown that he is willing to use it. Fearful of irrelevance, Putin is looking for ways to force the United States to deal with Moscow and likely views a relationship with Beijing as a means to strengthen his hand.
Russia has pursued such ties in part by selling sophisticated weaponry to the Chinese military. Russian-made systems strengthen China’s air defense, antiship, and submarine capabilities, which serve to bolster China’s posture against the United States in the Indo-Pacific. Russia and China have been conducting joint military exercises—including strategic bomber patrols in the Indo-Pacific and naval drills with Iran in the Indian Ocean—of increasing frequency and complexity. Such activities signal to other countries that Beijing and Moscow are willing to challenge U.S. dominance. Moreover, the two states have developed technological cooperation that might eventually allow them to innovate faster together than the United States can on its own.
Any effort to address Russia’s or China’s behavior must account for the two countries’ deepening partnership.
The link between the two countries is more than strategic, as China and Russia are learning from each other when it comes to authoritarian tactics. Beijing’s aggressive rollout of COVID-19 disinformation campaigns, for instance, demonstrates that its leaders have begun to adopt long-standing Kremlin methods. Rather than merely promoting and amplifying positive narratives about the Communist Party, Beijing’s campaigns seek to sow confusion, dissension, and doubt about democracy itself. Following cues from Beijing, Moscow in turn is learning to roll back the relative freedom of Russia’s online sphere—a task made more urgent since Alexei Navalny returned in January and mass protests swept the country. Through shared means, China and Russia popularize authoritarian governance, water down human rights protections, and create dangerous norms around cyber- and Internet sovereignty. The two countries back each other up on these matters in multilateral forums. Some of this coordination is undoubtedly more incidental than purposeful, but the two countries are singing from the same sheet of music.
For Russia, the economic benefits of a strong relationship with China are never far from view. Moscow is working with Beijing to mitigate the effects of U.S. and European sanctions and, ultimately, to reduce Washington’s centrality to the global economic system—a change that would reduce the efficacy of U.S. economic tools. The Kremlin has turned to Beijing for capital investment, a market for arms exports, and defense components that Russia can no longer access in the West. After the frosty U.S.-Chinese meeting in Alaska, Lavrov highlighted the need to move away from using the dollar and Western-controlled international payment systems.
The new U.S. administration has framed the competition with China and Russia in ideological terms—a “fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” as Biden put it. This approach is sound. China and Russia are working to undermine liberal democracy, a concept that both regimes view as a direct threat to their aspirations and grip on power. For this reason among others, the two countries seek to weaken the U.S. position in important regions and international institutions.
The Biden administration’s recommitment to allies and multilateralism will hobble such efforts. Likewise, Biden’s efforts to strengthen democratic political systems will hurt Chinese and Russian attempts to sow doubt about their desirability. Coordinated efforts to develop resilient cyber- and election infrastructure and elevate anticorruption policies can help blunt the effects of malign interference.
Still, the United States cannot base its strategy solely on reasserting its leadership and protecting democracy, because China and Russia are linked not only by the alignment of their worldviews but also by the complementarity of their resources and capabilities. The Kremlin, for example, does not believe that it has an economic future in the West. As financial stagnation and the risk of domestic instability mount, China has become an ever more important partner. Striking at the foundation of that relationship will require Washington to show Moscow that some degree of cooperation with the United States is preferable to subservience to Beijing. Shaping Moscow’s calculus in this way will not prevent Chinese-Russian cooperation altogether, but it can limit the most malignant implications of their alignment.
The Chinese-Russian relationship is not impermeable.
Some policymakers and analysts have recommended a “reverse Nixon” strategy of cozying up to Russia to pull it away from China. We instead suggest a far more modest and incremental approach designed to demonstrate to the people around Putin the benefits of a more balanced and independent Russian foreign policy. The ground for pursuing such a strategy is narrow, but Washington could start with its stated desire to use the February extension of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty as a jumping-off point for dialogue on arms control, strategic stability, and nonproliferation. The United States could further engage with Moscow to facilitate Iran’s return to the 2015 nuclear deal and secure a stable peace in Afghanistan.
In the Arctic, too, the United States could work to slow Moscow’s turn toward Beijing. Washington should immediately move to restart the Arctic Chiefs of Defense (CHODS) forum, a space for dialogue with Russia and other U.S. Arctic partners about the region’s growing militarization. Although the Arctic Council is the area’s primary governing body, its mandate does not include security and military issues. The Arctic CHODS forum could be charged with designing military guidelines to avoid conflict among all parties. Such efforts would not only stave off a dangerous escalation that could derail other U.S. policy priorities but might also provide a springboard for additional U.S.-Russian cooperation.
Russian actions, including military escalations and persistent efforts to undermine democratic institutions, limit diplomatic possibilities in the near term. Meaningful engagement will be minimal so long as Putin remains in power. Sustained and incremental efforts to work with Moscow in ways that advance U.S. interests, however, can demonstrate to the elite around Putin that an alternative to subservience is possible.
In the meantime, Washington will need to devote more resources to monitoring and countering the effects of Beijing and Moscow’s collaboration. The Biden administration should conduct regular war games that stack the United States, and potentially its NATO allies, opposite China and Russia. Washington should prepare to counter coordinated interference campaigns meant to manipulate public discourse and undermine faith in the U.S. electoral system. China and Russia have likely stepped up their intelligence sharing and efforts to counter U.S. intelligence operations in both countries. U.S. agencies will therefore need to factor heightened counterintelligence concerns into their attempts to collect information on defense cooperation, technology co-development, and undisclosed arms transfers.
The Chinese-Russian relationship is not impermeable, and the United States should not shy away from proactive measures to exploit its fissures. U.S. efforts to capitalize on minor tensions may not change the overall trajectory of the two countries’ relationship. But driving even small wedges between the partners can contribute to friction and mistrust that limit the extent of cooperation. In the Arctic, for example, Russia is seeking to limit the role of non-Arctic states— especially China—in regional governance. The United States should support Moscow in this endeavor, as it shares an interest in limiting Chinese influence in the region. Separately, Russia is a major arms seller to countries that have territorial disputes with China, including India and Vietnam. Yet the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act—passed by Congress in 2017 to limit Kremlin revenue from arms exports—prevents Russia from selling weapons to New Delhi. Policymakers should consider providing India with a waiver to purchase Russian weapons, thereby allowing natural fissures between Beijing and Moscow to grow.
Finally, Washington should be far more vocal with Moscow about how Chinese behavior harms Russian interests. A long-standing tenet of Russian foreign policy is to establish Moscow as an independent and unaligned actor in a multipolar world. Some analysts and Russian elites are therefore concerned about Russia’s growing subservience to Beijing. As China encroaches on Russian interests in Belarus, Iran, and elsewhere, the United States should seek to raise questions among the Russian people and ruling elite about the wisdom of the current approach, in the hope that future leaders will chart a more neutral course.
The Biden administration already has a long list of urgent China- and Russia-related tasks. The effort to curtail the two countries’ relationship belongs in that catalog. Creative thinking about how to limit cooperation between Beijing and Moscow—while avoiding actions that reinforce their entente—will be critical to protecting U.S. interests and liberal democracies in the decades to come.