Iraq and the Pathologies of Primacy
The Flawed Logic That Produced the War Is Alive and Well
On February 4, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. After talks, the two sides released a joint statement declaring that China and Russia’s bilateral partnership was greater than a traditional alliance and that their friendship would know “no limits.” Twenty days later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Putin’s brazen gambit immediately cast scrutiny on Beijing; many observers perceived that it had backed Putin’s offensive or, at best, willfully ignored it. Russia’s tight embrace of China since then comes as no surprise, given its dire need for partners in the face of global isolation. More striking is Beijing’s steadfast refusal to distance itself from Moscow, despite the costs to its global image and its strategic interests. Even as Russia has become a pariah, Beijing has not paused bilateral exchanges and joint military exercises or dialed down its public exhortations on deepening strategic coordination with its friend to the north.
Beijing’s resolve to maintain ties with Moscow is partly practical. Chinese leaders want to keep their nuclear-armed neighbor and former rival on their side as they look ahead to intense, long-term competition with the United States. But China’s alignment with Russia is not only a matter of realpolitik. Beijing sees Moscow as its most important partner in the wider project of altering a global order that it perceives as skewed unfairly toward the West. In this order, according to the Chinese and Russian line, the United States and its allies set the rules to their advantage, defining what it means to be a democracy and to respect human rights while retaining the power to isolate and punish actors for failing to uphold those standards. Beijing and Moscow purport to seek a “fairer,” multipolar order that better takes into account the views and interests of developing countries.
Such revisionist aspirations undoubtedly resonate in the global South and even in some quarters of the developed world. But Xi’s designation of Putin as a key ally in the push for a less Western-centric world has ultimately set Beijing back in accomplishing its objectives. China’s association with a revanchist Russia has only drawn more attention to its own aggressive posture toward Taiwan. The perception of a hardening Chinese-Russian axis has, in turn, reinforced ties among U.S. allies and partners. And China’s proximity to Russia has undermined the credibility of Beijing’s claims of being a champion for peace and development.
In short, the Chinese-Russian alignment has proved far more threatening to the U.S.-led order in its conception than in its operation. To be sure, the partnership can still cause damage—for instance, by shielding the likes of Russia and North Korea from punitive measures at the United Nations and enabling their continued aggression. But Beijing’s and Moscow’s conflicting priorities and the latter’s generally dismal prospects limit the pair’s ability to revise the existing global order in a truly coordinated and radical way. Western leaders should nevertheless accept that efforts to push Beijing to cut its ties with Moscow are likely to fail. In the near term, the United States and its allies should focus instead on preventing the partnership from veering down a more destructive path by taking advantage of Beijing’s strong interest in the preservation of global stability. More broadly, Washington and its allies should recognize that China and Russia are channeling real disaffection with the existing international order in many parts of the world—and should get to work bridging the gap between the West and the rest.
Since Xi’s rise to power in 2012, Russia has become one of China’s key partners with the steady strengthening of economic, political, and military ties. Moscow and Beijing may have started off as allies in the early days of the Cold War, but decades of rivalry and mistrust followed a split over ideological differences that emerged in the late 1950s. Beijing and Moscow have been brought together again in the twenty-first century by shared grievances with the West and the clear parallels they perceive in their respective situations, with Russia accusing NATO of encirclement and China feeling hemmed in by U.S. alliances in Asia. Chinese and Russian leaders also share a fear of “color revolutions”—popular uprisings that have ousted autocratic governments around the world, including in former Soviet states—which they allege are Western-sponsored attempts at regime change.
Last year’s rhetoric about a friendship with “no limits” followed an earlier upgrade to relations in 2019, when China and Russia announced they had forged a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era” during Xi’s visit to Moscow. China accords this deliberately long moniker to relations with no other state. And by invoking “a new era” (a phrase Xi coined to reflect China’s bid for national rejuvenation in a shifting geopolitical landscape), the label also underscored the two states’ intention to work hand in hand during a period of strategic opportunity.
In recent decades, China has shunned formal alliances for both pragmatic and ideological reasons and has criticized the United States’ vast alliance network as a “vestige of the Cold War.” But Beijing has increasingly resorted to semantic gymnastics to talk about its alignment with Russia. Chinese statements regularly insist that the bilateral partnership is “not an alliance” and “not targeted” against any third party while also making the case that China and Russia’s relationship “surpasses” traditional alliances. Even before the joint statement in February 2022, Beijing had stressed that no areas of cooperation were off limits and that the partnership would stand firm in the face of international headwinds.
Hard military ties have grown alongside this rhetorical camaraderie since the first joint Chinese-Russian military exercise conducted in 2005. Since 2012, the two sides have engaged in increasingly ambitious and frequent training, including naval exercises in the East China and South China Seas and joint engagements with third parties, such as Iran, South Africa, and members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a China-led grouping of states. In late 2021, China and Russia made headlines by holding their first joint naval exercise in the western Pacific, during which their vessels sailed through key waterways around Japan.
Economic ties, too, have deepened in the last decade, with the two sides signing dozens of agreements outlining cooperation on energy, infrastructure, agriculture, finance, and technology. Bilateral trade has grown in volume over the last two decades, but it has also become increasingly unbalanced, with China’s economy rapidly eclipsing Russia’s. As of 2021, China accounted for 18 percent of Russia’s total trade, while Russia only accounted for two percent of China’s. Russia’s top exports to China are natural resources, such as gas, oil, and coal, that may be important today but will become less so as Beijing turns more toward renewable energy sources. China’s top exports to Russia, however, are largely manufactured goods, such as machinery and electronics. Russia depends overwhelmingly on the more advanced Chinese economy for technology imports, from semiconductors to telecommunications equipment.
This material relationship sits alongside an intensifying ideological alignment. China and Russia both seek to challenge what they perceive to be a Western-dominated global order that allows the United States and its allies to impose their interests on others. The two countries have frequently protested the primacy of “Western values” in international forums and have argued for a conditional understanding of human rights and democracy, defined “in accordance with the specific situation in each country.” In their joint statement from February 2022, China and Russia insisted that they, too, are democracies and took a swipe at “certain states” for using the “pretext of protecting democracy and human rights” to sow discord among other countries and intervene in their internal affairs.
Beijing and Moscow accuse Washington of unfairly using its economic power, including the privileged position of the U.S. dollar in the global financial system, to impose punitive measures on its rivals. China and Russia have both pushed back on Western sanctions, despite employing economic coercion themselves against others. Beijing has argued that sanctions levied outside the auspices of the UN violate states’ “right to development,” a framing that has its roots in the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests to prioritize the “right to subsistence” above civil liberties and political freedoms. Although China no longer struggles with concerns about basic subsistence, Beijing has criticized high-tech export restrictions and other decoupling measures adopted by the United States and its allies as unfairly constraining China’s development and “right to rejuvenation.” Beijing has also used this language to object to Western sanctions on Russia regardless of its offenses, claiming that the sanctions infringe on Russia’s economic rights and have damaging side effects on developing countries.
In the global South, China continues to market itself as an apolitical champion for development, a position that Russia supports. The two have extolled the virtues of Chinese projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure development program, and the more recently announced Global Development Initiative, a still vaguely defined scheme seen as a successor to the BRI that, according to Beijing, brings development “back” to the center of the global agenda. Such initiatives, along with Chinese messaging about development, have found receptive audiences in the global South, given that many low-income countries want rapid development but remain averse to international scrutiny on their domestic governance.
Xi and Putin have met in person 39 times since 2012.
Over the years, Beijing and Moscow have advanced various measures to weaken U.S. control of the international economy. They have cooperated to create alternative financial institutions and mechanisms to dent the dollar’s dominance and blunt the impact of Western sanctions. This effort has gained greater urgency since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent cutting off of major Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system. Since Beijing and Moscow agreed in 2019 to boost the use of national currencies in cross-border trade, the Russian central bank has significantly reduced its dollar holdings and increased its investment in Chinese yuan. About a quarter of Chinese-Russian trade is now settled in renminbi and rubles, and this percentage will increase following the announcement last fall that China will begin to pay for Russian gas half in renminbi and half in rubles. Beijing and Moscow’s efforts to reduce the dominance of the dollar have been warmly welcomed in friendly groupings such as the SCO and the BRICS, which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
At the heart of China and Russia’s ideological alignment is a common desire to weaken the vast U.S.-led alliance architecture in Europe and Asia. The two countries accuse Washington and its allies of violating the principle of “indivisible security” by advancing their security interests at the expense of others’. The Kremlin has employed this argument to justify its war in Ukraine and to redirect blame for the conflict on NATO. And this narrative has caught on in many parts of the global South, thanks in part to Chinese state media amplifying Russian talking points. In Asia, Beijing has pointed to the strengthening of the U.S. alliance network—including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a security partnership between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, and AUKUS, a partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—as evidence of the U.S.-led containment of China. But Beijing faces an uphill battle in challenging the U.S. presence, given that many Asian governments are concerned about China’s aggressive behavior and welcome the United States’ balancing role in the region.
Despite seeking to change elements of the current global order, Beijing and Moscow do not wish to revise all elements of the existing architecture. They continue to stress that the United Nations and UN Security Council should play a leading role in the international arena. This position is unsurprising, given the privileges China and Russia enjoy as permanent members of the Security Council and their ability to rally developing world partners at the UN.
Until February 24, 2022, when Russian troops stormed Ukraine, Beijing saw little downside to its burgeoning relationship with Moscow. It is unclear just how much Chinese leaders knew of Putin’s plans in advance. But they were likely taken aback when the Russian attack floundered and placed a heavy spotlight on China. Even so, Beijing has ultimately chosen not to distance itself from Russia. Chinese leaders have yet to explicitly condemn Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine and have spoken in defense of Russia’s “legitimate security concerns.” Chinese state media outlets have also amplified Russian propaganda and disinformation about the war in Ukraine.
At the same time, China maintains that it is not a party to the conflict and that it supports peaceful negotiations, as well as the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. It has expressed concern about the “prolonged and expanded crisis” in Ukraine, including its negative spillover effects. China also abstained on three UN resolutions last year that condemned Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory. Chinese officials privately insist that these abstentions were a sign of Beijing’s disapproval of Russian behavior and that they went to great lengths to rebuff Moscow’s repeated requests that Beijing veto these resolutions.
Chinese leaders have also made clear to their Russian counterparts that they oppose the threat or use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and underlined their expectations that Moscow pursue a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. In the months following the invasion, Chinese banks and businesses largely complied with sanctions by curtailing shipments of restricted goods and suspending select operations in the Russian market, although last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce accused five Chinese firms of violating sanctions and the U.S. Treasury recently sanctioned a Chinese company for providing satellite imagery to the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization operating in Ukraine. To date, the Chinese government has not extended direct material assistance to Russia’s military efforts, although the Biden administration warned in February that Beijing may be on the cusp of supplying Moscow with lethal aid.
Beijing has nevertheless made a point of maintaining normal trade ties with Moscow, and nonsanctioned sectors of bilateral trade have ballooned as a result. Just weeks before the Russian invasion, the two countries signed oil and gas deals worth nearly $120 billion and announced the lifting of Chinese restrictions on Russian wheat and barley imports. China replaced Germany as the largest importer of Russian energy last year, and Chinese-Russian trade reached a record-breaking $180 billion in 2022.
China and Russia have also kept up their steady pace of diplomatic engagement. According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, top Chinese and Russian officials have met 21 times since last February. Russian state media has reported that Xi may pay Putin a visit in Moscow this spring.
Perhaps most remarkably, Beijing and Moscow have maintained their steady pace of joint military exercises, even as the Russian military is bombarding Ukrainian cities. Last May, as U.S. President Joe Biden traveled in the region, Chinese and Russian bombers flew over the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, and into South Korea’s air defense identification zone. China participated in Russian exercises in the Russian Far East and in the Sea of Japan in September, and the two capped the year off with a major joint naval exercise in the East China Sea in late December. Their first joint military exercise of 2023 has been planned for February, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and will include South Africa, a BRICS partner.
China’s decision to double down on its alignment with Russia even after the latter’s naked aggression in Ukraine has raised grave concerns on the part of the United States and its allies. Polling by the Pew Research Center indicates that the percentage of Americans with unfavorable views of China, which was already at historic highs in 2021, increased further, from 76 percent to 82 percent, in 2022. Moreover, 62 percent believed the relationship between China and Russia is a “very serious” problem for the United States. Views of China have soured, particularly in Europe, dashing Beijing’s hopes that the European Union would adopt a more benign posture than that of the United States. Polling by the German Marshall Fund last September found that many Europeans preferred a “tougher” approach to China, even if such policies would come at an economic cost. Although Tokyo has long been wary of the threat posed by China, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and fears of a similar scenario in Asia have inspired the recent, historic changes in Japan’s defense policies, including its moves to develop counterstrike capabilities, to double its defense budget, and to sign unprecedented security pacts with Australia and the United Kingdom.
The most damaging consequence of Russia’s aggression for China is the heightened global awareness and sense of urgency about Taiwan. Preventing Taiwan from becoming “the next Ukraine” has become a topic of grave concern, not just in Washington but among U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, many of whom once viewed Taiwan’s fate as only vaguely relevant, if at all, to their own security or a matter too politically sensitive to discuss. A record number of lawmakers from countries including Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States have visited Taipei in the last year to express support for the island. Fears about Chinese and Russian revisionism have strengthened ties between NATO and the United States’ Indo-Pacific allies, as well. Last year, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea participated in a NATO summit for the first time. Leaders there jointly recognized the danger of conflict in the Taiwan Strait and called for greater coordination among like-minded European and Asian partners.
Although negative views of China have spiked among developed democracies, that has not been the case in the developing world, especially among nondemocratic states. As a study published last fall by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy found, China’s and even Russia’s favorability ratings remain relatively high in many parts of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Partnership with Russia has hurt China’s image in the West and has inspired more concerted coordination among the United States and its partners to the detriment of Chinese ambitions. But China will not forsake Russia anytime soon. Beijing must keep Moscow close as it looks ahead to decades of competition with Washington. It cannot afford to be distracted by tensions with a militarily formidable neighbor with which it shares a 2,600 mile border. In addition, Xi has invested a great deal in his relationship with Putin, the two having met a remarkable total of 39 times since 2012. The Chinese state cannot backpedal away from this personal commitment without suggesting that Xi, its “core leader,” has erred.
Nonetheless, Beijing’s behavior since February demonstrates that there are indeed some limits to its partnership with Moscow. Although China and Russia share revisionist goals and seek privileged positions for themselves at the top of the international hierarchy, the two countries do not always agree about how to achieve these objectives. Even as China grapples with a relative economic slowdown after decades of rapid growth and faces various challenges at home, it remains the world’s second-largest economy. It has much more to lose than Russia does from global instability and economic isolation. Chinese leaders and citizens know well that their country’s integration into the global economy, along with the flow of investments and people in and out of China, has fueled the country’s economic miracle. China still has great capacity to influence other countries through its economic offerings, such as investments, loans, and infrastructure and trade agreements, all of which have allowed Beijing to project power and promote its agenda globally in recent years. Russia, on the other hand, is a lopsided power that has significant military capabilities but dismal economic prospects. With fewer tools of influence at its disposal, Moscow has turned to brute force to achieve its aims and has become increasingly isolated as a result, with years of economic contraction looming. Chinese leaders have staked their legitimacy on achieving their country’s revitalization, so they are less likely to emulate or join in the Kremlin’s violent revisionism.
According to news reports in CNN and the German outlet Der Spiegel, China is negotiating the possible sales of strike drones and ammunition to Russia. These deals have yet to be concluded. It remains to be seen whether Beijing will allow these or other weapons transactions to move forward given heightened global scrutiny. If China does provide such assistance to Russia, it would come with colossal consequences for Chinese relations with the West. But at present, it seems unlikely that China will support Moscow militarily to the degree that the United States and its partners have assisted Kyiv. Military coordination between China and Russia is likely to remain more performative than geared to actual joint combat. In fact, Beijing is likely to refuse any direct Russian military assistance in the event of a war over Taiwan, given the deep nationalist sentiments that undergird its quest to consolidate rule over the island. Similarly, it is hard to imagine Moscow welcoming any operational presence of the People’s Liberation Army in its own backyard. Despite the official rhetoric of friendship, China and Russia ultimately lack close cultural and people-to-people ties that could inspire their citizens to die in war for each other—a high bar to meet even for countries that share such bonds. These factors suggest that the prospect of a joint Chinese-Russian military campaign remains remote for the time being.
China and Russia’s partnership is real and likely to endure for the foreseeable future. But its strategic implications should not be overstated or underestimated. The fundamental differences between their respective outlooks, along with Russia’s growing limitations, will curb the alignment’s appeal and its ability to revise the existing global order, which requires exerting influence among both developing and developed countries. A limited partnership between the two countries can still be destabilizing, particularly if China serves as Russia’s economic lifeline and the pair continue to partner in protecting fellow autocracies and enabling their transgressions at home and abroad.
The United States should neither expect the disintegration of this alignment nor resign itself to the further consolidation of Chinese-Russian ties. Instead, U.S. officials should appeal to Beijing’s fundamental interest in stability to push Chinese leaders to rein in Russian recklessness. Recent efforts by Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and others to press Xi to oppose the threat or use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine offer a good example of how Western powers can work with China to send the right signals to Moscow. The same approach should be used to advocate for a peace agreement that delivers justice for the people of Ukraine, once a road map for such an accord emerges. Skeptics may question whether attempting to work with Beijing will be worth the effort, given that it is unlikely to endorse tough measures that jeopardize its ties with Moscow. China will also seek credit for its cooperation, which should be given when due. It will attempt to link its willingness to cooperate with Western powers on Ukraine to concessions in other areas, such as easing export restrictions on Chinese companies or curbing diplomatic support for Taiwan. The United States and its partners will need to manage such demands by setting proper expectations with Beijing. China’s words and actions, as a member of the UN Security Council and as Russia’s most consequential ally and trade partner, will affect Moscow’s decisions in Ukraine and beyond. As such, securing China’s cooperation in working toward peace in Europe will be essential.
The United States and its allies should also give serious thought to why Chinese and Russian accusations of Western hypocrisy and hegemony resonate in many parts of the world and to how they might address these grievances. They will have to grapple with tough issues, such as the damaging humanitarian consequences in the global South of the West’s mounting use of non-UN sanctions. And they will have to find ways to ensure powerful international institutions, including the UN Security Council, the G-20, and the vast array of international standard-setting bodies that shape the rules and norms on everything from global finance to AI research, can better account for the voices and priorities of developing states. To prevent further global division and the exploitation of this gap by China and Russia, the United States and its partners should foster enduring ties with developing countries and actively consider where alterations to the existing international order are necessary rather than ceding the ground to Beijing and Moscow.