Russian-Chinese Foreign Relations: Are they a threat to US Security?
Courtesy of Brookings
Deepening across the last decade, Russia and China’s ties were expressed most strongly through trade, oil, and joint military operations until President Xi Jinping took power in 2013.
Two quintessential strongmen (a term in politics referring to certain types of authoritarian leaders likely to commit crimes against humanity and human rights violations in some form), Jinping and President Vladimir Putin seemed unlikely to engage in interstate cooperation or diplomacy due to their regime’s isolationist and unilateral natures. For instance, in March 2023, Jinping stated that China must increase its self-reliance amid trade tensions with the US. However, meeting nearly 30 times from 2013 to 2019, the “strongmen” leaders of Russia and China formed not only a political but also a personal relationship due to their similar ideologies: their “personalized regimes” and, most importantly, their animosity towards the West.
In 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a global response from Western states alongside NGOs (Non-governmental organizations), however, China held a view distinct from that of other states, claiming that the Russia-Ukraine conflict was triggered by US provocation yet calling for de-escalation measures whilst continuously confirming bilateral cooperation with Russia for UN Charter purposes. According to Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, Russia and China are currently engaged in talks to create a multipolar world and foster international cooperation. Debates are ongoing on whether such Russia-China relations pose a threat to the US. In consonance with political scientist John Mearsheimer, often quoted as the most influential structural realist, despite China and Russia’s claims stating otherwise, Russia-China diplomacy exists predominantly to increase the states’ autocratic regimes’ survivability against the US’ global world order, the liberal world order, which will inevitably cause conflict with the US.
China and Russia strengthen military ties to mitigate the perceived threat of the US’ liberal world order. The liberal world order is defined as an organization of nations where states are interconnected and interdependent (an event in one state has global repercussions) and is characterized by strong intergovernmental organizations, free trade agreements, respect for state sovereignty, and international cooperation. Mearsheimer states that China pursues military power in order to maximize the gap between it and its neighbors, limiting threats to its regime’s survivability. In February 2023, China’s “Ministery of Foreign Affairs” published a paper on US hegemony and stated that the US expansion of influence threatens Chinese sovereignty. Similarly, the Russian Federation has stated that the US is undermining Russia’s territorial integrity, development, sovereignty, and foreign policy. Both instances demonstrate Russian and Chinese insecurities regarding the expansion of US influence on the global order. In order to overcome this, China strengthened military ties with Russia in 2023 “to counter the common threat faced by the US.” On July 20, 2023, a Russian Commander boarded a Chinese ship as a deputy commander of training drills in the Sea of Japan, aiding the Chinese navy in training for months. Furthermore, Russian naval ships have been visiting China since July 2023, interacting with Chinese naval officers and commanders, deepening their decade-old military relationship. On September 18, 2023, Russian and Chinese troops even marched together in Mexico. Mearsheimer writes that Russia will do whatever it will to survive in the global system, even forming an alliance with China, which it perceives as a threat, to protect itself from the US, which it perceives as an even bigger threat. Some experts who subscribe to the ‘realist’ theories of international relations, such as Mearsheimer, call this a “new cold war” between the US, China, and Russia as China attempts to push the US out of Asia and consistently builds up its military. However, this is unlikely to escalate fully into a cold war due to the interconnectedness of the US and China’s economies through trade, having over 1 trillion dollars in trade with each other, as well as increasing trends of global interdependence.
Russia and China have been accused of going one step further: cooperating to seek global hegemony and establish their own global system. In 2023, the US accused China and Russia of seeking to create their own ‘illiberal world order’ in opposition to the US’ liberal world order, pointing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as evidence. China and Russia creating their only illiberal global system, and thus attaining global hegemony, is unlikely since universal hegemony is almost impossible to achieve due to geographical constraints, increasing globalization, and interconnected free trade. Given this, states can only ever aspire to become a “regional hegemon.” China and Russia want to curb the US domination of the West as well as push US influence out of Asia, and thus cooperate to achieve this. For instance, China uses vague arguments regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, stating that sovereignty (as of Ukraine) should be respected, while simultaneously claiming the US is extending the war through its military supply of Ukraine.
China’s inability to pick a side in the debate shows China’s friendly relations with Russia but its inability to directly threaten the US by directly supporting Russia in the war. Thus, China isn’t ready to pursue global hegemony yet and overtake the US in the Western Region. However, China and Russia are actively pushing the US out of the East.
On the other hand, Russia and China claim that their cooperation isn’t directed towards any specific state but rather to achieve a multipolar world. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with Russia on September 18th, 2023 for “shared commitment” for a “more multipolar world” and a “just world order.” Washington and Beijing have also set the grounds for diplomatic talks between Jinping and President Joe Biden.
This could mean salvaging deteriorating Sino-U.S. relations that previously suffered from trade restrictions. Secretary Anthony Blinken claims that the talks were constructive and that the “US is committed to” responsibly managing their relationship. Nonetheless, China and Russia are likely attempting to contain the US to ensure a growth of their power and break from the current hegemony imposed by the United States.
Ultimately, foreign relations between China and Russia exist to deter the threat to their regimes. China and Russia compete with the US to amass hard and soft power, simply forming an alliance against the US to more efficiently do so in order to contain US influence and protect their autocratic interests. However, the process of containing the US inevitably causes conflict, as exemplified by the Taiwan conflict and Chinese military operations in the South China Sea. The Russia-Ukraine war and Chinese-Russian military cooperation are a step toward further conflict with the US.
While this may not mean an explicit war in the historical fashion, it could mean further investment into hard power by the US government including nuclear proliferation, higher military spending, and increased military cooperation with US’ Eastern allies like Japan and South Korea. Similarly, China and Russia will do the same, as per the security dilemma in which states compete to build hard power to prevent other states from attacking them.