China and Russia: True Love or Marriage of Convenience?

Are we seeing the beginning of a global partnership? Or is this only a marriage of convenience?

Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China meet in Benaulim, India, October 15, 2016 (Kremlin)

China and Russia are making common cause at a time when Donald Trump’s America is turning its back on the world. Are we seeing the beginning of a global partnership? Or is this only a marriage of convenience? Experts disagree.

Acting in lockstep

Stratfor’s Sarang Shidore argues that, despite lacking an official alliance, China and Russia have recently acted in lockstep on almost every major issue.

  • Both were first neutral, then opposed to, NATO’s intervention in Libya.
  • They have taken nearly identical positions on the war in Syria and cybergovernance at the United Nations.
  • Both argue for freezing North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for halting joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States.
  • Both are firmly opposed to undermining the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Both have lobbied against American missile defenses in Asia and Central Europe.
  • They have conducted joint naval drills in the Baltic Sea, Mediterranean, Sea of Japan and South China Sea.
  • Oil, gas and weapons deals between the two are on the rise.
  • Both push for greater financial and monetary autonomy by distancing themselves from the dollar-dominated order of international finance and trade.

Shidore recognizes that China and Russia aren’t natural allies. They have overlapping backyards in Central Asia, compete in arms sales and the balance between them increasingly favors Beijing.

But he believes the fact that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are managing these tensions suggests their marriage of convenience will last, especially when the two share an overriding interest in transforming the international system.

China has a lot to lose

Marcin Kaczmarski of the University of Warsaw’s Institute of International Relations isn’t so sure. Russia may expect to thrive on chaos beyond its borders, he writes, but China has a lot to lose.

  • America is China’s largest external market, followed by Europe. It benefits from the same liberal trade rules it seeks to subvert.
  • A breakdown of the American alliance system in East Asia could convince Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to team up against China.
  • Europe would become more protectionist (anti-dumping tariffs targeting Chinese steel are a worrying sign) if Russian-backed nationalist parties seize power.

Kaczmarski concludes:

The challenge to the West and its liberal values is real and comes from both Russia and China. It would be a mistake, though, to disregard the differences between the autocrats in Moscow and those in Beijing and to assume that their interests are the same.

A middle way

Jacob Stokes and Alexander Sullivan of the Center for a New American Security believe both sides have it wrong.

They argue that those who fear China and Russia are building a lasting partnership to challenge American hegemony are prone to overreact and push the two powers closer together rather than pull them apart.

But those who see the relationship as fatally flawed are complacent in arguing the West need only stand aside for China and Russia to inevitably fall out.

The better strategy is to push back against bad Chinese and Russian behavior on its merits.

Both say they want a world that is less America-centric and more multipolar. In reality, they want the freedom to throw their weight around, as Russia has done in Ukraine and China is doing in the South China Sea.

The West needs to resist Chinese and Russian bullying wherever it occurs, write Stokes and Sullivan. It needs to call out “anti-hegemonic” proposals for what they are: efforts to replace America’s soft hegemony with an authoritarian one. Few other countries are interested in that.