David Shullman and Andrea Kendall-Taylor
Ties between China and Russia have grown. In virtually every dimension of their relationship—from the diplomatic to defense and economic to informational realms—cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has increased. Political observers in Washington and beyond have noted their alignment, yet they remain divided over what these growing ties portend.
Perhaps the most concerning—and least understood—aspect of the Russia-China partnership is the synergy their actions will generate. Analysts understand well the challenges that Russia and China each pose to the United States. But little thought has been given to how their actions will combine, amplifying the impact of both actors. As this report highlights, the impact of Russia-China alignment is likely to be far greater than the sum of its parts, putting U.S. interests at risk globally.
The synergy between Russia and China will be most problematic in the way that it increases the challenge that China poses to the United States. Already, Beijing is working with Moscow to fill gaps in its military capabilities, accelerate its technological innovation, and complement its efforts to undermine U.S. global leadership. Simply put, Russia is amplifying America’s China challenge.
Russia’s amplification of the China challenge will be most consequential for the United States on two fronts: the defense domain and the democracy and human rights domain. There are also several broader implications their cooperation will create for U.S. global influence:
Looking across all dimensions of their relationship, Russia-China cooperation is likely to create the most significant challenges for the United States in the defense domain. China is leveraging its relationship with Moscow to fill gaps in its capabilities. Deepening Sino-Russian defense relations amplify Russia and China’s ability to project power and more visibly and credibly signal to onlooking countries their willingness to challenge U.S. dominance in key regions. Their joint naval maneuvers with countries like Iran allow competitors to increase their power projection and force U.S. strategists to account for new scenarios.
Their cooperation accelerates their efforts to erode U.S. military advantages—a dynamic that is especially problematic for U.S. strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. Russia already provides China advanced weapons systems that enhance China’s air defense, anti-ship, and submarine capabilities and better equip the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to keep the United States out of its backyard. The two countries are also increasing their technology cooperation, which could eventually allow them to innovate collectively faster than the United States can on its own, straining an already-stressed U.S. defense budget. Ultimately, sustained—and more problematically, deepening—Sino-Russian cooperation would put at risk America’s ability to deter Chinese aggression in the region and uphold its commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Democracy and Human Rights
Russia-China alignment poses significant risks to liberal democracy and the American way of life. The two countries have long sought to push back against Western democracy promotion, but since 2014 and again in the wake of COVID-19, it is apparent that China and Russia are doing much more than countering perceived support for “color revolutions” in their respective peripheries. They have gone on the offensive to undermine democracy and universal rights as the foundation of the current liberal order, and are learning from each other how to increase the efficacy of their tactics. Already, Russia and China are popularizing authoritarian governance, exporting their best practices, watering down human rights norms, backing each other up to defend strategic interests in multilateral forums, creating norms around cyber and internet sovereignty, and bolstering illiberal leaders and helping them stay in power. Some of this is more alignment than coordination. But the point is that they are singing from the same sheet of music, which increases the dose of their messaging. They legitimize each other’s actions, making them more persuasive with swing states, which will be crucial in determining the future trajectory of democracy.
Looking forward, policymakers should expect their anti-democratic synergy to continue. Washington will need to remain vigilant against the countries’ overlapping and potentially compounding efforts to interfere in America’s domestic politics. As Russia remains persistent in its drive to undermine U.S. democracy, China grows increasingly bold, and U.S.-China relations remain fraught. Beyond the United States, Russian narratives designed to undermine trust in institutions will create fertile ground for Chinese narratives about the failings of democracy and the superiority of authoritarian systems to take root. Beyond polluting the global information environment, Beijing and Moscow are likely to set forth alternative platforms by which information can be disseminated. This type of synergy is also likely to move into new spaces like artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies. In particular, Russia and China both offer models and different approaches to digital authoritarianism. Although they are pursuing different paths to utilizing technology to more effectively control their people, together they offer an array of options that make digital control more accessible and flexible for a broader swath of countries. Working together, they may also make advances in approaches to surveillance and predictive analysis.
Russia and China are aligned in their efforts to weaken cohesion among U.S. allies and partners and dilute U.S. sway with countries and international institutions. Moreover, Russia and China are working to reduce the centrality of the United States in the global economic system. Already, Moscow and Beijing are cooperating to obviate U.S. sanctions and export controls, mitigating the effects of U.S. economic pressure. If their partnership deepens, or even if each country individually builds up resilience to U.S. pressure, it would have the potential to dilute the efficacy of U.S. coercive financial tools, especially sanctions and export controls, which have been a key part of the U.S. foreign policy arsenal. The United States would have less ability to use such financial measures to isolate and constrain the unwanted actions of not just China and Russia but other countries that could tap into their networks to bypass U.S pressure. If their efforts at de-dollarization accelerate, for example, it would weaken Washington’s ability to enforce sanctions globally and impair U.S. anti-corruption, anti-money laundering, and other efforts that strengthen the global system.
To be successful in meeting this challenge, Washington will need to prioritize and advance several actions designed to collectively limit the depth of Russia and China’s partnership and mitigate the challenges their cooperation poses to U.S. interests and values. First, the United States should seek to change Russia’s calculus such that Moscow views some cooperation with the United States and Europe as possible and preferable to its growing subservience to China. The current realities in U.S.-Russia relations mean that moving in this direction would take time. Russian actions, including the Kremlin’s persistent efforts to target U.S. elections, amplify U.S. social divisions, and undermine U.S. faith in democratic institutions, will be the key factor limiting what is possible in the near term. The difficulties of lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia in the event that Moscow changes its policy course will be another obstacle. In the meantime, then, the United States should monitor and plan for, create headwinds to, and—where possible—pull at the seams in Russia-China relations. This report identifies policy recommendations in each of these categories.
The United States should not write off Russia-China relations as just an uncomfortable or unnatural partnership. But nor should Washington seek to counter their cooperation in every dimension of their partnership or compete intensely in every region. Instead, policymakers must be equipped with a more concrete understanding of how Russia-China relations are likely to evolve, an understanding of those areas where their cooperation (or even their aligned independent policy) would be most damaging to U.S. security and foreign policy interests, and a plan for navigating and disrupting the challenge. This report addresses these critical gaps in U.S. foreign policy thinking and planning.