China and Russia form an “axis” working against the interests of the U.S., and that relationship is likely to strengthen in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite economic sanctions on Moscow. China is learning damning military lessons from the Ukraine conflict that may drive it to engage in a small war for “practice” before tackling the one that really matters to it: Taiwan. In response, the U.S. should continue with its successful—so far—strategy of building a united front against aggression and authoritarianism.
So said scholars in a Center for New American Security online seminar, “The China-Russia Nexus: How Should the U.S. Compete?” held in June.
“I think it is accurate to call this an ‘authoritarian axis’,” CNAS senior fellow Andrea Kendall-Taylor said of the China-Russia alliance, which she dated back to 2014. Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine “was a critical catalyst” driving Russia and China together because, with sanctions applied, Moscow “really no longer saw any opportunities in the West” and sought partners elsewhere. The two countries have since “‘leaned in’ to this relationship,” she said.
Both countries fear democracy and view the U.S. “as their primary threat.” They both seek to undermine U.S. power and influence and believe the U.S. “weaponizes” democracy to “spread America’s own influence and to undermine their own regimes.”
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping also have a personal relationship, Kendall-Taylor said. China has invested in Russia, and there have been actual—not just figurative—bridges built between the two countries in recent years. Both feel they are best served by having a stable border and relationship at their backs so they can direct their efforts outward, she said.
China and Russia are close for “purely practical” reasons, she said, noting their complementary capabilities and interests. Russia has sophisticated weapons to sell to China—although that factor is diminishing as China independently improves its military technology—and China has been willing to invest financially in Russia’s economy. There’s a “practicality and a complementarity that just naturally feeds the relationship,” she added.
Kendall-Taylor cautioned that Russia and China are “not aligned on every issue” and have some diverging interests. But the value of cooperation for now outweighs those other considerations.
While “Beijing has been very cautious” about being too vocal in its support for Moscow since the invasion, “as soon as that international spotlight starts to dim” and the world turns its attention to other crises, Xi will “lean in” with “efforts to support his closest strategic partner,” she said. This is “what we saw in 2014. … As soon as the world moves on,” the two will be “in this together.”
A Warm-Up War Before Taiwan?
The lessons from Russia’s uncoordinated and frequently ineffective operations in Ukraine should be “really sobering for China,” said Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government at Dartmouth University. They have similar military equipment and logistical systems, and both lack modern experience in ground war and combined arms operations, she pointed out.
They also lack “the innovative learning culture that leads to high-quality performance” on the battlefield, she added.
“Any sensible observer” in China, looking at Russia’s debacle in the first few months in Ukraine, “should feel pretty sick to their stomach,” because China “ticks all these [same] boxes.”
China and Russia recently tried to enact military reforms, and Ukraine may be a barometer of “how effective those reforms have been, how committed these institutions are to them … and to what extent.” The two countries are “transforming antiquated, bloated organizations” that are traditionally “very much focused on ground forces.”
China’s lack of recent, real-world experience in modern war is also a danger signal, Lind warned.
“The Chinese are probably realizing … that if they want to fight the war over Taiwan, [it] … shouldn’t be their first” modern conflict, she said. “If they want to play in the Superbowl, they’re going to have to play a few games beforehand.”
“That’s a pretty sobering thing when we think about the number of … territorial disputes” China is engaged in around the Indo-Pacific, “and the various ways in which it might be tempted to use force in East Asia.” China perceives its inexperience as a “key vulnerability” and “frankly, we should probably be expecting China to engage in military force toward the goal of getting better at war.”
The idea that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine opens the door for an invasion of Taiwan misses the mark, though, according to Lind. China has its own interests, its own timelines, and “strategic calculations,” not driven by what Russia does.
“I think we can overstate whether China’s calculus toward Taiwan has anything to do with what’s going on in Europe,” she said. China has long-term goals regarding Taiwan, and it likely wants to accomplish those goals without armed conflict.
“China … uses ‘salami tactics,’” Lind explained, by “changing facts on the ground … using interventions that are nonkinetic” and gradually achieving its goals in small increments. The West shouldn’t assume China is resolved to invade Taiwan if it can achieve its ends in other ways.
The increased fear that China will take advantage of the invasion of Ukraine to carry out its own invasion of Taiwan could help propel such an event toward reality, according to James Steinberg, Dean of Advanced International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. If Taiwan believes the timetable for a Chinese invasion has accelerated, “it will start to strengthen its military capacity, its ability to resist, and move closer to the United States militarily and politically. That may well influence Beijing’s calculations. So it’s sort of a second-order consequence” of the Ukraine aggression.
China is probably unconcerned that it will be economically sanctioned as a consequence of supporting Russia during the Ukraine invasion, said Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of CNAS, who has worked on the National Security Council and the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. China recognizes that since Russia is so excluded from the European economy—except for energy—imposing sanctions on it wasn’t a huge cost for the West.
Western countries “have so much less” to lose in sanctioning Russia than they do China, with whom there is a robust economic relationship, he said, and China knows it.
Taylor offered, though, that Russia is “not as isolated as we would like to think on the international stage.” She said, “We can collectively pat ourselves on the back because the transatlantic response [to the invasion] has been outstanding, as it has been from countries in the Indo-Pacific that are onboard.” However, “that has not been the response from the rest of the world,” and India, South Africa, and others have not followed suit.
“Not one African country has levied sanctions on Russia,” she mentioned.
China’s Influence in Europe
China has probably lost influence in Europe as a result of its backing of Russia in Ukraine, but not seriously enough to cause it to scale back its friendship with Moscow, Fontaine said.
Sentiment in Europe has turned against China, he said, “because at the time of Europe’s peril, Beijing has sided with the aggressor.” China has “taken the Russian position,” echoing Russian charges of American chemical weapons labs in Ukraine, and “how NATO expansion should have stopped a long time ago.” It would be “hard to overstate” the antipathy Europeans feel toward China as a result, he said, comparing it to that in the U.S. toward the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks. The invasion has fundamentally changed the way Europe perceives threats to its collective security, what defenses it needs to have, and “the kind of relationships [it] needs,” including with China.
“At this point, Russia has got to look like a less-valuable quasi-ally than it did in January,” Kendall-Taylor said. “Its military looks much less capable than everyone—including the Chinese—probably thought. Its economy will be smaller because of sanctions “and that will continue indefinitely. It is more diplomatically isolated.”
Even so, “I don‘t think that’s nearly enough to sever, or even set back, the drive the Chinese leadership has for a closer relationship with Russia,” Fontaine said.
Russia’s and China’s Narratives
Much depends on whether Xi buys Russia’s “current narrative” about Ukraine, Lind said.
The Russian military was “exposed for being far less capable than we ever imagined,” she said. “But if they do turn the corner and start to generate more momentum in the Donbas,” Russia will push the idea that it can, “on a peacetime footing, beat Ukraine, acting all on [its] own, while Ukraine has the backing of every single NATO member state,” and that makes it a more valuable ally.
Steinberg said there is also a receptive domestic audience in Russia for the narrative that “‘this is not really a war about Ukraine but a proxy conflict between Russia and the United States.” He said this is a point of view “you hear … even in India.”
Lind warned that the U.S. probably thinks too highly of its “soft power” and assumes that it has a sympathetic ear around the world, which she said is not necessarily so.
China portrays itself as having “clawed its way up to the economic pinnacle of the world,” after being exploited by the imperialist West in the 19th century, she said. It paints itself as a country “that understands economic development and is standing up to the United States, which has been using force all around the world … in very dangerous ways for the past several decades.” There’s “strong sympathy for that,” she said. While America does have soft power, particularly with its cultural exports, “there’s a lot of places that view [it] with distrust and skepticism.” Countries are “very interested in China’s growth model and in what China has to say,” and other authoritarian countries are “deeply interested” in how China has grown and prospered, “and what it might do for them,” she said.
Underestimating China’s soft power “is something we do at our peril,” she added.
Nixon’s Approach Won’t Fly
Steinberg said the U.S. approach to the modern China-Russia axis can’t follow previous models. Harking back to Richard Nixon’s efforts to “open up” dialog with Beijing, he noted that Nixon’s idea wasn’t to side with China against Russia, or even to “play both across the other … but to be closer to … each of them than they were to each other.” The situation today is very different, he said.
China and Russia have an “extraordinarily asymmetric” relationship, he noted. “Russia needs China badly, for all kinds of reasons” and while China “welcomes the partnership, it doesn’t need Russia.” Consequently, “China can pretty much dictate the terms” of the alliance. China’s need for technology from Russia is “declining over time … 20 years ago, they didn’t know how to build a fighter. Now they do.” The same applies to aircraft carriers and air defense systems, “and now they’re ahead of Russia in some areas, probably hypersonics.”
It’s hard to find an opening that would relax tensions with either state, he said.
Today, “there isn‘t much we can do to get closer to Russia,” Steinberg said, because “we can never offer Russia what China can offer.” So there’s not much to the idea that “we can drive a wedge between them.” And, if the U.S. sees both as high-end competitors—and promotes that view among its allies—“that will inevitably … drive them together.”
The best strategy for now is to “continue this momentum” of the unified international response to the Ukraine invasion, Kendall-Taylor said, “because the weakness of these authoritarian regimes is that they make mistakes,” among which Ukraine was a “colossal” one for Putin. That makes it important for America and its allies to “be united, be working together so that we can take advantage of these mistakes and shape the world” in a democratic way.
Fontaine noted that the Ukraine invasion has backfired on Putin, with Sweden and Finland joining NATO and the other members “wanting to work together more closely,” stepping up their military investment, and stiffening their military posture. Allies in Asia that have signed on to the sanctions are trying to show China “what aggression can be met with in a consolidated response.”
All this “does create some opportunities for us to work together,” he added; that the democratic nations “are allied and stronger still.”