Russia and China—Alliance or Dalliance? And What Will This Mean for the West?
Few watchful observers of international affairs would deny that Russia and China have grown closer over the past 20 years—the U.S. intelligence community even highlighted the tandem as a top threat in 2019, noting that the two countries “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s." But there is still considerable debate about the depth of this rapprochement and what exactly it will mean for the U.S. and its allies. Below, we present three facets of this discussion. In one, Harvard’s Graham Allison argues that, although China and Russia are geopolitical rivals whose long-term prospects for an alliance are “grim,” they are nonetheless entering into a “grand alignment of the aggrieved … drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the ‘American threat.’” He emphasizes the role successive U.S. administrations have played in nurturing “the formation of this grievance coalition” and warns that continued missteps by the West could turn the alignment into a dangerous “grand coalition.” Another two authors, Russia Matters founding director Simon Saradzhyan and Ali Wyne of the Atlantic Council and the RAND Corporation, focus more on the growing disparities between Russia and China, especially in terms of their economies and demographics. While these authors describe significant convergence in the two states’ national interests and detail continuously increasing military cooperation between the two countries, they also see plenty of divergence, ultimately arguing that a formal military-political alliance does not seem imminent in the absence of two specific conditions—both of them unlikely. Finally, Wheaton College professor Jeanne Wilson highlights two additional features of the relationship: the importance of respect and “status granting” and the shared political norms and values that help to shape Russia’s and China’s political identities and national interests.
An earlier version of this debate was published Dec. 20 under the headline “Debate: Russia and China—How Close Are They?” before the addition of Prof. Wilson’s contribution.
Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.
China-Russia Relations: Same Bed, Different Dreams? Why Converging Interests Are Unlikely to Lead to a Full-Fledged Alliance
Well before the crisis in Ukraine reinforced Russia’s pursuit of closer ties with China, Moscow had been forging an increasingly cooperative relationship with Beijing. This is hardly surprising considering that China in recent decades has become arguably the world’s foremost rising power. But what are the chances that the ongoing rapprochement could blossom into a full-fledged military-political alliance? This paper tries to answer that question by comparing trends in the two countries’ development and by considering the convergence and divergence of their vital national interests.
Today we see many shared interests between the two in the areas of economy, security and geopolitics. China has an impact on most of Russia’s vital interests, making constructive relations with Beijing a priority for Moscow. Russia’s effect on China’s interests may be smaller, but is far from negligible. Some Western policies are also nudging the two deeper into each other’s arms—notably, sanctions against Russia and Washington’s new policy of lumping China and Russia into a collective adversary.
The year before he died in 2017, one of America’s leading twentieth-century strategic thinkers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, sounded an alarm. In analyzing threats to American security, “the most dangerous scenario,” he warned, would be “a grand coalition of China and Russia…united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.” This coalition “would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower.”
Few observers heard his admonition then. Even fewer today recognize how rapidly this grand alignment of the aggrieved has been moving from the realm of the hypothetical toward what could soon become a geostrategic fact. Defying the long-held convictions of Western analysts, and against huge structural differences, Beijing and Moscow are drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the “American threat.”
Exactly how close are Russia and China and what does this mean for the West? This has been a matter of concern among experts for some time. The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment by the U.S. intelligence community groups Russia and China together as America’s No. 1 “regional threat,” competing with Washington worldwide for “technological and military superiority.” In outlining their concerns, the report’s authors explicitly point out that Moscow and Beijing are “more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year.” If this is the case, then how did it come to be and what are the prospects for the U.S. and its allies?
Four of us have grappled with these questions recently on these pages. In a debate published by Russia Matters on Dec. 20, Graham Allison, Simon Saradzhyan and Ali Wyne parsed the likelihood that the increasingly close bilateral relationship will evolve into a formal military and political alliance. Allison argues that Russia and China have been motivated to draw steadily closer as a consequence of the “American threat.” Saradzhyan and Wyne do not dispute this assessment, but they present a broader and more nuanced analysis that points to the existence of diverging perspectives between the two states that render the formation of a formal alliance unlikely. My own view of Russian-Chinese relations does not differ significantly in most aspects from these authors’. I want, however, to introduce two interrelated observations. First is to emphasize to an even greater degree the importance of respect and the phenomenon of status granting as a factor in the relationship. Second is to stress the extent to which political norms and values shared by Russia and China come through in a shared political identity that, in turn, plays a major role in determining the countries’ interests.