August 31, 2020

Addressing Deepening Russia-China Relations

By Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Jeffrey Edmonds

The Bottom Line

  • Russia-China cooperation increases the challenge that each country poses to the United States and, most significantly, is amplifying America’s China challenge.
  • The two countries are unlikely to form an official military alliance, and key differences in their objectives and asymmetry in their relations may ultimately drive them apart. In the meantime, however, and even short of an alliance, Russia and China are likely to cooperate in ways that increase the ability of each to contest U.S. military reach and key U.S. national security interests.
  • The gravity of these challenges means that the Department of Defense (DoD) cannot afford to dismiss or downplay what some write off as an uncomfortable or unnatural partnership. The next National Defense Strategy (NDS) must address growing Russia-China alignment, and the DoD must take steps to plan for, mitigate, and disrupt the risks that this cooperation will produce.
  • As a first step, the next NDS must clearly distinguish between China and Russia. The two countries pose distinct threats to the United States, with China being the far greater long-term challenge. By lumping the two countries together, the United States increases its opponents’ sense of common cause and reduces room for maneuver between them.
  • Ultimately, U.S. policy should aim to shape Russia’s calculus such that the Kremlin views at least some collaboration with the United States and its partners as possible and preferable to over-dependence on China.

Introduction

Relations between Russia and China are deepening. Already, the depth of their ties has far surpassed what analysts would have thought possible just five years ago. Some of this convergence is the result of U.S. actions. Washington’s simultaneously hard line approach to both Moscow and Beijing has given them common cause, pushing the two together. The next administration’s NDS must distinguish between the challenges that Russia and China pose to the United States and its allies, address the problems that their deepening relationship will create, and take steps to exploit the differences between them.

But growing Sino-Russian cooperation is about more than Washington’s approach. Russia-China relations have been deepening since the end of the Cold War, as their views have converged on a number of issues and in key areas. Russia and China share an interest in contesting U.S. leadership, diminishing U.S. influence, and promoting ideas such as sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. More practically, their cooperation also stems from the complementarity of their interests. Sino-Russian cooperation allows both countries to augment their capabilities and offset vulnerabilities in their relations with the United States. Sharing technology in areas such as aerospace, micro processing, and space-based equipment, for example, could strengthen each country’s military capabilities.

Russia and China share an interest in contesting U.S. leadership, diminishing U.S. influence, and promoting ideas such as sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.

The deepening alignment between Russia and China is not inevitable. There are fundamental differences and tensions in their relationship that both sides so far have been willing to navigate. U.S. policy, and specifically U.S. defense strategy, should plan for greater Russia-China alignment, while also proactively seeking to exploit the seams in their relationship to maximize distance between them.

Potential Implications of Growing Sino-Russian Defense Cooperation

Analysts and defense planners understand well the challenges that Russia and China each pose to the United States. As their cooperation grows, however, the impact of their alignment will be greater than the sum of their parts. There are several dynamics that Russia-China coordination will create that the Department of Defense will likely have to address in the coming years, including those outlined below.

Challenging perceptions of U.S. leadership

Russia-China joint exercises have increased in frequency and complexity. In the future, the United States should expect more exercises that will amplify both countries’ ability to signal to onlooking nations their capacity as great powers and willingness to challenge U.S. dominance in key regions. In August 2019, for example, Russia and China conducted a joint strategic bomber patrol in the Indo-Pacific, signaling their political convergence and preparedness to push back against U.S. regional influence.

Accelerated defense innovation

Russia and China have complementary operational needs and work together to develop new military capabilities. Both likely view collaboration on a number of fronts—including space, missile defense, various missile technologies, unmanned systems, and training data for artificial intelligence—as opportunities to fill mutual capability gaps and accelerate development of innovative technologies. Although less likely, Russia and China could look to cooperate in more sensitive domains such as theater hypersonic weapons, submarine technology, and space-based and undersea sensor technology. Both countries also look to one another to help mitigate the effects of U.S. sanctions and restrictions on technology exports. The overall risk is that Russia and China together will jointly innovate faster than the United States can alone, eroding the U.S. technological edge and straining already stretched defense budgets.

Eroding U.S. military advantages

Russia provides China advanced weapon systems that enhance China’s capacity to keep the United States out of its backyard. Russia’s sales to China of highly capable weapons, such as S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and Su-35 fighter jets, are helping Beijing create a “no-go zone” around Taiwan to deter U.S. forces from intervening in a contingency. Through combined military exercises and training—which have grown in frequency, geographic reach, and substance—Russia also provides China with valuable operational experience, potentially offsetting a significant People’s Liberation Army weakness relative to the United States. Sustained Sino-Russian cooperation amplifies the U.S. challenge of deterring Chinese aggression, thereby threatening Washington’s ability to uphold its commitment to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Coordinated actions

The most stressing scenario for U.S. defense planners is a two-theater scenario in which one power acts opportunistically to achieve a military objective while the United States is engaged in conflict with the other. But there are several more likely scenarios in which the United States may have to confront a China-Russia united front, or at least their tacit coordination, in key regions such as the Indo-Pacific (including North Korea) and the Middle East. In some cases, Russia and China may combine their capabilities to challenge U.S. foreign policy. In Venezuela, for example, Russia has provided arms transfers on credit, which gave Venezuela updated armored and air capabilities. Meanwhile, China transferred some arms and provided surveillance technology and capital investment to keep the regime of Nicolás Maduro in power. Looking forward, it is not out of the question that the two partners could conduct a limited joint intervention in a third country.

The most stressing scenario for U.S. defense planners is a two-theater scenario in which one power acts opportunistically to achieve a military objective while the United States is engaged in conflict with the other.

Moreover, in the event of a crisis, either Russia or China could assist the other by putting pressure on the United States in another domain. For example, should the United States intervene in a Taiwan crisis, Russia could support China by interfering with U.S. space surveillance capabilities and providing China with Russian assets in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance without contributing combat forces. This could be especially true for deniable actions such as those in the cyber realm. Geography makes it difficult for China to directly aid Russia militarily on European battlefields, although Beijing could use its investments in European ports and other infrastructure to slow or degrade the movement of NATO forces in response to Russian aggression, or it could use its economic influence to dissuade a reluctant NATO member from responding, which would further strain NATO cohesion.

Recommendations

The United States should pursue an approach designed to show Russia that its continued alienation from the West increases the Kremlin’s vulnerability to domination by China. There are signs that Moscow is growing more concerned about the increasing asymmetry in its relations with Beijing and is beginning to look at options for hedging its bets. U.S. policy should aim to shape Russia’s calculus such that the Kremlin views at least some collaboration with the United States and its partners as possible and preferable to over-dependence on China.

As a first step, the next NDS must clearly distinguish between China and Russia. The two countries pose distinct threats to the United States, with China being the far greater long-term challenge. By lumping the two countries together, the United States increases their sense of common cause and reduces room for maneuver between them. That said, the next NDS must also recognize that there is no guarantee that efforts to lure Russia away from China will be successful. This is because Vladimir Putin views the United States and not Beijing as a threat to his hold on power. Xi Jinping, for his part, views Russia as useful in distracting Washington from constraining China’s rise in Asia, as well as in undermining U.S. global dominance and in countering U.S. efforts to limit Chinese leverage in multilateral institutions. To address this challenge, DoD should pursue a strategy that monitors and plans for, mitigates, and disrupts the risks that an enduring, deep Russia-China relationship poses.

Monitor and plan for greater Russia-China defense cooperation

As Russia-China relations deepen, more of their cooperation is likely to take place out of plain sight. The announcement that Russia will provide China with an early warning missile detection system surprised many and underscores the increasingly discreet nature of their cooperation. DoD should increase collaboration with the intelligence community to monitor not just Russia and China separately, but also the threats that come from their cooperation. DoD should also consider institutional changes that allow it to deal with the challenge posed by greater collaboration and coordination between Russia and China.

The next NDS must also recognize that there is no guarantee that efforts to lure Russia away from China will be successful.

To increase preparedness, DoD should continue to conduct wargames with scenarios involving the United States opposite both China and Russia on the other side of the conflict, in order to better understand the strengths and potential vulnerabilities of such cooperation. DoD should also conduct in-depth net assessments of both countries’ military strategies and capabilities. While it is tempting to use the defense concepts of one nation to apply to both, each poses unique threats to the United States—each has, for example, its own approach to escalation management and a theory of victory. These disparate strategies will require different responses from DoD.

But there is also overlap. In addition to assessing the different threats from Russia and China, DoD should look for strategies and capabilities that apply to both or that complement U.S. strategies for dealing with both countries. Such “two-for-one” approaches can add efficiency to a challenging problem set.

Increase headwinds

Russia and China are most effective at challenging U.S. interests when they can amplify and then take advantage of perceptions that the United States is withdrawing and disengaging. To back against their aligned efforts, the United States will have to recommit to important partnerships. For DoD, this should include steps to enhance alliances and reaffirm commitment to key military partnerships such as the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral defense cooperation. Enhancing it will help push back against Russian and Chinese actions such as the joint air patrol in 2019, intended to challenge U.S. operations and norms in the region. The U.S. military can lead trilateral defense discussions and military exercises that build confidence and deconflict agendas.

Identify wedges

The United States should also identify opportunities to more proactively seek to pull at the seams of Russia-China relations. Efforts to drive “mini-wedges” will, on their own, have limited effect on the overall trajectory of Russia-China relations. But if pursued in concert, such an approach has the potential to limit the depth of their cooperation. Opportunities to identify such mini-wedges are most ripe in India, Japan, Vietnam, and the Arctic. In the Arctic, for instance, Russia is cautiously watching China’s growing appetite for access and economic exploitation. Beijing’s interests are predominately economic, while Russia’s give priority to protecting dominance and sovereignty in the Russian Arctic. The Pentagon, therefore, should consider steps that force both Beijing and Moscow to reconsider their acceptance of each other’s actions in the region. Even in the Middle East, where Moscow’s and Beijing’s interests are largely complementary, the two countries similarly diverge in their preference for stability. In communicating with Beijing, Washington should underscore Russian efforts that threaten to destabilize the region.

Increase communication and coordination across the U.S. government

Ultimately, many U.S. tools for addressing the Russia-China partnership sit outside of the Department of Defense. The U.S. Congress and State Department, in particular, have a number of options at their disposal for addressing deepening Russia-China relations. Congress could consider, for example, revising the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to allow Russia to sell arms to countries such as India and Vietnam, which use these systems to deter China. The State Department, for its part, should renew U.S. leadership in international organizations to push back against shared Russian and Chinese efforts to rewrite global cyber norms. At the same time, launching a public diplomacy campaign to attract Russian and Chinese talent to the United States—as an alternative to Moscow or Beijing—will be critical for maintaining U.S. competitiveness as well as slowing Sino-Russian collaboration.

Ultimately, the risks for the United States created by greater Russia-China collaboration will be most significant in the security and defense realm. The Pentagon, therefore, plays an important role in raising the alarm about this cooperation, developing responses to the problem, and generating inter-agency support for remedial measures.

Conclusion

The deepening of Sino-Russian cooperation in opposing the United States has clear implications for U.S. core national security interests. Both Russia and China benefit from their growing closeness. From technology sharing to operational capability to undermining U.S. world leadership, the two countries have much to gain from greater cooperation. More troubling, in any potential conflict involving either one and the United States, one could provide advantages and free up resources for the other without direct involvement, thereby complicating any U.S. response. In the face of these challenges, DoD should take steps to strengthen its understanding of the implications of Sino-Russian cooperation in both peace and conflict. DoD should also look for strategies that make the relationship more difficult for each country to continue. Non-overlapping security interests such as those posed by regional tensions and the Arctic reflect vulnerabilities in the relationship. Finally, DoD should assess each country’s strengths and weaknesses to determine capabilities worth pursuing, while keeping a careful watch for signs of even greater cooperation.

About the Authors

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a CNAS Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program.

Jeff Edmonds is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at CNAS and a Research Scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses.

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From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.

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  1. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “A Russian-Chinese Partnership Is a Threat to U.S. Interests,” Foreign Affairs, May 14, 2019.
  2. See also Andrea Kendall-Taylor, David Shullman, and Dan McCormick, “Navigating Sino-Russian Defense Cooperation,” War on the Rocks, August 5, 2020.
  3. Mike Kofman, “The Emperor’s League: Understanding Sino-Russian Defense Cooperation,” War on the Rocks, August 6, 2020.
  4. Dmitry Trenin, “How Cozy Is Russia and China’s Military Relationship,” Moscow Times, November 20, 2019, accessed July 27, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/11/20/how-cozy-is-russia-and-chinas-military-relationship-a68242.
  5. Robert Sutter, “U.S. Policy Opportunities and Options,” in Axis of Authoritarians: Implications of China-Russia Cooperation, eds. Richard J. Ellings and Robert Sutter (Washington, DC: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2018).

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