March 21, 2019

An Emerging China-Russia Axis?: Implications for the United States in an Era of Strategic Competition

Statement before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

Prepared Statement

Thank you to the Commissioners for the opportunity to testify today. The Commission has asked me to focus on assessing Russian and Chinese goals in the Middle East, how Moscow and Beijing engage and interact in the region, and to provide associated recommendations for how the United States can manage great power competition in the region.

I want to begin by providing four key observations on the broader state of Russia-China relations. These observations provide the necessary context in which to view Russia-China relations in the Middle East.

1. Ties between Russia and China are deepening.

The relationship between Russia and China has improved steadily since the waning years of the Cold War. This trend accelerated in the last decade and especially since 2014 when Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea shut down Russian opportunities in and cooperation with the West. Indicators across virtually every dimension of the bilateral relationship highlight their growing alignment. Economically, China is the largest purchaser of Russian crude oil and has surpassed Germany as Russia’s largest trading partner. Militarily, their defense cooperation continues to grow, including through defense dialogues, joint exercises, and regional security cooperation. Russia continues to sell China increasingly sophisticated military technologies, though that aspect of the relationship has diminished in relative importance as China has enhanced its capabilities in this area. Politically, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping enjoy close relations, and exchanges and interactions at lower levels of the Russian and Chinese governments are frequent.

2. Russia-China relations will continue to deepen as the key drivers of their relationship strengthen and constraints erode.

Both Putin and Xi view the United States as a significant threat to their power. Their shared perception of the United States as a threat is an important driver of their relationship. U.S. actions such as sanctions against Russia and the administration’s trade war with China are justified approaches to addressing hostile adversaries, but also serve to push the two countries closer together. The strong consensus in Washington around great power competition as the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy is likely to continue to provide incentive for greater alignment between Russia and China.

The growing similarity between the Putin and Xi regimes is also likely to provide a basis for future cooperation. Xi has consolidated power and dismantled the consensus-based decision making that has dominated China’s post-Mao political system. While meaningful distinctions between the governments remain, China’s political system more closely resembles the Putin-dominated Russian regime. Research suggests that shared regime type enhances cooperation between states.

Not only are the key drivers of bilateral relations strengthening, but many of the factors that observers long assessed would constrain the relationship are eroding. First, analysts have long held that Russian concerns about insecurity in its far east would stymie cooperation. However, the Kremlin’s concerns about this source of insecurity have diminished; today, the Russian and Chinese governments are moving ahead with infrastructure projects in border regions that had long been delayed. Moreover, Putin likely understands that China constitutes a long-term threat to Russia but appears to calculate that a far-off and uncertain threat from China is more acceptable than the immediate and certain threat he perceives from the United States.

Cultural factors and historical enmity are likely to be enduring constraints on Russia-China relations. However, Xi and Putin dominate the media environments in their countries and are capable of slowly turning public opinion over time. Such a process would be hard and slow, but Beijing and Moscow have the capacity to re-shape public attitudes, should they decide to. Already, surveys show that 69 percent of Russians hold a positive view of China—the same percentage of Russians that hold negative views of the United States.

3. Russia and China are united in their discontent with U.S. dominance—a marriage of convenience—but sustained cooperation and repeated interaction raise the likelihood of more meaningful alignment.

Putin and Xi prioritize their own survival in office above all else. They both judge that the United States and its efforts to support democracy present a threat to their hold on power, and that the U.S.-dominated international order disadvantages them and fails to accommodate their interests. They are united in their discontent and share an interest in weakening Western cohesion and subverting many of the values and rules that define the post-World War II order.

Although they have banded together in discontent, there is potential that their repeated interactions will foster a deeper and more enduring partnership over time. Already, Russian and Chinese values and views of the way the world should be ordered are significantly aligned. Russia and China are likely to continue to work together, and potentially coordinate their efforts to create an environment that is conducive to both of their development goals.

4. Deepening relations between Russia and China will be among the most significant U.S. foreign policy challenges in the coming decade.

Russia and China are unlikely to forge a formal military alliance. But even short of such an alliance, their growing alignment and coordination will present a significant challenge for U.S. national security in the coming years. The Director of National Intelligence warned in his 2019 Annual Threat Assessment that strengthening ties between China and Russia will present a “wide variety of economic, political, counterintelligence, military, and diplomatic challenges to the United States and its allies.” If Russia-China relations continue to grow, it would harm U.S. interests by enhancing their mutual capabilities and stretching U.S. capabilities, complicating U.S. strategic planning by potentially dividing U.S. power, emboldening them to act knowing they will have each other’s support, enhancing the perceived legitimacy of the alternative they provide, and diluting U.S leverage over countries willing to play the United States off Russia and China. Russia and China are also poised to challenge U.S. interests through the complementarity of their actions. Russia and China take different approaches to pursuing their foreign policy objectives. Russian foreign policy is confrontational and brazen. So far, China has used a subtler and more risk-averse strategy, preferring stability that is conducive to building economic ties and influence. Although their tactics are different, they have the potential to converge in synergistic ways such that the combined effects on U.S. interests is greater than the sum of their individual efforts. This dynamic is most evident in Europe, but there is potential for greater synergies between Russia and China to create new challenges for the United States.

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  1. See Richard J. Ellings and Robert Sutter, eds., Axis of Authoritarians: Implications of China-Russia Cooperation (Washington, D.C.: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2018); and Graham Allison, “The Russia Card,” The National Interest, 2019, see pp. 5-9 for in-depth discussions of the deepening ties between Russia and China.
  2. Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, and Joseph Wright, “Did Xi Jinping Just Become China’s Strongman? Not Quite.,” Washington Post, March 13, 2018,
  3. Brian Lai and Dan Reiter, “Democracy, Political Similarity, and International Alliances, 1816-1992,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 44, no. 2 (2000): 203–27.
  4. Cited in Graham Allison, “The Russia Card,” The National Interest, 2019, pp. 5-9.
  5. Daniel R. Coats, “Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” § Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2019),
  6. James Steinberg, “China-Russia Cooperation: How Should the United States Respond?” in Richard J. Ellings and Robert Sutter, eds., Axis of Authoritarians: Implications of China-Russia Cooperation (Washington, D.C.: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2018).
  7. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “How Russia and China Undermine Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, October 2, 2018.

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