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  • America’s Bleak View of Russia-China Relations
  • Robert Sutter (bio)

The partnership between Russia and China has matured and broadened since the Cold War, and it has strengthened significantly in the last decade. The dispositions of President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping support forecasts of closer relations over the next five years and probably beyond. The momentum is based on (1) common objectives, (2) perceived Russian and Chinese vulnerabilities in the face of U.S. and Western pressures, and (3) perceived opportunities for the two powers to expand their influence at the expense of U.S. and allied leaders, who are seen as cautious, distracted, and in decline.

One hundred leading U.S. specialists on Russia and China participating in the NBR project “Strategic Implications of Russia-China Relations” are in broad agreement on the causes of the challenges that Russia and China pose to the United States.1 They agree that Sino-Russian relations increasingly undermine U.S. interests and that past views of the relationship as an “axis of convenience” with little significance for the United States no longer hold. While some see a de facto alliance, others discern a more contingent relationship. All favor broadly strengthening U.S. economic, diplomatic, and military might to change the prevailing international balance of power in ways that improve the U.S. position in the face of opposition by Russia and China. In terms of tactics, the specialists vary in the mix of incentives and disincentives—so-called carrots and sticks—that they suggest employing to deal with this challenge. Notably, some seek advantage in improving U.S. [End Page 39] relations with Russia to counter the much more powerful China, while others see major disadvantages in overtures to Moscow.

This essay begins with an examination of the causes and drivers of the closer Russia-China relations that have emerged in the last decade. It then analyzes the roadblocks, or “brakes,” that will slow the developing relationship, in particular identifying how the two countries diverge on many of their most important foreign relationships. The next section studies the strategic consequences of tighter Sino-Russian cooperation for U.S. interests. The final section identifies policy options and provides an outlook for 2018.

The Causes and Drivers of the Sino-Russian Relationship

Counterbalancing U.S. global influence and revising the international order

Russian and Chinese interests converge most prominently on their mutual desire to serve as a counterweight to perceived U.S. preponderant influence. China sees Russia as a useful counterbalance to constrain and weaken U.S. power, and Russia values Sino-Russian cooperation for the same reason. Both seek greater dominance in their respective regions, and the United States stands in the way.

Countering perceived U.S. promotion of democracy

The governments in Moscow and Beijing feel vulnerable and sometimes threatened in the face of U.S. promotion of human rights and democracy, motivating closer cooperation in response. Both states in theory support a doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states.

Opposing U.S. military advances in areas important to Russia and China

Both countries perceive the United States as encroaching on areas of strategic interest. Targets here include opposition to U.S. missile defense systems, U.S. military reconnaissance along the Russian and Chinese borders, and U.S. long-range strike capabilities.

Opposing U.S. policies on space and cyberspace security

China and Russia work together to influence rules and norms for outer space and cyberspace to their advantage at the United States’ expense.

Sharing a strongly engrained common identity and strategic culture

Moscow and Beijing (and Presidents Putin and Xi) share a negative view of the intentions of the United States and its allies that reinforces cooperation against perceived outside threats. This view colors how both leaders perceive global affairs and the international order. [End Page 40]

Selling and developing advanced weapons and military technology, and cooperating on other defense activities

Sino-Russian national security collaboration includes arms sales, defense dialogues, and joint exercises. These influence third countries and seek to change the balance of power to the disadvantage of the United States.

Linking trade and investment

Russia has mitigated Western sanctions with Chinese purchases...


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pp. 39-45
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