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China and Russia prepare to turn Cold War II into a hot war

In 2011, James Clapper, President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that both Russia and China posed “the greatest mortal threat” to the United States because of their nuclear capabilities. 

Though he also said neither then evinced an intent to use those capabilities against the United States, several Democratic senators expressed alarm at Clapper’s threat characterization and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said he should resign.  

Obama’s policies were closely aligned with the committee members’ more relaxed view of the two countries’ relations with the United States. The Trump and Biden foreign policy teams, on the other hand, have shared the increasingly dire assessment of both China and Russia.

Last week, the Biden administration’s Defense Department released its National Defense Strategy (NDS), delayed by the war in Ukraine, along with the companion Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Missile Defense Review (MDR).  Like the earlier National Security Strategy (NSS), the documents place China at the top of the list of security threats facing the United States, with Russia as a close second.

“The PRC presents the most consequential and systemic challenge, while Russia poses acute threats — both to vital U.S. national interests abroad and to the homeland,” the NDS says of the People’s Republic of China.

The document is deficient, however, in understating the extent to which China-Russia collaboration compounds the threat that either poses by itself. It is entirely silent on the emerging security alliance being forged by the two U.S. adversaries.

On the diplomatic and political levels, Russia and China have been the corrosive evil twins at the United Nations for decades. They have used their Security Council vetoes not only to protect themselves and each other from the consequences of their multiple violations of the UN Charter and international law, but also to block or weaken Western sanctions against other global outlaws such as North Korea and Iran. 

In recent years, their cooperation has moved to the security realm, with China participating in a number of Russian war games and joint military exercises simulating their respective defensive capabilities.

Then, last February, just weeks before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin met at the opening of the Beijing Olympics and released a “Joint Statement on International Relations Entering a New Era.” 

In an apparent response to President Biden’s proclamation of a global competition between democracies and autocracies, they claimed the democratic mantle for themselves. “The sides share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of States.”

But the “no-limits strategic partnership” they announced amounted to the declaration of a new cold war between the two autocracies and the Western-led international order. They implicitly repudiated the United Nations documents that enshrined that universality, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which both countries signed.  

By their definition of  “universal,” every government or regime gets to proclaim itself democratic by its own whims. Xi and Putin asserted,  “It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one.”

Their shared motive in rejecting anything approaching an objective standard was made abundantly clear when the Chinese perpetrator of genocide in Xinjiang and the Russian war criminal in Ukraine jointly stated, “The sides … oppose the abuse of democratic values and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights.”

The joint statement also got down to specifics on how the “democratic value” they envision is to be applied to the situations in their respective regions, where they expressed their reciprocal support. 

From Xi to Putin: “The sides oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches … Russia and China oppose color revolutions.”  (Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” occurred in 2004.)  

From Putin to Xi: “The Russian side reaffirms its support for the One-China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.”

The statement further reads, “The sides stand against the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region and remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region.”

In the months that followed the Xi-Putin meeting and joint statement, China-Russia security relations have deepened, even as Beijing managed to continue financing Russia’s war against Ukraine without running afoul of U.S. sanctions.

The sanctions loophole China found was the same one it has successfully exploited with North Korea’s coal exports — by expanding exponentially its purchases of Russian oil, which is not covered by the sanctions, from pre-war levels. (The sanctions regimes clearly need to be strengthened by establishing a baseline of third-party purchases of exports from sanctioned countries, say, at the average level for the five prior years.)

In September, Russia and China held their 17th meeting on strategic cooperation. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, met China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Fujian and stated, “The development of a strategic partnership with China is an unconditional priority of Russian foreign policy. The sides agreed on further military cooperation with a focus on joint exercises and patrols, as well as on strengthening contacts between the General Staffs.”

While Yang studiously avoided mentioning Ukraine, Patrushev said, “The Russian side takes a firm stand on the one-China principle, and firmly supports the measures taken by the Chinese government to safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity on the Taiwan question.”

Even in their September meeting in Uzbekistan, when Xi expressed some “questions and concerns” about how the war in Ukraine was proceeding, Xi pledged to “work with Russia to extend strong mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests,” i.e., Ukraine and Taiwan.   

The NDS states Washington’s intent to “ work seamlessly across warfighting domains, theaters, the spectrum of conflict, all instruments of U.S. national power, and our network of alliances and partnerships.” If there are simultaneous challenges in multiple theaters — which seems to be what China and Russia are planning, with the malevolent participation of North Korea and Iran — it raises again the U.S. commitment to a “two-theater” warfighting capability. 

Given the scope of the challenge and the limits on available resources, America’s “network of alliances and partnerships” had better be prepared to step up and do their share. Nothing less than the fate of Western civilization is at stake. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Biden China Cold War II James Clapper National Defense Strategy National Security Strategy Obama Russia Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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