The Russo-Chinese axis reveals itself during the coronavirus pandemic

The Russo-Chinese axis reveals itself during the coronavirus pandemic
© VALERIY SHARIFULIN/AFP/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided Russia and China with abundant opportunities to display their alliance. Naturally, they have taken full advantage of those opportunities. Russia and China have provided each other with medical aid during the plague and praised each other’s handling of the crisis. Moscow and Beijing have also jointly rebuffed Washington’s insistence on Chinese participation in arms control, a position that Moscow once espoused even as the U.S. government has released evidence of Russian violations and joint Sino-Russian circumvention of arms control treaties. 

Russia continues to avoid commenting on China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and, if anything, has in recent years inclined to support China’s defiance of international courts and international law. Moscow and Beijing have identified with each other’s policies regarding nuclearization on the Korean peninsula and are actively subverting United Nations (UN) sanctions on North Korea, for which they both voted. 

Finally, we see enhanced cooperation and convergence between China and Russia at the UN, where they strive to “redefine its normative content” so that the institution will reflect their narratives and interests. For China and Russia, the UN is an arena of great power struggle where they focus on challenging U.S. hegemony. And they both seek to carve out a privileged position allowing them to defy UN norms if they contract their national interests and ambitions for regional spheres of influence while at the same time challenging the U.S. wherever they can.

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We have also seen numerous instances of Chinese emulation of Russian tactics in information warfare and the borrowing of each other’s narrative tropes. Both states have  reiterated the canard that the U.S. or American military personnel started the coronavirus. For its part, Russia is again complaining, as it has done for some time, about alleged but wholly nonexistent secret U.S. labs preparing for biological warfare in the former Soviet Union.

But now China has also picked up on this fake news, only to claim that the virus originated in a U.S. biological warfare program at Ft. Detrick in Maryland, or that it was brought by U.S. military personnel to Wuhan, the original site of the virus. China then also reiterated its concern that “secret U.S. labs” in former Soviet states constituted a possible risk to people’s health.

Reflecting this Sino-Russian cooperation, the European Union released a long report accusing those governments of aiming to start an “infodemic” against the West to undermine the EU’s and NATO’s unity and advance their own interests. Much of this is already known, but the problem is that too many American experts still refuse to accept that we are facing an alliance.

Worse yet, it is now clear as well that Iran, at least in the sphere of information warfare, has joined these two governments in what EU monitors claim is “trilateral convergence of disinformation narratives” about the pandemic. 

Among the aims of this coordinated operation is to obtain the lifting of sanctions on Russia, Iran, Syria and Venezuela. But the EU has also observed that these actions aim to “undermine public trust” in governments.

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Ironically these three governments have been among the worst performers in the world in dealing with the coronavirus. Not surprisingly, China’s activities in the sphere of information warfare represent attempts to cover up that the plague originated in China, that the Chinese government violently suppressed any mention of its true scope, thus allowing it to spread unchecked throughout the globe.  

We should not be surprised with this given China’s record, its increasingly truculent responses to criticism and violence against domestic minorities, and aggressive moves against its Southeast Asian neighbors. Iran’s animus against Washington is also long-standing. And Russian officials stated back in 2005 that Russia is under attack and at war with the West.

Therefore, we should not be surprised at any of these developments. But Western elites need to wake up now from their dogmatic slumbers. This plague represents a major step forward in the war against the West. But it is one in which politics is war conducted by other means. 

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.