An anti-US alliance in the making, as Russia and China move ever closer together

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For the first time since the mid-1950s, when the Sino-Soviet split actually took place, the United States faces a united Russo-Chinese front. In announcing the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to China on March 21, Beijing anticipated a joint response to the meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts, Chinese Foreign Affairs Director Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi, that was scheduled to conclude two days earlier. 

Wang had already stated in January that “in developing China-Russia cooperation, we see no limit, no forbidden zone and no ceiling as to how far this cooperation can go.” And as the Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party’s organ, The People’s Daily, reported, just as the two sides were meeting in Anchorage, “Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s scheduled visit to China … is of great significance as the close China-Russia coordination will offset the impact of the U.S.’s troublemaking after its just concluded 2+2 dialogues with its allies Japan and South Korea.”

Russia and China have moved increasingly closer to each other during the past decade, as they have ever more forcefully challenged American leadership and its efforts to export its values worldwide. That Russia and China chose to show a common front against Washington in the immediate aftermath of the Anchorage meeting should therefore have come as no surprise. 

There can be little doubt that the Chinese were taken aback by the forcefulness of their American interlocutors; the Kremlin probably was surprised as well. Beijing — and Moscow — probably expected to see a reprise of Khrushchev’s 1961 meeting with the newly elected President Kennedy in Vienna. The Soviet leader had caught the younger Kennedy flat-footed with his bare-knuckled attack on the West, going so far as to threaten war if the U.S. challenged the Soviet position in Berlin. Indeed, Kennedy himself acknowledged that Khrushchev “just beat the hell out of me.” Perhaps Yang and Wang thought they could in much the same way get the better of Blinken and Sullivan, both new to their jobs and representing a country suffering from its worst internal divisions in decades.

Yang and Wang read from several pages of notes; given the nature of the Chinese system under the autocratic Xi Jinping, their script must surely have been cleared at the very top of the Chinese hierarchy, perhaps by Xi himself. While they did not go so far as Khrushchev had done in threatening to go to war, they made it clear that they considered China to be on a trajectory that would enable it to become the world’s dominant economic and military power by 2050. They criticized America’s interference in the affairs of other countries, its costly wars, and its inability to deal with its own human rights issues.

Blinken and Sullivan were not cowed, however. They gave at least as good as they received. In particular, they called out China for undermining democracy in Hong Kong, for its brutal treatment of the Uyghurs, and for its aggressiveness in East and Southeast Asia. And Washington imposed new sanctions on key Chinese individuals associated with Beijing’s repressive policies.

The American response no doubt colored Wang’s talks with Lavrov. Both reiterated their criticism of American interference in the affairs of other countries, meaning autocracies such as theirs. They challenged the new sanctions that Washington, together with the European Union, Britain and Canada, imposed in response to Beijing’s repressive policies. Wang asserted that “countries should stand together to oppose all forms of unilateral sanctions.” In turn, Lavrov was critical of Western efforts to impose “their own rules on everyone else, which they believe should underpin the world order.”

China and Russia have every intention to replace that world order with one of their own. They can expect to be joined by the likes of Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and perhaps other states as well. In addition, several American allies like Israel, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Turkey have ties to both Russia and China; they may do their utmost to avoid taking sides in this clash of what are rapidly becoming two opposing military and economic blocs, led by America on the one hand and by China and Russia on the other. 

Russia and China do not yet have a formal military alliance. Nevertheless, Washington would do well to plan as if they have one. Because in practice, they already are acting as if they do.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags China Jake Sullivan Jake Sullivan Russia Tony Blinken

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