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Three reasons why the China-Russia alliance is deepening

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The Biden administration’s recent efforts to coerce or cajole Beijing into joining the U.S.-led sanctions regime against Russia appear to have come to nothing. This was made crystal clear during the video conference last week between President Biden and Xi Jinping, at which the Chinese leader explicitly refused to lend Beijing’s weight to international efforts to pressure the Kremlin to pull Russian forces out of Ukraine.

And if anyone harbored any lingering hopes following that exchange, they were definitively dashed the following day when Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng delivered remarks blaming the Ukraine crisis on the threat that NATO expansion posed to Russia’s security, likening the threat to the one China believes that Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy poses to its own security, and once again rejecting calls for Beijing to impose sanctions of its own.

This is not to suggest, of course, that Beijing is happy with Moscow these days. It most certainly isn’t. The execrably poor showing of Russia’s military on the battlefield, coupled with the economic damage that is being visited on that country by Western sanctions, has left China with a much weaker strategic partner than it had (or thought it had) just a month ago.

On top of that, its Russian ally’s egregious violation of Ukrainian national sovereignty – a norm that has been the cornerstone of China’s foreign policy since the Revolution – has forced China’s official and unofficial mouthpieces into all sorts of circumlocutions as they seek to balance support for their ally against support for that norm.

No, there can be no doubt that Russia’s botched invasion of its neighbor has left China’s leadership feeling dismayed, disappointed and perhaps even displeased. 

But this does not mean that Beijing is going to comply with Biden’s demands that it impose sanctions of its own on Russia (though its firms may reluctantly comply with Western sanctions). And it certainly doesn’t mean that China is going to downgrade its strategic entente with Russia – an entente that both sides have agreed “has no limits,” and in which there are “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” – out of either deference to Washington or disappointment with Moscow.

In fact, quite the opposite: China is likely to rally to the support of Russia, even if it does so in a low-profile way and continues to utter platitudes about wanting peace and prizing the norm of national sovereignty.

The reasons for China’s resistance to the United States’s demands – and the reason it will stick to its entente with Russia, regardless of the current tensions – are threefold. First, in the realm of economics, China needs Russia to secure its long-term economic prosperity. Russia supplies much of the oil and gas, nickel, aluminum and palladium, wheat and corn, and fertilizer that China needs to keep its economy going — a hard reality that is not going to change anytime soon and that forms the foundation of the Sino-Russian entente.

And then there’s the Northern Sea Route (NSR), that increasingly accessible shipping channel that runs along Russia’s northern coastline and that is both more secure and shorter than China’s traditional shipping routes to Europe. Beijing is hardly going to jeopardize its future access to the NSR over something as ultimately inconsequential to China as the fate of Ukraine. 

Second, in the geopolitical realm, too, China needs Russia. In this respect, 2014 was a fateful year. Prior to that year, Sino-Russian relations weren’t particularly warm. But the confluence of what were perceived in Beijing as U.S. efforts to “bully” Russia over Ukraine and China over Taiwan and the South China Sea, and both over a range of other issues, including their domestic affairs, made 2014 a year of what Chinese experts refer to as “an abnormal acceleration of Sino-Russian relations.”  

The upshot of this acceleration was that Beijing committed to greater alignment and cooperation with Russia to divide American attention and resources, complicate U.S. military planning in both theaters and otherwise insulate itself from U.S. efforts to “rebalance to Asia” and to dominate the Western Pacific.

Finally, at the intersection of the economic and geopolitical realms – let’s call it the geo-economic realm – China also needs Russia. The scope, scale and severity (not to mention swiftness) of the U.S.-led economic campaign against Russia has only confirmed Chinese fears that Washington is both willing and able to weaponize the global economy against any power that too actively seeks to resist its hegemony.

By not going along – and perhaps offering Russia various work-arounds – China’s leaders are seeking to blunt what they perceive to be a U.S.-engineered effort to discipline and punish Russia for challenging the U.S.-built and Western-dominated rules-based international order — an order that China also seeks to overturn, or at least Sino-form.

By undermining the effectiveness of the sanctions regime being imposed on Russia, China clearly hopes to weaken the compliance mechanism that keeps that order working and under American control. Beijing probably also has an eye on blunting the effectiveness of this particular mechanism so that it can’t be effectively deployed against China in the event that Beijing feels compelled to conduct its own “special military operation” against Taiwan.

So, no — China is not going to impose sanctions on Moscow over its war on Ukraine. And it certainly isn’t going to dump its Russian partner simply because the Biden administration says so. In fact, quite the opposite. The two revisionist powers are likely to grow even closer, moving from a relatively loose entente to a tighter alliance — and perhaps even toward becoming a solid geopolitical bloc.

What this means for the future of world order is anybody’s guess. But one thing’s for certain: Contrary to the expectations of some and the hopes of many, some form of Sino-Russian axis is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, a fixed feature of the international order.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags China China–Russia relations Foreign relations of Russia Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden Russia Russia-Ukraine war

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