An alliance between Russia and China is the next military threat
The United States appears to be settling in for a protracted period of great power military competition. Ever since Russia seized Crimea and militarily intervened in Ukraine, and as China moved onto islands across the South China Sea while claiming almost all surrounding waterways, American defense officials determined that rogue states and terrorist organizations should no longer be the epicenter of war planning and military resource allocation. The third offset strategy of the Obama administration and the national defense strategy of the Trump administration have followed, with their explicit reprioritization of defense objectives. After a quarter century without major worries over great power competition, we find ourselves in an era that some now consider, rightly or wrongly, echoes the Cold War.
China and Russia no longer share a common expansionist ideology, but realpolitik considerations are driving them together. Both are subject to American sanctions of various types. Both have also found themselves in the crosshairs of Pentagon defense planners as a result of their assertive regional activities, with Russia mostly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and China mostly in the Western Pacific, but both partially across regions as far away as Latin America as well as Africa. Both recognize that to stand up alone against an established alliance system led by the United States is very difficult, as neither has any truly powerful allies of its own.
Yet together they dominate Eurasia and their strengths complement each other. One is a huge land mass with nuclear weapons and hydrocarbons, but it has a modest and shrinking population. The other is an economic superpower and second in conventional military power by most metrics. Some look at this and conclude that China and Russia will become natural allies as time goes on. Others say such an assessment is nonsense given their mutual mistrust and indeed the very proximity that could help them work together. How can Washington resolve this contradiction? We would propose that much of the answer is in unpacking what an alliance means.
There are at least four ways to look at the term. The first is transactional cooperation where economic and other critical interests coincide. Arms sales are often the key element of this type of alliance. The second adds largely symbolic cooperation on minor military exercises or collaborative military training. The third further adds a willingness to share intelligence, posture forces, and conduct peaceful exercises and provocations against mutual adversaries. The fourth includes formal defense pacts centered on mutual defense pledges that promise more or less unconditional military assistance with combat forces in the event that either finds itself at war.
The last is what the United States has with its closest allies such as Japan, South Korea, and most nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but that is not the only way in which the term is meaningful. Defined in this way, the first two elements of a possible alliance are often relatively benign and often hard to prevent in any case. The real task for American policymakers, therefore, is to conduct United States foreign policy in a way that the security relationship between Russia and China will remain limited in these domains, without progressing very far into the third way.
Unfortunately, there are already examples that Russia and China have done considerably more, especially in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific. Even in Africa, Moscow and Beijing appear to be exploring new ways of cooperating far away from the contentious European and Asian theaters. Last month, Russia and China conducted a joint naval drill with South Africa near the Cape of Good Hope, a strategic crossroads where the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean converge. While the South African military described the drill as a basic “multinational task force to react to and counter security threats at sea,” the message conveyed by growing Russian and Chinese interests in the continent has become very clear.
Moreover, while China has already established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in part to protect its interests on the continent, Russia also seeks to be a bigger player in Africa, mainly through weapons sales and cooperation agreements in a host of areas from military training to nuclear technology. It seems likely that Russia and China will continue to find ways to leverage their combined military and economic clout across Africa. Given that the United States and Europe have real interests there, thinking about ways to counteract or at the very least monitor Russian and Chinese designs is one way to strengthen their positions in the continent.
While Moscow and Beijing have cooperated with Washington in applying economic pressure against Iran and North Korea, that could change if the Trump administration continues to take unilateral steps that punish the Russian and Chinese economies without first attempting to establish a broader legitimacy. The relationship between Russia and China is not a given. It will continue to evolve largely as a function of United States foreign policy. Washington needs to keep that fact firmly in mind as it makes diplomatic decisions, postures forces, imposes sanctions, and otherwise engages in global statecraft in the months and years ahead.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow in foreign policy and Adam Twardowski is a senior research assistant in foreign policy for the Brookings Institution.