As a way to counterbalance a newly unified West under the Biden administration, China and Russia are steadily closing ranks. What was once a relatively cold relationship between Beijing and Moscow is now gradually evolving into a tacit, yet firm, geo-political and military cooperation.
Since settling their 2004 territorial dispute, Russia and China share a need for peace along their 4,200 kilometres border — conflict being too dangerous for two nuclear powers. Then there is the natural economic reciprocity between commodities-rich Russia and a resources-importing China. Crucially, Sino-Russian relations have grown unprecedentedly amicable under President Putin and President Xi Jinping’s leadership: the two regularly call each other “best friends” and vocalize their respect for one another. Both have claimed that the Sino-Russian axis has never been more aligned on geopolitical issues, including trade, Iran and the Arctic Sea.
Recently, upon being asked about a potential Russo-Chinese military rapprochement, Putin claimed he “could imagine” a military alliance with Beijing, adding that military synergies between the two countries had already reached a high level of cooperation, and that “this is an allied relationship in the full sense of a multifaceted strategic partnership.” Chinese officials welcomed his comments, noting they “demonstrate the high level and special nature of our bilateral ties” and that “there is no limit to the traditional China-Russia friendship and no restricted areas for expanding our cooperation”. Putin, in particular, has a vested interest in his rapprochement with Xi Jinping as a way to intimidate the US and EU with the prospect of a Sino-Russian bloc, with the intent of compelling the West to moderate its policies towards Russia.
What does this unprecedented Sino-Russian axis mean for the West —and, crucially, how will Biden and the EU counteract it?
A Tacit Military Alliance
In recent years, Moscow and Beijing have been deepening their military cooperation at a remarkable rate.
In 2017, Russia and China upgraded their military alignment signing a three-year plan for an unprecedented bilateral military cooperation, which involves strategic arms and the sharing of key military experience and technology-related research. Furthermore, the two capitals have been collaborating on the creation of air defense and anti-missile defense systems, while Russia is also selling its latest hardware to the Chinese government, including Su-35 fighter aircraft and S-400 missile systems. On top of that, large scale joint Sino-Russian military exercises and joint armed interventions across the world have also become more common, such as last year’s joint drills in Oman and 2017’s joint exercises in the Baltic. Lastly, the Russians are helping the Chinese in the production of a new missile launch detection system —arguably the most important apparatus in the strategic nuclear forces control system. For its part, the United States has been trying to widen its bilateral military ties with Israel and Japan on matters of breakthrough technology (including hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and automated systems), which so far has had the counter-productive effect of pushing Putin and Xi Jinping closer to a bona fide alliance. Naturally, military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing does not match the level of the military transparency shared by US allies, but it marks a sharp divergence from the past and suggests there is more room to deepen integration. In fact, military cooperation between the two is likely to spill over into other fields that would be mutually beneficial to both financially and technologically while posing little risk to national security, including strategic missile defense, hypersonic technology, and nuclear submarines.
How Will the West Counteract the Sino-Russian Axis?
Naturally, the consolidation of the Sino-Russian axis is causing growing concern in the West.
Second, the strengthening of a Russo-Chinese military rapprochement increases China’s military dominance on the world stage and brings it closer to the United States’.
The potential consequences of a world order wherein the US is no longer the principal military giant therefore explain Biden’s persistence over his foreign policy agenda. In fact, he aims to re-solidify US relations with allies — who have been left alienated by Trump’s isolationist, “America first” rhetoric — and deepen Western geopolitical, economic and military ties and interests. In particular, it is likely that the US will pressure NATO allies to increase their defense budgets and carry a larger portion of the security burden. Biden may also urge Europe to require investment reciprocity and transparency over technology and infrastructure with China.
On top of that, the Biden-Harris administration is also likely to lobby for technology transfers and investment partnerships between the EU, Japan, Canada, and Australia, thereby strengthening Western economic interdependence.
Lastly, the president-elect has already expressed his intention to sanction Russia and further challenge Moscow both domestically and geopolitically, which may ultimately push Putin deeper into Xi Jinping’s embrace.
Crucially, increased economic complementarity between Moscow and Beijing will come at the expense of European businesses. For instance, in 2016 China outperformed Germany as Russia’s primary provider of equipment and technologic products. Last year, the Russian market imported 2.5 times more in hi-tech products from Chinese businesses than German manufacturers, amounting to nearly $31 billion. As such, the deterioration of Russo-European relations will likely lead to more joint sanctions and a further decline in European technology exports to the Russian market. Crucially, energy ties — the historical backbone of Russo-European relations — will also suffer heavy losses. In the short term, it is becoming abundantly clear that American lawmakers will continue sanctioning the nearly finished Nord Stream 2 gas pipelineconnecting Russia to Europe through the Baltic Sea and Germany. Whether they will actually manage to convince Berlin to halt the project remains to be seen. In the longer term, the EU’s reliance on Russian energy will also decrease as a result of the Union’s Green Deal plan to decarbonize. As such, Russia’s international business model as well as the foundation of its relationship with Europe are going to be placed in serious jeopardy.
Unsurprisingly, Moscow has therefore started pivoting towards the Chinese market: recently, large scale projects such as the Power of Siberia pipeline and other major energy ventures have nearly doubledthe share of Chinese trade in Russia’s overall trade turnover, growing from 10% in 2013 to 18% last year.
Cold War 2.0
Following the 2014 collapse of Russia’s relations with the US and EU, Russia’s pivot to the East — as well as its prospects of economic transformation — have left Putin no option but to engage in a committed partnership with Xi Jinping. Though this quasi-alliance may remain tacit for the foreseeable future, the military and security rapprochement of the Sino-Russian axis is now indisputable. After all, Putin has far more to gain from a pragmatic partnership with Xi Jinping than with the West, even if he emerges from it as the junior, dependent partner, while China could easily replace Russia with another energy-rich nation. In fact, despite the increasing asymmetry in the alliance and apprehension about it in the Russian elite, it would be unrealistic to hope Putin will warm up to the West.
With the restoration of the Transatlantic alliance by the incoming Biden administration, rivalry among these great powers has never loomed so close.
The West will have to face the financial, geopolitical and security consequences of an increasingly belligerent Russia and a growingly assertive China working in tandem to alter the current world order. A modern Second Cold War may be more inevitable than ever before.