There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Russia and China were wary neighbors stuck within the confines of a good-enough coexistence. The two countries were rivals during the latter decades of the Cold War, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought about a more amicable and businesslike relationship. While it would be an overstatement to blame U.S. actions specifically for today’s warmer Sino-Russian ties (Moscow and Beijing, after all, have a collective interest in healthy bilateral relations), U.S. foreign policy is an undeniable factor in driving the two great powers closer together.
U.S. sanctions on Russia and China, for instance, have compelled both countries to explore ways to work around them. And they are doing so most effectively by linking their economies more tightly. Washington has slapped financial restrictions, visa bans, and asset freezes on a multitude of Russian and Chinese companies, individuals, and entities for various infractions over the years—and those restrictions continue to pile up. Russia was already the second-most sanctioned state by the U.S. at the beginning of the year, and that was before Washington placed even more sanctions on the Russian economy for the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, cyberattacks, and interference in U.S. elections. China is an increasingly favorite target of U.S. sanctions measures as well; in addition to personal sanctions against Chinese officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses, the U.S. Commerce Department has placed dozens of Chinese entities on its export blacklist since the summer.
It’s unsurprising that Russia and China are responding by increasing connections between their respective economies. This was most visible in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, when U.S. and Western economic sanctions against Russia nudged Putin and Xi into signing a $400 billion, 30-year deal supplying Beijing with Russian natural gas. Total bilateral trade between Russia and China has risen by over 30% this year to a total of $115.6 billion. While U.S. officials shouldn’t necessarily discourage a booming Russia-China trade relationship, they should nonetheless understand that Washington’s dependence on sanctions is driving the Russian and Chinese leadership to pool their resources and even discuss alternatives to the U.S.-dominated financial system.
The synergy between Russia and China isn’t limited to trade and economics. The Russian and Chinese militaries now engage in joint training exercises with some regularity, which provide opportunities for both to boost the interoperability of their air, land, and sea forces. This October, China deployed anti-submarine aircraft and destroyers to Russia’s Peter the Great Gulf for exercises in seaborne warfare.
Diplomatically, the Russian and Chinese delegations frequently come to one another’s defense at the U.N. Security Council, blocking U.S. initiatives, and proposing joint resolutions. The diplomatic cooperation extends beyond the halls of Turtle Bay; while Beijing has yet to recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, Xi nevertheless used his 37th meeting with Putin to support Russia’s campaign to launch European security talks with the United States and NATO.
Of course, none of this translates to the two powers establishing a formal alliance anytime soon. A Russia-China alliance would portend a mutual defense obligation. Putin and Xi may refer to each other as close friends, but there is little indication either believes such an arrangement is in their interest.
Even so, the emergence of an anti-U.S. bloc with Beijing and Moscow at the helm is a serious enough proposition to hedge against.
Such a hedging strategy would include multiple elements. First, the U.S. should be more judicious about when it employs sanctions. While there are some circumstances in which sanctions are appropriate, using them as habitually as Washington does incentivizes Moscow and Beijing to look to each other for support.
Second, U.S. leaders should stop treating competition with Russia and China as an ideological contest. Harping on ideology does nothing but cement the very blocs the Biden administration publicly opposes and limits opportunities for cooperation on shared interests.
Third, Washington needs to ditch primacy, the notion the U.S. must be the dominant force in all regions, without exception. Consistent presence missions and military drills in the South China Sea, bomber flights on Europe’s eastern flank, and unconditional support to front-line states (like Ukraine and Georgia) the U.S. is not entitled to defend leave Russia and China no choice but to enhance their military partnership. Cutting back significantly on these missions will not only help the U.S. recuperate some of the military readiness it has lost, but also give Russia and China less justification to coordinate their attempts to undercut U.S. power.
The U.S. needs to get smart about grand strategy again. Otherwise, an anti-U.S. alliance between Russia and China that looks unlikely today could become a reality tomorrow.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.