As Vladimir Putin’s military’s fortunes wax and wane, China has emerged as Russia’s key supporter. The existence of a Sino-Russian axis was evident as early as the Putin-Xi summit in the lead-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics, after which the leaders issued a joint declaration underscoring their countries’ opposition to further NATO enlargement.
At the time, Xi stated plainly that China and Russia would support each other’s interests and sovereignty as part of “deepening back-to-back strategic coordination.” He lashed out against “certain countries” that he alleged were trying to impose their standards on other countries — a thinly veiled swipe against the United States — confirming once more the adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Since the war began, Beijing has taken important steps to help Russia sidestep sanctions. China has boosted purchases of Russian energy by over 60%, dramatically increasing its reliance on Russia for gas and oil as well as coal. (This year, Russia surpassed Indonesia as the principal supplier of coal to China.) This shift appears to be motivated by a blend of self-interest and a desire to prop up Putin’s regime; it has bought more Russian energy but at cheaper prices, so helping itself while easing the impact of the West’s sanctions on its ally. Given that China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil and second-largest importer of natural gas, it will be all but impossible to isolate Russia so long as Beijing positions itself as its biggest customer.
Xi Jinping has not yet openly defied the West’s sanctions, partly no doubt because of fierce US warnings about the consequences and because — more immediately — he has things to worry about at home, not least a nationwide upsurge of rage against Covid-related restrictions on everyday freedoms.
Yet the China-Russia relationship is now extremely close. As long as Putin remains in power and wedded to the idea of a global illiberal alliance while offering his country as a junior but significant partner, China will have too good an opportunity to miss.
And this is the crux of the matter: the United States is not in competition with Russia and China on two discrete fronts in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Rather, it is competing against a new Sino-Russian alliance in which both countries are moving in tandem to threaten the West. The geopolitics of this challenge is daunting, for their alliance raises the prospect that Beijing and Moscow could team up to lock the United States out of Eurasia. Moreover, should Russia defeat Ukraine, and Germany remain reliant on China as its largest trading partner, we may see conditions in Europe that pose a direct challenge to the United States. That anyway has been China’s clear aim for some years, though the 17+1 format in Central and Eastern Europe has ossified, as its current 16+1 status indicates.
This is nonetheless a challenge to the core of America’s interests. Last century, the US went to war twice to prevent one country — first imperial and then Nazi Germany — from dominating Europe and Eurasia, which would have trapped the US in the Western Hemisphere. The prospect of such a global power imbalance would have threatened not just our future prosperity but the American homeland itself.
And when a Eurasian power looked poised to dominate all of Europe devastated by Hitler’s drive for empire, the United States committed itself to half a century of containment. We stayed in the fight until this challenge was overcome, with the implosion of the Soviet empire giving rise to an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity across Europe.
Today the challenge is greater, for the power balance, especially when factoring in the combined resources of the Sino-Russian alliance and the relative lack of military power in Europe, have evened the odds. To appreciate the level of risk, at the end of World War II, the United States economy constituted around half of global GDP, the US Navy was bigger than all navies in the world combined, and the US commanded — albeit fleetingly — an unchallenged nuclear weapons monopoly. In contrast, today when measured in purchasing power parity (PPP), credible estimates put the US and Chinese economies at par. And while Russia’s economic potential is often dismissed (beyond its energy resources), the Kremlin brings to the Sino-Russian alliance a degree of complementarity in areas where China is lacking.
So, while it is true that China’s vast industrial base is not synonymous with the country’s ability to field state-of-the-art military systems — a capability that takes decades to develop — Russia for its part has continued to improve its weapons designs with systems that, if offered to China, could allow its defense industry to become competitive with US systems.
Despite the Russian army’s subpar performance in Ukraine, it would be a grave error to dismiss Russian military power in toto. Since the Cold War, Russia has modernized the designs of its attack submarine fleet, its nuclear weapons, and cyber capabilities. If shared with China and mass produced, this could leverage the PRC’s industrial infrastructure and pose a serious danger to the United States and our allies.
Russia and China have cooperated closely on weapons R&D since their 1996 strategic partnership agreement, including both direct licensing of post-Soviet systems, such as China’s manufacturing of the Russian Su-27Sk Flanker B combat aircraft, and other cooperative ventures. Data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute point to a symbiotic relationship between the Russian and Chinese defense industries, with Russia supplying radar technology, anti-ship, and anti-tank missiles, naval guns, advanced turbofan engine technology as well as direct purchases of Russia’s most advanced S-400 air defense systems. China is increasingly able to innovate based on these systems at a rate that outpaces what Russia can do, except for nuclear weapons technology.
It is important to note that since 1996 Russian ship designs have played a key role in building the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which now has more ships (though poorer capabilities) than its US rival. For decades, Russia aided China’s military modernization, providing both weapons systems and technology. Over time, China has leveraged its industrial base and access to Western R&D facilities to position itself as a principal weapons exporter. Today China ranks sixth out of the 25 largest defense manufacturers in the world, and though its market share is only 5% of global arms sales (Russia’s is 19%), it is already on its way to dominating the low-end of the market.
Access to modern Russian weapons design, especially its high-end systems and submarines, would position China to compete for both at the middle and high ends of the market. Moreover, technology transfers from Russia — not unlike those from the West that accompanied the PRC’s spectacular economic rise — combined with high-quality Chinese manufacturing processes could revolutionize Beijing’s weapons production, short-circuiting current projections of when the People’s Liberation Army and Navy (PLA and PLAN) could field truly competitive systems. In short, the Kremlin has it within its power to help the PRC morph into an even more formidable military competitor to the United States.
The ongoing consolidation of the Sino-Russian alliance presents a still more immediate challenge when it comes to great power competition, specifically how we conceptualize the theater(s) where it is playing out. For the last decade, the focus in Washington has increasingly been on the Indo-Pacific, with the security and defense of Taiwan the primary concern as the lynchpin of the US-guaranteed Asian security system.
Ever since the Obama administration announced its “Pivot to Asia” in 2012, much American strategic planning has followed a disaggregated pattern, in effect delinking the Pacific and Atlantic theaters. This approach drove our force planning both in terms of numbers and structure, leaving the United States with inadequate forces which are poorly structured to engage in both theaters simultaneously.
The deepening of the Sino-Russian alliance in the wake of the war in Ukraine should serve as a warning that once again our prewar assumptions and planning may not survive contact with reality. As with previous bids for hegemonic control of Eurasia in the 20th century, Europe may become the principal battleground should China throw its weight fully behind its Russian ally.
We face a conflict that may be decided once more in Europe because this theater — as in the past — holds the key to control of Eurasia. We would be well advised to at least consider and prepare for such a possibility.
Chels Michta is a Nonresident Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Chels is a former CEPA Title VIII Fellow and is currently a military intelligence officer serving in the US Army.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.
Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.