As the war in Ukraine continues, a series of recent statements from high-level officials in Russia and China has set off the alarm that an increased partnership between the two may be in the works. This comes as intelligence reports obtained in early April from Ukraine accuse China of conducting a massive cyberattack on their military and nuclear facilities just days before the Russian invasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a joint statement in February which discussed their goals for reshaping the international system. In addition, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 30, “China is willing to work with Russia to take China-Russian ties to a higher level in a new era under the guidance of the consensus reached by the heads of state,” and that “Both sides are more determined to develop bilateral ties, and are more confident in promoting cooperation in various fields.” The pair also condemned what they claim to be illegal and counterproductive Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
While Beijing has not fully supported the invasion of Ukraine publicly, recent media reports in China have also repeated Russian talking points and propaganda on the war, including false claims about the presence of U.S. biological weapons in Ukraine. State-run media in China reported on April 2 that “the forces of NATO countries and other powers are becoming more active in Russia’s border areas, which forces Russia to remain vigilant.” This line comes directly from Russian news outlet TASS.
Over the past 70 years, the relationship between Russia and China has ranged from conflict to alliance. After gradually improving their relations since the mid-1980s, China and Russia became much closer beginning in 2014 during the Russian annexation of Crimea. Chinese government experts designate 2014 as “a year of abnormal acceleration of Sino-Russia relations” due to strategic anxiety over U.S. efforts to “rebalance Asia” and Russia’s fear over NATO’s potential expansion. The United States became the primary threat to both Russian and Chinese interests in 2014, which led to a strategic alignment in order to counter the perceived pressures.
Wang declared in a March joint statement that “China-Russia cooperation has no limits.” The statement stands as a promise to collaborate more against the West, which appears to be playing out.
Do these interactions hint that a more formal alliance between Russia and China could be forged in the near future?
“I do not believe that China will fully back the invasion of Ukraine unless the majority of states in the world were to suddenly reverse course and support the invasion,” Samuel Stanton, a professor of political science at Grove City College, told The American Spectator. “The Chinese relationship with Russia is firmly entrenched in both of those states opposing a western dominated world order led by the U.S. China does not, however, want to upset their ability to navigate the current world order in a manner that successfully allows them to grow economically and continue to develop greater influence politically.”
Stanton points out what many scholars believe: the relationship between Russia and China exists as a means to an end. Both countries have openly stated their motivation to create a world order without a Western overseer, and due to this desire for a common end, the two nations will continue to cooperate. Stanton also discussed the level of skepticism between Russia and China, noting that “the Chinese not being willing to openly support the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians points out the skepticism with which they view Russia. The only reason the Chinese are in league with Russia is as a means toward the end of redrawing the world order, not because the Chinese particularly like or believe in the qualities of Russia as an ally.”
David Tubbs, a professor of politics at King’s College, told The American Spectator, “The U.S. has not dealt with Russia well since the end of communism.”
Many scholars fear Western actions and poor handling of Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union are partly to blame for rising tensions internationally. Kadri Liik, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in December, “The severe deterioration in the country’s relationship with the West made it look at China in new ways – as an ally and an investor rather than just a regional competitor and a buyer of military equipment with an annoying tendency to copy Russian technology.”
Russia and China will likely stop short of an outright military alliance or treaty agreements. Experts believe they will remain trade partners and associates in collusion against the U.S.- and Western-dominated international world order. It is expected that the Sino-Russian relationship will continue to strengthen as long as the nations feel U.S. policies indicate aggression towards them. This should spark concern for U.S. and Western policymakers, as these collaborative efforts to disrupt the current system and alter it in favor of one more advantageous to the Russians or Chinese would result in a weakened liberal world order.