The Russia-China Relationship: Authoritarian Axis?

After Russia’s Annexation of Crimea and the imposition of US-EU sanctions against Moscow in 2014, there has been an unprecedented increase in Sino-Russian cooperation. From these post-Crimea developments, Western analysts posit that Russia has ‘decisively aligned’ with China in an ‘Authoritarian Axis’ to oppose the United States and undermine the liberal international order. This article contends that conceptions of a Sino-Russian ‘Axis’ are not only inaccurate, but also prevent rational policy formulation by US policymakers. Drawing on Russian foreign policy discussions, this article outlines the pragmatic nature of the Sino-Russian relationship and will conclude with implications for US strategy. 

The Post-Crimea Sino-Russian Relationship: Fundamental Change?

Before 2014, analysts argued that Sino-Russian ‘Strategic Partnership’ in the 2000s was hindered by many issues such as Chinese ‘yellow-peril’ migration to Siberia and reverse-engineering of Russian military-industrial exports. These ambivalences were further amplified by the relationship’s power imbalances: China was a rising economic power, whereas Russia was struggling to preserve its great power status. Russian concerns over sovereignty and economic dependence on China therefore prevented further cooperation. In 2012, President Putin, despite praising China’s ‘peaceful conduct’, was cautious about an emerging unbalanced relationship and trade structure with Beijing, and thus described China as a ‘challenge’ with ‘colossal potential for cooperation’. 

However, for many Western analysts, Russia’s subsequent isolation from the international community after the Annexation of Crimea meant that Beijing became Moscow’s only strategic option. Recent economic developments, such as the signing of a $400bn gas pipeline deal in 2014 and Chinese infrastructural investments within the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as part of President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2015, indicate that Moscow has ‘accepted’ Chinese infiltration in Russia’s sphere of influence. Observers also note that the relationship has also expanded into the realms of security. For Angela Stent, Moscow’s provision of US-Russia exclusive anti-missile defence systems to Beijing and China’s utilisation of their seat at the United Nations Security Council to ‘enable Russian territorial ambitions and aggression’ signify an emerging ‘Russia-China Axis’ aimed at ‘undermining the Western-led liberal international order from within’.

A Non-Existent Axis

In Western security discourses, ideas of a ‘Russia-China Axis’ are taken as a fact. The US National Defence Strategy (2018) characterises both Russia and China as ‘revisionist powers’ with shared authoritarian visions that are diametrically opposed to the US-led liberal international order, alleging that Beijing and Moscow are attempting to realise a ‘post-Western world order conducive to authoritarianism’. Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), also warned of a ‘strategic threat’ posed by greater Sino-Russian cooperation: He posits that the Russia-China Axis is compromising NATO’s ability to ‘contain’ Russia, implying that Beijing is enabling Moscow’s hegemonic ambitions.

However, Russian foreign policy discourses do not validate Western claims of Russia’s ‘decisive alignment’ to China. Instead, the 2016 Russian Foreign Policy Concept illustrates a diplomatic outlook that is multidimensional and global: It delegates importance to ‘strengthening ties with India, Brazil, and South Africa’ as much as partnership with China. Indeed, Russia has yet to demonstrate preference for China in their various regional disputes, as mandated by the logic of an ‘Axis’. In the South China Sea, Russia has refrained from endorsing Beijing to avoid aggravating Vietnam, a key regional partner of Russia and staunch critic of Chinese maritime aggression. More recently, Russia adopted a neutral mediating stance in the Sino-Indian Border Conflict in order to maintain amicable relations with both Beijing and New Delhi. Likewise, China’s decision to abstain from sanctioning Russian actions in Ukraine at the United Nations Security Council, rather than explicitly support Russia with a veto, demonstrates that Beijing has not ‘enabled’ Russian ambitions. Instead, the Annexation placed Beijing in an ‘uncomfortable situation’ to either endorse Moscow or maintain their deepheld principles of ‘non-interference’ and sustain economic and arms-related deals with Kiev. These extant ambivalences dispel claims that both powers are pursuing coordinated policies to enable their respective territorial ambitions.

More problematic, however, is that Western assertions of an ‘Authoritarian Axis’ obfuscate the strategic dilemmas of Russia’s post-Crimea foreign policy which remains concerned with consolidating Russia’s great power status and influence. In this view, Russian academics have warned that China may pose a fundamental threat to these interests, asserting that Western sanctions have effectively coerced Russia to engage with China in an ‘asymmetrical partnership’ with the threat of ‘excessive reliance’. In discourses concerning Russia’s ‘Greater Eurasia’ and EEU integration projects, both seen as a priority in establishing Russia relevance in the Post-Cold War era, academics acknowledge Russia’s ‘secondary’ and defensive position to China in these transformational developmental projects. For Dmitry Yefremenko, China’s BRI is calling for ‘accelerated change’, whilst Russia ‘has to respond to these transformations’ in order to maintain influence in the Post-Soviet Eurasian space. Whilst Russia has so far tolerated Chinese BRI initiatives in the post-Soviet Eurasian space by coordinating Chinese activities with ‘Greater Eurasia’ projects, it is noteworthy that Russian academics view rapprochement with the West as essential in balancing China’s ‘augmented ability’ to compromise Russia’s fiscal autonomy. 

Indeed, suspicions do not end with geo-economics. Russia has also carefully prevented greater Chinese involvement in Eurasia’s security, preferring to act through Russian-dominated and Chinese-exclusive institutions like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) as opposed to the Russian and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Hence, far from ‘decisively aligning’ with China, Russian foreign policy remains concerned with sustaining Russia’s role as an independent great power, in which partnership with China only plays a limited role.

Policy Implications

Western defence strategies to date rest on the assumption that both Russia and China are ‘aligned actors’ in pursuit for a ‘post-Western’ world order. However, a closer analysis reveals that the nature of the relationship is ultimately concerned with pragmatism, in which Russia only pursues cooperation with China if it aligns with their interests of preserving their ‘great-powerness’. In instances where both parties’ interests do not coincide, such as in regional disputes or contesting visions of regional order, Russian suspicions of China inhibit further cooperation.

Thus, the Trump Administration’s assumption that both Russia and China are ‘aligned authoritarian powers’ working in opposition to American liberalism inhibits a rational formulation of US policy in current affairs. A ‘good’ grand strategy requires policy objectives that are built on reasoned premises and assumptions: It is therefore essential for the West to understand these hybrid dynamics of cooperation and rivalry in the Sino-Russian relationship. For one, the Administration, in their stated objective of managing long-term strategic competition and American global influence, should not conceptualise current relations with Russia and China in terms of irreconcilable rivalry. An understanding of the Sino-Russian relationship as ‘driven’ by coinciding interests would suggest that US strategy is potentially pushing both Russia and China to further enhance their cooperation. By acknowledging these dynamics of the Sino-Russian relationship, US policymakers may consider broader policy instruments, such as a ‘reset’ or ‘engagement’ with Russia, in order to manage strategic competition with China. Whatever form this strategic reformulation takes in subsequent Administrations, it is apparent that rejecting conceptions of an ‘Authoritarian Axis’ is a necessary starting point for any adjustments to Washington’s policy towards Russia and China in the return of multipolarity and great-power rivalry.

By Ryan Chan

Ryan Chan is a postgraduate student reading an MA in International Peace and Security and Researcher for the Defence and Diplomacy Policy Centre. He is also a recent graduate from King’s College London, holding a BA in History and International Relations. His research interests are in East Asian and Chinese Security, Russian Foreign Policy, and the concept of Global Britain.

Header Image by bob renner from Flickr.


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