According to the recently released 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy, China and Russia “are increasingly aligned with each other but the challenges they pose are, in important ways, distinct.” These challenges are felt all around the world, not least in Europe and the United States. All too rarely explored, however, is when and how Beijing and Moscow coordinate or cooperate and what this means for the United States and its allies and partners.
Indeed, much attention by officials and commentators has focused on the simple assertion that China and Russia pose different challenges to the United States and other allies and partners in Europe. The consensus U.S. view has been that China constitutes the serious rival while Russia poses a significant nuisance threat as it experiences political and economic decline, producing a predisposition in recent years to use military force around its periphery. According to one group of researchers writing in 2017, “Russia is a rogue, not a peer; China is a peer, not a rogue.” This assessment was made before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but this act of aggression has only reinforced the picture of Russia as a pariah power.
Another widely held view is that Moscow is a more immediate in-your-face adversary while Beijing is more of an over-the-horizon emerging threat. As one U.S. official pithily put it in 2019: “Russia [is] a hurricane. It comes on hard and fast. China … is climate change: long, slow, pervasive.”
Not surprisingly, the immediate fears of U.S. partners and allies in Europe over the last decade or more have focused on Russia’s multiple acts of aggression and intimidation, spiking with Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. What is surprising, however, is the ratcheting up of alarm across Europe in recent years over a seemingly more geographically distant threat: China.
Some European leaders, such as Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, have expressed serious concerns. In De Croo’s view, “in the past, I think … [Europe has] been a bit too complacent. … On some domains … [China has become] a fierce competitor. On some domains, we also see that they have hostile behavior. … We should understand that in a lot of economic domains, it’s also geostrategic [competition].” Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “We’re witnessing quite an acceleration … of … tensions [with China].”
That said, European capitals face parallel stark economic challenges from Beijing and Moscow: over-dependence, albeit manifest in different ways. Whereas, many European states are over-reliant on Russian energy, much of Europe depends heavily on trade with and investments in China. While the Russian energy issue is high-profile, the China trade and investment issue is less well known. China is the number one source of Europe’s imported goods, accounting for 22 percent in 2021. China is also the third largest market for European exports. Meanwhile, according to a recent study by the Rhodium Group, European Union investments in China are concentrated among the 10 top European investors, which comprise almost 80 percent of all European investments in the country.
Lessons of Ukraine
The protracted conflict in Ukraine provides an invaluable concrete case to explore what Russia-China cooperation looks like.
While Putin likely informed Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping that a “special military operation” against Ukraine would be forthcoming when the former visited Beijing on the eve of the 2022 Winter Olympics back in early February, it is much less likely that the Russian dictator shared details regarding the extent or timing of the invasion with his Chinese counterpart. Furthermore, neither leader could have anticipated the scale of operational incompetence and tactical ineptitude of the Russian military on the one hand and Ukraine’s resolute resistance and battlefield effectiveness on the other.
Some have asserted that the Moscow-Beijing axis constitutes a full-blown military alliance while others have argued that the relationship is little more than an “axis of convenience.” Real allies support one another in time of war and, if China and Russia were military allies, then one would expect Beijing to at least be providing armaments and other assistance. Yet, more than eight months into the Ukraine conflict, Beijing does not appear to be providing any weapons to its purported ally. Instead, key suppliers to Moscow seem to be Pyongyang (for ammunition) and Tehran (for drones). So, the “no limits” strategic partnership between China and Russia does indeed have some limits.
Xi is Putin’s ‘Silent Partner’
That said, Beijing’s tacit economic support of Moscow — through its continued and expanding trade and exploiting the loopholes in international sanctions — enables Russia. According to Reuters, Chinese shipments to Russia increased by more than 26 percent compared to the year before and imports climbed almost 60 percent during the same period. While Beijing may not be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Moscow on the battlefield, Xi is helping to bankroll Putin’s war.
Although Beijing has sought to distance itself from Moscow, Russia’s ongoing military imbroglio in Ukraine has not caused Xi to break off his bromance with Putin. There has been no nasty breakup akin to the Sino-Soviet divorce six decades earlier. On the contrary, Beijing continues to help Moscow in significant but low-key ways. While China has declined to support Russia actively or openly, Beijing has demurred from publicly condemning Russian aggression. Moreover, on November 14 at the G-20 Summit in Indonesia, Xi reportedly told Biden that China was “highly concerned about the current situation in Ukraine,” and delivered rhetorical flourishes insisting that “China … stood on the side of peace.” Xi also proclaimed to Biden that there should be “… peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.”
Yet, China has made no meaningful move toward mediation. Instead, Xi told Biden: “we hope that the United States, NATO and the EU will conduct comprehensive dialogues with Russia.” Furthermore, in Uzbekistan, a month earlier, at the 2022 Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit on September 15, Putin praised Xi for taking a “balanced position” on Ukraine. In a real sense Beijing then, by refusing to publicly take sides and declining to play an active peacemaking role in the United Nations or other venues, has shown itself to be Moscow’s “silent partner” — a silent partner that intends to slow down the conflict or even halt it on terms that are favorable to Russia. While almost certainly desiring an end to the conflict, Beijing would much prefer an outcome that preserves as much as possible of Moscow’s geopolitical influence and great power status.
The case of Ukraine also highlights the different styles adopted and threats posed to Europe and the United States by Russia and China and their preferred modes of cooperation. Moscow tends to be more obnoxious and direct in mischief making. As Ken McCallum, the director-general of MI5 — the United Kingdom’s counter-intelligence service — noted in November 2022, “Russia thinks nothing of throwing an elbow in the face and routinely cheats to get its way.” Certainly, in Ukraine, Moscow has had no qualms against inflicting massive death and destruction against civilian targets.
By contrast, Beijing is more inclined to take a less obviously aggressive or at least more measured use of force and low-key approach (except domestically). Of course, where Taiwan is concerned, China has been direct in expressing its displeasure and not demurred from large scale displays of military power in close vicinity to the island, notably in the immediate aftermath of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August. However, China has so far refrained from actual kinetic strikes against Taiwan targets, much less launched an outright invasion of the island. Nevertheless, Xi has now formally linked achieving unification with Taiwan with realizing China’s dream of national rejuvenation. Moreover, China, under Xi, has initiated and sustained a concerted campaign of military coercion and political intimidation against the island in recent months.
Where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is concerned, China has worked assiduously within arenas, such as the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly, to block resolutions condemning Russia. McCallum notes that China poses “a different order of challenge [than Russia].” In contrast to Moscow, Beijing is prone to work within the system, leveraging its position and influence to defend its equities and advance its interests. Beyond this, China has become a savvy insider, and McCallum, employing a competitive sports analogy, contends that Beijing is “… trying to rewrite the rule book, [and even] to buy the league….”
The Trouble with Coordination
In sum, cooperation between China and Russia tends to look more like coordination. Yet, to judge from coordination between Moscow and Beijing on Ukraine, this can still be effective in achieving the limited goals of these two partners. Xi may have assessed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a serious blunder, highlighting Russia’s status as a great power in decline. Nevertheless, Xi is more likely to look for ways to prop up Putin rather than walk away.
China has no good options for reliable like-minded strategic partners with heft to balance against the United States. All the good allies are taken. However, even a limited partnership between a hurricane and climate change can wreak havoc upon countries that stand in their way.
Niklas Swanström is the director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy based in Stockholm, Sweden.