Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon traveled to China as a way to weaken the Soviet Union and keep the two countries from getting too close.
Now America is grappling with a new Cold War in which Russia and China have developed an increasingly strong partnership, which has alarmed the Biden administration.
The US sees itself as competing with both countries in different ways.
Washington is backing Ukraine with massive dollars and weapons in the face of a destructive Russian invasion. But the foreign policy elite of Washington is perhaps even more concerned about the rise of China as a global power that can counter the US. War between the US and China is not inevitable, but tensions between the countries are so high that Moscow’s friendship with Beijing has become a new challenge for Washington.
But just how tightly bound are Russia and China?
Analysts told me that both China and Russia see themselves in an existential conflict with the United States. It’s led to a partnership with military, diplomatic, and economic dimensions. And because Russia and China are both closed and autocratic, we don’t know the full extent or how deep it extends beyond the friendship of the two leaders, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, who have rendezvoused 40 times in the past decade.
Patricia Kim, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, has closely tracked the partnership between the two countries. “The fact that China is engaging comprehensively with Russia is what’s notable. And this has come at a big diplomatic cost for Beijing for its global image,” she told me. “It just shows how much that China values Russia as a strategic partner.”
Is it a “no limits” partnership? Is Russia the “junior partner” to China? Their relationship, explained.
Three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin traveled to Beijing for the Olympics. He and Xi released a joint statement publicizing a “no limits” friendship, which showed how close the two countries had become. When the two leaders met again this spring, that turn of phrase did not appear in their communique, and Chinese diplomats have minimized the relationship, partly in an effort to maintain its ties with Europe.
Still, the friendship has continued. “China is not going to abandon Russia,” says Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, “but that’s very different than the no-limit partnership.”
In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China about the risks of actively arming and supporting Russia in Ukraine. China has so far denied that it has sent Russia any weapons, but Ukraine notes that Chinese components have been discovered in confiscated Russian materiel.
With Russia hit with wide-ranging international sanctions, it has turned to the world’s second-largest economy, China. “The economic relationship between the two has become definitely closer compared to before the war in Ukraine started,” says Sun.
Trade between the two countries reached $93.8 billion for the first half of this year, which is about a 40 percent rise from last year. In particular, semiconductors are a prized Chinese export, as “integrated-circuit shipments to Russia were valued at $179 million in 2022 —against just $74 million in 2021,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
The trade is lopsided. Russia made up only 2 percent of China’s exports last year, but each country wants something from the other. “What China wants from Russia is energy and military technology — and something to distract America, of course,” says Ivan Kanapathy, an analyst at the CSIS think tank.
A lot of the strategic interests of China and Russia may align for now, but of course that doesn’t mean everything aligns. The limits of Chinese support for Russia’s war in Ukraine reveal one difference. Another is that Russia remains a close partner (and seller of weapons) to India, while China views India as a rival. And China and Russia assert their power in the world rather differently.
A narrative that has emerged in recent years is that of Russia as the junior partner to China. Trump administration officials used the junior partner framing in their speeches as a way to slight both countries, according to Kanapathy, who served on the National Security Council from 2018 to 2021. “China did not want to be looked at as the more dominant partner for its own reasons — like its claim of developing country status,” he told me. “And we knew Russia would hate the implication, mainly just out of pride. So characterizing them that way was a means to create friction in that relationship.”
In some ways, economically and in terms of its growing global isolation, Russia could be cast as a junior partner. But Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, says it’s better to think of each country as a powerful force, independently able to drive events. China finds ways to benefit from what Russia does, when it can.
“Russian foreign policy is a typhoon; it’s a natural disaster. You cannot control it. You can adapt to it and then use some of the fallouts to your advantage. Like put the wind farms at the edge of this typhoon and use them to generate electricity,” he explained on the Sinica Podcast. Above all, this is about Chinese pragmatism. “There is a shared alignment of many interests, and that’s growing,” Gabuev told me.
But beyond the support each country provides to the other, there is a deeper connection between Russia and China.
The bigger issue may be that a US-dominated global economy and the military primacy of Washington as global police officer does indeed pose a bigger threat to China and Russia than has been forthrightly acknowledged.
Much of this predates the Biden administration.
It goes back to the war on terrorism, when President George W. Bush’s approach to the world was regime change. “The United States adopts this policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s one that nobody really knows the limits, of a prerogative to engage in forcible regime change and militarized democracy promotion,” said Daniel Nexon, a professor at Georgetown University. Russia accused the US of plotting color revolutions in former Soviet states, which the US denies.
Similarly, President Barack Obama’s support for the popular uprisings that overthrew autocrats in the Middle East in 2011 — and later interventions in Libya and Syria — rattled the Chinese leadership. “There is a notion that the US is just kind of hostile to their regimes,” Nexon told me. “Probably because of the sense that the United States fundamentally just doesn’t consider the regime legitimate. And it’s going to do things that are a threat to the regime.”
The US sees its role as driven by good intentions.
“One of the important things for me to do on this trip was to disabuse our Chinese hosts of the notion that we are seeking to economically contain them,” Blinken told reporters while visiting Beijing this week. “So I spent some time making sure that we were very clear about what we’re doing as well as what we’re not doing.”
As Blinken put it, the Biden administration’s priority has been “upholding and updating” the rules-based order. It’s a term they regularly use to describe the equilibrium the US seeks in the world, but many other countries — not just China and Russia — hear hypocrisy.
“It sounds really good to us and our closest allies,” Kanapathy told me. “But the closest allies are already on board, so it doesn’t matter. Everybody else in the world isn’t buying it. They see the United States as writing, bending, and choosing the rules to help itself.”
What this means for the US’s relationships around the world
US foreign policy today is almost entirely seen through the prism of conflict with China. The rash conversations happening around how Washington should react to Beijing — its spy balloons becoming a Sputnik moment, for example — seem to be setting up the US for a situation of war rather than rational debates on how to solve global crises. Countering China cannot be the driving force of the US role in the world.
This also ties into the broader West versus non-West question over Ukraine. Many middle powers and large countries don’t want to pick a side.
Kim, of the Brookings Institution, has written that US policymakers need to ruminate on “why Chinese and Russian accusations of Western hypocrisy and hegemony resonate in many parts of the world and to how they might address these grievances.”
“They see each other as vital partners in essentially eroding what they see as a Western-dominated global order,” she told me. But the trust that Russia has in China could also serve as a check on its power, especially as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues. “There’s a recognition that China could potentially play a more constructive role.”