China-Russia Relations: Strategic Implications and U.S. Policy Options
NBR Special Report no. 73

China-Russia Relations
Strategic Implications and U.S. Policy Options

by Robert Sutter
September 13, 2018

This report provides an overview of the scope and implications of China-Russia relations, explains why Sino-Russian cooperation against U.S. interests has increased during the past decade, assesses key determinants, and examines U.S. policy options.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

MAIN ARGUMENT

The China-Russia relationship continues to deepen and broaden with ever more negative implications for the U.S. The drivers of Sino-Russian cooperation overshadow the brakes on forward movement at the U.S. expense. The momentum is based on (1) common objectives and values, (2) perceived Russian and Chinese vulnerabilities in the face of U.S. and Western pressures, and (3) perceived opportunities for the two powers to expand their influence at the expense of U.S. and allied countries that are seen as in decline. The current outlook is bleak, offering no easy fixes for the U.S. Nonetheless, there remain limits on Sino-Russian cooperation. The two governments continue to avoid entering a formal alliance or taking substantial risks in support of one another in areas where their interests do not overlap. Longer-term vulnerabilities include Russia’s dissatisfaction with its increasing junior status relative to China, China’s much stronger interest than Russia in preserving the existing world order, and opposition to Russian and Chinese regional expansion on the part of important lesser powers in Europe and Asia seeking U.S. support.

POLICY IMPLICATIONS

• The main recommended U.S. policy option involves multiyear and wide-ranging domestic and international strengthening—militarily, economically, and diplomatically—to better position the U.S. to deal with the challenges from China and Russia.
• Participants in the NBR project differ on the appropriate amount of strengthening, with some urging sustained U.S. primacy and most others favoring various mixes of strengthening and accommodation requiring compromise of U.S. interests.
• In applying this appropriate amount of strengthening and accommodation, some participants view Russia as the leading danger, warranting U.S. accommodation with China to counter Russia; others seek to work cooperatively with Russia against China, which is seen as a more powerful longer-term threat; and others view the above maneuvers as futile in the face of strongly converging Russian and Chinese interests and identity.
• Specialists from Russia and China, but few others, favor major change in existing U.S. policy to accommodate both Moscow and Beijing.


Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University and the principal investigator of the project “Strategic Implications of China-Russia Relations” at the National Bureau of Asian Research.