Foreword to <em>Axis of Authoritarians</em>

Foreword to Axis of Authoritarians

by Angela Stent
October 4, 2018

This is the foreword to the book Axis of Authoritarians: Implications of China-Russia Cooperation.

In June 2018, Chinese president Xi Jinping described Russian president Vladimir Putin as his “best, most intimate friend,” terming relations between their two countries as the most significant between major powers in the world, as Richard Ellings notes in the opening chapter to this volume. [1] Putin returned the compliment, lauding Xi as a “reliable friend and good partner.” [2] Troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army took part in Russia’s massive Vostok (East) military exercises in September 2018, the first time that China has joined Russia in these war games. But while Putin and Xi were praising each other and conducting joint maneuvers, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy had issued a warning: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” [3]

Today, Washington faces a triple challenge: dealing individually with both China and Russia and confronting the threats that each poses to U.S. security; and the even more complex issue of how to approach the increasingly robust Sino-Russian partnership and minimize its potential to disrupt and adversely affect the United States’ global interests. This volume addresses the triple Sino-Russian challenge in its political, economic, and security dimensions and suggests an array of possible U.S. responses to the budding China-Russia axis.

With increasingly public affirmations of the closeness of Sino-Russian ties, it is instructive to remember that 50 years ago the Soviet Union and China were engaged in cross-border military clashes on the Ussuri River border between the two countries. Chinese soldiers, brandishing both their guns and their copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, shouted accusatory slogans at their Soviet “brothers,” who replied with commensurate vituperation. This was the culmination of a decade of growing Sino-Soviet tensions and mutual ideological invective. Some Western observers spoke of a coming war between the two countries. For the Soviet leadership, China arguably represented a greater ideological threat than did the United States because Beijing challenged the very legitimacy of the Soviet Union as a socialist state and its mantle as the leader of the Communist world and revolutionary movements. Mao’s death and Deng Xiaoping’s rise led to a diminution of bilateral tensions, but only after the Soviet collapse did ties between Beijing and Moscow begin to improve significantly. It is remarkable how the relationship has evolved in the nearly two decades of Putin’s time in office. Indeed, the improvement of ties with China has been one of the signatory achievements of his foreign policy, one that he is not about to jettison.

The authors of this volume discuss the ties that bind China and Russia and their two leaders. Both Putin and Xi are authoritarian rulers who support a strong state, are determined to suppress any opposition, and are allergic to a “unipolar” world and to U.S. attempts to promote democracy and the rule of law that might undermine their power. Regime survival is their foremost goal, and Western actions present a potential challenge to that overriding aim. Both feel that the current world order dominated by the United States disadvantages them and fails to accommodate their legitimate interests. As Richard Ellings points out in his chapter, Xi and Putin are the world’s two leading dissatisfied powers and “share interests in subverting many of the values and rules that are embedded in the post–World War II order.” [4] They are also both nationalists and have to ensure that their respective nationalisms do not clash. A similar worldview and values have apparently cemented what have become productive personal ties.

In a number of concrete areas, the Sino-Russian relationship has improved exponentially over the past few years. Richard Weitz discusses the dramatic increase in military ties, culminating in the joint participation in Vostok 2018. This military cooperation, he points out, is increasingly and explicitly directed against the United States, so much so that the Chinese defense minister has publicly promised that China would come to Russia’s defense in the event of a war with the United States. Weitz also stresses that neither country believes that North Korea would attack it; instead, they tend to view Pyongyang’s nuclear program as a defense against the United States. Although China continues to reverse-engineer Russian weapons, Russia will continue selling advanced weaponry to China because it needs the revenue and this strengthens their relationship, given that sanctions prevent Beijing from purchasing weapons from the West. But while Russia’s security priorities remain focused on Europe, China’s are focused on Asia, although both are also concerned about security and terrorism in Central Asia, their common neighborhood.

Economic ties remain modest—especially when compared with the vastly more important U.S.-China economic relationship. But they have become more important since the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and its launch of a war in southeastern Ukraine. Russia has turned to China for new energy deals and is seeking more Chinese investment in the Russian Far East. Thus, as Charles Ziegler observes, Western sanctions against Russia and the Trump administration’s trade war with China are pushing the two countries closer together. It is unclear what kind of role Russia and its Eurasian Economic Union will have in China’s massive, ambitious infrastructure project—the Belt and Road Initiative—but so far Chinese leaders continue to promise that this will be a “win-win” situation for both sides.

The United States has become increasingly concerned about both Russian and Chinese political interference operations. As Peter Mattis points out, both Putin and Xi see political influence operations as a routine part of statecraft, and both countries engage in aggressive activities to diminish the possibility of threats to their respective systems. This includes everything from cyber intrusions and spreading disinformation to kidnapping and poisoning opponents in the West. There is no evidence that China and Russia coordinate their political influence operations, so the United States has to deal separately with these challenges. Taken together, they have the potential to if not undermine the U.S. political system, then at least help fuel greater political discord.

James Steinberg summarizes the totality of the Sino-Russian challenge to the United States: their cooperation is driven by a mutual interest in promoting an international order that will ensure the survival of their authoritarian, mercantilist regimes. How, then, should the United States respond?

As several of the authors point out, during the period between Richard Nixon’s opening to China and Putin’s ascent to the Kremlin, the United States enjoyed better relations with both China and Russia than either country did with the other. Washington was able to play the China card to its advantage as long as relations between Moscow and Beijing remained adversarial. But in the nearly two decades that Putin has been in power, the situation has dramatically changed. Today the relationship between Moscow and Washington is the worst it has been since Mikhail Gorbachev entered the Kremlin in 1985, while the relationship between Beijing and Washington, although less adversarial, is beset by tensions over trade and China’s actions in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, China retains a significant economic stake in relations with the United States, whereas Russia does not. Today, China enjoys better relations with the United States and Russia than they do with each other. The United States and China are highly integrated in terms of finance and supply chains, whereas the main issue that necessitates U.S.-Russia engagement is the fact that they are the world’s two nuclear superpowers.

Donald Trump has consistently argued that the United States should improve ties with Russia and embark on a new relationship with it in order to persuade the Kremlin to distance itself from Beijing and join Washington in putting pressure on China. The authors in this volume disagree about both the advisability and feasibility of this strategy. Some view China as a much greater longer-term threat to the United States than is Russia, and they urge a reconciliation with Russia to contain China. Others believe that Russia and China, both separately and jointly, present an equal threat to the United States, and argue for a dual policy that seeks to contain both countries but also to work with them on issues of mutual interest, where such cooperation is feasible.

Is the nature of the triple challenge changing? Steinberg argues that the principal challenge to the United States stems from the individual policies of China and Russia rather than from their combined efforts. But he also discerns a greater willingness from both countries to coordinate their efforts against the United States. Sino-Russian cooperation in the UN Security Council has certainly thwarted a variety of Western attempts to resolve crises in Syria and Ukraine, and China has enabled Russia to avoid the international isolation the West sought to impose after the annexation of Crimea. Their partnership often reinforces the ability of both countries to work separately against U.S. interests, even if Beijing and Moscow do not always agree on everything. Their grievances against the United States override their differences of interest on a number of issues.

Given that China has been instrumental in facilitating Russia’s increasingly assertive presence on the world stage, it is highly unlikely, in contrast to President Trump’s entreaties, that Putin would jeopardize this key relationship by joining the United States to pressure China. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the United States is a far less predictable partner than is China, and Putin’s anti-Western views appear to be deeply held. Whatever concerns Russia may have about China’s longer-term ambitions and how they might affect Russia’s security—including the future of the sparsely populated Russian Far East—they have so far been dwarfed by a belief that the United States represents a greater threat to the Putin regime. This suggests that the pursuit of an anti-Chinese U.S.-Russian partnership would be doomed to failure.

The authors in this volume consider a variety of ways in which the United States could respond to the China-Russia relationship. All agree that Washington should eschew policies that drive the two countries closer together to cooperate against U.S. interests. In this context, the Trump administration would be well advised to review its economic policies toward both countries. Waves of sanctions on Russia—in response to its actions in Ukraine, its election interference, and the poisoning of former military intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom—have had an economic impact in Russia and have also adversely affected the interests of several Russian business magnates. But they have done little to induce Moscow to cease its malign activities and instead have driven it into a closer embrace with China. Similarly, the trade war with China has complicated the Trump administration’s efforts to secure Beijing’s cooperation on dealing with North Korea. Moreover, both Russia and China have responded to sanctions and tariff hikes by exploring the feasibility of creating an alternative international payment system to the current SWIFT system in which the United States plays such a predominant role.

The other major theme of this book is that, in order to deal successfully with the separate and joint Chinese and Russian challenges it faces, the United States should seek to mend its relations with many of its allies. Several authors emphasize that Washington needs to reassert its commitment to the postwar liberal international order that has served the United States and its European and Asian allies so well for the past seven decades. The United States needs a strong and united NATO to counter Russian challenges to European security, just as it needs robust alliances with Japan, South Korea, and other Asia-Pacific nations to meet challenges from China. As Steinberg argues, the best way to deal with China and Russia is to strengthen U.S. international engagement and support allies who share the United States’ values and interests, given that there is little that Washington can do to discourage Sino-Russian cooperation. Robert Sutter adds that the United States also needs to strengthen itself domestically. A less partisan and contentious polity could more effectively and convincingly face China and Russia, both of which seek to exploit existing differences within U.S. society to their own benefit.

China and Russia repeatedly point out that the U.S.-led unipolar world that immediately followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has been eclipsed by a new, multipolar world in which they are destined to play a far greater role than before and in which U.S. influence will be diminished. They call for a post-West order in which they have greater agency in setting the rules, an order that takes their interests into account much more than the previous one. China has already taken the initiative by creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and it will continue to pursue its global economic interests whether or not the United States participates in the organizations that it leads. Russia has limited economic clout internationally, but it emphasizes the need to renegotiate Euro-Atlantic security arrangements as part of the new post-West order. That said, there is no united Sino-Russian view of what the post-West order should look like, other than diminishing the United States’ ability to adversely affect the two countries’ interests, and it is highly questionable whether Beijing and Moscow could agree on both the contours and details of this new order. But they will continue to challenge the United States around the world.

If the United States wants to avoid the creation of a post-West order designed by China and Russia, it should rededicate itself to its allies in the pursuit of consistent policies that deal with Beijing and Moscow as both Washington’s competitors and sometimes partners on issues of mutual interest. The Sino-Russian partnership is here to stay, and the United States can best deal with it from a position of strength, not disunity and unpredictability.


[1] Ben Blanchard and Denis Pinchuk, “China’s Xi Awards ‘Best Friend’ Putin Friendship Medal, Promises Support,” Reuters, June 8, 2018.

[2] Xu Wei, “Putin Hails Xi as His Reliable Partner,” Xinhua, June 7, 2018.

[3] White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, D.C., 2017), 2,

[4] “New Chinese Defense Minister Says China Will ‘Support’ Russia against U.S.: Tass,” Asia Times, April 5, 2018,

Angela Stent is Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the author of The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and of the forthcoming Putin’s World.