What the China-Russia axis really means for the West

The marriage of convenience between Moscow and Beijing is a product of American decline.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics World

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The West has been sent into a wild panic by the prospect of a China-Russia alliance. Since last week, when Russian president Vladimir Putin brought a large, high-powered delegation to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing, the Western media have been suffering from a neurotic spasm.

They claim this new alliance heralds an ‘ominous future’ and marks the ‘start of a second Cold War’. This so-called axis of evil (or ‘unholy alliance’, if you prefer) is ‘converging on a shared purpose of overturning… the prevailing international system’.

Much of this over-excited commentary misunderstands the true nature of the relationship. The China-Russia alliance reflects the collapse of the West’s favoured rules-based international order far more than it represents a new dynamic order of its own.

This is no bid for world domination, but an opportunistic play – albeit a dangerous one. Just as Stalinism, a lineage that China and Russia really do have in common, always gained more of a purchase in parts of the world where capitalism was weak, its successor regimes in Beijing and Moscow today have again come together as a response to the weakness of the West.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is eager to make hay while America under President Biden is wracked by geopolitical indecision. Particularly when it comes to Taiwan, the Biden administration has struggled to maintain the US’s decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity – that is, not formally recognising Taiwan as an independent state, but still treating and arming it as a sovereign country. In 2022, then House majority speaker Nancy Pelosi made a ridiculously incendiary visit to Taiwan, seemingly oblivious to the fact this was bound to inflame tensions with China. Her trip happened against the backdrop of repeated Biden gaffes, with the confused president affirming that the US would defend Taiwan’s sovereignty militarily – before White House officials scrambled to clarify that this wasn’t actually what he meant.

Elsewhere in US foreign policy, cracks are beginning to show. China and Russia have exposed the limits of the US sanctions regime by continuing to circumvent various import bans. Western and Chinese-made military components are, via China, getting through to Putin’s war in Ukraine. China is also supplying parts for Iranian-built Russian drones.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Biden is experiencing difficulties in the wake of the 7 October Hamas massacre. Earlier this month, the US warned Israel – traditionally its closest ally – that launching an attack on Rafah, Hamas’s final stronghold, would result in America supplying fewer weapons.

The US military umbrella is not what it used to be. During the Cold War, the question was asked: would an American president be willing to risk New York or Washington or Chicago to save London or Paris or Hamburg? Today one might ask: would a US president really expose Los Angeles or San Francisco to save Taiwan? It appears that Putin and Xi have decided that neither Biden nor even Donald Trump would take that risk. They have concluded that America lacks resolve.

Would Biden really risk the West Coast of the US to avenge, say, the Philippines? The 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty between the US and the Philippines is all very well. But does Washington really want to go on overseeing those islands the way it did in the Cold War? Washington’s move in 2023 to deploy stealth fighters to Luzon, Philippines, just 250 miles from Taiwan, might suggest so. But this has more to do with the fact that America’s bases in Okinawa, Japan, are too exposed to CCP attack. It reflects a retreat, rather than a military advance. This is despite the Democrats’ signature ‘pivot to Asia’ policy.

As things stand, the US is a declining power in Asia, not an expansionist one. Equally, China is a regional power in Asia and wants power over its own backyard. Neither side has global ambitions. What drives Biden is staving off decline. And what drives an ascendant Xi is testing American weakness, all in the cause of bringing Taiwan under CCP control.

The China-Russia axis is fundamentally unbalanced. Russia needs China far more than the other way around. Reports on the alliance tend to emphasise a growing economic interdependence, noting that trade between the two increased more than 64 per cent between 2021 and 2023, up to an impressive $240 billion. But economics is far from Xi’s main concern. In electric vehicles and solar panels, China already has the West on the run, producing 60 per cent and 80 per cent of the global market respectively. China might need Russian energy, but it can just as well provide its own nuclear power. In the past few days, Beijing has become less dependent on imported technology for its prowess in quantum computing, whereas Russia will not have China’s high-speed trains for years to come. China is in a completely different league.

What matters most to the CCP is not economic growth but regaining sovereignty over Taiwan. That is why, when independence-minded Taiwanese president William Lai was sworn in on Monday, China’s Commerce Ministry announced sanctions against several US firms reputedly engaged in ‘arms sales to Taiwan’. Then, a few days later, the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army, plus the Navy and Air Force, began a two-day practice blockade of Taiwan, just to show who’s boss.

None of this is to say that the China-Russia coalition is nothing more than a shaky marriage of convenience. As the Financial Times points out, this relationship is ‘built to last’, because both leaders are ‘autocratic nationalists who see the US as the main threat’. Indeed, the two leaderships have shown a sinister and shared fondness for repression at home, for naval manoeuvres abroad (China in the Second Thomas Shoal; Russia in the English Channel), and for unseemly alliances with other authoritarians (Iran, North Korea, various African regimes).

Still, the truth is that the China-Russia axis is mostly gaining strength thanks to America’s decline. And while neither nation is particularly interested in world domination, that doesn’t mean the West can afford to let its guard down. After all, that is precisely what has got us here in the first place.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World


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