Russia and China are part of the same problem for the United States

Members of the US Congress who oppose further military aid for Ukraine often seek to justify their position by claiming that China rather than Russia presents a greater danger to the United States. They argue that the rise of China means it is in American interests to accommodate Russia, while it should be up to Europe to shoulder the burden of Ukrainian security.

This argument is misconceived, as even the government of Taiwan recognizes. China and Russia act together to endanger the US and its democratic allies, including Taiwan. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin both view the consolidation of democracy anywhere as an existential danger to their own power. They cooperate to wage hybrid warfare against the US and other Western nations. Both countries have the same long-term foreign policy goals: To promote autocracy, undermine democracies, and build a new international order where a handful of great powers are able to dominate weaker neighbors.

Given the current “no limits” partnership between Moscow and Beijing, China hawks cannot logically argue that China constitutes a threat and then vote against material support for Ukraine as it fights against Russia’s ongoing invasion. As Taiwan understands, Ukraine’s subjugation would benefit Xi, just as the strangulation of Taiwan’s democracy would benefit Putin. This explains why the two autocracies cooperate on everything from energy, arms, and autocracy promotion to information operations and diplomacy.

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In recent years, China and Russia have grown increasingly co-dependent in the energy sector. China cannot meet its energy needs without imports and cannot easily replace energy supplies from Russia, especially because the most obvious alternatives are all located in the politically volatile Middle East.

As of February 2023, Russia accounted for 17 percent of China’s oil imports, 23 percent of coal imports, 25 percent of pipeline gas, and 10 percent of LNG. In a very literal sense, Russia fuels China’s political and economic ambitions. China buys much of the energy that European countries are no longer willing to purchase, thus keeping Russia’s economy afloat. Beijing clearly has the upper hand in terms of bargaining power, but this energy trade is nevertheless vital for Putin.

Russia also contributes significantly to China’s military development and capabilities. China has acquired the SU-35 advanced fighter, MI-17 helicopters, and S-400 air defense systems from Russia. Moreover, military cooperation between the two countries includes joint multi-domain exercises, most notably naval maneuvers in the Sea of Japan and the Western Pacific.

Both governments support authoritarianism beyond their borders. This was most immediately evident in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Russia and China belong to an informal grouping of autocracies that cooperates at the UN and other international bodies. It should be obvious that the majority of dictatorships receiving support from China and Russia are not friendly to US and European interests.

In the information sphere, China and Russia continue to learn from each other. Both countries employ state-sponsored mouthpieces, foreign allies, and proxies to promote their narratives, spread conspiracy theories, and denigrate the West. Both use social media to target audiences around the world with a wide range of tailored disinformation.

The two countries cooperate closely in the diplomatic arena. Russia supports China’s territorial sovereignty claims and maritime rights and interests claims, including those in the South China Sea and against Japan’s Senkaku Islands. Moscow similarly supports Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. Russia also backs China’s effort to create alternative international economic institutions to de-dollarize the global economy, and has joined China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, a potential substitute for the IMF and World Bank.

Meanwhile, China has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is accused of helping to arm Russia in addition to providing diplomatic backing. Beijing has also offered diplomatic support for the Kremlin’s military intervention in Syria. The two countries work together to block international sanctions measures against Iran and North Korea.

Calls for the US to seek some kind of deal with Russia in order to concentrate on the Chinese threat are typically accompanied by claims that China represents a far more dangerous long-term challenge. It is true that China’s size, economic power, and global ambitions make it a significantly more formidable opponent than Russia, but this ignores the fact that Beijing uses Moscow as a tool to advance its ambitions. In reality, any attempt to appease or otherwise accommodate Russia would inevitably strengthen China and weaken the US.

Glenn Chafetz is a retired CIA officer. He currently directs 2430 Group, a nonprofit institution that researches and advises on state-sponsored intellectual property theft and disinformation.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, October 18, 2023. (Sputnik/Sergei Guneev/Pool via REUTERS)