Report

China and Russia Turn Deeper Ties into a Military Challenge for Biden

“You face a two-front war where we don’t have a two-front military,” said one former Trump official.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin smile during the Belt and Road Forum.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin smile during the welcoming ceremony on the final day of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, on April 27, 2019. VALERY SHARIFULIN/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Deepening military and diplomatic cooperation between Russia and China is worrying U.S. defense planners, who fear the two frenemies that share military technology and many foreign-policy goals will complicate the Biden administration’s plan to reassert U.S. leadership. 

China is carefully monitoring Russia’s military buildup near the border with Ukraine, which the U.S. Defense Department said this week is larger than the 2014 deployment, with an eye to its own pressure campaign on Taiwan and the South China Sea. Last week, China dispatched a record number of bombers and fighters into Taiwan’s air defense zone in a display of dominance; top U.S. military officials warn Beijing could try to seize the island by force in the next six years.

“Our sense is that [China] is paying very close attention to what’s going on as they did initially with things in the Ukraine,” the senior defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I think it’s fair to say that they are looking closely to determine how they might leverage lessons learned into their own national interests.”

There’s no evidence so far to suggest Beijing and Moscow are actually coordinating their parallel pressure campaigns, according to 11 current and former officials and experts who spoke to Foreign Policy. But the buildups are stretching the U.S. President Joe Biden’s attention at a particularly bad time. As the Pentagon has broken with the 1990s-era concept of planning for two major wars at the same time, the split screen of Chinese fighter jets over Taiwan and Russian troops massing near Ukraine is giving the Pentagon’s strategic planners a particularly uncomfortable preview of what the future could hold.

“You face a two-front war where we don’t have a two-front military,” said Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration. “If NATO is expecting U.S. forces to bail it out simultaneously with a fight over Taiwan, we can’t do them both. We don’t have the assets. That can create huge problems for us.”

The Biden administration is busy trying to make good on the long-delayed pivot to Asia by putting more military assets in the Western Pacific, but it is still trying to figure out how to manage Beijing’s growing axis with Moscow, which a 2019 U.S. intelligence assessment described as more aligned than at any point in the past 60 years. Chinese President Xi Jinping once described Russian President Vladimir Putin as his “best friend and colleague.” 

Russia’s recent military buildup near Ukraine’s border has also served as a reminder that although China may be the strategic priority for years to come, Moscow still has the capacity to wreak havoc in Europe.

“I want the pivot to Asia, but I don’t want it to come at the expense of focusing on the threat of Putin today,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under former U.S. President Barack Obama.

For years, China and Russia have engaged in a tactical alliance in the United Nations Security Council, banding together to counter the influence of the United States and its European allies—Britain and France—who have liberally pursued economic sanctions and military intervention. That cooperation has only increased in recent years, including on votes regarding Syria. Outside of U.N. headquarters, Russia and China have intensified their once-chilly relationship in recent years by redoubling bilateral trade in key areas like energy and arms. Both are interested in circumventing the U.S.-dictated financial order that helps undermine Washington’s global dominance. They have also united over their deep skepticism about U.S. efforts to promote democracy and human rights.

“We have to start thinking about how they also generate synergy in ways that amplify the challenge that both countries pose,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. 

For decades after the Sino-Soviet split in 1961, the relationship between the two major powers was characterized by deep mistrust. But things began to thaw after the end of the Cold War and really went into overdrive after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, provoking an avalanche of Western sanctions.

That prompted Russia to find new economic and political partners in the East, starting almost immediately with a 30-year, $400 billion deal for a natural gas pipeline connecting Russian gas with Chinese demand for energy; since then, Chinese dependence on Russian oil has also increased. 

In exchange, Beijing provides financing and high-tech components that Moscow can no longer access in the West. Although China’s defense industry is rapidly developing, almost 80 percent of its arms imports still come from Russia, including its S-400 missile defense system and Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. China’s J-11 and J-15 fighters are based off of Russian designs as well as some of its surface-to-air missiles. It’s a two-way street: Russia has also leaned on China for electronic components and naval diesel engines in the face of Western sanctions, according to a recent report from the Center for a New American Security. The think tank concluded Russian missile and fighter technology gives China “better strategic air defense capability and improved ability to contest U.S. superiority,” particularly in Taiwan or the South China Sea.

“In the words of that old movie Jerry Maguire, they complete each other,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2009 to 2013.

Even military ties are getting closer. Thousands of Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops took part in Russia’s 2018 “Vostok” exercise, the first time forces from outside the former Soviet Union had taken part. The following year, Putin revealed Russia was helping China develop a missile attack early warning system. Russia and China, along with Iran, conducted major naval drills in the Indian Ocean in 2019, and both nations have jointly exercised in the East China Sea, where China has territorial disputes with Japan.

Although the two countries have not entered into any formal defense agreements, the relationship is effectively a “quasi-alliance or entente,” said Artyom Lukin, an associate professor and specialist on China in the Asia-Pacific at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia. 

Yet the relationship is often characterized as a marriage of convenience. “It’s a well-calculated, pragmatic partnership. There is no affection. I don’t think anybody is under any illusion either in Zhongnanhai [the seat of the Chinese Communist Party] or the Kremlin,” said Alexander Gabuev, Russia chairperson in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Asia-Pacific program.

Even recently amped up defense ties may not last long: A Russian defense review from 2014 concluded Beijing was little more than a decade away from weaning itself off Russian military technology. “So we have a short window of opportunity in the Chinese market where we can sell as much as we can right now because they need this hardware to be more assertive in the South China Sea or push back against the U.S.,” Gabuev said.

With Moscow now unquestionably the junior partner in the relationship, a position Putin is unlikely to stand too long, U.S. officials have questioned the depth and durability of the relationship, said Kendall-Taylor, who briefly served as senior director for Russia and Central Asia in Biden’s national security council. 

“Big brother beat up on figuratively little brother as they were growing up and gave him wedgies and noogies and so forth, but little brother got bigger and stronger,” the senior defense official said. “And now, big brother is sort of fearing what the future will hold now that he’s the junior partner in the relationship.”

During the former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration, Washington famously played China against Russia. Although the opening is obviously not the same given the degree of rapprochement in recent years, U.S. officials keep trying. 

For instance, in an October 2020 summit between then-National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, described to Foreign Policy by a former senior Trump administration official, O’Brien’s deputy, Matthew Pottinger, warned the Russian delegate about a partnership with China. Pottinger reportedly pointed out numerous historical land disputes between the two, including in Siberia, where the number of Mandarin speakers has increased. Pottinger declined to comment on this story through a spokesperson. The United States also played up China’s population advantage as a sign of Russia’s growing weakness in bilateral talks, two former senior Trump administration officials said. 

Washington has also raised Russia’s alarm about China’s growing nuclear arsenal and its frequent missile launches, declassifying reams of intelligence about Beijing’s stockpile to brief Russian officials on the threat during arms control talks last year. In one instance, Russian officials conceded to their U.S. counterparts that they base the size of a portion of their nuclear force on China’s arsenal, a former senior Trump administration official said, as China’s development of multiple independent warheads and road mobile survivable systems has put U.S. officials on edge. U.S. defense officials assess that Russia’s eastern forces are in the middle of a major multiyear modernization program, fielding everything from long range anti-ship missiles and fighter aircraft to hunter-killer submarines—all near its border with China. 

But, true to triangulation, the United States has also highlighted Russian threats in talks with China. Two former U.S. officials said the Trump administration used its 2019 withdrawal from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after instances of Russia cheating on the deal to put pressure on the Chinese, who feared longer-range U.S. missiles appearing in Asia. “When these intermediate range missiles show up in the Pacific, don’t blame us, blame Putin,” one former senior Trump administration official said of the U.S. message to Beijing.

The problem is there’s no one solution to deterring a rising power with a strong economy, a powerful navy, and a resentful former great-power that relies on hybrid warfare and economic coercion as well as military bluster to cow its neighbors. 

“We are looking at the situation of how to deter both simultaneously; yet, individually, what works with one may not work with the other,” said another U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Even without any sort of formal alliance, the tacit cooperation between China and Russia and rising tension over both Ukraine and Taiwan is putting the Biden administration in a bind.

“Now you’re looking at two theaters with two adversaries,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy. “This is something that makes planners wake up and sweat in the middle of the night.”

Senior staff writer Colum Lynch contributed reporting to this article.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack