China and Russia are forming a new axis of power, NATO’s top general has warned.
Tod Wolters, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, or SACEUR, has told reporters that growing co-operation “really does suggest an emergence of a partnership of convenience”.
It’s a partnership that potentially spans the globe, from the Middle East to the Western Pacific and Arctic north.
“We are ever so vigilant with respect to that growing co-operation,” Wolters said. Such co-operation advanced mutual interests, “and that advancement could be to the detriment of Europe and corresponding and surrounding nations”.
NATO has accused Russia of breaching international treaties through the development of new nuclear weapons. It also blames Russian-sourced cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns for destabilising the West.
China is also coming under increased scrutiny over its repression of the Uighur and Tibetan peoples and its aggressive territorial claims and ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy.
Meanwhile, both authoritarian governments show intense interest in the Arctic as the retreating ice exposes potential new oil, gas and mineral reserves.
“In the face of increasing aggressive activity in the high north from both Russia, which is an Arctic nation, and China, which claims to be a near-Arctic nation, we must maintain a favourable balance of power in this region for ourselves and for our allies,” outgoing US Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite warned last month.
Things haven’t always been so genial between the two powers.
Russia and China share a 4200km border. And large portions of Moscow’s mineral-rich eastern provinces are claimed by Beijing as part of its historical domain – including the city of Vladivostok.
For now, President Vladimir Putin and Chairman Xi Jinping have put that source of disagreement aside.
Russia and China began strengthening their diplomatic, economic and military ties after Western nations imposed sanctions on Moscow in 2014. Russia had just invaded the Crimean Peninsula and launched covert combat operations in eastern Ukraine.
In 2018, the two powers contributed hundreds of thousands of troops and aircraft and warships towards their largest-ever joint military exercise.
In 2019, Putin and Xi shook hands over a significant gas pipeline project linking Siberia to northeast China.
In 2020, Russian warships and combat jets joined Chinese military exercises in the western Pacific.
And they’ve begun co-operating in the Arctic.
“Without sustained American naval presence and partnerships in the Arctic region, peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China, whose interests and values differ dramatically from ours,” a recent US Navy report states.
Some 90 per cent of trade is carried by sea. The retreating Arctic ice can dramatically shorten shipping routes to and from Asia, Europe and North America.
“Left uncontested, incremental gains from increased aggression and malign activities could result in a fait accompli, with long-term strategic benefits for our competitors,” the Blue Arctic: A Strategic Blueprint report warns.
Hudson Institute Center for Defence Concepts senior fellow Bryan Clark says the West needs to reconsider how to contend with a Russia-China alliance.
That alliance goes go far beyond warships and warplanes working together, he warns.
“Unless (the Pentagon) begins to rethink its scenarios and rebalancing its forces, recent Chinese and Russian grey-zone successes in the East and South China Seas or Crimea could become the norm and the US military could find itself losing a battle of inches against patient competitors who are willing to play the long game.”
Clark says the West believed worst-case scenarios included an invasion of Taiwan, “a lengthy blockade of Japan’s southwest islands or a sustained submarine threat off the US coast”.
But Clark says Moscow and Beijing are well aware of this and have adapted their plans accordingly. Both “are methodically developing strategies and systems that circumvent the US military’s advantages and exploit its vulnerabilities by avoiding the types of situations for which US forces have prepared,” he adds.
They have shifted their primary battlefield from the sea and the sky to the digital and propaganda domains.
“The Chinese and Russian militaries seek to make information and decision-making the main battlegrounds for future conflict … (to) direct forces to electronically or physically degrade an opponent’s information sources and communications while introducing false data that erodes the defender’s orientation and understanding.”
Follow-up hybrid, or grey-zone, operations using paramilitaries and “mercenaries” could then seize objectives without providing an immediate trigger for retaliation.
NEW WORLD ORDER
Chinese chairman Jian Zemin and Russian President Boris Yeltsin met in 1997, vowing to “promote the multipolarisation of the world and the establishment of a new international order”.
Their successors, Chairman Xi and President Putin, are well down the path of putting that plan into effect.
“Analysts in the West specifically doubted that Beijing and Moscow could overcome decades of mistrust and rivalry to co-operate against US efforts to maintain and shape the international order,” write political scientists Professor Alexander Cooley and Associate Professor Daniel Nexon.
“But the 1997 declaration now looks like a blueprint for how Beijing and Moscow have tried to reorder international politics in the last 20 years.”
Both have sought to manipulate and discredit international organisations and Western institutions.
“At the same time, they are building an alternative order through new institutions and venues in which they wield greater influence and can de-emphasise human rights and civil liberties,” they write. “The net result is the emergence of parallel structures of global governance that are dominated by authoritarian states and that compete with older, more liberal structures.”
And that is as much a result of their growing alliance as the more visible joint military exercises.
“Beijing and Moscow appear to be successfully managing their alliance of convenience, defying predictions that they would be unable to tolerate each other’s international projects,” say Cooley and Nexon.
This new brand of great power competition is being fought out among international non-government organisations, charities, lending institutions and legal tribunals.
“Although the United States still enjoys military supremacy, that dimension of US dominance is especially ill-suited to deal with this global crisis and its ripple effects,” they warn.