The limits of a China-Russia partnership

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping, November 13, 2019.

Whenever China and Russia shake hands, alarm bells ring in Washington. It's an old story given new life by increasingly contentious US relations with both countries and a new round of glad-handing by senior Chinese and Russian officials. What if China and Russia were to form some kind of axis of revisionist powers, Americans (and others) wonder? How dangerous might that be for US interests and for global democracy?

China and Russia have obvious overlapping interests. Start with trade. China is the world's largest importer of oil and natural gas. Russia is the number two exporter of oil and the top for natural gas. It's a natural partnership.

Geopolitically, China and Russia share a common desire to limit American political and economic leverage in their neighborhoods. Neither wants to hear criticism of how they manage dissent within their own borders or US sermons on democracy for Taiwan and Ukraine. China likes US tariffs about as much as Russia likes US sanctions.

Both want seats at the table where global leadership decisions are made. The election of Joe Biden, who has much more to say on human rights in other countries than Donald Trump did, adds new impetus to what Russia's Vladimir Putin calls his country's "multifaceted strategic partnership" with China.

But there are important factors that limit just how close China and Russia are likely to become. First, Beijing and Moscow are serious about their "spheres of influence," and there are places where those spheres overlap, creating zones of competition. That's especially important in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, regions once part of the Soviet Union where Russia remains overtly and covertly active and where China is now investing vast sums as part of its Belt and Road international infrastructure plan to connect China and Europe by road and rail.

Second, when it comes to trade, the partnership is entirely one-sided. For Russia, China is trade partner number one. Some 15.5 percent of its trade is with China. But for China, Russia doesn't make the top 12. China's top export partner is the United States. The EU, Japan, and its other Asian neighbors are all more important for Chinese trade, while less than 1 percent of China's trade is with Russia. In fact, China exports more to the Netherlands than to Russia.

That matters, because political stability in China depends on economic stability, and economic stability depends far more on pragmatic relations with America and Europe than on any form of partnership with Russia.

China and Russia will sign new trade agreements, particularly for Chinese purchases of Russian energy and weapons. They will conduct joint military exercises. They will work together to try to shape cyber rules.

But China needs constructive relations with the West, while Russia would like a more fundamental redraw of the international system. Their transactional relationship won't lead to a military alliance that doesn't serve China's purposes or even to systematically share intelligence as the Five Eyes allies— US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — do.

Not only should Washington worry less about a China-Russia axis, it should consider the value in what China-Russia competition has to offer. In particular, Beijing and Moscow believe COVID has created an opportunity for each to boost its image and influence. (That's especially important for China, where the pandemic began.) And that's a good thing.

China and Russia have each produced and distributed COVID vaccines that appear to be relatively safe and effective. China has supplied millions of vaccine doses to 49 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Russia has sent supplies to 22 countries. That's good for the people who've been vaccinated, good for those countries, good for the world, and, therefore, good for us all.

Bottom-line: China and Russia will give Americans and others plenty to worry over in coming years without exaggerating what their governments might do together. And in today's world in crisis, all of us should welcome help from wherever it can be found.

From Your Site Articles
Two Black women hugging, with one woman pictured smiling

With half of all Black Americans excluded from the financial mainstream and Black-owned small businesses blocked from funding, we're working with city leaders and providing digital access to essential financial tools for immediate impact in Black communities. Learn more.

What We’re Watching: Biden and Putin chat, Scholz takes the reins in Germany, Remain in Mexico returns, Pécresse enters the French fray, Suu Kyi learns her fate

World War III or nah? US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to speak by phone on Tuesday, as the crisis surrounding Ukraine gets dicier by the day. Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops along its border with the country, and the US is warning that Putin is gearing up to invade soon, though the underlying intel isn’t public. No one is quite sure what Putin’s up to with this stunt. Is he trying to pressure Kyiv into moving ahead with the lopsided (but probably best possible) Minsk peace accords of 2015? Or is the Kremlin seeking a broader NATO commitment not to expand further? Or does Putin actually want to invade Ukraine? Either way, Biden has his work cut out for him. Putin is clearly more comfortable risking lives and money to preserve a sphere of influence in Ukraine than the West is, so the US president has to be careful: don’t set out any red lines that NATO isn’t willing to back, but also don’t push the situation into a broader war that no one (ideally) wants.

More Show less
Watch Ian Bremmer's State of the World 2021 speech live on December 6

WATCH LIVE: Join us today at 8 pm ET to hear Ian Bremmer's unique perspective on the most pressing geopolitical events shaping politics, business, and society in our "GZERO" world.

Ian's State of the World speech will examine:

  • Are the US and China engaged in a cold war?
  • How powerful have tech companies become on the global stage?
  • Is there hope for the world to unite to fight climate change and other shared challenges?
A Q&A session with Ian follows, moderated by Julia Chatterley, anchor and correspondent at CNN International.
More Show less

The Taliban may have allowed “cosmetic changes” - like allowing younger fighters to take photos with iPhones – but their governing style hasn’t truly changed, renowned author Ahmed Rashid told Ian Bremmer on GZERO World. In fact, not much about the group has actually reformed since he wrote his groundbreaking book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.

“We thought for a long time that the Taliban would be educating and training their younger generation to become bureaucrats and handlers of civil society, but we were wrong,” he said. In fact, the moderate faction of the Taliban have been losing out to the hardliners, which includes members of the Haqqani network, a US-designated terrorist organization.

Few people know more about the Taliban than journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, who wrote the book on the group — literally.

In the months after 9/11, his critically acclaimed 2000 study Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia became a go-to reference as the US geared up to invade Afghanistan and knock the militant group from power.

Now, twenty years later, with the US out of Afghanistan and the Taliban back in charge, Ian Bremmer sat down with Rashid to learn more about the Taliban today in a GZERO World interview.

How much has the group changed since the days of soccer-stadium executions, television bans, and blowing up world heritage sites? How should the rest of the world deal with them?

More Show less
Demonstrators hold flags and placards as they march to protest against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions and the mandatory vaccination in Vienna, Austria, December 4, 2021.

40,000: At least 40,000 people joined protests in Vienna on Saturday against new lockdowns and vaccine requirements, the second week in a row the city has seen mass demonstrations of this kind. Amid a surge in new cases, the Austrian government announced that a nationwide vaccine mandate would come into effect on February 1.

More Show less
The Graphic Truth: Who misses tourism the most?

Countries that rely hugely on tourism and travel dollars have already been reeling from the pandemic, as lockdowns and new COVID variants cause people to avoid airports and stay home. Now the omicron variant is scuttling holiday travel plans that many were hoping would infuse fresh cash into their struggling economies. So who is most concerned about these disruptions to the tourism industry? We take a look at economies that saw the biggest boost from tourism dollars from 2008-2019, and how that changed in 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

Ian Bremmer interviews economist Larry Summers on GZERO World. Summers served as the Treasury Secretary under President Clinton and as the Director of the National Economic Council under Preisdent Obama. He sounded the alarm bell about inflation back in February 2021 when few people were talking about it. Part of the reason prices are rising so much today, Summers says, is because the Biden administration made the political decision to do "too much stimulus," a big mistake in his view. Summers discusses how supply chain problems are also contributed to the highest levels of inflation in the US in 30 years.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal