Russia, China Forge Uneasy Anti-U.S. Relationship Amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has marked a nadir in U.S.-China relations, exacerbating existing tensions stretching from trade practices to human rights to long-simmering territorial disputes across Asia.

The China challenge has emerged at the front of foreign policy and economics debates in Washington, D.C. over recent years, amid a growing realization that the West's commerce-focused China approach over past decades has failed to produce a more internationalist Beijing—but rather helped entrench the unapologetically authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.

While Americans fret about whether the U.S. will remain the world's undisputed superpower, officials in Beijing and President Xi Jinping have welcomed a return to a multipolar globe and invested heavily in challenging U.S. hegemony—be it militarily in East Asia or economically elsewhere.

The old enemy Russia, meanwhile, has been making the most of American turmoil in a characteristically opportunistic manner. President Vladimir Putin thrives on chaos, exploiting uncertainty and division to magnify the clout of a relatively anemic Russia.

President Donald Trump's time in the Oval Office has handed both China and Russia an unparalleled opportunity to expand their influence. A confused and chaotic White House focused on exploiting domestic divisions has allowed Beijing and Moscow to present themselves as the adults in the room, regardless of their insincerity in doing so.

Putin and Xi have had very different experiences of the Trump administration. Xi has had to face the most openly anti-China White House in modern history, even if he has been able to woo and flatter the president into proclaiming the strength of their personal friendship.

The U.S. is pushing back against Chinese military expansion and technology all over the world, while blaming Beijing for coronavirus and condemning its human rights abuses.

Putin, on the other hand, has enjoyed a free hand in Syria and apparently carries more weight with Trump than America's own intelligence services.

Trump has peddled Russian conspiracy theories while running down NATO and the European Union, and has also undermined the anti-Moscow government in Ukraine. U.S. sanctions on Russia have been maintained and expanded, but the Trump presidency has largely been a boon for the Kremlin.

America's dismal handling of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has provided both nations plenty of room for maneuver, even though China has been accused of allowing the virus to spread out of control and Russia has had one of the worst responses to the outbreak despite its suspiciously low fatality rate.

The two authoritarian nations have been steadily shifting closer over the course of the pandemic as both fight a propaganda war to absolve themselves of blame and malign the response of democratic rivals, the U.S. in particular.

Both Putin and Xi urged other nations not to politicize the pandemic, as other nations sought answers as to how the virus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and spread worldwide. Xi told Putin politicization "will not benefit international cooperation, and China and Russia should cooperate closely and safeguard global health care security together."

In response, Putin—criticized for his conspicuous absence during Russia's initial outbreak and for claiming the virus was "under control" in March—said it was "not acceptable" that some nations were leveling blame at Beijing.

"Russia and China have always been united and cooperated and supported each other, which demonstrates the strategic and high-level Russia-China relations," Putin told his Chinese counterpart.

Still, both Russian and Chinese officials have peddled conspiracy theories during the pandemic. A Chinese foreign ministry official suggested that the U.S. Army was behind the Wuhan outbreak, while Russian officials tried to divert attention away from COVID-19 and China and towards U.S.-funded labs in former Soviet states, where they claimed dangerous biological experiments were taking place.

Earlier this month, Russia and China agreed to boost economic cooperation including in energy and civilian aircraft manufacturing. Putin and Xi made the commitment on a phone call during which they both acknowledged the mutual support between Russia and China during the pandemic.

Though Russia was forced to postpone this month's scheduled BRICS emerging economies meeting, the two leaders may still meet face-to-face later this year.

All the signs point to closer cooperation and thus potentially greater challenges for the U.S. and its democratic allies. Both Russia and China have shown scant regard for the so-called international rules-based order, and Putin and Xi have brazenly abused human rights at home and pushed the limits of acceptability abroad.

Matthew Kroenig—the deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and director of its Global Strategy Initiative—told Newsweek that Moscow and Beijing are "becoming increasingly strategically aligned."

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Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Chinese President Xi Jinping during their bilateral meeting on November 13, 2019 in Brasilia, Brazil. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images/Getty

"They have a shared threat perception as they both worry about the power of the U.S. and its democratic allies. They want to weaken the U.S. and its alliances, carve out spheres of influence in their near abroad, and make the world safe for autocracy," Kroenig said.

COVID-19 has augmented this cooperation, Kroenig added. "Specifically, we have seen greater coordination in their 'disinformation campaigns.' They are employing similar tactics, putting forth various conflicting stories aimed to confuse, rather than persuade, their audience. They are also using similar messages in these campaigns, such as about how the U.S. is truly responsible for causing the global outbreak."

Both nations were quick to offer each other aid during the initial outbreak. Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova, the head of the China Studies Centre at the Riga Stradins University in Latvia, told Newsweek it was almost as if Moscow and Beijing were trying to "outperform each other" as to who was a better friend.

China appears to have handled the pandemic far better than Russia, where the number of cases is still rising fast and the government appears unable to stop it.

Perversely, the crises may strengthen Putin's position despite widespread criticism of his regime's failings. The president can point to China's success and claim that more centralization and authoritarianism are needed to combat the gravest threats, further legitimizing and entrenching his autocratic rule.

The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy declared that great power competition had returned, with China and Russia now posing the greatest threat to America's national security. Combined, the two nations would represent an enormous challenge.

"To take just one example, imagine if they conducted a coordinated military attack on America's alliance systems in Europe and Asia," Kroenig said. "The U.S. may be able to defend NATO from Russia. It may also be able to defend its Asian allies from China. But Washington could be overwhelmed if called upon to fight two major wars at the same time."

Still, it would be premature to predict a resurgence of the Sino-Soviet partnership that caused so much consternation in the West during the Cold War. That partnership eventually collapsed into conflict, and fissures in the modern-day Moscow-Beijing relationship could be portents for future quarrels.

"They are not yet formal allies and they have many conflicting interests," Kroenig said. "They still fear each other militarily...and they don't fully trust each other."

Berzina-Cerenkova noted that some observers believe that the Russia-China relationship has already "peaked."

"The fact is that Russia is becoming increasingly aware of the risks of letting China in too much," she told Newsweek, citing the Arctic where Beijing is trying to gain a foothold in Russia's back yard despite not being an Arctic power.

Russia is also aware "that the Chinese see Russia not as an equal partner, but as a kind of a land of natural resources," Berzina-Cerenkova said. "The Russians believe that the Chinese are after their lands and are after their energy resources...and they just want to bleed Russia dry."

On China's multi-billion flagship Belt and Road project, Russia is also showing it won't blindly accept Beijing's blueprint. Berzina-Cerenkova said that Putin—when speaking at Belt and Road events—often instead mentions Russia's Eurasian Economic Union, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently provided a written statement for a virtual forum on the Chinese project rather than make a live appearance.

"It's not going to just swallow everything China wants," Berzina-Cerenkova said. "It wants everyone to know that it is too mighty to sign off on China-orchestrated multilateralism and it will only participate on its own rules."

For all Putin's grandstanding, Russia is not a comparable power to the U.S. or even China. Russia's mineral-dependent economy is the 11th largest in the world, smaller than Canada, Italy and Brazil. Its population is declining and the central state's power is far from total.

Though Russia still holds thousands of nuclear warheads, its military is not capable of extended global operations and its most cutting-edge weapons likely cannot be fielded in large numbers.

During the Cold War, Russia was the stronger ally. But now the roles are reversed. "So far, Putin seems comfortable with the subordinate position, but he may be unwilling to play the junior partner to Xi for long," Kroenig said.

Both men want to counter the U.S., but for China the challenge is a practical one of overcoming U.S. hegemony to facilitate Beijing's own grand vision. For Putin and Russia, challenging the U.S. is an "existential" project, Berzina-Cerenkova said.

"China doesn't really want to be dragged in on this," she explained. "It does want to signal that it doesn't support the U.S.-led international order...but they are careful to not over-support Russia, in their U.S.-bashing."

Moscow and Beijing might be building security cooperation, but China is not in the business of making alliances and has long maintained a non-aligned foreign policy. The two nations do not have a mutual defense agreement equivalent to NATO's Article 5.

"They're not going to become this 'Dragon-Bear'—as a lot of people term it—that's just going to tear the world apart," Berzina-Cerenkova said. "It's impossible."

"They're not going to get super close because Russia is afraid of China. They are scared that China is stronger than they are."

Shared authoritarianism, COVID-19 and the desire to undermine democracy elsewhere may have pulled Putin and Xi closer, but strategic cooperation between two men used to getting their own way is a recipe for trouble. "Autocracies make unreliable allies," Kroenig said.

Correction 7/4/20, 12:30 p.m. ET: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of Sergei Lavrov's statement to a virtual Belt and Road Initiative forum.

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Russian, Chinese and Mongolian troops and military equipment parade at the end of the day of the Vostok-2018 military drills at Tsugol training ground not far from the Chinese and Mongolian border in Siberia, Russia on September 13, 2018. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images/Getty