April 13, 2021

The EU’s Worst Nightmare: a China-Russia Axis

Safeguarding its autonomy between the United States and China was already proving difficult for the EU. But as Washington and Brussels seem to be becoming more closely aligned on how to handle Beijing’s rise, Russia and China seem to be cooperating more closely, too.

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Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with China's State Councilor Wang Yi in Guilin
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Writing in his “A Window on the World” blog on Sunday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated: “It comes as no surprise that Russia and China are blocking the attempts of the UN Security Council, for example to impose an arms embargo against Myanmar. China is keen to protect its strategic interests in the country and has called the coup ‘a major government reshuffle,’ while Russia insists that it is a purely ‘domestic matter.’”

Granted, his critique of Moscow and Beijing was in direct reference to the UN Security Council. But Russia and China acting toward the same objectives has seemingly been on Borrell’s mind of late. “The rivalry between Washington and Beijing is unfolding on many fronts, but it doesn’t mean this will replicate the bipolar world of the Cold War,” he wrote on March 29. However, shortly afterwards, he argued: “China and Russia have been moving closer to each other ... The Chinese-Russian rapprochement is above all based on a rejection of democratic values ... Moscow and Beijing use very similar language when speaking of the West or the US.”

End to Autonomy

Up until now, the EU’s role in the “New Cold War” has been portrayed as some form of “truel”—a three-way duel—with the EU testing how long it can sit perched on its fence of “autonomy” as the US-China rivalry worsens. Russia’s entry into the equation fundamentally changes the stakes. Autonomy between the US and China is hard for Brussels, but autonomy between the US and a China-Russia alliance would be near impossible.

An editorial in China's jingoistic tabloid Global Times on March 21 was self-serving but spoke some truth: “No country ... can stand alone against either China or Russia, let alone fight against the two powers at the same time.” Or, as Borrell put it last month, the EU has no “interest in pushing Russia and China closer together.” Indeed, a stronger Russia and China alliance would make each less susceptible to Western sanctions or pressure to change. It would also increase Europe’s risks of cyber attacks and foreign interference in elections if the Russia-China partnership moves into cyber space. Worse, a military pact between Moscow and Beijing would bring the threat of the People’s Liberation Army onto Europe’s doorstep.

A Moscow-Beijing axis of sorts is certainly firming up. In October, Putin intimated that a Russia-China military alliance could be on the table sometime in the future. Tod Wolters, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, recently described Russia-China cooperation as “an emergence of a partnership of convenience.” Last month, Beijing sanctioned dozens of European politicians and academics just hours after the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over their role in massive human rights violations against the Uighurs in Xinjiang province.

The EU sanctioned Russian officials over the imprisonment of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny at the same time. Previously, Borrell had been publicly humiliated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during an ill-considered Moscow visit. Afterwards, on a visit to Beijing, Lavrov stated: “There are no relations with the European Union as an organization,” adding that “the entire infrastructure of these relations has been destroyed by unilateral decisions made by Brussels.”

Increased Military Tensions

Beijing has markedly stepped up its threats to Taiwan, including increased incursions into its airspace in recent months. Some experts now talk of an invasion and occupation of Taiwan in terms of when, not if. At the same time, Russian forces are amassing again on the Ukrainian border. Maybe Moscow and Beijing aren’t acting in tandem, but these threats are happening in parallel. If the US (and EU) fail to act over another Russian invasion of Ukraine and/or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, then the post-1945 liberal international order, led by Washington, is over.

Conventional wisdom contends that there’s little reason to fear a Beijing-Moscow “axis” since, it’s claimed, neither has much in common (except for opposing a US-led world order) and even that one commonality is weak compared to the many fissures between the two states, from rivalry in Eurasia and the Arctic, to Moscow’s fears of what Beijing would do as a global hegemon. Indeed, China’s Global Times notably referred to Russia and China as “a partnership rather than an alliance.” As Natasha Kuhrt of King’s College London noted last month: “For both Russia and China, strategic ambiguity has worked best in terms of preserving room for maneuver.”

But strategic ambiguity abounds. The US and EU are united through what they stand for (democracy, human rights, international law, etc.), yet they are currently unable to agree on what they are against. Indeed, the central antagonism is that Brussels has refused to follow Washington’s anti-Beijing or anti-Russian agenda. On the other hand, China and Russia seemingly have little to unite them over what they are for (Moscow would stand to lose just as much as the US from a new Beijing-centric world order), yet they are more closely in agreement on what they are united against, that being a liberal international order in which Washington sits at the top. 

Writing in March, Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center noted a shift in European thinking. Years ago, he stated, European officials thought “any real closeness between Moscow and Beijing was impossible... But European capitals are now changing their attitudes.” That might be the realization, but what does it imply for policy? French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his fears in November 2019 of Russia becoming “China’s vassal.” This was presumably the reason for his softly-softly approach to the Kremlin in recent years, which has now seemingly failed. And on February 10, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned, in a speech to the Bundestag, that the EU should avoid being heavy-handed with Moscow. “You would be driving Russia and China into each other’s arms, and thereby also be creating the largest economic and military alliance in the world,” he stated.

Democratic Values

Or would it? A prevailing opinion holds that Putin is essentially reactive; if Americans and Europeans didn’t critique his rule, if NATO forces weren’t so near the Russian border, then Moscow would be a convivial actor in the world. The inverse opinion, however, finds Putin determined to act regardless of how Russia is treated by other states. Moscow and Beijing are forging closer relations not because of how the EU acts but because of their own interests. For instance, China’s share of Russian trade rose from 10.5 percent in 2013 to 18.3 last year, as the EU’s share fell from 49.4 percent to 38.5 percent over the same period. Russia is becoming increasingly less reliant on the EU, thanks chiefly to China. The result of this was, as Gabuev commented: “Beijing helped Moscow—at least to some extent—to withstand US and EU pressure. This assistance also allowed Moscow to become more assertive elsewhere in the world.”

There is also change under way within the emerging “West camp,” as Adam Tooze noted in the Spring 2021 issue of Internationale Politik Quarterly. China’s actions may well end up pushing the Europeans to full alignment with the US, which, under President Joe Biden, is approaching the world in more ideological terms. So, too, is the EU. As Borrell put it last month: “We would be wrong to analyze this relationship only from an economic point of view. The Chinese-Russian rapprochement is above all based on a rejection of democratic values.” And in late March, Blinken and Borrell agreed to a joint statement in which they said the US and EU would relaunch a forum over China and jointly address “Russia’s challenging behavior.” The EU knows what it is for. Slowly, it seems, it is making the connection that this should inform its opinion of who it is against.

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