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Why Russia Will Keep Supporting China in the Indo-Pacific

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Why Russia Will Keep Supporting China in the Indo-Pacific

Strategies pinned on enticing Russia away from China are based on a fundamental misreading of Moscow’s stated goals and interests.

Why Russia Will Keep Supporting China in the Indo-Pacific
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Russia’s foreign policy has been growing more helpful to China lately, with Moscow granting diplomatic support to Beijing on the Indo-Pacific issues and the scope of the Russian-Chinese joint military maneuvers increasing. This process has profound strategic reasons underneath it, and is therefore set to continue and further develop in the future.

The Russian-Chinese joint statement on strategic cooperation from March 21, 2023, besides promising “decisive mutual support on the issues of protecting one another’s core interests,” included Russia’s vow to oppose Taiwan’s independence “in any form,” and “firmly support actions of the Chinese side for the defense of its state sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Moscow’s representatives, such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, regularly give China support on the Indo-Pacific regional issues, attacking the Quad format of the Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. and accusing the United States and its allies of attempting to “create a long-term source of tension” in the region and seeking to contain China.

Russian-Chinese joint military maneuvers are also developing, including naval exercises and air patrols in East Asian waters, as well as naval exercises in the Arabian Sea and off the coast of South Africa. In the summer of 2023, 11 ships of the Russian and Chinese navies jointly maneuvered near the coast of Alaska, in the far northwestern United States.

This Russian tilt toward China in the Indo-Pacific is no longer restrained even by Russia’s partnership with India, which Moscow traditionally has sought to maintain. China’s geopolitical ambitions are a major challenge to India’s interests and foreign policy. This fact is reflected in India’s growing partnership with the United States, Japan, and other like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific. Russia’s current policy toward China might gradually put such a strain on its close relationship with India that Moscow will find it hard to maintain good ties with New Delhi. And yet, Russia pursues its ever growing alignment with China despite the India factor.

One reason influencing this Russian policy might be Moscow’s growing dependence on China as a consequence of the Russo-Ukrainian War and the resulting sanctions. But the Russian-Chinese alignment was growing even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The war may have accelerated development of this alignment, but it did not cause it. The reasons behind it are not transactional but deeply strategic.

The ultimate outcome sought by Russia’s current foreign strategy is the end of the global leadership of the United States and its allies. Moscow wants it replaced by a world of a few major powers that dominate smaller countries in their respective geographic spheres, and compete or cooperate in the rest of the world. Democracy is not the leading form of government in such a world, nor is individual freedom the basis of political thought and practice. It is such a world that the regime in the Kremlin deems safe for its own existence, and this is the result Moscow pushes for both in its official rhetoric and in its actions.

Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, modern Russia is unable to attempt bringing down the Western-led world on its own. Its resources are insufficient for the task. Therefore, a key feature of Moscow’s foreign strategy is developing alignment with other adversaries of the United States and its allies, most importantly with the major ones – China and Iran.

There is a school of thought in the U.S. that insists that the main threat for Russia comes from China, and that on this basis it should be possible to achieve Russia’s geopolitical realignment, resulting in Moscow joining the ranks of China’s opponents. The trouble is that the regime in Moscow radically disagrees with this analysis. 

Whatever Russian leaders think or feel about China, they see the U.S.-led global order as the main threat facing them. They say this openly and officially. More importantly, their words are matched by Russia’s systematic and audacious geostrategic actions aimed at ending the U.S. global leadership.

Russia’s developing alignment with China is not an aberration. It is a logical policy based on the strategic goals that the Kremlin regime has chosen to set before itself. This alignment, therefore, will keep getting deeper, and will be reflected in Russia’s new actions and policies concerning the Indo-Pacific. No relatively superficial, transactional considerations can stop this process. They are trumped by Moscow’s main purpose.

Every player with vital interests in the Indo-Pacific region will benefit from taking into full account this aspect of Russia’s foreign strategy.