The China-Russia ‘New Era’ and NATO

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The China-Russia ‘New Era’ and NATO

Insights from Valbona Zeneli.

The China-Russia ‘New Era’ and NATO
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners ,and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Valbona Zeneli, a nonresident senior fellow, at the Europe Center in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, is the 416th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” 

Identify the top three outcomes of the recent summit between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

There were no new surprises resulting from the recent summit in Beijing between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Having met more than 40 times, both in person and virtually, this was simply a grand strategic messaging photo. So, the main outcome was the public message that China and Russia are closely aligned on a range of issues, and that reflects their decision to stand together against the Western alliance. 

The second outcome was the joint statement on deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership that presents their relationship as a stabilizing force in a chaotic world. Trade, energy, and military cooperation were discussion areas, emphasizing the bilateral trade increase, but with no specific commitments on the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline.

The third outcome was the continuation of Putin’s narrative attempting to portray himself as a “peacemaker” for resolving the “Ukrainian crisis,” at the same time expressing appreciation for Beijing’s 12-point plan, and signaling that China stands firmly behind Russia.

How have Beijing and Moscow raised the strategic stakes in challenging transatlantic leadership and coordination in the Ukraine war? 

Realpolitik considerations drive China and Russia together, making them natural allies in opposing the Western alliance led by the United States. They need and complement each other – Russia with its nuclear weapons and hydrocarbon riches, and China as the economic superpower. Their message for Western audiences is clear: China is unafraid about publicly aligning with Russia. 

Xi and Putin’s interests and ambitions make them convenient bedfellows with the CCP’s use of the Kremlin and the Kremlin’s use of the CCP being mutually beneficial. The key difference between the two is that Russia acts as a disruptor of the international order, while China is dependent on this order for its economic growth. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the main global geopolitical outcomes has been the strengthening of the Sino-Russian partnership, that was coined a “no-limits partnership” just days before Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The public narrative followed with new declarations after each successive meetings between the two leaders, such as “new era in the relationship” or “deep friendship.” Beijing’s economic and political support has provided Moscow with a lifeline, undermining the effectiveness of Western measures and sanctions. 

What does the “new era” in China-Russia cooperation signal to NATO ahead of the upcoming NATO summit in Washington DC? 

During NATO’s Vilnius Summit in July 2023, the deepening of the strategic partnership between Russia and China was the focus of much concern. This new strategic challenge necessities a reassessment of NATO’s diplomatic and defense strategies to address the multifaceted threats in a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape. 

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept mentioned China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenging Western security interests and values. Now the events in Ukraine along with the new Russia-China alignment have further reshaped and redefined NATO’s thinking. If anything, it has broadened NATO’s appreciation of how important regional security in the Indo-Pacific is to international stability and security and prosperity in the transatlantic community.

Examine the impact of deepening China-Russia relations on NATO’s strategic calculus. 

The Sino-Russian partnership shows that the world is tightening into geopolitical blocs with growing ties among the revisionist autocrats. The key factors to consider are how strong and enduring this new alliance will be in the context of strategic competition, what can be its impact on power distribution in the Atlantic and the Pacific, as well as understanding alignments across the developing world. Economically, Russia and China are unequal partners as Russia’s economy ($1.9 trillion) is only 10 percent of China’s ($17.7 trillion) in terms of Gross Domestic Product, and this certainly will play a role in their bilateral power-dynamics in the future.

To respond to the new security environment, NATO and its allies must carefully navigate its multifaceted approach centered on resilience, unity, and partnerships. Demonstrating comprehensive resilience, cultivating societal resilience, and reinforcing democratic processes will be essential for the future. Western unity and clear purpose will prove to be the backbone of upholding the rules-based world order and the principles of democracy and free-market economies. 

Assess the implications of the China-Russia “new era” narrative for other authoritarian countries and evaluate the counter-narrative of the U.S., EU, and other like-minded liberal democracies. 

The narrative of the West requires a greater emphasis on education and building resilience to remind audiences of the importance of Western values and what adherence to the rules-based international order has done to underpin global stability since the end of World War II. One significant lesson learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the disregard autocratic leaders have for international law, revealing a flaw in the Western assumption that economic interdependence alone without accountability justifies good diplomatic relations. Our competitive advantages rest soundly on our democratic values that have enabled our economic prosperity, critical to defending our way of life.