Washington's conventional wisdom views a Chinese-Russian alliance as a remote prospect. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is generally both pragmatic and strategically-minded, sees "little in the long term that aligns Russia and China." Yet a deeper look at their relations suggests that China and Russia may well build a united front to confront the United States and its allies. Even if such an alignment doesn't last, it could have dangerous consequences.
With short exceptions at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early 1950s, China and Russia have never been close. On the contrary, they have a long history of mutual animosity. While Americans tend to see them as similar because of their authoritarian politics, the truth is that their cultures and values are quite distinct. Beijing, after long resenting Russian power, tends to look down at Moscow's inferior economy, relatively small population, and inability to develop vast regions of Siberia bordering China. Chinese academics who study in Russia report personally experiencing xenophobic nationalism that their Western counterparts rarely encounter.
Nor is this all. Russia is a reluctant admirer of China's recent successes, particularly its effective adoption of elements of the Western economic system without embracing a democratic model. Still, Russians show little affection for the Chinese way of life and, despite the growing pressure they face in United States and Europe, seem uninterested in purchasing property in Beijing, Shanghai or even Hong Kong.
In private, Chinese and Russian officials and experts express scant confidence that their two countries can build a lasting alliance. Russians who claim on domestic television that Moscow and Beijing have already established such a relationship in all but name will admit sotto voce that China's investment in Russia has been disappointing, that Chinese banks fear exposing themselves to U.S. sanctions by working in Russia and that Russian officials are leery of a settlement of their country's territorial dispute with Japan (over the Kuril Islands) because any cession of Russian-held lands could encourage new Chinese claims. Moscow's foreign policy commentators similarly acknowledge that a U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty would allow Russia to strengthen its nuclear deterrence vis-a-vis China and--so long as the United States and Russia can develop new understandings and Washington avoids actions that threaten Russia--that it may be better off without INF limits.
Still, this hardly offers ground for American complacency. While the NATO alliance is built not only on a common threat but also on common values, most alliances throughout history have been based on mutual needs, not mutual love. The pre-World War I Triple Entente included democratic Britain and France alongside a repressive, authoritarian Russian Empire. Their shared fear of a rising Germany sufficed to bring them together.
China and Russia are different in many respects, but so were Britain and Russia in the early 1900s. Despite past animosities and cultural differences, today's China and Russia share authoritarian rule (though China's is notably stricter) and resentment of what they see as U.S. efforts at military containment, if not encirclement, and overt and covert political attacks on their systems of government. Each rejects arguments that U.S. support of their neighbors often follows from the neighbors' uneasiness with these two powers and their regional conduct, such as Beijing's recent efforts to...