How Does the Russo-Chinese Alliance Threaten U.S. Interests and Allies?
(October 30, 2019)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Stephen Blank is an internationally recognized expert on Russian foreign and defense policies and international relations across the former Soviet Union. He is also a leading expert on European and Asian security, including energy issues. Most recently, he was a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, www.afpc.org.
From 1989-2013 he was a Professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Blank has been Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute since 1989. In 1998-2001 he was Douglas MacArthur Professor of Research at the War College.
Dr. Blank has consulted for the CIA, major think tanks and foundations, chaired major international conferences in the USA and abroad In Florence, Prague, and London, and has been a commentator on foreign affairs in the media in the United States and abroad. He has also advised major corporations on investing in Russia and is a consultant for the Gerson Lehrmann Group. He has published over 1300 articles and monographs on Soviet/Russian, U.S., Asian, and European military and foreign policies, including publishing or editing 15 books, testified frequently before Congress on Russia, China, and Central Asia for business, government, and professional think tanks here and abroad on these issues.
Prior to his appointment at the Army War College in 1989 Dr. Blank was Associate Professor for Soviet Studies at the Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education of Air University at Maxwell AFB. He also held the position of 1980-86: Assistant Professor of Russian History, University of Texas, San Antonio, 1980-86, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian history, University of California, Riverside, 1979-80.
Dr. Blank’s M.A. and Ph.D. are in Russian History from the University of Chicago. His B.A is in History from the University of Pennsylvania.
Robert R. Reilly:
I’m particularly pleased to have tonight as our speaker Dr. Stephen Blank, who’s an internationally recognized expert on Russian foreign and defense policies and international relations across the former Soviet Union. We share a friend in common at the Naval Post Graduate School, who informed me that Dr. Blank is the best informed person about the Soviet Union and Russia, and he didn’t qualify the remark. Period. So it’s wonderful to have him here.
He was most recently a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in DC. For a long time, 1989 to 2013, he was Professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He’s taught at a number of other defense and secular universities on the same subjects of Russia and national security affairs. So far, he’s only published some 1,300 articles on this subject matter, and he’s also published or edited fifteen books. I won’t go through his many other qualifications other than to mention he received both his MA and his PhD at the University of Chicago in Russian History. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Stephen Blank who’s going to talk to us about “How does the Russo-Chinese Alliance Threaten U.S. Interests and Allies?”
Dr. Stephen Blank:
Thank you for that generous introduction. I have to say that the reason our common friend said that to Bob about me is that my mother was his high school English teacher. I want to thank you all for coming out on this beautiful night, especially to forgo game seven of the World Series. I mean that shows true devotion to the topic. I’m going to talk about the Sino-Russian alliance, particularly its military dimension. That’s where the real threat is to the United States and its allies, not only in Asia by the way, but also in Europe.
What is the alliance?
And the word ‘alliance’ is not something that I alone have thought up, although I believe that there was an alliance for several years now. Mr Putin three weeks ago – and God bless him, he keeps us all busy – stated at the annual Valdai Conference that ‘we have an alliance with China’, and he defined alliance as multi-faceted cooperation: military, economic, political, so if you don’t like the term alliance, blame him, not me. It’s his word. Although he’s right, and by making this announcement, Putin also simultaneously stated that Russia is now helping China with a missile defense system that is ground-based launch detection, ground control, and that goes with the collaboration in space that they’ve already talked about and which has been mentioned in public for some time now.
So beyond economic and political diplomatic cooperation or collaboration and conventional military collaboration that we’ve seen in arms sales and exercises and in inter-military and inter-governmental exchanges, which are extensive between Russia and China, we now have an alliance that is to some degree involved in nuclear weapons as well, and that ought to sink into people. To add to that, in August, soon after the United States formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, INF Treaty, the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoygu, got up and said, ‘you know, it’s not our fault, we had nothing to do with us’, which is another sign of the Russian government’s devotion to the truth, and stated that if the United States as intended wants to put intermediate-range missiles in Asia because of the threat from China, which is building them as fast as it can, then we too will put those missiles in Russian Asia to threaten American forces not only in Alaska or maybe Hawaii, but South Korea and Japan, in other words, our allies.
When they use the word alliance, they don’t mean just simply a meeting of the minds. There is serious political, economic, and, clearly, military planning going on because the Russians by Shoygu’s statement and he didn’t just get up one morning and decide to say this, basically said we will help defend China against the United States, and we will threaten American forces in Asia; Japan, South Korea, at sea, and so on.
Basis for the alliance
So you may ask yourself: what is the basis for this alliance? In fact, it is an evolutionary process, starting in 1990 when China and then the Soviet Union, and afterwards the Russian Federation, decided to terminate the quarrel that had dominated their relationship since 1956. If you go back and look at Sino-Soviet and then Sino-Russian relations, the rift as it was called grew beginning in 1956, reached its high point in 1969 and the early ’70s when we almost had a nuclear confrontation between Soviet and Chinese forces. The Chinese then decided to make their overtures to the United States. President Nixon was already interested in making overtures to them and you know that story, at least in its broad details, of how we came to recognize Communist China, the PRC, and the relationship that began ever since.
The basis for the current alliance therefore goes back to the beginnings of rapprochement in the early 1990s, particularly between Boris Yeltsin and China, and it is based on the fact that increasingly – starting with Yeltsin, but certainly under Putin – we see a common self-representation. Nations, governments like to present themselves in public and to the world in a certain way. We presented ourselves – at least up until Donald Trump – as this guarantor of the liberal order, democracy and so on, and that is how most people see – hopefully still see, and don’t laugh, used to see the United States.
How Russia and China see themselves
Russia and China both present themselves to the world and to their own people as autocratic, sovereign empires. I emphasize the empire because Russia does not see itself as a state. If you want to understand Russia, and that’s a lifetime work, if you want to understand, one point of departure is that as Great Britain, France, Germany, arguably the United States had empires, Russia is and was an empire.
There is no Russian state outside of empire. That is behind the motive for the invasion of Georgia in 2008, Crimea five years ago, and for the constant threats against all of its neighbors. So like China, which sees itself as an imperial phenomenon through history, Russia does also, and they both see themselves as autocratic, free sovereign states that do not have to answer to anybody, whether we’re talking about at home or abroad.
The Russian term, Автократия, which means autocracy, means I hold the state in my hand. That’s the literal translation of autokratos: I rule alone, autocracy. And therefore, they see the United States as a threat to their mode of government, their empire, and to their value system because of our insistence on European integration, democratic values, and liberalism with a capital L that they see as inherent in the United States’ effort to subordinate – or so they see it – Russia and China to liberal internationalism and values. Therefore, whether we’re talking about China or about Russia, all forms of democracy and liberalism are anathema and a threat to the state. The Chinese say this all the time.
Just to give you one example of the Russians, in 2006, Sergey Ivanov at the time the Minister of Defense, then he became Putin’s Chief of Staff for several years, writes in The Wall Street Journal, “The greatest threat to Russia is a constitutional upheaval,” which is his euphemism for democracy. And in an interview with The Financial Times a few years later, Ivanov who spoke perfect English said, “You know we see democracy” – and he used a Russian word – “as a bardak.” A bardak in Russian means a really particularly slovenly brothel, and that is exactly how the Russian elite sees democracy. I am not making this up. You can’t, believe me, but that’s exactly the way they see it, the way the Chinese do; it’s anathema, it’s incomprehensible, and it’s a threat.
Both states also believe they have an imperial vocation from their inception and that their sovereignty must be guarded at the expense of everybody else. In other words, for Russia and possibly China, unless everybody around them in insecure, they are not secure. You laugh, but Henry Kissinger knew this. I mean it’s nothing new in the field.
The presupposition of conflict
Although there are people who might deny this, that is the basis of Russian security policy. It is based on what the German philosopher Karl Schmidt called the presupposition of conflict. Whereas American foreign policy is based on the presupposition of the democratic norms fostering peace, Russians start from the presupposition of conflict; everybody’s out to get us. Russia is a besieged fortress. That’s one of the metaphors they like to use. Therefore, the contest between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, is simultaneously strategic and ideological. Values and interests are not separated here because it is our values that drive them crazy as well as our interests and actual policies, and the conduct of those policies.
And therefore this contest, which has largely remained peaceful, nevertheless, it implies what the military calls all the instruments of power and summed up in an acronym – those of you who served in the military may know it – the dime; diplomacy, information, military, economics.
Manifestations of the alliance
What are the manifestations of this alliance? Both countries are waging a war on the primacy of the dollar in international economics. They are trying to conduct international trade, particularly in energy in Russia’s case, outside of the dollar. They’re trying to weaken the dollar. They are waging – each in their own way – unrelenting information and cyber warfare against not only the United States, but against all of our allies in Europe and Asia, against corporate interests here and abroad, non-governmental organizations, and this has not stopped.
If you read The Washington Post or The New York Times on a daily basis, you will see articles talking about this. We’ve already exposed some of the Russians efforts to campaign for 2020. The Russians are sponsoring Facebook trolls for example that denounce Joe Biden or do other things to try to influence the campaign. Now, all of these kinds of measures, are summed up in the term active measures, which is an old Soviet intelligence term, or influence operations. We see also what are called gray area phenomena.
Grey area operations are operations that threaten but do not involve actual conflict or conflict that we can respond to. For example, to give you one example close to home, Russian support for the government in Venezuela. Those of you who know anything about Venezuela know that the Chavista government, first Chavez and now Maduro, have turned this country into a nightmare, but nonetheless, it is pro-Russian. And the Russians have been offered military bases there. I think they’re building one. I just published an article saying that, that they’re building a theater of operations in Venezuela. They’re not doing anything that could lead to war. There’s no actual conflict there, but they are stirring up trouble and clearly making trouble for the U.S. and for other Latin American countries, so that they will have a base of influence in the Caribbean from which they hope I believe that they can project power into the Caribbean and South Atlantic.
China is also deeply involved in Latin America as a whole, economically, as many of you know. If you follow the scope of their investments, they’re enormous. And both of these governments are collaborating in what you might call black operations, along with Iran, in Latin America. It has a fair number of terrorists there, and moneylaundering as well as other crimes. And of course, supporting narcotraficantes, drug dealers, but you can’t go to war about that. It’s a gray area phenomenon perfectly described because it’s not black and white, it’s gray.
Or we see aberrations like China’s attempt to seize sovereign waters in and create artificial islands in the South China Sea, and then declare them Chinese territory, and exclude all the other littoral states in the South China Sea.
We see Russia sponsoring coup d’états in the Balkans. Just in the last three years alone, Montenegro and then last year when what was then-called Macedonia reached an agreement that Macedonia would actually change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, and this would allow Macedonia, or the Republic of North Macedonia, to get into NATO and the EU, the Russians incited a coup in both countries. They got caught, but the point is they are inciting coups.
I was at a speech this afternoon by the Prime Minister of Estonia. He said that his colleagues tell him that every second of every hour, Russia launches a cyber strike against Estonia. Think about that, 24/7 365 days a year, cyber strikes, and not just Estonia, I assure you. So from Russia’s point of view – and they have said this going back to 2005 – they are at war with us.
China sees us as well [as] the prime enemy. Their military exercises are large-scale operations no matter what they say they are, and they are targeted on the United States and its allies. Moreover, these influence operations, active measures if you like, whatever you want to call them, have also expanded into other countries. In some cases, there’s actual war like Ukraine. But besides the fighting in Ukraine, we see Russian efforts to subvert Ukraine from within by information operations, use of the Russian energy weapon against Ukraine that corrupted the whole previous system in Ukraine. We see it in Central Asia. We see it in Latin America.
And we are going to see it in Africa too because last week Putin had a big conference in Moscow, a Russia-Africa Summit. And no sooner than they have this summit, at least one African country asked Russia to have a military base in Africa, Central African Republic. Sudan had previously asked. Russia wants bases in Egypt, Algeria, Libya. They have a facility in Somaliland, Eritrea. The list goes on. So this is not going to stop. It’s in the blood. These guys don’t know how to operate any other way, and therefore the challenge is a permanent one both to the U.S. and to its allies, whether those allies are Australia or the Baltic states.
You all know about the interference in elections here. They’ve done the same thing all over Europe. In virtually every European election in the last five years we have seen and sometimes apprehended people acting on behalf of or under Russian instructions or giving Russian money to political parties and actors in order to corrupt, subvert, and disrupt elections and governments; Catalonian referendum in Spain, Brexit, Macron’s election as President in France, the German Parliamentary elections, the Dutch referendum of 2016, and the list goes on – as well as the two coups I just mentioned. So this is the standard operating procedure of the Russian Federation and to a certain degree China as well.
China is also to a much greater degree able to use economic power. The Belt and Road Initiative you’ve probably heard of: billions of dollars to build up transportation and commercial infrastructure from China to Europe, but also to create economic and political dependencies upon China and in some cases bases. China is buying up ports all over the world. Thirty to fifty of the world’s leading ports already have some measure of Chinese influence there. They bought the Port of Piraeus, they bought the Port of Haifa, they bought ports in Belgium, on and on and on, and they are the biggest shipbuilders in the world. So imagine to yourself, given the fact that they are allies, we have a contingency in Europe: Russia attacks a Baltic state for example. U.S. is now called on to send troops, material, lubricants, oil, fuel, everything to Europe. If the Chinese own a port, they can shut it down, and raise havoc, whether it’s in Europe, whether it’s in the United States.
So what we see – and since we’re talking in an environment of sports, the seventh game of the World Series – we see the equivalent of what Russia and China might call a full court press, to use a different sport. The basketball analogy of a full court press where you press the adversary from the beginning all over the length of the court in multiple ways, using all of the elements of the dime against the United States and its allies. And this is a global phenomenon as you may have guessed.
In Asia, Russia and China formally – they’ve stated this – formally support North Korea’s diplomatic position. They have not criticized any of the missile tests that North Korea has taken in the last six to nine months despite the fact that they violate UN resolutions. They are both helping to violate the sanctions that they themselves voted for against North Korea, and are clearly abetting Kim Jong Un in his efforts to evade having to give up any kind of nuclear capability, and I’m sad to say I think our own ineptness has allowed him to get away with this up til now.
Furthermore, in Asia, despite seven years now of the Japanese government running after Russia to make a peace treaty to conclude World War II on a formal basis because Russia never signed a peace treaty with Japan even though they were combatants, Russia refuses to sign a treaty because they refuse to acknowledge that the Kuril Islands which they seized as a result of the war is an occupation or a seizure, and that they once belonged to Japan. There are a couple reasons why they won’t do it. One, if they do that, then they are afraid the Chinese might claim territories that Mao Ze Dong claimed forty to fifty years ago – if you remember that story from the Russians that were taken in ‘unequal treaties’.
Second, because Russia depends on China to a much greater degree than ever before in its history. If they signed an agreement with Japan, China would go crazy diplomatically, and what you have to understand about this alliance is that as Bismarck said, “Every alliance has a horse and a rider,” in this alliance the horse is Russia, the rider is China. The horse is not going to throw the rider.
In the arctic, China is now the main supporter of Russia. The Amal pipeline, a big gas pipeline coming out of the arctic that goes to China, could not have been built without Chinese support, and the Chinese are justifiably proud of the technical prowess and financing that went into that. But beyond that, they are now being allowed to buy up equity in Russia energy projects in the arctic, whereas up to 2012 the Russian government wouldn’t let that happen. Now they are offering projects to China, and as the Pentagon annual review of Chinese military power pointed out, the Chinese are now able to send up SSBNs, that is nuclear-powered submarines with nuclear missiles into the arctic from which they can threaten the continental United States.
Given early-warning systems, underwater intelligence, all the things that people in the Navy talk about submarine and anti-submarine warfare, it is clear that Russia knows this is going on. It has done nothing to stop it. It cannot stop it. It will not stop it. There is the possibility that the arctic in the case of an Asian contingency with China could become a theater of war with China. Now, that may be a remote possibility, admittedly, but it is a possibility and it is a new front in China’s naval capabilities.
China is able to enter the arctic even though the Chinese government contests Russia’s desire to close the northern sea route to international traffic unless they pay tariffs. China is insisting in the arctic on freedom of navigation, whereas in the South China Sea, Russia has insisted on freedom of navigation and the Chinese want to close this, so there is the danger of these two places becoming precedents in international law and international diplomacy for each other, and therefore it is essential that we contest politically Russia’s claims about the NSR, which it has made to the UN, and that we demonstrate to the Chinese through the freedom of navigation operations, FONOPS as they are called, that we are not going to allow them to takeover the South China Sea and close it to our partners and allies.
This alliance does not stop in Asia. In Europe and the Middle East, China supports Russia’s activities in Syria. It has intimated that it might be willing to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria if that ever gets under way. We have seen more recently that Russian information warfare in Europe now supports Chinese positions. That is something new and given the extent of Russian information warfare and of Chinese information warfare, active measures, influence operations, and the like, it is a significant development.
I have already told you about the active efforts by Russians to undermine European governments. If you add Chinese power to this mix, those efforts will become much more powerful or the Russians may end up supporting Chinese efforts to interfere in European politics through elections, subversion, control of media, or economic leverage.
War in Ukraine speaks for itself, but we have seen also an intensification of Russian pressure on Belarus to essentially terminate its sovereignty and join Russia, and on Moldova. A number of scholars – actually most people writing about this – deny that there is an alliance, they say it is never going to happen and so on. If you read all this, you would have a very negative opinion of expertise on Russia and China in this country. They said for example in Central Asia, China and Russia are not going to cooperate. The fact is they are cooperating. Evidence has come out showing that the extent of the military and economic collaboration even though China is building military bases now in Central Asia. Nevertheless, Russia accepts China’s position in Central Asia and does not challenge it.
I mentioned Latin America and I mentioned Africa. We see that Russia is going to enter into Africa or has already begun actually to enter into Africa in a big way. It probably will not directly challenge the enormous Chinese influence in Africa and investments because the Russians will probably resort to selected niches or comparative advantage where they have a comparative advantage; energy, mining, arms sales, military advisers, political technologists, a Russian term which means campaign consultants to teach people how to fix elections so that they win and that the opposition does not get a chance, in other words make it an unfair election although it is seemingly a free and fair election. We see that happening now in Latin America as well as in Africa.
And of course, Russia is seeking military bases. China has a base at Djibouti. This could be a preface to new bases for China, but the Russian effort is already well known and public. And of course Russia has a comparative advantage in nuclear energy, where it might compete with China, but that would be a business competition, not a political-strategic one. So Africa now is a battleground as well.
As I said, this is an alliance that has – as all alliances do – a horse and a rider. Russia’s the horse, China’s the rider. Russia dependence is growing. They are offering more and more opportunities to Chinese trade and investment, mainly in energy, and this may surprise you: Russia is the biggest recipient of Chinese foreign aid in the last decade. You wouldn’t think that. It is hard to imagine a European country being a recipient of foreign aid from China, but there you have it. There is an enormous apparatus of intergovernmental, bilateral exchanges in all ministries, not just military, but 3,600 Chinese students have studied in Russian military academies.
Russia is the largest single supplier of arms to China. That is partly because of the Western boycott after Tiananmen Square, but it is also because they can sell arms to China. The Chinese have agreed not to pirate them as they once did. So far that agreement is holding, but one does not know what is going to happen in the future. Nevertheless, the Russians are selling some of the Crown Jewels, the S-400 for example, to China. And they have reversed the previous policy; they never sold to China anything they had not sold to India first because India is not a threat to Russia, and India and Russia have had sixty-five years of really good relations. Now China gets the good stuff before India does and the Indians are not happy to say the least about that.
There is also the great danger that Russia, which has to constantly prove to itself and everybody else that it is the great power that it imagines itself to be, much like the wicked queen in Snow White who gets up and says to the mirror, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” And if the mirror says China, it is a bad day for the mirror. Russia has to prove to China as well to itself that it is the great power it claims to be. It has to prove to China that it is to use the German word, worthy of an alliance, and that therefore it is capable of taking forceful, even risky action.
In other words, one of the reasons – there are many – why Russia is such aggressive player in world politics is because it has to demonstrate to those guys in Beijing that we are worthy of your support, we really are a great power, we know how to do this, we can take risks and get away with it, we can use force and get away with it. Nothing will happen. You will benefit, we will benefit, and of course, the Americans will suffer. If you think about this for a moment, this is an extraordinarily risky way of doing business because if you miscalculate the risk, you either get involved in a quagmire, and that could happen in the Middle East or elsewhere, it is possible, or you create a much greater conflagration, which gets out of control, not unlike World War I.
Nobody wanted World War I. A lot of people wanted a local war. The Austrians wanted a nice little war against the Serbs to show that Austria is still a great power. There were people in Germany who wanted to have a preventive war against Russia because they thought that Imperial Russia would overtake them soon. They did not want a continental-wide war but that is what they got, and as a result, the most recent history of the diplomacy leading to this is called The Sleepwalkers because they were walking in their sleep.
So the danger of miscalculation because of this alliance, whether it is in Asia, Europe, or a third place is extremely serious, and there is therefore an inherent inertia in this alliance towards a greater acceptance or toleration for risk both Russia and China. Add the danger for miscalculation which could leader either or both of them into a quagmire or a much greater conflagration, especially as they are both convinced not only that the United States is hostile, but that the United States is in irretrievable decline, and that therefore it is safer for them to take risks because there is little or nothing we can do about it.
Now, whether you agree with that diagnosis of the United States and the West, which the Russians and the Chinese both share, particularly after 2008, it is very clear I should think that it is extraordinarily dangerous and given the situation in this town right now and in many respects in Europe, they may have stumbled on to something. I think it is fair to say at the present moment, U.S. policy is strategically adrift. We can go into the causes for that, but if you look also at the U.S. military, it is not really fully figured to meet either of the challenges that China or Russia presents in Asia or Europe.
I will give you an example. I just attended a briefing. If there is a war in the Baltics, Russia attacks the Baltics, hypothetically, we would need – so it is estimated – eighty-six tankers to bring over not only the men and the weapons, but the fuel without which nothing moves. We have six tankers. Where are you going to get eighty tankers in a short time, especially given the nature of the international shipping economy today?
Many allies in Europe or in Asia for that matter are at odds with each other. South Korea and Japan for example. Brexit. The disunity in the European Union. The refusal of many European states to spend enough on defense to create a credible, conventional deterrent or they are discouraged from doing so because their democracies at home and their governments at home, not unlike ours, are polarized and the Russians are abetting that polarization.
As long as both China and Russia see that drift rather than mastery, they are going to continue to probe and mount ever greater challenges in the belief that they can get away with it, that their time is coming or has actually come. Therefore, much as I would like to tell you that things are going to get much better, that in the 2020s, everything is going to come up roses, at least for the next year, until the election in the United States, to use a Chinese proverb, there is going to be great chaos under heaven. Thank you.