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How should the U.S. handle China and Russia's growing alliance?


Vladimir Putin made a grand appearance with the president of China, Xi Jinping, in Beijing in February. China has so far been largely silent about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Is there a new coalition forming? Hal Brands is professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thank you for being with us.

HAL BRANDS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You've argued that Russia and China are part of what you call a coalescing autocratic axis at the heart of Eurasia. That does not sound reassuring.

BRANDS: No, and it probably shouldn't. I think for a long time, Americans thought about Russia and China as two distinct challenges, and in many ways they are. But one of the things that we've seen before and during this crisis is that they increasingly act together, or at least in parallel, in important ways. And so the Chinese have certainly shrugged off any effort to get them to put pressure on Russia to end the war. But they have also given the appearance of support for Russia's war in many cases, though, the problem that we confront today is one in which our two greatest autocratic rivals increasingly work together.

SIMON: And is that the overriding mutual interest they have in policy at the moment, to be able to hold the United States responsible for everything?

BRANDS: They have two overriding mutual interests. The first is that both would be classified as countries that want to change the existing international system because they think it is unfairly slanted against them. It denies them spheres of influence, for instance, and they see the United States as the primary obstacle to that objective. The second mutual interest is more ideological. Both of these countries are increasingly personalistic (ph) autocracies in a world that is led by a democratic superpower. And so they would very much like to create an international system that is more protective of autocracies like their own.

SIMON: What do you think this suggests to the U.S. now as it confronts Russia's actions in Ukraine?

BRANDS: Well, there's long been a debate in the United States over whether we should prioritize competing with Russia or China or treat them as co-equals. And that debate has flared up again in the context of this war. I think what the war indicates, though, is that the best way of putting pressure on China, which is the more dangerous and the more powerful of the two rivals, is actually to ensure that Russia is defeated, that it does not achieve its objectives in this war, because that will result in a weaker Russia, one that is less capable of putting pressure on the United States and its allies in Europe and thus less useful as a strategic partner for Beijing.

SIMON: Whatever happened to the idea that forging close commercial ties with China would bring China closer to a democratic system?

BRANDS: We tried that for about 25 years, but I think we basically underestimated the tenacity and the ruthlessness of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP understood that the policy of economic engagement was ultimately meant to lead to the liberalization of the Chinese political system, and that, of course, was not what the CCP wanted. And so the Chinese Communist Party essentially used the wealth that China was able to accrue through its insertion in the international economy to buy off the Chinese populace to a certain degree, to invest in its own repressive capabilities, and to undertake one of the largest peacetime military buildups in the modern era.

SIMON: In your judgment, what's the best option for the United States now?

BRANDS: The United States simply can't avoid the reality that it has to contain both Russia and China simultaneously. And if the United States were to try to buy one or both of them off, it would simply weaken its own position. That's a tall order, but it's not impossible. If you add up the United States and its allies in Europe and its allies in the Indo-Pacific, they dramatically outstrip Russia and China together when it comes to military power, economic power, diplomatic power - you name it. And I think that there is also a prospect that putting pressure on Russia can, over the long term, lead to a fraying of the relationship with China. As Russia becomes more dependent on China as a result of this war, it will become less and less comfortable with that dependency. And so this won't make a huge difference over a two to three-year period, but over a 10-year period, perhaps.

SIMON: Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRANDS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.