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While the world is closely zeroing in on Russia and a potential invasion of Ukraine, the Pentagon is making sure to keep a close eye on China as well.
Chinese threats might easily be obscured by the current unfolding dynamic in Eastern Europe, however Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is quite concerned about what he called China’s “tacit” approval of Putin’s activities in the region.
“We did note, with alarm, China's tactic approval of Putin’s activities here in .. in the region,” Austin said.
Austin made this remark in the context of citing what he called an “alliance” between Russia and China but emphasized that he could not “speak to” how strong it is.”
Without raising too much alarm or suggesting China might in some aspect be willing to intervene in a conflict to support Russia, Austin said the Russia-China relationship is something “that we’ll continue to watch going forward.”
There have been some meetings, talks and even military to military visitations and collaborative exercises, however Russia and China’s interests do not fully align in a large number of ways, per say, apart from simply sharing an adversarial rivalry with the US.
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Apart from that, China’s primary interest, at least at the moment, looks Eastward off its shores toward Taiwan, and Russia’s near-term focus appears to face Westward toward Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
The two countries share a long border region, yet Russia seems less consumed by China’s tensions with India. At one point, India owned older Russian S-300 air defenses. China shares a border with India and is close to Japan and South Korea, whereas Russia’s border, by contrast extends from the Baltic Sea to the West down the Black Sea in the South.
There may be one possibility not too far-fetched to imagine in terms of potential Russian-Chinese dialogue. They are both authoritarian regimes with a shared hostility toward the US and countries with clear territorial and expansive ambitions. Perhaps China will agree to stay silent, neutral or even supportive of a Russian attack on Ukraine, should Russia in like fashion agree to endorse or offer quiet approval to a Chinese annexation of Taiwan.
Given that they each have “great power” status, such an approach or stance on the other’s potential annexations, invasions or military efforts to change the status quo, could prove to be extremely impactful.
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Where might their interests collide? There does not seem to be that many points of contention or areas of conflict between the two. Russia is unlikely to challenge the US and China in the Pacific, given its small, inferior Navy.
Both countries, however, likely share a desire to expand influence and strategic advantages on the African continent and part of the Middle East. Perhaps they will collaborate on areas of economic influence and military presence in part of Africa? There are certainly many unknowns, yet what is apparent is that neither Russia or China voices any public competitiveness, tension or disagreement with the other.
By contrast, the two are publicly demonstrating some measure of allied cooperation, however it would be surprising if this cooperation would in any way lead China to any kind of military intervention in support of Russia in a conflict.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.