China-Russia Alignment: A Threat to Europe’s Security

June 26, 2024
Gunnar Wiegand
Natalie Sabanadze
Abigaël Vasselier
3 min read
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In May, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin chose Beijing for the first foreign visit after his re-inauguration. The meeting was Putin’s forty-third with China’s President Xi Jinping, who told his “best friend” that China would continue to provide an economic lifeline, political support and equipment needed for Russia to win in Ukraine.

Russia and China continue to deepen their partnership, mounting a common challenge to the West. They can advance their strategic objectives better together, undermining perceived Western domination of the global order and impacting Europe’s future security. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has de facto upended the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe and is a direct, existential threat to European security. Beijing plays an important role for Russia’s war efforts, regardless of China’s status as Europe’s largest trading partner or its desire to hedge on Europe to win its geostrategic competition with the United States. Beijing has been propping up Russia’s war efforts by proliferating its war narrative, increasing bilateral trade, providing significant non-lethal support and reducing Moscow’s international isolation. China’s support has encouraged much of the Global South to refuse to condemn or sanction Russia. Beijing’s effective support for Moscow has undermined the impact of the West’s sanctions policy. So far, China has done this at virtually no cost but there are indications that this may be changing. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a clear warning in Beijing on 24 April that the United States and its European allies were no longer willing to tolerate China’s sales of critical components and dual-use goods that “Moscow is using to ramp up its defence industrial base”.

Similarly, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated on 6 May, after meeting President Xi in Paris alongside France’s President Emmanuel Macron: “More effort is needed to curtail delivery of dual-use goods to Russia that find their way to the battlefield. And given the existential nature of the threats stemming from this war for both Ukraine and Europe, this does affect EU-China relations”.

Europe and the United States have begun taking a stronger stance, though so far it does not seem enough to deter Beijing from supporting Russia. Russia’s war in Ukraine has elevated the Russo-Chinese alignment from a mere challenge to be managed into a security threat that must be contained by the transatlantic partners together. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has solidified consensus in the EU that Russia is Europe’s major and most urgent security threat, whereas views differ in Washington as illustrated by the delay in the approval of the security assistance package for Ukraine in the US Congress. There, China is seen as the most important long-term threat while Russia’s challenge to its security is less direct. However, the EU still officially regards China as “a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival”, a description adopted in the Commission’s 2019 strategic outlook and confirmed again by the European Council in June 2023. This categorization needs to be completed with a fourth category, one that labels China also as a security threat to Europe.

Europe needs to present Beijing with a starker choice: either it continues helping Russia and faces consequences, or it begins curbing support for Russia’s war efforts and continues to enjoy close trade links with its key economic partners. The transatlantic partners need to better understand the nature of Russo-Chinese alignment to find a common approach to this security challenge.

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This report first appeared on MERICS