China and Russia are engaged in authoritarian attempts to subvert and change the rules of the international order, according to one expert. The attempt, they say, can only be thwarted by a united effort of the world’s democratic nations.
“China and Russia are authoritarian states that see themselves constrained, encircled, and threatened by the liberal democracies led by the United States,” said Aaron Friedberg, a visiting senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“They’re attempting, both separately and in concert, to change important aspects of the existing international order. They are revisionist powers. The challenge they pose is collective and requires a collective response.”
Friedberg made the comments during a Jan. 19 webinar hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank that seeks to promote cooperation between North American and European nations.
The comments come amid an increasing fear that Russia will invade Ukraine, as well as global anxiety over the Chinese regime’s unprecedented military expansion and potential plans for an invasion of Taiwan.
Friedberg and other experts present at the webinar discussed how Russia and China grew much closer following the former’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
After the annexation, Russia turned to China’s economy as a means of mitigating the impact of Western sanctions, while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sought to reduce its own vulnerabilities against the same.
The relationship is ultimately rooted in an effort to build resiliency against the mechanisms of the international system by insulating the Russian economy from sanctions while also providing Chinese markets with a supply line of food and energy resources that do not require access to sea lanes.
Friedberg said that, since 2014, China and Russia have engaged in a pattern of increasingly close cooperation, both overtly and covertly aligning themselves against the greater international order.
That growing closeness, he said, was driven by several factors, most notable among them a distrust of the values that underpin democratic societies.
“The deepest and perhaps the most important [of these factors], is a shared fear of, and animosity towards, what the Chinese now refer to as the so-called ‘universal values’ of the liberal democratic West, and the threat that these pose to the legitimacy of the Russian and Chinese regimes,” Friedberg said.
Friedberg explained that overt conflict between the Eurasian nations and the West was avoided in large part because both nations currently require access to resources in the West. Thus far, Russia’s alleged ambitions for the conquest of Ukraine and China’s for Taiwan have been stifled by a fear of losing that access.
“Both China and Russia still need access to Western markets, capital, and technology,” Friedberg said. “So, they’re walking a very thin line. They’re pushing hard, but they’re trying not to provoke the Western powers into cutting them off.”
Such a situation may not last forever, however, Friedberg warned.
If Eurasian markets grew further detached from the West, for instance, or if either regime ceased to have at least some fear of Western reprisal for their actions, the game would be over.
This is a problem because, according to Friedberg, China and Russia increasingly do not believe that liberal democratic nations are willing to suffer in order to punish authoritarian overreach.
“Authoritarian leaders have to become convinced that democratic societies, and the leaders of democratic societies, are willing to do things which not only impose costs on their opponents, but impose costs on their own societies,” Friedberg said.
“I’m afraid that they don’t believe that as much as I would like them to.”
To that end, Friedberg said that the increasing cooperation between the Chinese and Russian regimes was greater than many previously supposed, and that such an effort could only be countered through cooperation on a similar scale.
“We need collectively to have some broader conception of what we’re up against and how we need to respond to it,” Friedberg said.
“We’re up against this coordinated challenge from these big Eurasian authoritarian powers. They are pushing outwards and trying to expand their spheres of influence and modify the international order in various ways.”
The only riposte to this lunging authoritarianism, Friedberg said, was to form a global coalition of democracies, a ring from Europe to the Americas to the Indo-Pacific that could stand united against such adventurism and the aggressive remaking of the international rules-based order.
“Ultimately, the response to that is going to have to be a more integrated collected response from democratic societies in the western hemispheres, in western Europe, and in the Asia-Pacific,” Friedberg said.
Through this new coalition of the willing, Friedberg said, democratic societies would have a fighting chance at carrying out meaningful and collective military, diplomatic, and economic action, both to defend themselves and to slow the spread of authoritarianism worldwide.
“It’s going to have to be a ring of countries which will cooperate to varying degrees and in varying formats to defend their interests and defend their values,” Friedberg said.