Alternative Futures of the Sino-Russian relationship
By MAJ Sean T. Madden, MAJ Andrew Falkenstine, and MAJ James Gibbs
Alternative Futures Analysis
This article uses the Alternative Futures Analysis tool as a guide to discuss four plausible outcomes of continued Sino-Russian relations. The Alternative Futures Analysis is a red teaming exercise that assists in forecasting plausible futures and is taught at the 12-week Special Operations Campaign Artistry Program (SOCAP) at Fort Leavenworth. Four Ways of Seeing is another cognitive exercise that encourages looking at a complex problem from multiple perspectives, in this case how China and Russia view themselves and each other. Combined, these tools provide a powerful analysis of plausible futures stemming from continued Sino-Russian relations.
The power of this analysis is in the exploration of competing plausible outcomes without considering the likelihood of the outcomes occurring. This distinction allows for a wider aperture for creative outcomes and look at some of the extreme possibilities. These are just plausible outcomes that senior military and civilian leaders should keep in mind when making decisions that will impact the Sino-Russia relationship. There are four plausible paths the Sino-Russian relationship could take.
The most likely outcome is a continued partnership, in which each country helps the other when it benefits them. A formal alliance between China and Russia is also plausible and could hinder U.S. efforts in the region and throughout the world. The most preferred outcome is a return to the adversarial relationship between the two countries that we have seen throughout history. Finally, due to their proximity to each other and competing ideologies, as well as cultural differences and desires for the world to perceive them as leaders on the global stage, a deteriorated Sino-Russian relationship could lead to a war between the two countries. Figure 1 depicts the amount of cooperation between China and Russia on the X-axis and the amount of U.S./Global influence along the Y-axis. We will start with the most likely and work down to the most dangerous.
Plausible Outcomes Resulting from a Continued Sino-Russian Relationship (Alternate Futures Analysis)
With no change to U.S. policy or strategy involving China and Russia, an improved Sino-Russia partnership is the most likely future. A key driver of this developing partnership will be the Russian economy. Economic sanctions and exclusions from international economic summits have slowed the Russian GDP ($1.7 trillion; Kramer, 2020) making it 11th in the world in 2020. As Western countries continue to apply economic pressure via sanctions, Putin has looked to China for relief. This economic policy has put Russia further under China’s influence. The danger of this future lies in geography. If China and Russia continue to see the West (namely the U.S.) as the greater threat, they will likely set aside their friction points and continue to partner against the West when it directly benefits their agenda. America and its allies may eventually have to fight a two-front war against two nations, each fighting only a single front. There is direct evidence of this possible future with Russia amassing troops on the Ukrainian border and China threatening retaliation if the U.S. interferes with its efforts in Taiwan and the South China Sea. This increased partnership could lead to a less preferred outcome, a formal Sino-Russian alliance similar to NATO, where China and Russia pledge to assist each other if attacked. Such an alliance could draw in countries who oppose U.S. influence and could further embolden China and Russia to escalate military force to regain lost territory.
A formal Sino-Russian alliance could result in the U.S., and the West at large, losing global influence, and would be detrimental to relations with developing countries who may prefer Chinese and Russian authoritarian governing styles over democracy. A formal alliance could occur if China gains significant economic and political influence over Russia. This analysis determined the Sino-Russian alliance could form at the point Russia feels an alliance is necessary to ensure its survival if increased U.S. and European sanctions have the intended effect of weakening Russia. Instead of coming to the negotiating table, Putin may turn to Xi for support. This becomes even more dangerous than the current partnership because China would be able to directly leverage Russia’s political, economic, and military actions to amplify the Chinese agenda of supplanting U.S. hegemony by 2049 (Mingfu, 2015). The most preferred plausible future is China and Russia returning to an adversarial relationship.
It will require a strategic effort, involving a whole of U.S. government approach, to influence the Sino-Russian relationship to increase the amount of friction within the relationship. Though an adversarial relationship is the most preferred, it is also an unlikely future at this time. An effective way to achieve this is by decreasing the world’s dependence on China’s economy and Russia’s energy. Current trends are mixed, as more companies move their outsourcing production to cheaper Asian countries and Mexico (Rapoza,2020). However, Europe is still heavily dependent on Russian energy sources (Freedman, 2022). Companies need to be aware of the dangers of economic partnerships with China and need a viable alternative to cheap Chinese manufacturing (e.g., U.S. investment in automation technology). Companies like Nike and Apple will not take this on by themselves. It would require the U.S. Government taking purposeful steps to educate companies on when governmental agencies, at all levels, will not support corporations (risk to intellectual property and US governments not offering securities for safety and support). European countries need a reliable alternative to Russian energy. As countries reverse these trends, China and Russia will lose influence and they could become less willing to cooperate with each other, increasing the probability they would turn their attention back to each other. In addition to decoupling from China and Russia’s economy and energy, the U.S. should also put direct pressure on the relationship. Amplifying the areas of friction will be key to keep the relationship strained. Paul Stronski and Nicole Ng lay out the areas of frustration when they said: “China’s expanding commercial interests in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic are likely increasing the competitiveness between China and Russia” (Stronski, 2018). The reason this is the preferred outcome is both countries would become too isolated to escalate any conflicts into war since they would have to contend with the U.S. on one front and Europe on the other without assurances that their allies would come to their aid. Though a war between China and Russia is the least likely outcome, it is also the most dangerous due to the catastrophic influence it would have on the rest of the world.
Total Collapse of Relations
A Sino-Russia war comes to fruition as the international community fails to limit China’s growth. It is unlikely that events that play out will lead to war. However – given that by design the futures analysis tool widens the scope of possibilities – it is useful to talk about the possibility of war. As Xi consolidates his control over the southern and eastern portions of Asia, he may ultimately decide that Putin is too much of a liability to his plans and end the partnership. China could escalate the tension by turning its attention toward Russian-controlled territories (e.g., the Russian Tundra and the Arctic Circle (Ng, 2021). Feeling threatened, Russia could respond with its only real weapon against China, conventional force. This conflict would escalate into world war as China uses its economic and political power over Asian countries to pull them into the conflict. The West would then have to make a hard choice about siding with Russia in an effort to prevent China using this power to block the worlds access to Asia’s resources. If the West does not intervene, there is further risk that Russia will turn to its nuclear arsenal as a final defense, leaving the world in a state of disarray. This is a long string of what-ifs that can serve as indicators that the relationship is headed in the direction of war. The U.S. Government is currently not structured to properly influence the relationship to achieve a beneficial outcome.
Current Department of Defense and the Department of State organizational structure divide China and Russia into two separate commands and bureaus respectively. Doing so makes any effort to influence the Sino-Russian relationship a department-level conversation. To overcome this, both departments must rearrange how they divide the world so that either a single organization addresses both China and Russia or a cross-departmental organization that is responsible for influencing their relationship to benefit U.S. interests. Another critical factor that the U.S. must address is its dependency on Chinese manufacturing. The U.S. Government must make it a national priority to create an initiative to decouple current American companies from Chinese manufacturing by investing in automation technology at a national level. Along these lines, American diplomats should be working with countries that border China and Russia or are part of the Belt and Road Initiative, to offer developmental alternatives to China’s debt traps. Our final recommendation is to invest in programs that emphasize areas of conflict between China and Russia. Only through a synchronized strategic effort can the U.S. create and sustain a manageable divide between China and Russia.
Kramer, A. (2020). Pessimistic Outlook in Russia’s Slows Investment, and the Economy. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/18/business/russia-economic-growth.html.
Mingfu, L. (2015). The World is Too Important to be Left to America. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/china-dream-liu-mingfu-power/394748
Stronski, P. (2018). Cooperation and Competition: Russia and China in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and thde Arctic. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/02/28/cooperation-and-competition-russia-and