Why the China – Russia Relationship Should Worry You


In 1937, Winston Churchill contrasted the “two rival religions” of Nazism and Communism then afflicting the world.  Those fascist and communist “infernal twins”, he wrote, “imagine themselves as exact opposites” but are, in fact “similar in all essentials”, breeding in reaction to each other.  Today’s ‘infernal twins’ – China and Russia – are ostensible great power rivals united by a common adversary.  On the face of it, these communist and post-communist authoritarian states are unlikely allies with often conflicting interests.  And they are in differing places strategically.  One sees itself as an expanding power assuming its rightful, dominant place in the global order.  The other is a revisionist state, seeking to restore strength and influence lost with the collapse of empire.  Yet, according to the US National Intelligence Council (NIC), China and Russia are “likely to remain strongly aligned as long as (Vladimir) Putin and XI (Jinping) remain in power.”  They have, the NIC judged, formed a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination”.  Putin and XI, as President Biden said in comparing the two, share a belief that “that an autocracy is the wave of the future and democracy can’t function” in a complex world.  What they are most united in is a belief that the American giant that has heretofore impeded their respective aspirations is now in a weakened state, plagued by political divides and societal rifts at home while projecting uncertain leadership abroad.  Like sharks that smell blood in the water, these allies of convenience sense opportunity in perceived American vulnerability.  Accordingly, Beijing and Moscow are subordinating potential points of friction between them such as competition for influence in Central Asia and resources in the Arctic to advance their common goals of confounding American policy and diminishing Washington’s role in the world.

Mark Kelton, Former Deputy Director for Counterintelligence, CIA

Mark Kelton is a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency executive who retired in 2015 with 34 years of experience in intelligence operations. Before retiring, he served as CIA’s Deputy Director for Counterintelligence.

In so doing, this diabolical twosome learns from, plays off, and works with each other.  Indications of this abound.  Russia’s effective use of hybrid warfare in its seizure of South Ossetia, Crimea and the Donbas region of Ukraine – as well as the ineffectual response of the West to those seizures of territory from sovereign nations – clearly resonated in Beijing.  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is applying those lessons in its ‘(re-)unification’ of Hong Kong with China proper in abrogation of treaty obligations in a manner akin to the 1936 reoccupation of the Rhineland.  The ongoing, step-by-step crushing of democracy in that former British colony having to date garnered little more than pro forma condemnation from the US and its allies, we can expect that Beijing will consider a similar approach in dealing with Taiwan.  While Moscow has long sought to contest American power and influence worldwide, its ability to do so in the post-Soviet era has necessarily been much more episodic if only because it has lacked the means to do so.  Exceptions to this such as the small, albeit effective, Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war, underscore the limitations of Moscow’s ability to project power.  Consequently, the PRC has now taken the lead in challenging the US globally.  The most obvious manifestation of this is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which, coupled with the so-called “Digital Silk Road” and the “Made in China 2025” programs, is the public face of Beijing’s effort to supplant the US as the world’s dominant power.

In many instances, such as the provision of support to Venezuela, China and Russia are working in parallel if not in tandem.  Another example of this is China’s conclusion of a 25-year economic cooperation agreement with the ‘mullahocracy’ in Iran.  Moscow and Beijing have long sought to get Iran out from under US-sponsored sanctions, evoking concerns about a new anti-democratic Tripartite Pact intended – as was the 1940 original – “to establish a new order of things.”  Implementation of the China-Iran Pact, which stresses “numerous areas of joint cooperation such as energy, infrastructure, industry and technology”, may not always go smoothly.  As they have demonstrated with the BRI, the Chinese Communists have a way of wearing on their partners.  And Iranians are, no doubt (and rightly), bitter over the devastating impact of a COVID virus imported from the PRC.  But the agreement serves the anti-American ends of both countries.  Beijing’s deal with Tehran increases its influence over a key regional power, making Tehran a ready customer for Chinese arms sales while granting the PRC a steady source of oil.  The pact also greatly complicates any attempt by the US and its allies to isolate Iran in response to its nuclear program.  It is hard to envision the US Navy stopping Chinese-flagged tankers or ships transporting weaponry that transit the Straits of Hormuz under any foreseeable regime of sanctions directed against Tehran.  Finally, the deal with Iran strengthens Chinese sway over yet another rogue regime that – in addition to North Korea – can be influenced or pressured by Beijing to act to its benefit in distracting or belaboring the US.  While it remains to be seen how closely China and Russia can work together with the Tehran regime, such an arrangement would portend nothing good for US friends and allies in the region and engender inevitable questions regarding the resiliency of the American commitment to them.

China also seems to have learned from Russia’s effective use of information operations against the West, and the US in particular.  The chaos unleashed in American politics by the relatively small-scale active measures campaign mounted by Russian intelligence in seeking to influence the 2016 Presidential election – an operation that shook Americans’ faith in their democratic system and institutions by engendering a still widely held, albeit long-since discredited, belief in purported collusion between that election’s victor and the Kremlin – was something its authors could never have anticipated.  Having benefitted from such operations, Putin recently made public Russia’s long-held goal of dominating the “information space”.  To that end, Moscow seeks to undermine the Western-led international system that currently governs the internet by putting in place treaties, regulations and compliant oversight officials that will ensure Russia’s ability to continue to exploit the internet both as a means of undertaking active measures operations against its adversaries and to control information flowing to, and between, the Russian people.  China’s aspirations in the information warfare realm are similarly grandiose.  In 2013, Xi said that China should view the Internet itself as a  “new focal point of its national strategic contest” with the US with the goal of exercising “discourse power” over global communications.  Xi has been as good as his word, with his intelligence services and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) United Front Works Department mounting an ongoing disinformation and influence campaign that FBI Director Christopher Wray has described as “a whole-of-state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means.”

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Xi and Putin may or may not believe the US is in terminal decline.  But they clearly assess that it is in a weakened state, beset by racial division and domestic turmoil.  It is apparent they sense opportunity in that weakness and are doing all they can through their overt and covert messaging to fuel it.  This is not the first attempt by America’s adversaries to exploit racial tensions in the US.  In the 1960’s, the KGB’s Service A (Active Measures) was charged with undertaking a “series of active measures designed to discredit US policy on the ‘negro issue’.”  Those measures included “the publication and distribution of pamphlets, leaflets and appeals denouncing the policy of the Johnson administration” and condemning “the brutal terrorist methods” being used by the government against the civil rights movement; arranging for “leading figures in the legal world to make public statements discrediting the Administration” on those issues; and clandestinely “forging and distributing” a document showing that the John Birch Society, in conjunction with the (right-wing) Minuteman organization, were planning “the physical elimination of leading figures of the Negro movement in the US.”  That covert campaign to stoke racial divisions in the US continued through the 1965 Watts riots and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King to the end of the Cold War.

In keeping with that earlier active measures operation, the current information warfare efforts of both countries seek to echo themes already current in American society so as to maximize the effectiveness of those campaigns.  What is different now is the immediacy – as well as the degree of sophistication and synchronization – with which this malign twosome can direct coordinated messages against us.  What Xi and Putin, as well as officials working for each of them, are saying in public about the domestic situation in the US mirrors the clandestine messaging of their intelligence services.  That messaging has taken on a growing tone of contempt. “Everything Washington talks about,” the CCP-controlled Global Times has mockingly observed, “is centered on the US, and on White Supremacy.”  Statements by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov during their meeting immediately following Wang‘s March 2021 Anchorage, Alaska confrontation with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken criticizing “Western attempts to promote its concept of a rules-based international order” and “illegal unilateral sanctions”; and again during sharp exchanges between the three at the United Nations (UN) in April; could have been written by the same speechwriter (and may well have been).   While Russian intelligence officers are by now old hands at playing on American political and racial rifts by spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories, PRC officials have readily taken to social media to draw attention to, and mischaracterize, confrontations between ethnic minorities and law enforcement in the US.

We have long since come to expect such things from the self-styled “wolf diplomats” of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.  But unvarnished lies such as Xi’s assertion that the “Chinese people have opened up a good and beautiful home where all ethnic groups live in harmony and fostered an excellent culture that never fades” coming from the man responsible for arresting pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and imprisoning a million Uighurs in concentration camps are galling.  More maddening still is the fact that our adversaries often use “woke” terminology in their attacks on us, mirroring some of the same language used by domestic protest groups that have labeled the US “systemically racist.”  “Equity” in the conduct of international relations has become a Russian and PRC propaganda theme.  “What we need in today’s world”, Xi disingenuously claimed in a recent speech, “is justice, not hegemony.” As was the case in Soviet times, it is unclear that this push by Beijing and Moscow to further stoke racial division will have any determinative impact on US societal and political cohesion.  It is, nonetheless, apparent that such Russian and Chinese messaging will continue so long as they see benefit in it and find a receptive audience for it.

Another area of commonality between Beijing and Moscow is their cynical exploitation of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Both began invoking the COVID virus as an information warfare theme immediately after the virus appeared outside China, seeking to exacerbate the deleterious impact on their adversaries of a disease that has already strained societies and economies world-wide.  PRC officials sought to deflect Chinese responsibility as the source of the disease – unabashedly claiming that it was introduced into China from the US and even asserting the virus was an American bioweapon. Not to be left behind, Russian intelligence has made a concerted push to undermine confidence in US and other western-origin vaccines. At the same time, both Moscow and Beijing are using the proffer of vaccines of questionable effectiveness as part of their so-called “vaccine diplomacy” to advance their interests in countries desperate for help in battling COVID.  In the World Health Organization (WHO), Russia and China are working together to counter demands for the organization’s reform and calls for the WHO to issue a report on the origins of COVID-19. As well they might in that more questions are being asked – Chinese denials notwithstanding – about whether the virus did, in fact, come out of the Wuhan lab. If that does prove to be the case, one must ask to what degree Xi and his regime are culpable in the deaths of millions due to their failure to act in a timely manner to contain the spread of the virus beyond China’s borders.  Was the PRC’s failure to do so due to the gross incompetence inherent in communist-run states or did it result from a callous, calculated decision not to alert the rest of the world based on the premise that if China must suffer from the disease, so should its rivals?  The blood-drenched history of the CCP and the cynical manner in which Beijing has sought to exploit the impact of the disease to advance its own interests – evident in Xi’s own January 2020 speech wherein he portrayed the global chaos engendered by COVID as an opportunity for China – make either possibility plausible.

The two autocrats have also emulated each other in invoking the power of the state to suppress any political disagreement with their rule.  Both have promulgated “foreign agent” laws – Putin in 2012 and Xi in 2015 – under which non-governmental organizations, media companies or journalists receiving assistance from abroad or engaging in activities the state deems too political are subject to restrictions on their activity and to legal sanction. This repression of anything smacking of opposition has played out most brutally, as it always does, at a personal level.  Putin’s arrest and jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny – after having poisoned him – has been matched by Xi’s imprisonment of such prominent Hong Kong democracy figures as Jimmy Lai.  As such, the Chinese and Russian leaders again have much in common in that the thing they fear most is that which they are most ruthless in trying to prevent: the spread the bacillus of democracy.  Their mutual concern for regime stability also underscores the imperative from the two leaders’ perspectives that the current opportunity to undermine the Western democratic system, and particularly its American variant, must be seized upon lest its ideals come to threaten their rule.

Finally, China and Russia have learned from each other in the espionage arena.  The relatively narrowly focused Soviet-era intelligence collection against economic and technical targets by KGB officers such as Colonel Vladimir Vetrov (aka “FAREWELL) and his “Line X” comrades pales in comparison to Beijing’s massive theft of American technology, industrial secrets and intellectual property.  For Moscow and Beijing, cyber espionage has become the equivalent of a broadsword to be wielded against their enemies.  Both also remain more than willing to use the rapier of human intelligence, to fill gaps in their knowledge of, or to enable their cyber operations against, an adversary.  Further, as demonstrated by the detention of two Canadian citizens in response to Ottawa’s arrest – at US request – of the daughter of Huawei’s founder and the company’s Chief Operating Officer, China has followed Moscow’s long-standing practice of detaining innocents in answer to the arrest of its own citizens involved illicit activities, especially spying.  The onboarding of such lessons-learned has been facilitated by the increasingly close coordination between the intelligence services of the two countries.  We can expect to see more of the same in response to the prosecutions of Chinese ‘military-affiliated’ scholars for the theft of American defense-related research material or should the Huawei princess be extradited to the US.

Both Beijing and Moscow seem to have come to the realization that there is little the West can do using traditional means to dissuade them from their espionage activities.  It is now apparent that declaring intelligence officers persona non-grata, issuing arrest warrants for those involved in espionage and imposing sanctions against governments or persons responsible for those operations appreciably alter neither Russian nor Chinese behavior.  There is, therefore, no easy or formulaic riposte to the espionage threats this duo pose.  We can, and should, step up our counterintelligence programs; intensify efforts to clandestinely penetrate their intelligence and decision-making circles; and harden our cyber defenses (to include increased information sharing on threats between government and industry).  We should not, however, expect that such steps alone will deter this pair’s spying.  This is particularly true of Chinese espionage given the impunity with which the PRC is waging economic war against us.  Yet, we must to do all we can to protect American industrial know-how and supply chains from Beijing’s depredations.  To that end, we need to consider more aggressive use of sanctions against our real Chinese adversary – the CCP, its officials and organizations – as well as other PRC institutions and companies directing, facilitating, or benefiting competitively from such spying.  And we should do so even at the risk of PRC retaliation against US companies and officials.  Some will argue that this will hasten the economic decoupling of the US from China.  So be it.  The policy of engagement as a means of altering Beijing’s behavior has long since been proven a chimera.  And with Xi himself arguing against decoupling, it is probably wise to try to do just that where feasible in order to protect our crucial industries and supply chains.

Mark Kelton is a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency executive who retired in 2015 with 34 years of experience in intelligence operations. Before retiring, he served as CIA’s Deputy Director for Counterintelligence.  He is a partner at the FiveEyes Group and is Board Chair of Spookstock, a charity that benefits the CIA Memorial Foundation, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the Defense Intelligence Memorial Foundation.

Read Part Two of Cipher Brief Expert and former CIA Deputy Director of Counterintelligence Mark Kelton’s  in tomorrow’s Cipher Brief

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