Academic Webinar: China-Russia Relations

Wednesday, January 31, 2024
Sputnik Photo Agency/Reuters

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Maurice R. Greenberg Fellow for China Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Academic and Higher Education Webinars, Asia Program, and Europe Program

Thomas Graham, distinguished fellow at CFR, and Zongyuan Zoe Liu, Maurice R. Greenberg fellow for China studies at CFR, lead the conversation on China-Russia relations.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2024 CFR Academic Webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Thank you for joining us.

Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website if you would like to share the materials with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Thomas Graham and Zongyuan Zoe Liu with us to discuss China-Russia relations.

Tom Graham is a distinguished fellow at CFR. He is the cofounder of Yale University’s Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies program and sits on its faculty steering committee. He was special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff during which time he managed a White House-Kremlin strategic dialogue, and he was director for Russian affairs on the staff from 2002 to 2004. His most recent book Getting Russia Right was published by Polity Books in October 2023.

Zoe Liu is the Maurice R. Greenberg Fellow for China studies at CFR. Previously she served as an instructional assistant professor at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. Dr. Liu’s most recent book Sovereign Funds: How the Communist Party of China Finances Its Global Ambitions was published by Harvard University Press in June 2023.

So, Tom and Zoe, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought we would start with you, Tom, talking about Russia’s relationship with China and then we will go to Zoe for her perspective on China’s relationship with Russia. So over to you.

GRAHAM: Thank you very much, Irina, and it’s a real pleasure to be here with all of you today.

Let me start by saying that the Russia-China relationship began to improve in the very late 1980s, the late Soviet period, after a period of intense rivalry in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. It slowly continued to improve in the post-Soviet decades but it really accelerated in 2014 with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its fomenting of rebellion in the eastern regions of Ukraine at that time.

This led to a serious deterioration in relations with the West and Russia at that time began to turn more to China as a counterbalance, as another option in managing its relations on the global stage and, clearly, the relationship has taken off since 2022 with the Russian invasion of Ukraine which led to a total collapse in relations between Russia, Europe, and the United States.

And Russia needed China as that counterbalance, as that other great power on the global stage that will provide the type of backing that it needed to persist in its growing conflict with the West.

And what we’ve seen over the past two years is Russia increasingly relying on China for support in many areas, first on the diplomatic stage. Despite the fact that China abstained in many UN resolutions about the—condemning Russia for its aggression against Ukraine it still has in its public pronouncements supported Russia’s version of what has happened, NATO aggression as the fundamental factor leading to the conflict in Ukraine, and it’s also continued to coordinate with Russia at the UN Security Council and other international fora on a range of geopolitical economic issues that are important to the two countries.

Second, as Russia’s relationship and trade with the West began to collapse under the weight of Western sanctions the bilateral trade with China became critically important to Russia’s economy. Trade between the two countries has soared over the past three years. It now reached in 2023 the level of $240 billion. That is about—more than twice what it was in 2019.

It’s not only been the trade. China has also moved in to provide the types of consumer goods that the Western companies used to provide that they no longer could under the sanctions regime.

So if you travel to Russia today, particularly in Moscow, you’ll see a lot of Chinese cars that you didn’t see just a couple of years ago. Chinese smart phones have replaced iPhones as the smart phone of choice for Russians.

In addition, China also became a lifeline as far as the export of Russian oil was concerned. Russia now exports, roughly, half of its oil to China. It was significantly less before the conflict in Ukraine began. Of course, Russia provided that at discounted prices but nevertheless it was an important source of revenue for Russia that allowed it to continue to fund its military operations in Ukraine.

And, finally, there has been significant military support. China has not provided the—any lethal aid in any significant amounts as far as we are aware but has provided many dual-use items, things like trucks or excavators that were important for building the trenches that provided a very solid defensive line for Russia in Ukraine over the past couple of years.

And in addition there continued to be very close military cooperation, joint exercises, that demonstrated that Russia had an important ally on the global stage and also Russia continued to sell important sophisticated military equipment to China as a way of demonstrating the closeness of the strategic alignment.

And the final factor has been the relationship between Xi and Putin. These two leaders have met over forty times in the past decade but most importantly they’ve met face to face twice since the beginning of the conflict, once in Moscow and once in Beijing, again, underscoring the close political relationship and making the point from the Russians’ standpoint that the Western efforts to isolate Russia on the global stage have in fact failed.

Just very quickly, there are a number of factors beyond the Xi-Putin relationship that underlie this—and undergird this relationship. The economies are complementary. Russia provides natural resources. China provides manufactured goods. The two countries are brought together by a common resistance to what they see as a U.S. effort to dominate the global stage.

And, finally, the two countries do have authoritarian systems, and bureaucracies that are compatible, and make—(inaudible)—for a close working relationship between the two countries. So what we’ve seen is a growing strategic alignment and this has grown much deeper over the past couple of years.

All that said, it’s important to remember that there are significant frictions in the relationship that are concealed by this desire to push back against Western and particularly U.S. policies on the global stage. There are still historical grievances that date back to Russia’s seizure of Chinese territory in an unequal treaty in the eighteenth century.

There are strong nationalist and racist elements in the two countries, and then the final factor that I think creates a great deal of friction is the very asymmetric relationship between the two countries. China’s economy is ten times the size of Russia’s at this point. That gap is continuing to grow.

The relationship very much is tilted in China’s favor at this point. This is something that will be a factor over the long term and will lead, I think, to increasing friction in the relationship. But it’s not going to do that until both Russia and China have dealt with what they see as the U.S. challenge.

So let me leave it there, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Tom.

And, Zoe, let’s go to you now to give your perspective on China’s relationship with China and react to whatever—what Tom just shared with us.

LIU: Yeah. Sure. Thank you, Irina, for having me and it’s truly a great pleasure to be here, especially with Tom, to do this event with our local and university partners.

So I wanted to pick up a little bit on what Tom mentioned in terms of bilateral trade. China’s latest trade numbers just came out a few days ago and what has surprised me the most is that if you just plot numbers—plot the numbers in terms of who China is trading or has traded more over the last year and, of course, trade grew so fast, actually you will be—at least I am surprised that China’s—despite that the United States remains to be China’s largest trading partner but U.S.-China trade has declined the most where as China’s trading with Russia, as Tom correctly pointed out, reached a record high and grow the most significant.

So this is why I wanted to sort of focus my perspective on, yes, China and Russia but more on the China-Russia in the global context and I guess the way that I see China-Russia relationship has always been, yes, we do see increasingly over the past—over the past decade there is a strong argument to say that China and Russia’s interest have converged.

But I think this interest convergence should also be examined in the broader context of China’s changing relationship with the existing global system and this global system is also led by the United States.

So, in other words, I guess what I wanted to say is China-Russia’s relationship as well as the seemingly interest convergence today is qualitatively different from the 1950s, the Sino-Russia alliance, and as Tom also correctly pointed out the two countries in the relationship really significantly improved both bilaterally and multilaterally over the past three—two or three decades since Sino-Soviet split, especially after 2000s.

A few timelines or milestones just on top of my mind would be 2001. We are familiar that in December 2021 China joined the WTO but also in 2001 China and Russia signed the treaty of good neighbors and friendship and cooperation. And then 2001 was also when the Shanghai Five group was—received a significant upgrade into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has since evolved into the largest regional organization that does not include the United States.

So from that perspective I guess what I wanted to really emphasize or to emphasize is that China’s relationship improvement with Russia is all—has also been taking place in the broader context of China’s relationship improvement with the United States and the U.S.-led multipolar world up until perhaps the recent ten years since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013. And I—what Tom mentioned struck me and I wanted to emphasize was the shift of angle in terms of 2014 and I do think that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and in particular the West or U.K., European—several European countries threatening of kicking Russia and Russian financial institutions off the SWIFT system.

At that time, it was a big wakeup call not just for President Putin but also for the Chinese policymakers as well because global financial crisis was the first time when Chinese policymakers tried to implement renminbi internationalization. The whole idea was to—was more economically orientated.

The idea was to hedge currency risk. China was the largest trading partner of so many countries. And yet, whenever China was doing trade or a Chinese entity was doing trade, inevitably, because of the dominance of the U.S. dollar, there will be inherent economic and currency cost, right?

So—but Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the threatening of kicking Russia off SWIFT, from China’s perspective as well as Russia’s perspective the dominance of the U.S. dollar becomes some sort of nondiversifiable risk in the existing system.

Therefore, you started to see not just President Putin were interested in developing the Russian version of SWIFT but China actually accelerated the development of a renminbi-based financial infrastructure, although previously in the immediate aftermath of global financial crisis the motivation to develop a broader use of renminbi and the renminbi financial infrastructure was mostly to hedge or reduce China’s economic vulnerability.

But later you started to see the geoeconomic factor there and the convergence of China and Russia in terms of hedging the geoeconomic risk of the dollar’s dominance or for that matter USA hegemonic power really accelerated after 2018 during the Trump administration with the heightening of U.S.-China trade war. And, obviously, since Russia’s or Putin’s war against Ukraine now this time the West actually did sanction—not just put an oil cap on Russia’s energy export but also kick the Russian financial institutions off the SWIFT.

Now this recent development accelerated a lot of this development towards removing or reducing their dependence on the dollar, not just for economic purposes but also for geopolitical reasons, and China and Russia not only see eye to eye each other bilaterally—they have also been trying to expand regional blocs such as the BRICS, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, with the goal to basically form a(n) anti-American or anti-American dominance, not necessarily alliance but a partnership.

And at the same time China and Russia also see the opportunity at least in the energy transition and Russia’s relevance in continuing the support of energy demand not just in Russia but also a lot of these emerging market economies including India, including many parts of Southeast Asia and Latin America and Africa.

So from that perspective, China and Russia does—the interest convergence is not adjusted bilaterally. It’s also in the global and multilateral framework, and perhaps the moment when—what really worries me now is that it’s not necessarily, say, that at the people to people level there is a tremendous convergence between China and Russia because fundamentally I really do not think the Chinese people are at a people-to-people exchange level. Chinese people are interested in going to Russia.

I think I am a good example. I was born and raised in China, and I’ve become an American citizen, and my family always encouraged me and my generation to come to study in America rather than going to Russia, and now you see the same. You hear Chinese families complain that they no longer have or they have less and less opportunity to study in America. People never complained that they couldn’t go to Russia, right?

So the people-to-people level exchange is not something that worries me. What worries me is really about—is really at a strategic level, the perception in Beijing that America is doing all it can to contain China’s economic growth, this sort of push to China having less an alternative but have to depend—have this strategic alignment with Russia and I think this is not just economically or financial or militarily dangerous. Perhaps it’s even more dangerous in the long run such as challenging the U.S. dominance not just economically or militarily but also financially in the global financial system.

Now, the moment when China and Russia were able to expand this alternative economic and financial currency system to offer a hedge or even a refuge or a shelter to American sanctions I do worry that we are going to lose a lot of our leverage against regimes that are not considered as our friends or even our enemies.

I will just stop there.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic.

Now we are going to go to all of you for your questions. Please click the raise hand icon on your screen to ask a question. On an iPad or Tablet click the more button to access the raise hand and when you’re called upon accept the unmute prompt, state your name and affiliation followed by your question, and you can also submit a written question via the Q&A icon. You can vote for other questions you’d like to hear asked or answered from your window at any time and we will alternate.

So the first question—I need to see if we have raised hands yet. OK. We will go to Stefano Cavalleri. And if you could identify yourself, please.

Q: Good afternoon. My name is Stefano Cavalleri. I am attending executive master’s in international relations at CSIS/Syracuse University Maxwell College, and I’m going to prepare—my capstone project is about basically this shift proclaimed by Russia to the east or to the Indo-Pacific, which—a policy which was proclaimed after the annexation of Crimea.

So Professor Liu mentioned this convergence of interests; but at the same time I think we must recognize that Russia is a revisionist power in Europe but not in the Indo-Pacific, while China is a revisionist power in the Indo-Pacific but not in Europe. So I think that this creates a kind of—a lot of concerns about this strategic alignment, whether it is really possible or not.

So I want to know your view, both from Professor Graham and Professor Liu, about this policy of go to the—to the east, and if—my understanding is that the might of Russia could be useful in order to exploit the Arctic route from them reaching Vladivostok, and then from Vladivostok to—even to India because of the Chennai Maritime Corridor, and also to Japan or to Australia, especially for shipments of liquefied natural gas. This could be something to—interesting for Russia, but I don’t see for China. I see a lot of competition, especially in the South Sea China. So I want to know your views and if it makes sense really for Russia to become a kind of Pacific power, because Russia has never been a Pacific power, right? Not even air carriers. Just the submarines, right? So your view. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

GRAHAM: Who wants to go first on that, Irina? Should I take a stab at answering that—

FASKIANOS: Absolutely.

GRAHAM: Thank you, Stefano. That’s a very—it’s an important question but a very complex one, as you indicated in your commentary.

First, there were good reasons and good strategic and economic reasons why Russia began to look eastward. We all know that global economic growth was taking place in East Asia, the Asia Pacific region. It was a very dynamic part of the globe economically, technologically, and so forth.

And so Russia, which had been excessively reliant on Europe for trade and investment, needed to diversify and East Asia provided in an obvious way the way to do that. It accelerates, and President Putin announces this turn to the East in 2014-2015 because of the sharp deterioration in relations with the West as a consequence of Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

So it becomes, in a sense, a—not a forced option but a possible outlet for Russia in order to deal with the growing challenges it’s facing—it was facing in the West and that has undergirded the relationship over the past decade and will for several years into the future.

All that said, there are frictions in the relationship that will play out over time, some we’ve already talked about. I think the—one in particular that is concern in Russia is what I mentioned before, this great asymmetry in power between the two countries where you look at sort of economic development of the two countries, China clearly in the lead, and that gap between the size of the Russian economy and the Chinese economy will grow in the future.

Technologically China has probably surpassed Russia in its capabilities. If you look at Chinese activities in space, Chinese activities in artificial intelligence, it really dwarfs what Russia is doing at this point.

So there is some concern in Moscow about how this relationship with China will develop over time and if you talk to Russian experts, Russian officials, I think there’s an understanding that if not now but certainly if you look forward to the 2030s that Russia needs a hedge against China and what it’s trying to do is develop that hedge right now in Eurasia and the Global South.

The organizations that Zoe talked about—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS—are rightfully elements of, perhaps, an alternative international order from the standpoint of both Beijing and Moscow.

But from Moscow’s standpoint these are also efforts to constrain China within a network or a web of relationships that will allow Russia to feel more comfortable in containing whatever Chinese ambitions might be geopolitically, economically, particularly in the regions that are most—that are adjacent to Russia.

So very good relations at this point. There are good strategic reasons for that. From Moscow’s standpoint, as you look farther down the road Moscow is concerned about growing Chinese power and beginning to think about how it might hedge against that in 2030 and beyond.

FASKIANOS: Zoe, do you want to add to that?

LIU: Sure. I guess I’ll just add a little bit of a footnote to what Tom just mentioned.

One thing, Stefano, your excellent question raised and caught my eye was your correct identification of revisionist power in different contexts, and I think you are correct. And I also think it’s worth remembering that despite the convergence of interest in certain areas, as Tom mentioned, the fundamentally important fact is that China’s rapid economic rise, in particular becoming the second—from one of the poorest country in the world to the second-largest economy, China’s rapid rise did not benefit from a good relationship with Russia but because of China’s or America’s socialization of China, welcoming China into joining the U.S.-led global system, from WTO and so on and so forth. So from that perspective, despite that the—Russia and China under the leadership of Putin and Xi Jinping they have respective ultimate goals in terms of changing or revising the existing global order, but I have to say their levels of grumpiness against the existing system are very different and for different reasons. At least for China, the goal is not to completely abandon the existing U.S.-led system because China still need, very much so—especially now with the investment screening and export controls, China still very much need a good relationship or reduce the tension with the West in order to—for it to create a better environment for the Chinese economy, whereas for Russia the situation is completely different.

And I think that you correctly also identified areas where the Chinese and Russia would have a lot of competitions. But to what extent I think that the existing competition is all—I would view it through the lens of, again, changing global environment. Pre-Russian invasion of Ukraine perhaps there will be more international partners who are interested in investing in Russia like in—especially, for example, in Russia’s Far East area to develop the LNG project and so on and so forth.

But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a lot of Western partners as well as the Japanese and the Koreans they started to divest their asset ownership. So from this perspective I would echo what Tom mentioned. This unequal relationship in the changing global environment perhaps makes Russia economically and financially, perhaps, reliant on China more.

Now, the issue you raised with regard to the Arctic transit route and the relatively competitiveness in the global sea lane here I would say that, yes, it is right that China—although China is not necessarily a(n) Arctic power but it does have a seat in the Arctic Council.

Now, with the climate change and energy transition I think not just China and Russia find themselves relevant for the changing sea lanes. But you’re starting to see countries like Norway they wanted to be more active in this—in the so-called—in the governance of global commons.

So, perhaps, from that perspective whether China and Russia can compartmentalize areas where they have tensions versus where they think closer alignment would result in better benefit for them that it is an issue to what extent we can compartmentalize those issues.

But excellent question. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question, which is written from Robert Mogielnicki who’s an adjunct assistant professor from Georgetown University: Do you believe that the current state of China-Russia relations has significant implications for the Middle East? If so, where and how, and should we expect more cooperation, alignment of interests, more competition, or a healthy dose of both in this region?

Who wants to take that question?

LIU: I can take a first stab at it and then Tom can correct me.

So, Robert, thank you. I see where you are coming from, and thank you very much for joining us today.

I do see—I mean, you do research in this area, so, obviously, you have a view. But I do think that there is significant implications on at least the two aspects.

The first part is energy. Obviously, the—if I were Saudi Arabia, I would not be happy to see that the West, despite the oil price cap on Russian oil export, somehow sabotage Saudi Arabia’s oil export share in the Chinese economy. Even now Russia is the largest oil supplier to China, as Tom correctly pointed out. So from that perspective it has implications in the short run in terms of who could provide more shares for the Chinese economy or, for that matter, the overall energy—the overall energy supply to China and India. Remember, the price—despite the price—oil price cap for Russians’ oil export is China and India leading the way on purchasing Russia’s oil, right? So from—we can debate to what extent the price cap matters, but at least if I were Saudi Arabia I would not be happy.

And then, secondly, the financial implication is also very significant. Obviously, GCC countries in general, Saudi Arabia would be the undisputed leader there. The moment that America not only kicked Russia out of the SWIFT but also seized Russian reserves, guess who is more worried? Yes, China is worried, but Saudi Arabia is even more worried. So, from that perspective, the implications for the Middle East are tremendous. They would have to reevaluate with whom they wanted to be aligned more closely. Now, obviously, the tensions in the Gaza situation and the Red Sea pose renewed attention or even potential spillover the new—(inaudible)—or renewed—(inaudible)—between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

But with all that being said, perhaps we will see GCC countries to be more—making more strategic move. Perhaps they would—they would want to learn a few pages from India’s playbook, trying to balance the relationship between the East and the West. To what extent Saudi Arabia could be—adopt India’s sort of foreign policy position, that is unknown. That is relatively unknown because, ultimately, the United States still is the guardian of the Gulf. We still have a stronger military presence in the Middle East.

GRAHAM: Yeah. Robert, I think this is a very good question. As I look at the situation the question, I would ask is the extent to which Russian and Chinese interests overlap in the Middle East at this point, particularly in the context of the current—of the current conflict.

China continues to be concerned about the flows of energy exports out of the Middle East. That’s important for China’s own growth. It’s not entirely reliant on Russia nor does it want to be as far as its energy sources are concerned.

So they have to be concerned about the instability, some of the things that the Houthis are doing in that region, some of the Iranian goals in that region in a way that Russia doesn’t, in part because instability in the Middle East could have a positive impact on oil prices, which is an important component of the Russian federal budget.

So I think there’s a little friction there. That won’t necessarily play itself out dramatically in the near term but it’s something I think that people in Washington need to keep in mind.

The other issue here that’s worth considering is that both Russia and Iran are in some ways competitors for entry into the—or control of share in the Chinese energy market. There’s another place where Chinese and Russian interests don’t fully overlap in the Middle East.

So a sort of clever policy on the part of Washington would be aware of these differences and we tried to look this year at the ways that they can exploit that in the future. There are areas where our interests overlap with China in terms of stability. That is not necessarily an interest of Russia.

So there are things that the United States could do in its public and diplomatic posture that may introduce an element of friction in the relationship between Russia and China, which would clearly be good from the standpoint of our interests right now.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take a question from JY Zhou with a raised hand. And I did not pronounce your name correctly, so if you could correct me that would be great.

Q: Hi. My name is Chris Nomes. I’m a student here at James Madison University and I had a question on Russia and Chinese relations in the sense of Africa.

How much coordination and cooperation is there between the two nations when it comes to their operations in Africa in their—both their economic and military and political aspects? Thank you.

GRAHAM: Zoe might know more about this. I think this is a very good question, Chris, and one that we need to focus on.

My take on the question would be that there’s not a great deal of cooperation and coordination between the two countries when it comes to Africa.

China has clearly been much more active in Africa over—in recent years for, again, a whole host of reasons that are important for Chinese economic development, access to resources, farmland, and we can go through the list.

Russia’s interest in Africa has been of a different sort, more focused on providing security to certain regimes in Africa to gain access to certain resources. The point I would make here is it’s not clear to me the extent to which Russian activities in Africa have actually been a well thought through and coordinated activity coming out of the Kremlin.

We’ve heard a lot about the role of Wagner forces in Africa in recent years. I think it’s important to remember that the Wagner forces were a private military company, that they didn’t necessarily factor into all the decisions that the Kremlin has made.

In fact, the Wagner forces—its leader recently who has—as we know was killed last summer, Yevgeny Prigozhin—in fact had his own interest, and the way I see it working is not so much as acting under Kremlin direction as his developing interesting ideas for his own commercial purposes and then checking with the Kremlin to see whether those ran contrary to a Kremlin interest or not.

So the short point that I’m making here is I think Chinese have pursued a much more coordinated policy in developing their relations with Africa over the past several decades. The Russian policy has been a bit more chaotic involving private actors, government actors, and that the two countries have, largely, operated in different dimensions on the African continent and therefore I don’t see—maybe Zoe has better information than I do—any particular extensive coordination of the two countries’ activities in Africa and I don’t expect to see that going forward either.

LIU: I would agree with Tom in terms of the lack of concerted effort between—or cooperation between China and Russia in the context of Africa, although South Africa and recently Egypt have become members of the expanded—South Africa was members of the BRICS much earlier but then recently Egypt was also part of the expanded version of the BRICS.

You see China, Russia share this kind of platform with a lot of these African—with African economies through the context of BRICS dialogue, BRICS summit, and—but that’s—from my research I think that’s pretty much it and China and Russia also see Africa very differently.

As Thomas correctly pointed out, if you think about China’s early—China’s engagement with Africa actually it’s not just recent years or is not just through the lens of Belt and Road Initiative.

China started its economic engagement with Africa back in the 1950s. At that time China was one of—perhaps one of the poorest country in the world, and despite China’s economic backwardness the country under revolutionary leaders like Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, they started foreign aid to African countries.

They built railways like the Tanzania-Zambia railway and so on and so forth. So from that perspective China’s economic relationship or economic engagement with Africa it does not really start. The origin was not economical to begin with.

It is with the support of the majority of African countries mainland China or Beijing were able to gain the seat or replace Taiwan and gain the seat in the U.N. So from now fast forward it seems that a lot of the conversations has been, like, is China doing a new commercialism and a new mercantilism and things like that.

But, ultimately, China sees Africa not just from the lens of natural resources but there are broader geoeconomic and geostrategic plans behind that and a very important piece of China’s reengagement with Africa also resonates with China’s reckoning itself or the identity of a developing country because having the identity of a developing country, having that name tag, is very important for China in the existing global trading system such as getting the benefit of certain WTO preferential treatment, and so on and so forth.

So, again, whereas a lot of these concerns are less so clear for Russia, however, as Tom correctly pointed out,  the private security firms, the Wagner Group’s model is something that China and Chinese private security firms they are aware of.

But China can’t—the Chinese private security firms cannot afford to go on that route for political reasons. But then, obviously, economic—for political and economic reasons fundamentally I think the outside look like when China’s presence on the—at the upgrade of the Djibouti port into a military base was already very, very contentious.

So China in many ways cannot afford to go down the Wagner Group model but it’s not—that doesn’t mean that China is unaware of that kind of business model.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to a written question from Nicole Diaz: Thank you so much for your insights. I was wondering if you could explain how are China and Russia relations regarding disinformation campaigns in other regions of the world. Do they cooperate or do they act by their own to improve their international image?

And Nicole is a student at New York University.

GRAHAM: I’ll take a first stab at that and then Zoe will add and correct as necessary.

First, I think this is a very important issue, Nicole, and one that’s going to garner a lot of attention, particularly here in the United States as we move towards a presidential election in November of this year.

I would say there’s a fundamental difference between the way China conducts its information or disinformation campaigns abroad and the way Russia does.

China has been focused, largely, on presenting a positive image of China itself. Russia has been focused more on disruption and it tries to use disinformation—its disinformation campaigns in the United States not to present a pleasant or attractive image of Russia as much as it is to exacerbate tensions inside the United States.

So it looks for fault lines in the political system. It tries through its social media and other methods to widen that dysfunction in the United States. This is sort of in line with where Russia stands on a lot of issues and I think it’s a fundamental sort of difference in the way Russia approaches international affairs and the way China does at this point.

Zoe has already talked about sort of attitudes towards the current world order. Russia is, clearly, focused on disruption. It’s displeased with what it calls American hegemony. It’s trying to undermine that through all means possible in the belief that it has not benefited in any significant degree from the U.S.-led world order.

China, as Zoe pointed out, has drawn some benefits from this world system, doesn’t want to see it entirely overthrown, although they probably would like to rebalance it in a certain way that would be advantageous—more advantageous to China.

So think of Russia as a disrupter, China more as a revisionist in the sense of wanting to rebalance a system more in its favor but not out to destroy the system or to disrupt the system to the extent that Russia is interested in doing that.

LIU: I guess I just wanted to add one little thing to what Tom explained just now, which is the audience.

I think Tom is absolutely right in terms of Russia being disruptive, trying to sort of seek—create a wedge in terms of—create a wedge seeking the fault lines in our Western political system, especially in election year. Whereas I think the audience—the Chinese media or misinformation campaign is more focused—is more targeted at both the Chinese domestic people as well as the Chinese overseas diaspora.

On the one hand, they are focusing on—for the global audience they focus on telling the—using President Xi Jinping’s word is about telling the Chinese story and telling the Chinese story well, meaning they wanted to present a good and positive image about China, combating the global campaign about China is doing bad here and there. So that’s what they are trying to do there.

But then on the other hand China has been trying very hard to show that, well, while you know all these things about China let us tell you what are the bad things about the Western system especially for the domestic audience, and I constantly get emails and as well as messages on social media like WeChat and WhatsApp from my Chinese friends saying that the reasons one was—the border dispute, the refugee crisis in American border, and people are—on Chinese social media people were obsessed that there is going to be a civil war in America, going to sort of disrupt the entire world.

So, this kind of misinformation campaign, I think the audience is also very different and, obviously, the content is different.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to a raised hand from Wilson Wameyo who’s calling in from Poland, I believe. If you can identify yourself.

Q: Hello. Good evening. It’s evening here in Poland. I’m Wilson Wameyo. I’m studying for a master’s in international relations, international security, and development.

And my question to our guests is I want to know in all this relationship between Russia and China what is the place of Taiwan in all this? Can we also say that is a factor of China supporting Russia because it has the same problem in the issue of Taiwan? Because if you look at the two cases there are some kind of semblance in the situation. So what is the situation—what is the part of Taiwan in all this? Can you say something about this?

GRAHAM: I could start again, Irina, and Zoe knows—


GRAHAM: —the Chinese angle to this much better than I do. Can then sort of add or subtract as necessary.

Again, it’s a very good question, Wilson. The point I would make is that I see more differences between Ukraine and Taiwan than similarities. I mean, one of the reasons that China has abstained in U.N. votes concerning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is that it was a clear violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

This is something that China hasn’t supported historically. Taiwan is, from the standpoint of Beijing, an integral part of China and it certainly doesn’t want other countries separating Taiwan from China over the long haul.

So I think the way China thinks about these issues are quite different. From the Russian standpoint, it enjoys or needs China’s backing in order to maintain its position on the conflict in Ukraine.

All that said, I don’t think that Moscow believes that it has to come out a hundred percent in support of the Chinese position on Taiwan and I don’t think that China is necessarily expecting that in a conflict situation.

These two countries do have different interests—Russia more focused on Europe, China, obviously East Asia. But broader than that Russia would provide no more support to China in a Taiwanese scenario than China is providing Russia in the Ukraine scenario, and my guess is that it would actually in fact have less to offer.

That wouldn’t necessarily undermine the relationship. I think the two countries realize that they have different interests. The point that Moscow and Russian officials always admit about the relationship with China, it’s not an alliance. We’re not always together, but we’re never against one another. And that’s what they would—the position they would take on a Taiwan scenario. We’re not going to be against China but we’re not necessarily going to be fully supportive.

LIU: And I think from so many aspects Russia’s facilitation of the separatist movement in post-Soviet states as well as Russia’s earlier recommendation of Mongolia, which leads to the separation of Mongolia and the Chinese territory a lot of this really contradicts one of the fundamental tenets of Chinese foreign policy which is the inviolability of national sovereignty and that is something that China always emphasizes while—and that’s also a cornerstone piece of China’s policy towards Taiwan which, again, China considers as the core of the core interests of China, right?

So from that perspective, Beijing is finding itself a very hard—a very difficult situation with regard to Russia’s war against Ukraine and it so far has not called it as an invasion. But what is it?

So from—and Beijing also finds itself sort of sandwiched in between the West and Russia. But I do think that mainland China and Taiwan has—both sides have learned an important lesson from the—Russia’s war or Putin’s war against Ukraine.

On the mainland side I think at least Beijing felt that or have already expressed that they’re feeling the fear that external intervention is becoming a bigger threat managing the relationship with Taiwan.

We’ve seen Chinese policymakers talking about this in the National People’s Congress as well as the two sessions. They were talking since last year. The government report emphasized that we need to—rather than emphasizing a Taiwan local separatist power they emphasized international intervention.

And then, secondly, I think Beijing also recognized that—the need for self-sufficiency. A lot of the Taiwan contingency also propelled Beijing to realize if there were a Taiwan contingency Beijing at least needs to prepare the economy—the mainland economy to be able to endure severe Western sanctions, and if not at least making sanctioning China even more costly or at least equally costly for the sanctioners.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to a written question from Susan Knott, who’s studying at the University of Utah: Salesforce Commercial proclaims that data is the goal of the AI frontier. 60 Minutes highlighted how well China is positioned to become dominant in all sectors because of long-standing control of data and the use of AI and data management. Having taught several students from China, I admire China’s cultural wealth of a strong educational foundation for those who qualify for higher-ed opportunities. These two factors will quickly put China in the lead in many sectors. Where does Russia stand?

GRAHAM: Where does Russia stand in big data and AI? I think the short answer is far behind the United States and China at this point.

Russia devotes relatively little of its GDP to research and development. As a percentage of its GDP it’s probably one-half or less of what China or the United States devotes of GDP. That is about one-tenth the size of the American and the Chinese economy.

So that gives you a sense of sort of what Russia’s effort is in this realm. It doesn’t have the access to the big data that China does nor that the United States does so it will try to make some progress in this area.

The two global leaders here are going to be China and the United States, and Russia is going to be a distance—I wouldn’t even say third in this regard. There are probably other countries that are more advanced in this area than Russia will be.

LIU: I would agree with Tom but I also add at the same time there’s a limited space of cooperation between China and Russia. I remember—Tom, you can correct me if I’m wrong—I remember last year there was the China-Russia joint declaration in which the two again stated as they always do, saying that we are going to seek cooperation in advanced technology and so on and so forth.

And in addition to that there is also this China-Russia technology industrial cooperation fund which is financed by—and the fund is capitalized by Russia’s sovereign funds, which is now being sanctioned by the West, and China’s sovereign fund.

Then there is also additional Russia-China renminbi investment fund. So through this kind of joint ventures there might be a small pocket of money for the two countries to explore cooperations in big data and artificial intelligence.

But the limits is that given that both China and Russia are under—in terms of scientific development, in particular semiconductor and the chips and the quantum computing and artificial intelligence a lot of these are under severe U.S. export controls.

So from that perspective I think Russia probably is going to lag behind not just the United States but also China.

GRAHAM: Yeah. Let me just make one point here.

I think you always see this talk about cooperation. But AI gets to sort of fundamental elements of power in the current period and China, no matter what its relationship with Russia, is not going to give it access to the core secrets of its national power.

There’s not that type of trust between Russia and China nor is there that type of trust between—obviously, between China and the United States. So this is a very—this is an area of competition. Both the United States and China want to compete and they want to come out ahead in this competition. Nobody’s going to bring Russia along as a competitor.


Well, we’re at the end of our time and we have so many questions. But I thought I would just take the moderator prerogative to ask you the last one. Sorry we couldn’t get to all the questions.

We have a group here of students and professors, and I thought maybe you could just say just a short few words about going into government or academia and the value of doing so.

LIU: Tom is more equipped to say because he has so many hats. (Laughter.)

FASKIANOS: All right, Tom. Well, Zoe, you can too. But—

GRAHAM: Look, I mean, they’re two different areas. Each has their—each has their place. The point I would make I have served in government and I think there’s no greater honor than working in the service of your country.

And so I would urge people who are thinking about careers to seriously consider it. The pay is not as good as in the private sector but the issues that you get engaged in and the chance to do good and get involved in doing good not only for your country but farther afield cannot be compared in any place outside of government, as far as I am concerned.

So I have a preference for government but academia, obviously, has its value as well. Academics are truth seekers and we actually need a lot of truth. In government you try to manipulate the truth in order to create facts that are advantageous to your own country. So that’s the way I would divide the two professions, going forward.

FASKIANOS: And, Zoe, any words of inspiration from you?

LIU: Sure. I think both my parents and my mentors have told me that before I be a good scholar or anybody else, they have always emphasized that, Zoe, you want to be a good person.

I think being a good person is important. Either you serve for the government or work in academia. The idea is, you want to be a person that at least you are somebody who people would want to work with you. I think I benefit a lot by following the instructions given by my parents and my mentor.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful.

Sorry to put you both on the spot but it’s always good to hear that perspective for students who are thinking about what they’re going to pursue in their lifetime. So thank you for that and for this terrific hour.

Again, I’m sorry to all of you. We couldn’t get to the questions and comments but I commend Tom Graham and Zoe Liu’s books to you all. For the professors on this call, if you are so inclined to assign their books in your class they would be happy to do a Zoom with your students. So I will put that out there. If we’re—we get hundreds of requests I may have to walk that back, but I wanted to offer that here.

So, again, you can follow their work also on The next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, February 14, at 1:00 p.m. with Esther Brimmer, who is a senior fellow in global governance at CFR, talking about governing the global commons. And, again, I encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at Follow @CFR_Academic on X and visit,, and for research and analysis on global issues.

Again, thank you to both of you and to all of you for joining us.


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