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The Emerging Sino-Russian Alliance
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The Emerging Sino-Russian Alliance

How the 'great powers' are reconfiguring their partnerships for a new era. Plus, why it matters that al-Qaeda’s media chief was killed in Taliban country.

During a video conference last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said something significant. When asked if Russia would enter into a formal military alliance with China, Putin responded: “We don’t need it, but, theoretically, it’s quite possible to imagine it.”

That may not seem like a big deal, until you realize that the Russians have consistently avoided using the word “alliance” to describe their relationship with the Chinese. Instead, they’ve described their increasingly close ties as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” It may be the case that “alliance” implies certain military commitments that go beyond how the Kremlin and Beijing currently view their dealings. Or, they may want to leave some ambiguity, avoiding terms that crystallize the situation for policymakers around the globe.

Either way, there is little doubt that their “strategic partnership” has already led to an alliance, of sorts, between the Russian and Chinese militaries. Putin conceded as much during the conference call. “Without any doubt, our cooperation with China is bolstering the defense capability of China’s army,” Putin said, according to the Associated Press’s account of his remarks.

Indeed, as I noted in a previous edition of Vital Interests, the U.S. Department of Defense has found that the Sino-Russian partnership “entails a relatively high degree of military cooperation,” which “occurs in practical forms through exchanges of training, equipment, technology, high-level visits, and other coordination mechanisms.” The two countries have engaged in a number of joint exercises, with Russia supplying China various forms of weaponry and aircraft. Late last year, the Kremlin pledged “to assist China in developing their missile-attack early warning network,” while the two sides have agreed to cooperate as far afield as the Arctic.

Putin’s remarks came just two days after Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced two new major initiatives to combat the Russian-Chinese axis. Speaking at an event held by the Atlantic Council, Esper said DoD’s “Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships” (or GDAP) and “Defense Trade Modernization” programs were launched with a new era of “great power competition” in mind. America’s rival “great powers” being, of course, Russia and China.

“Today, our global constellation of allies and partners remain an enduring strength that our competitors and adversaries simply cannot match,” Esper said. “In fact, China and Russia probably have fewer than ten allies combined.”

Still, Esper warned, America’s “advantage is not preordained, nor can we take our longstanding network of relationships for granted.” He said that China and Russia “are rapidly modernizing their armed forces, and using their growing strength to ignore international law, violate the sovereignty of smaller states, and shift the balance of power in their favor.” Esper cited China’s expansion in the South China Sea, as well as Russia’s “attempted annexation of Crimea” and “incursion into eastern Ukraine,” as examples of the revisionist powers’ aggressive behavior. Esper also highlighted other ways in which China and Russia are trying to bring others under their sway, including Beijing’s “One Belt-One Road Initiative.” The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is “expanding its financial ties across Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, with the ulterior motive of gaining strategic influence, access to key resources, and military footholds around the world.”

The Pentagon’s GDAP initiative isn’t centered on any one partner nation. But Esper clearly had one country, more than others, in mind: India. Esper said that various efforts taken by the Trump administration are intended to “strengthen what may become one of the most consequential partnerships of the 21st century.” He cited various joint military exercises, as well as the “first ever U.S.-India defense cyber dialogue,” as evidence of expanding collaboration between the two countries.

One week after Esper’s remarks, both he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to New Delhi, where they announced a new military pact with India. As part of the agreement, the U.S. will share sensitive satellite imaging—intelligence that is intended, in part, to help the Indian military ward off China’s aggressive behavior along their joint border. This is one component of the “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership” between India and the U.S., which was heralded during President Trump’s visit to India in February.

So, just like Russia and China, the U.S. and India haven’t elevated their “partnership” to a formal “alliance.” But make no mistake about it. The U.S. is attempting to strengthen its alliances and partnerships to confront Russia and China’s scheming—and both sides are using similar language to describe their moves.

Russia and China spread anti-American disinformation.

Information warfare has become increasingly important in this era of so-called “great power competition.” And recent weeks have provided us with another example of disinformation. You’ll recall that in the early weeks of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, spread the claim that the virus may have been spread by the U.S. military. Well, Zhao was at it again in recent days.

Last week, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of the Russia’s security council, resurrected the claim that American bio-labs are engaged in suspicious behavior. “The United States not only builds bio-labs in these countries, but also tries to do so in other places across the world,” Medvedev said, referring to facilities in various post-Soviet republics. “However, its research lacks transparency and runs counter to the rules of the international community and international organizations.” Medvedev implied that Americans were working on bioweapons at these facilities.

Chinese state-run media sites quickly amplified Medvedev’s allegations. As did Zhao. During a press briefing on Oct. 21, Zhao claimed that some of these labs “are based” in locations that “have seen large-scale outbreaks of measles and other dangerous infectious diseases”—implying that the Americans had spread them either on purpose or by accident. Zhao insinuated that the U.S. is covering up its nefarious schemes and called upon America to “clarify its biological militarization activities overseas.”

Of course, these claims come at a time when many are questioning the CCP’s own role in allowing COVID-19 to spread. But these types of smear campaigns aren’t new. The Kremlin, in particular, has a long history of trafficking in such claims. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviets aggressively spread the lie that AIDS was engineered at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Today, China and Russia work to amplify such disinformation, showing that their “comprehensive strategic partnership” doesn’t just cover military affairs.

Al-Qaeda’s military chief was killed in Taliban country.

I’d like to wrap up this week’s newsletter by turning away from the “great power competition.” Earlier this month, Afghan security forces killed al-Qaeda’s media chief, Husam Abd-al-Ra’uf, during a raid in Ghazni province. Abd-al-Ra’uf was a veteran Egyptian jihadist whose career stretched back more than three decades. He was especially close to al-Qaeda’s global emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri. It’s remarkable to think that an al-Qaeda leader who joined the jihad in the 1980s was finally killed in Afghanistan more than 19 years into the war. While it is good that Abd-al-Ra’uf has been neutralized, his death isn’t really that much of a success story, if you think about.

I’ve tracked Abd-al-Ra’uf’s media output for years. He was the editor-in-chief of al-Qaeda’s Vanguards of Khorasan magazine, which was launched in 2005. In that publication, Abd-al-Ra’uf praised the 9/11 hijackings and the 7/7 bombings in London, while justifying mass casualty attacks on civilians. He appeared in al-Qaeda videos and wrote numerous other articles on behalf of the group as well. Eventually, he was chosen to lead As Sahab, the main propaganda arm that has produced messages from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. There’s much I could say about his career, as he was one of the most senior al-Qaeda leaders on the planet. But I’ll boil it down to two key points.

First, Abd-al-Ra’uf was killed in a Taliban-controlled village. As readers know, I’ve been critical of the State Department’s Feb. 29 withdrawal deal with the Taliban. In my view, that deal whitewashes the Taliban and endorses its supposed counterterrorism assurances. The language of the deal released to the public is ambiguous in several key respects and doesn’t include any verification or enforcement mechanisms. That’s a big problem given that the Taliban has lied about its relationship with al-Qaeda since the 1990s. Nevertheless, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the American people that the Taliban had promised to betray its long-standing allies in al-Qaeda and would even help the U.S. “destroy” al-Qaeda after all these years.

It’s been eight months since that deal was signed. There is no evidence of a betrayal. The Taliban hasn’t killed any senior or even junior-level al-Qaeda operatives. The Afghan government, which was locked out of the State Department’s bilateral negotiations with the Taliban leading up to the Feb. 29 accord, has continued to take the fight to al-Qaeda. As far as I can tell, the State Department hasn’t even complained about the Taliban’s obvious, continuing alliance with al-Qaeda—at least not in public.

It is not surprising that Abd-al-Ra’uf was hunted down in Taliban country. A team of experts working for the United Nations Security Council reported earlier this year that Abd-al-Ra’uf was among the senior al-Qaeda figures who attended a series of meetings with the Taliban to discuss the group’s dealings with the State Department. According to that same UN monitoring team, the Taliban reassured al-Qaeda that there would be no real break between the two, regardless of how the Feb. 29 deal in Doha reads.

The Taliban certainly knew Abd-al-Ra’uf well. In 2005 and 2006, Abd-al-Ra’uf penned a study purporting to show that America’s defeat in Afghanistan was only a matter of time. He praised the Taliban’s resilience and cohesion in that same study, which was serialized in Al-Sumud, the Taliban’s flagship monthly publication.

Second, readers of Vital Interests will recall that I previously critiqued an op-ed published by Christopher Miller, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, in the Washington Post on Sept. 10. I argued that Miller was clearly wrong to claim that Ayman al-Zawahiri was al-Qaeda’s “sole remaining ideological leader.” It was easy to point to other veteran leaders who are still in the game, including “Hossam Raouf.” That is an alternative spelling for Husam Abd-al-Ra’uf.

Well, NCTC’s Miller quickly confirmed that the Afghans had killed Abd-al-Ra’uf. Miller trumpeted his demise as a “a major setback” for the organization. Careful readers will spot the contradiction. Just last month, Miller implied that al-Qaeda figures such as Abd-al-Ra’uf were either unimportant or didn’t even exist. Only Zawahiri merited a namecheck in the pages of the Washington Post. Several weeks later, Miller heralded the death of another al-Qaeda leader—not Zawahiri—as one of the “strategic losses” suffered by the group. Simply put, he can’t have it both ways.

Abd-al-Ra’uf’s demise is undoubtedly significant. But there are plenty of al-Qaeda members and leaders left to take his place, which is why I wrote above that it isn’t that much of a success story. He had more than three decades to train and indoctrinate his subordinates. This was an elderly jihadist at the end of his career, not the beginning.

More importantly, the Taliban, al-Qaeda’s close ally, is possibly on the verge of retaking much of Afghanistan. That would be “strategic” for al-Qaeda—a strategic victory.

Photograph by Pang Xinglei/Xinhua/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.