The Return of the Quad: Will Russia and China Form Their Own Bloc?

President Biden’s recent virtual Quad summit with the prime ministers of India, Australia, and Japan on the surface focused on regional security, emerging technologies, and climate change. But beyond that, the Quad summit marked the official return and strong embrace of this coordinating mechanism among maritime democracies to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Initiated during the George W. Bush administration to discuss regional security issues, today the Quad has a greater purpose: addressing strategic competition with China. Although the Quad is not a formal alliance, its renewed purpose has been catalyzed by China’s growing regional assertiveness: the militarization of so-called reclamation islands across the South China Sea; economic coercion against Australia and other countries; coercive pressure on Japan in the East China Sea; and its brinksmanship in the Himalayas, which resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers. U.S. strategy toward the Indo-Pacific will continue to be shaped by this strategic competition, as will the United States’ robust alliances and partnerships in the region.

As we know from Newton’s Third Law, for every action—no matter how positive for U.S. interests—there is an opposite reaction. Sino-Russian strategic cooperation was rapidly expanding before the Quad Summit, but Moscow and Beijing have responded to this renewed momentum and solidarity among the Indo-Pacific maritime democracies with a flurry of military exercises and diplomacy of their own, including a new embrace of Iran as well as warm words for North Korea and the Myanmar junta. It appears that Beijing and Moscow’s affection for Iran and North Korea is at best branding them as disrupters rather than winning them powerful allies. The wisdom of these latter moves is debatable, particularly as China’s aggressive language and counter-sanctions against the European Union and the United Kingdom drives the world’s democracies toward the United States and the Quad.

Still, the United States and its allies would be making a mistake to assume that Newton’s Third Law will inevitably move the international system toward a stark division between two blocs, or that Moscow and Beijing will be aligned by mutual interests beyond a common perception that democratic norms and Western alliance structures pose existential threats to their regimes. Indeed, over the course of history, Chinese and Russian interests in Asia have more often been in conflict than alignment. Moreover, the combination of Russia’s proficiency in disruptive malign influence and Chinese economic and military weight will add new and unwanted complications to U.S. and allied military and diplomatic strategies.

It is for these reasons and the more imposing cha­llenge posed by China that Japan and India have long sought ways to temper Moscow’s gravitational pull toward Beijing, albeit with limited success. The United States, Australia, and other allies would do well to consider a similar tempering approach in the Indo-Pacific context with similar modest expectations. It can do so initially by identifying where Russian interests will inevitably separate from China’s at some point in the future. This is a more subtle strategy that does not attempt to forcefully drive a wedge between the two powers, as this would likely have the opposite intended effect.

U.S. strategy favors coordination with like-minded countries to shape a rules-based order. It combines this strategy with the need to strengthen deterrence in response to coercion as it explores opportunities for interaction with various states where interests overlap. This is a delicate balancing act that does not necessarily preclude diplomacy with China and Russia, but as regional tensions increase, it becomes more difficult.

Increased Sino-Russian defense cooperation, the recent foreign ministers meeting in response to the Quad, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s strong condemnation of the quadrilateral format signal the coordination of Russia-China policy positions and the strengthening of relations. Despite their historic animosity, for decades both countries have worked to demilitarize and restore relations, first proclaiming a “strategic partnership” in 1996. However, since 2014, when Russia’s relations with the West became openly hostile due to its illegal annexation of Crimea, use of chemical weapons, human rights violations, and interference in U.S. and European elections, reinforced by Western sanctions against Russia, the strategic logic of the partnership took on new urgency, particularly for Moscow. Beijing and Moscow negotiated long-suffering bilateral energy deals, and a boom in Russian agricultural exports pushed bilateral trade to new heights: China’s share of Russian trade nearly doubled from 10 percent in 2013 to over 18 percent in 2020 and is at an all-time high despite a drop in oil prices due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has only intensified Russia’s exposure to China. Chinese companies increasingly look like the favorites to build Russia’s 5G infrastructure.

Military and technological cooperation have followed. Late last year, Russian forces and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) conducted their second combined bomber patrol over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea after an initial patrol in July 2019. For the third year in a row in 2020, the PLA participated in Russia’s annual military district exercise Kavkaz, having participated in Tsentr and Vostok military exercises in previous years. Joint Sino-Russian naval exercises began in 2015 in the Mediterranean and have been conducted almost annually from as far afield as the Baltic Sea to China’s Yellow Sea Coast. This increase in the frequency and geographical scope of joint exercises has been complemented by Russia’s sale of arms to China, including Su-35 fighter jets, S-400 missile systems, and a missile attack early-warning system. Recently announced plans to build a joint lunar space station highlight the closeness of their relations and contrast with the heady days of U.S.-Russian relations, which paved the way for the International Space Station.  

Chinese officials have decried the Quad’s “Cold War mentality” for attempting to contain China and accused it of “stirring up confrontation among different groups and blocs to stoke geopolitical competition,” but Beijing is not the only power voicing its displeasure. In December, Minister Lavrov condemned the West’s “persistent, aggressive, and devious policy” of engaging India in “anti-China games.” Similar criticisms of the United States were delivered jointly by Minister Lavrov and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi at a recent bilateral summit in Beijing. Clearly, there is a beneficial element to shared political signaling. Ongoing U.S. sanctions against Russia over a range of human rights abuses and recent sanctions on China for its suppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang have aligned Moscow and Beijing’s interest in developing alternatives to a dollar-dominated global financial architecture to blunt the effects of the U.S. Treasury. In his recent visit to China, Minister Lavrov proclaimed the need for Russia and China to work together to “reduce sanctions risks by bolstering our technological independence” and “move away from international payment systems controlled by the West.”

“Russia’s goal will not be to engage the United States directly or contribute direct military support to China, but rather to extend the geographical scope of contestation in order to dilute U.S. power in the region and demonstrate its own value to China as a strategic partner.”

Moscow, however, is also motivated by practical considerations. As a Pacific power, it is concerned about the U.S. military buildup in the region. The United States’ sale of more than 100 fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters to Japan last summer prompted Russia to strengthen its air defense grouping in the Far Eastern islands, deploying S-400s and S-300V4s in addition to short-range anti-aircraft missile systems and extending Russia’s power projection capabilities. Reports that the Biden administration could seek to deploy ground-based intermediate range missiles in Japan were met a stern warning from Minister Lavrov that Russia would “retaliate.” Moscow views the U.S.-led Quad security arrangement the way it sees NATO—as an instrument of American hegemony veiled as multilateralism.

But Moscow’s response may also be a by-product of U.S. inattention to Russia as an equal global partner as Washington concentrates its geostrategic focus on the Indo-Pacific and describes Russia as “also a threat, but in decline.” This message is further reinforced in the Biden administration’s interim U.S. National Security Strategy, which emphasizes China almost to the exclusion of Russia. As the United States and its allies increase their military posture in the Indo-Pacific, Russia’s defense cooperation with Beijing will grow because China, more so than any other Asian power, enhances Russia’s standing globally, and in the Indo-Pacific region to a lesser extent. Moscow will subordinate its relations with other regional powers, such as India and Vietnam, to its strategic partnership with Beijing. Russia’s goal will not be to engage the United States directly or contribute direct military support to China, but rather to extend the geographical scope of contestation in order to dilute U.S. power in the region and demonstrate its own value to China as a strategic partner.

What can be done to avoid this strategic conundrum?

Though the Russian and Chinese economies are highly compatible—China requires energy, food and diverse shipping routes for its exports, which Russia provides in the form of oil, liquified natural gas, wheat, and the Arctic-based Northern Sea Route—their economic disparities are great, and their economic relations are negotiated on China’s terms, not Russia’s. Russian arms sales to China have increased, but China’s indigenous military technological capabilities are catching up to and in some areas, such as artificial intelligence, shipbuilding, and stealth aircraft, surpassing Russia’s. This carries security as well as business implications, since Russia will likely sell fewer weapons to China. Perhaps more worrisome to Russia is its long, sparsely populated border with China, which for Moscow remains a natural security concern.

Russia is fully aware of this asymmetry but can do little to counterbalance it other than to seek engagement with other Pacific powers such as India, Japan, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to enhance its own standing in the region and preserve room for maneuver. However, Moscow finds itself in a catch-22: the closer it positions itself with China, the further it will alienate itself from its historic relationship with Delhi in particular, as well as with Tokyo. This dilemma was a point of interest in recent Track 2 dialogues held by CSIS and a Russian and Japanese partner organization, but participants sensed little movement on Moscow’s end to resolve it. Further second track work between the United States, Russia, and India focused on ways of preserving regional optionality may be warranted.

Despite great tensions in their bilateral relationship, the United States and Russia could identify some narrow areas of compatible long-term visions for the Indo-Pacific region. Both aim to establish a multipolar regional order in which China is a driver of positive sum economic growth but not a regional hegemon. With troubling signs that China’s ultimate goal is unipolarity, Moscow may seek strategic rebalancing while continuing to view the Quad skeptically. Russia and China have no military obligations to each other, but a crisis in the region would put pressure on Russia to align with China rhetorically, thereby reducing the political space for Moscow to counterbalance its relations with other states. Preservation of Russia’s economic and security relationship with India may offer opportunity in an effort to avoid expediting Moscow’s military alignment with Beijing, which remains in the interest of the United States.

A tempering strategy with Russia should prioritize non-proliferation on the Asian peninsula. New technologies—precision strike, anti-satellite, missile defense—and an increase in the speed, precision, and stealth of these capabilities is contributing to instability in the region, amplified by recognized doctrinal ambiguity and a lack of transparency around dual-use systems. Should there be positive dynamics and progress in U.S.-Russia bilateral arms control related to warhead and missile transparency, there could be opportunities for both to encourage Beijing to associate itself with a normative process, even if China continues to reject calls for multilateral arms control negotiations. 

“Even in areas where Russia and the Quad diverge, Quad coordination can help maintain room for Russia to be an independent actor rather than more closely aligned with China in the region.”

The Quad and other U.S. allies and partners could also pursue a wider regional agenda that shares points of overlap with Russian interests beyond arms control, including open access to commercial passages through the South China Sea and unfettered access to export markets and fisheries. Russia’s own delayed pivot to Asia was driven in part by a desire to benefit economically from a fast-growing region. Uninterrupted trade and investment with all Asia-Pacific nations, particularly that which harvests resources found in the Russian Arctic, is of interest to Russia. The United States could engage with Russia more concretely on a sustainable economic development framework for the Bering Strait region and the Arctic Economic Council as well as periodic convening of the five Arctic coastal states to reinforce that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is the international legal framework for the Arctic and not a region of undetermined sovereignty as the Chinese government has at times suggested

A Quad mechanism that is informal, flexible, and allows for greater variable geometry for ad-hoc, “Quad-plus” arrangements with other non-aligned actors—for instance, Vietnam and Indonesia, with whom Russia has small but growing ties—may help keep options open for communication with Moscow. Even in areas where Russia and the Quad diverge, Quad coordination can help maintain room for Russia to be an independent actor rather than more closely aligned with China in the region. 

Russia’s role in the Indo-Pacific has diminished since the end of the Cold War but, as it has elsewhere globally, Moscow is attempting to reconstruct some of its former relationships and build new ones. While the Kremlin understands that an expedited alignment with Beijing in the Indo-Pacific will give it a needed, short-term global power boost, this alignment will come at a great cost to Moscow’s ability for regional policy independence and maneuverability. Russian diplomacy has traditionally supported all sides of a conflict in order to keep its policy options open. Working with the Quad and its members should be no different. 

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS and director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. Cyrus Newlin is associate fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Japan Chair.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.  

Heather A. Conley

Cyrus Newlin

Cyrus Newlin

Former Associate Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program