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China, Russia, Iran, North Korea: the new autocrat pact?

Chess from flags of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Relations between Russia and China and military cooperation

Image Source : Shutterstock

by Radu Vranceanu , Marc Guyot

First Published in: Apr.29,2024

Jun.10, 2024

It has to be said that the "liberal democratic" model, combining political democracy and a market economy, has struggled to gain traction on a global scale. Instead, in some countries, a hybrid type of regime, which could be defined as "autocratic liberal", has imposed itself over time. This model is based on leadership with little or no democracy, which nonetheless relies on a mix of dirigisme and a market economy to ensure economic growth.

The "CRINK" or the alliance of authoritarian powers

In contrast to liberal democracies, authoritarian regimes prioritize economic growth as an end in itself. For instance, in China, growth targets are often set by the authorities, with society expected to adapt regardless of the sacrifices involved. The leaders' priority is supremacy in civil and military technologies and control of resources. In such a framework, improving people's standard of living is merely a collateral benefit, subordinate to the primary objective and dispensable as deemed necessary. While respect for human rights is a fundamental pillar of liberal democracies, it is neither a priority nor a constraint for the leaders of these authoritarian nations. In general, their leaders are openly opposed to "Western hegemony". Many leaders of emerging countries show their sympathy for these authoritarian countries; at the very least, they trade with them without any problem. On the military and defence front, the liberal democracies of Europe and North America are grouped around NATO. The United States, as the leader of this organization, has consistently allocated more than 3.4% of its GDP to military spending for many years and boasts substantial armed forces, exemplified by its operation of eleven aircraft carriers as of 2023. Until a few months ago, in Western countries, the invasion of Ukraine was seen more as an isolated Russian action, blamed on Vladimir Putin's hubris. The possibility of coordination between autocrats was not envisaged. However, this perspective is rapidly evolving. In a report to the Senate in April 2024, General Chris Cavoli, Commander of the US Armed Forces in Europe, highlighted the emergence of an "axis of adversaries", which includes China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. On 6 April, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC in an interview that China, Russia, Iran and North Korea were increasingly cooperating against Western democracies and were now forming an "alliance of authoritarian powers". We propose to use the acronym CRINK to denote this informal coalition sharing common economic and strategic interests. Beneath the surface of various incidents, there appears to be tangible coordination among the CRINK countries.

Beyond coincidences

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has deployed a significant portion of its armed forces to advance into Ukrainian territory, marking the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War and resulting in numerous military and civilian casualties. Ukraine has recently reported the loss of 31,000 servicemen since the conflict's onset, a figure that may be underestimated, while Russian losses are believed to be even higher. Despite these casualties, Russia continues to maintain the intensity of its war effort. To date, the Russian army in Ukraine estimated to consist of around 470,000 personnel, representing a 15% increase since the invasion began. Meanwhile, China has escalated the frequency of its military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait and increased surveillance activities in the region. The simultaneous occurrence of Russian expansionism toward the West and China's heightened communication efforts regarding Taiwan does not appear to be coincidental. This hypothesis gains credence from the numerous summit meetings between the leaders of both nations in 2023, as well as their resounding declarations of unwavering friendship, particularly evident when they announced their "comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era" on November 11. On April 12th, the United States publicly disclosed classified documents revealing that Beijing was supplying Russia with engines for drones and cruise missiles, in addition to military electronic components and satellite surveillance technology. Iran has been escalating its production of enriched uranium and, according to the US military, is providing support to Hamas and attacks on commercial vessels by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. In response to targeted Israeli strikes, Tehran launched a swarm of drones and missiles against military targets in Israel on the night of April 13th - marking its first direct attack. The destabilization of the Red Sea region and the ongoing conflicts in the Gaza Strip, as well as increasingly in southern Lebanon, appear to signify Iran's efforts to weaken the United States' military effectiveness. This strategy forces the US to maintain a presence on multiple fronts, which in turn reduces the availability of American arms and munitions for Ukraine. Meanwhile, North Korea is intensifying its provocations by conducting launches of very long-range ballistic missiles and issuing threats of nuclear attacks against South Korea.

Mutual sanctions

In economic terms, the "war" between the two blocs has already begun. The United States and its allies have been implementing though economic sanctions on Iran for several years, and on North Korea and Russia since 2022. Primarily, these sanctions aim to restrict the ability of these nations to modernize their defense industrial base. In the case of Iran, to slow down its military nuclear program. While there is no overt conflict between China and the West, both the United States and European countries have been pursuing economic decoupling from China for some time. In 2017, convinced that China was not adhering to its commitments regarding free two-way trade, Donald Trump initiated an economic offensive against China by imposing heavy tariffs. Beijing responded by imposing equivalent tariffs on US products. Trump's strategic objectives were twofold: first, to reduce American economic reliance on China, and second, to slow down Chinese technological advancements in the military field by embargoing the export of militarily sensitive American technologies. Joe Biden has not only continued but also reinforced the policy of economic decoupling, intensifying the tariff war and advocating for a "made-in-USA" strategy. Additionally, he has tightened controls on military components bound for China, extending beyond the strict embargo on exports to Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Since December 2023, companies benefiting from subsidies under the microprocessor development program (CHIPS Act of 2022) have been barred from engaging with countries deemed “concerns”. The official list of these countries includes all CRINK members. Europeans have also adopted a strategy aimed at diminishing their reliance on China and revitalizing their industrial sector. It is noteworthy, for instance, that 50% of the world's nitrocellulose fiber exports originate from China, despite these fibers being crucial components for shells, which are currently in short supply on the Ukrainian front. In 2022, the EU implemented a directive safeguarding the single market against subsidized imports from third countries, primarily targeting China. Subsequently, in September 2023, the EU established an anti-coercion mechanism designed to counter countries attempting to dictate policy changes within EU Member States by imposing trade restrictions. Lithuania, for example, faced restrictive trade measures imposed by China after signing a trade agreement with Taiwan in 2021. On the other hand, Russia relied on the threat of cutting off gas supplies to weaken European economic and military support for Ukraine—a strategy that ultimately failed as Europe swiftly diversified its gas sources by turning to alternative countries. Nevertheless, CRINK members, alongside nations like India and Brazil, facilitated Russia's resilience to economic sanctions by not only replacing its former customers and suppliers but also by redirecting trade flows towards Asia. In the first quarter of 2024, Russia's trade surplus reached $22 billion, compared to $15.4 billion during the same period in 2023. According to The Economist, China's imports of Russian oil have surged from 100,000 barrels per day before the war to 500,000 barrels per day at present. In exchange, Chinese exports to Russia are projected to exceed $100 billion in 2023. Since autumn 2023, China has also implemented restrictions on graphite exports, a crucial conductor for electronic components. Satellite imagery indicates that North Korea and Russia have established an arms-for-oil swap program, while Iran is supplying substantial quantities of drones and military technology to Russia as part of an extensive commercial partnership, which includes the construction of a railway line between the two nations.

American ambiguities and hesitations

During the peak of the Cold War, the United States prepared to engage in two major conflicts simultaneously. The National Defense Strategic Review of 2022 outlines the goal of securing victory in a potential confrontation first in the Indo-Pacific region, given the threat from China, followed by Europe, in response to the Russian challenge. This somewhat ambiguous prioritization and the realities of the global arms race may indicate potential challenges for the U.S. if faced with fighting two major wars concurrently on separate fronts. As the conflict in Ukraine persists, Western public support for the nation appears to wane. Divisions within the US Congress regarding public spending, influenced by Donald Trump's Republican allies, led to a six-month delay in the approval of the latest aid package for Ukraine. On April 20, the US Congress finally approved $60 billion in aid. The shift in stance from US Congressman Mike Johnson, a close ally of Donald Trump who had long opposed aid for Ukraine, and the subdued response from Trump himself, hint at a potential shift in awareness, possibly influenced by new military intelligence. In the interim, European leaders have partially stepped into the fray, despite constraints stemming from the fragility of their defense industry. Figures like Rishi Sunak, Emmanuel Macron, Georgia Meloni, and Olaf Scholz, alongside other EU leaders, have exhibited robust support for Ukraine, underscored by the signing of decade-long bilateral agreements in February 2024. The Czech Republic has succeeded in setting up a European program for the purchase of artillery ammunition and is due to deliver the first stocks in June. Propelled by European impetus, NATO is contemplating a five-year initiative to fund the acquisition of weapon systems and munitions, with an agreement reached in April to deploy new air defense systems. By 2023, Europe's military spending will have reached $588 billion, 62% more than in 2014. Although European arms and munitions production still trails behind Russia, it is gradually gaining traction. In this context, an increasing number of voices are emphasizing the mistake of viewing the war in Ukraine in isolation, without considering the broader geopolitical landscape and coordination among the CRINK countries. This argument has likely resonated with more hesitant members of the US Congress. Should Russia succeed in asserting its dominance in Ukraine, it's highly probable that this would serve as the initial move in a troubling domino effect. Empowered by this triumph and riding on a favorable momentum, other autocratic regimes could follow suit, embarking on similar actions in territories they lay claim to. The cost of stemming this process would be far greater than that of preventing the first piece from falling.

First published in :

The Conversation / France


Radu Vranceanu

Radu Vranceanu is a professor of economics at ESSEC and a research associate at THEMA (CNRS). He holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Paris 2 (HDR) and has developed expertise in the analysis of informational inefficiencies and the formation of expectations, with applications to macroeconomics. He is also involved in experimental economics research. 


Marc Guyot

Marc Guyot teaches economics on MSc and Executive Education courses. His research focuses on the economics of competition, the economics of defence and the economics of climate change. He has published articles in the Revue française d'économie and the Journal of Defense Economics with Radu Vranceanu. With Radu Vranceanu, he is the author of the textbook Économie managériale. He was director of the specialised management programmes at ESSEC from 2002 to 2007. Marc holds a doctorate in economics from the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris.  

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