Why China and Russia are the new ‘axis of evil’

US Republicans have revived the phrase to underline the ‘threat’ posed by Beijing and Moscow

Former US president George W Bush’s concept of an “Axis of Evil,” introduced in his 2002 State of the Union address, came to define the flawed foreign policy decisions of his years in power.

He used it to legitimize both the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing “war on terror.” Bush’s “Axis of Evil” included Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

They were bound together as long-standing United States adversaries, rendered as actively seeking weapons of mass destruction or WMD, and who, he argued, collectively posed a “grave and growing danger” as antagonist regimes capable of attacking the US and its allies.

Rolling into 2024, with a US presidential election on one side, and geopolitical volatility from Ukraine to East Asia on the other, Republicans, in particular, have revived the term to explain concurrently the machinations of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

The new “axis” however, operates on different principles, and its links to American policy are more tenuous.

First, the distinction between original axis countries, including long-standing Washington adversaries North Korea and Iran, and new additions China and Russia.

Global systems

During the Cold War, Russia and China were of great concern to the US. But during the Bush era, neither was regarded as constituting a threat to that first axis.

Grouping the four suggests that some in Washington feel that both China and Russia pose a significant enough challenge to both US and global systems to add them to a renewed axis of evil, rather than categorizing them separately as individual belligerents.

Second, the perceived threat to the US arising from associations between each of the four members is uneven. Russia’s connections with Iran are long-standing and have been, mostly, tolerated by Washington.

These links only become unpalatable, and worthy of including in an axis, when nations step over a particular line. Iran did that by helping Hamas plan the October 7 attack in Israel.

Russia has been added to the list – after undertaking expansionist adventures so significant by invading Ukraine that it cannot be ignored. So for both Iran and Russia, the magnitude of ambitions counts.

Joe Biden has a China dilemma. Courtesy of the White House

Neither Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 nor Crimea in 2014 saw it consigned to a newfound axis of evil. It merely consolidated its status as a potential Eurasian rogue state.

It appears to be the risk of concerted collaboration between two or more axis members, and the combined threat that they represent that worries Washington.

For example, former governor of South Carolina and presidential candidate Nikki Haley argued that “a win for Russia is a win for China.”

Third, the complexities of what the four have in common with each other remain unclear. What binds Beijing and Moscow together is their expansionist intent. But this differs from the historic willingness to stir up regional volatility exhibited by Iran and North Korea.

China stands opposed to such saber-rattling from North Korea, while simultaneously undertaking regional expansion.

More interesting perhaps are the immense natural resources wielded by Russia and China, and to a lesser extent Iran. They make up enormous sections of Eurasia in terms of landmass, population, and trading links binding their economies.

Economic bloc

Does this suggest that the size, finances, and natural resources of the new axis and its friends may allow it to become a semi-insulated trade and economic bloc? Probably not, but only while Russia’s expansionist efforts remain at a standstill.

A post-conflict situation in Europe, by assuming an end to the Ukraine war, will ultimately reset the sanctions regime against Moscow, and depending on Beijing’s peace-maker intentions, that could facilitate warmer East-West relations.

There are both drawbacks and benefits to resurrecting the idea of an “Axis of Evil”.

For supporters of the approach, it provides policymakers with a convenient who’s who of adversaries.

Assuming all four present a similar danger to the US, it gives a likely challenger for the presidency the chance to point at President Joe Biden’s foreign policy shortcomings.

Flagging up the threats from China and Russia. Photo: File / Social media

While, unlike in Bush’s era, military interventions are probably not on the agenda, a more regionally targeted protectionist approach to “not try to do business with them” is probable.

There is little real value for Washington’s foreign policy in taking this approach. This uneven grab basket of anti-American villainy is reductivist at best, and cartoonish at worst.

It suggests equivalences of power whether there are none, imagined ideological symmetry, and coordination incapable of surviving the short-term twists of four separate foreign policies.

The revival of the “axis” appears to be largely coming from Republicans, currently in charge of Congress, rather than the White House. But much may change in 2024 if they take over the presidency.

Like the original “axis,” the new grouping conflates power and ambition across states, muddies domestic objectives with regional support between two or more of the members, and suggests the need for a new global fistfight to defend democracy.

Neighboring states

Rather than superficial attempts at suggesting basic enmity across four disparate nations, more important for the US ought to be a concern about Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea’s long-standing preference for authoritarianism.

And, of course, the ominous implications for their neighboring states and regions.

Alignment and agreements come and go. Entrenched authoritarianism, however, is hell to shift.

Amelia Hadfield is the Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.