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The Axis of Autocrats

Updated: May 1

The Growing Ties Between China, Russia, Iran, and the Global South

The evolving geopolitical landscape has given rise to a complex and opportunistic alliance between China, Russia, and Iran, which could be termed an "Axis of Autocrats." This alignment, characterized by increased military, economic, political, and technological collaborations, is primarily aimed at countering the dominance of the United States and its allies in the global order. The nature of this coalition, however, reveals a mix of concerted strategic interests and significant intrinsic limitations.

China, Russia, and Iran have drawn much closer since Russia invaded Ukraine.  But the relationship was burgeoning before that conflict began in 2022.  Since 2019, they have conducted joint naval exercises, displaying a symbolic unity in the Arabian Sea through operations such as rescuing hijacked ships and target practice. While these exercises project an image of military synergy, they fail to foster genuine interoperability or strategic depth, underscoring the alliance's role as an "axis of convenience" rather than a tightly-knit coalition. Each country harbors distinct national interests and strategic goals, which occasionally conflict with or diverge from one another. For instance, Iran seeks more robust military collaborations, Russia remains preoccupied with its engagement in Ukraine, and China is cautious about forming deep alliances that could estrange it from Western nations.[1]

A pivotal aspect of this alliance's global impact is its support for Russia's military operations in Ukraine. China has provided critical technology and economic support, while Iran has supplied advanced drone technology. North Korea, although not a formal member of this axis, has supported these efforts by sending ammunition and missile systems to Russia. These actions not only bolster Russia's military capabilities but also complicate Western attempts to diplomatically and economically isolate Moscow.

Activities of China, Russia, and Iran Tied to Ukraine
  • China: Significantly aiding Russia's military efforts, particularly by transferring critical materials and technologies that support Russia's industrial and military capabilities. This support has been crucial for Russia, especially in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

  • Russia: Has received logistical and military support from China and Iran, enhancing its capability to engage in its military operations in Ukraine. Russia, in turn, supports Iran by likely helping to strengthen its air defenses.

  • Iran: Actively involved in conflicts in the Middle East and supports Russia’s military actions in Ukraine by supplying drones and missiles. These activities are part of Iran's broader strategy to assert its regional influence and beyond.

The three countries - China, Russia, and Iran - have collaborated to eliminate their reliance on the US GPS system and reinforce each other's. They have also conducted naval exercises together, showing potential maritime security implications. In 2021, Iran was granted full access to China's BeiDou satellite navigation system, and integration efforts between BeiDou and Russia's GLONASS are underway. However, the scope of operational cooperation does not extend much beyond the Middle East. The Arabian Sea is the only place Russia, China, and Iran engage in trilateral exercises. Each country has different priorities. Russia sees it as an opportunity to advance its "Collective Security in the Persian Gulf" agenda and become a great maritime power. China uses the exercises to enhance the projection of its naval escort task force in the Gulf of Aden. Iran focuses on improving its naval projection capabilities. While the exercises have limited relevance in strengthening interoperability between the three navies, each participant has specific needs met through participating.[2]

The primary concern for the United States is the military implications of the Axis. However, creating a formal trilateral relationship offers opportunities for economic partnerships between the countries that could be more important. China has become an important economic lifeline with Russia and Iran under punitive global sanctions. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there has been renewed interest in Moscow and Tehran for developing the International North-South Transport Corridor. This corridor is a multi-mode route for moving freight between Russia, Central Asia, and India. Tangible steps toward greater economic integration have already been taken. After their access to the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication was suspended in February 2023, Moscow and Tehran announced that they had connected their national financial messaging services. This bilateral financial arrangement insulates both nations from Western sanctions and could be expanded to involve other countries in the future.

Moreover, Russia's recent move to veto the renewal of the Panel of Experts at the United Nations, which monitors and enforces sanctions against North Korea, represents a significant undermining of international efforts to control North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The Panel had been a crucial mechanism in providing universally accepted insights into North Korea’s sanctions evasion and the involvement of states like Russia and China in these activities. Russia's veto, motivated by a desire to conceal its dealings with North Korea, including arms shipments, poses a direct challenge to the transparency and efficacy of global nonproliferation regimes.

Additionally, this Axis plays a significant role in BRICS, an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, which is an intergovernmental organization that represents some of the major emerging economies on the global stage. Initially focused on investment opportunities, BRICS has evolved into a significant geopolitical bloc since its first formal summit in 2009. The organization aims to enhance cooperation among its members and plays a pivotal role in global economic discussions. Recently, BRICS expanded to include new members such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, which broadens its influence and representation.[3]

The term "Global South" generally refers to the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania that are considered in contrast to the wealthier "Global North." BRICS is often seen as a representative voice for these regions, advocating for the interests and development of emerging economies and acting as a counterbalance to the dominance of Western economic paradigms.[4]

Russia, China, and Iran play distinct roles within BRICS. Russia and China, for instance, view BRICS as a platform to enhance their global influence and as a counterforce against Western dominance. Russia leverages its position to strengthen political alliances and economic ties, particularly as it faces Western sanctions. China uses BRICS to increase its diplomatic and economic outreach, especially as its global ambitions expand. Iran’s inclusion in BRICS is seen as a strategic move to counteract its international isolation and gain support against unilateral Western policies, particularly from the United States.

China's role in BRICS offers it a strategic advantage by allowing it to forge stronger relationships with other emerging economies and to create an alternative bloc to the Western-led global order. This is particularly significant as China seeks to expand its influence in the face of challenging relations with Western countries. By leading initiatives within BRICS, such as the New Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, China strengthens its position and potentially dilutes the dominance of Western financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank.

There is a growing consensus that Iran-Russia-China is forming an axis of Authoritarians. While symbolically significant, it lacks the substance and cohesion to challenge the current international order effectively. However, when considered in conjunction with BRICS, it represents a significant shift in the global economic and political landscape, with China, Russia, and Iran playing crucial roles in shaping its direction. The organization facilitates economic cooperation among emerging markets. It serves as a strategic platform for these countries to assert their interests on the global stage, challenging the existing Western-centric order. BRICS is marked by opportunistic cooperation and limited by significant strategic and political divergences among its members. The trilateral Axis relationship underscores the complexities of international relations where states pursue alliances based on immediate strategic interests rather than enduring partnerships.

The ramifications of their activities are nuanced. While maritime exercises project an image of a unified front, they do little to enhance military interoperability or strategic depth among the three nations. Moreover, the alliance does not substantially shift the geopolitical balance, as it is more of an "axis of convenience" rather than a tightly-knit coalition.  Structurally, they are not an exclusive bloc, nor is it an alliance. More pointedly, it is an assembly of discontented countries with a common goal of challenging the principles, rules, and institutions that form the basis of the current international system. When these countries work together, their actions have a much greater impact than their individual efforts. They boost each other's military capabilities, weaken the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy tools like sanctions, and impede the ability of Washington and its allies to achieve their objectives.[5]

Although weak, the ties that bind them seem enduring, and the pressures on them draw the three autocratic regimes closer together. The implications of these developments for the United States and its allies are growing more serious. The strengthening of this axis presents military, strategic, and political challenges, necessitating a multifaceted response from the U.S. The internal division within the U.S. regarding foreign engagement — with isolationist tendencies at both political poles clashing with the advocacy for robust international alliances — underscores the complexity of formulating a coherent response to the shifting global dynamics.[6]

While the China-Russia-Iran axis and its peripheral engagements with states like North Korea and multi-state organizations like BRICS symbolize a significant shift towards multipolarity and strategic competition, the alliance itself is marked by pragmatic, transactional cooperation and limited by strategic and political divergences. This situation poses a nuanced and long-term threat to the international order. It requires diligent observation, strategic patience, and proactive diplomacy by the United States and its allies to safeguard their interests and uphold global stability.

Implications for the U.S.: The strengthening of ties and coordination among these three nations poses significant challenges for the U.S. regarding military strategy and geopolitical influence. The U.S. faces the following implications:
  • Military and Strategic Challenges: The U.S. has to contend with a potentially more coordinated and powerful opposition in various global hotspots, including the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

  • Political Challenges: Inside the U.S., there is a division on how to respond to these challenges, with isolationist voices within the Republican Party calling for less engagement abroad, which contrasts sharply with those advocating for robust support for international allies and a strong stance against these adversarial alliances.


[1] Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Richard Fontaine. “The Axis of Upheaval. How America’s Enemies are Uniting to Overturn the Global Order.” Foreign Affairs. April 23, 2024

[2] Lucas Winter, Jemima Baar, and Jason Warner. “The Axis Off-Kilter: Why An Iran-Russia-China “Axis” Is Shakier Than Meets The Eye.”  War on the Rocks. April 19, 2024

[3] Kyle Hiebert  “With BRICS Expansion, the Global South Takes Centre Stage. An enlarged BRICS community will expedite the rebalancing of global power away from the West.” Centre for International Governance Integration. August 31, 2023


[4] Kawashima Shin. How China Defines the ‘Global South’ Beijing tries to make the term its own.” The Diplomat. January 11, 2024


[5] Lucas Winter, Jemima Baar, and Jason Warner. “The Axis Off-Kilter: Why An Iran-Russia-China “Axis” Is Shakier Than Meets The Eye.”  War on the Rocks. April 19, 2024

[6] Niall Ferguson. “The Second Cold War Is Escalating  Faster Than the First . To understand what is at stake in the fight against the axis of China, Russia and Iran, just read “The Lord of the Rings.” Bloomberg. April 21, 2024


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