Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Wise words. But what if two of the world’s most powerful nations burned their friendship, and each other, to the ground? What if China invaded Russia? What would turn China against its strongest ally? How would the world respond? And what would happen if this conflict went nuclear?

The current relationship between China and Russia is the strongest it has been since the 1950s. And these two nations share more than just a border. China buys most of its oil from its neighbor to the north. In early 2022, both countries announced collaborations on space, climate change, the internet and artificial intelligence.

After Russia invaded Ukraine and most of the world turned against Russia, China took a neutral stance. And when China set its sights on reclaiming Taiwan, Russia supported China’s ambitions. It’s safe to say these two allies have each other’s backs. Well, for now. But with Russia’s resources drained due to its war in Ukraine, China might have an opportunity to make a massive land grab.

So if this friendship between two dictators turns deadly, how would the United States react? If China broke off its loyalty to Russia, the Chinese would have the edge in the numbers department. China invests $252 billion in its military every year. That’s four times what Russia spends. With most of Russia’s forces amassed along European borders, China could move its massive ground forces in from the east in a quest to control its former ally’s natural resources and oil reserves, and to reclaim lands Russia annexed in 1860.

With over 2 million troops, China could dominate in a ground war. That’s almost double the Russian military’s force. China also has 35 million soldiers in reserve that it could call into action at any time. That show of force might seem overwhelming but it wouldn’t compare to the Russian military’s experience, right? Well, maybe not.

During the illegal invasion of Ukraine, many Russian soldiers abandoned their vehicles after running out of gas. Yeah, one of the world’s largest oil suppliers failed to supply its army with enough gas. The Russian army has been slow to adopt new technology since the Cold War. And fighting two wars at once could weaken the Russian soldiers’ already low morale. But China may not fare much better.

Despite having the largest modernized army on Earth, it hasn’t fought a war since 1979. As China moved in, it would find Russia’s terrain hard to conquer. Advancing troops across this massive country could be brutal for both sides. Russia’s oil reserves could help it turn the tide, as could its fleet of armored vehicles.

Russia has an enormous tank force of over 12,000 units, while China has less than 6,000. But with the Baikal mountains acting as a natural barrier, Eastern Russian cities like Vladivostok could fall first to the invading army. Going deeper into central Russia, where the oil fields lie, could be catastrophic. China could lose significant numbers of people and equipment.

While their naval forces are equal, Russia’s ships would be too spread out across the seas to repel China’s attack. By attacking en masse, China’s vast submarine fleet could decimate Russia’s Pacific Fleet. But would anyone come to Russia’s defense? These two warring nations are the biggest trade and political rivals of the U.S.

If China and Russia were at war, the U.S. might sit this one out and let its competitors eat each other alive. Since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, was formed to respond to the now-defunct USSR, none of its 30 countries would dare to get involved on anyone’s behalf. Russia might seek help from former Soviet states and trade partners like Belarus, Kazakhstan and Cuba. But China, well, that’s a different story.

North Korea might be the only friend they have in this fight. This conflict would be drawn out, bloody, with no end in sight. With such a desperate fight on its hands, Russia would only have one card left to play. Russia has over 6,000 nuclear weapons in its arsenal, ready to strike. With only 350 known warheads, China would be outgunned. But it would only take a few strategic hits from both sides to create a nuclear wasteland in all of Eurasia.

This promise of mutually assured self-destruction might be the only thing that could prevent this apocalypse. As Russia continues its reign of terror in Ukraine, many countries are already seeking different oil suppliers so they can cut off support to this regime. A China-Russia war would devastate Russia’s remaining trading partners and China. If China turned on its ally, no country could ever trust them again.

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