international analysis and commentary

Turbulent triangle: US, Russia, China relations


Rapidly warming relations between China and Russia culminated last month in a powerful visual seen on television sets around the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping not only attended the celebration in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, he occupied the position of honor at the elbow of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The image was all the more potent because the United States and several other major Western powers pointedly refused to attend the event to show their continuing displeasure with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the aid to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine. 

The events in Moscow were only the latest signal of a Russian-Chinese rapprochement that seems heavily motivated by a joint desire to curb America’s global dominance. Bilateral economic agreements between Moscow and Beijing are on the rise, including a May 2015 $400 billion deal to sell Russian natural gas to the voracious Chinese economy. The prevailing assumption in the West that Russia and China would become geopolitical competitors, if not outright adversaries, in Central Asia also may need to be reassessed. Following the May 8th Putin-Xi summit in Moscow, the two leaders signed a new declaration announcing the coordinated development of the so-called Silk Road Economic Belt in Central Asia. Although Russian and Chinese ambitions in that region are still in competition over the long run, it appears that both governments have declared a truce for the time being.

Significant arms sales agreements involving Russia and China are also becoming more common. Included in the latter category is Moscow’s recent commitment to sell the sophisticated S-400 air defense system to China. Rebecca Miller, Assistant Editor at The National Interest, notes that China’s possession of such a system is likely to cause uneasiness in at least two prominent US allies, Japan and Taiwan, which have ongoing disputes with Beijing.

These diverse developments have one feature in common. Moscow and Beijing now seem to worry more about Washington than they do about each other, and that shared apprehension is driving them to cooperate against the United States and its allies. That trend should greatly concern US policymakers. 

Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea has created a deep freeze in relations between Moscow and the West that were already somewhat frosty. There were growing sources of friction even before that episode, including sharp disagreements over policy toward Syria and Iran. The Crimea episode and Moscow’s subsequent support for secessionist rebels in eastern Ukraine have made matters dramatically worse. Washington and its European Union allies have imposed a series of increasingly harsh economic sanctions on Russia, and the Kremlin is responding with provocative military air flights and other measures near the frontiers of NATO’s eastern members. The language coming out of both Washington and Moscow is characterized by a hostility not witnessed since the end of the Cold War.  

At the same time, tensions have been on the rise in US-China relations. Beijing is increasingly irritated at the US stance on a variety of issues. Washington’s position regarding China’s territorial disputes with neighboring states in both the South China and East China seas is an especially prominent grievance. From Beijing’s perspective, the Obama administration has exhibited an unsubtle backing of Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other rival claimants. Conversely, US leaders are uneasy about the steady growth in Beijing’s military spending and capabilities. That worry is exacerbated by Beijing’s increasing assertiveness, especially China’s extraordinarily broad claims in the South China Sea – a region through which pass some of the world’s most important commercial transportation lanes. Beijing’s recent large-scale land reclamation projects involving semi-submerged reefs in the South China Sea, and Washington’s escalation of its air and sea patrols there in response, have brought bilateral tensions to a simmer.

The United States is committing a cardinal sin in foreign policy: allowing relations to deteriorate with two major powers simultaneously. That development violates a specific admonition that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made during the Cold War. Reflecting on the Nixon administration’s decision to normalize relations with China, Kissinger emphasized the important underlying geostrategic rationale. “Our relations to possible opponents,” he wrote in White House Years, the first volume of his memoirs, should be such “that our options toward both of them were always greater than their options toward each other.” In other words, Washington should make certain that its ties to both Beijing and Moscow are always closer than their ties to each other. It was good strategy then, but it is imperative strategy now.

Ideally, the United States should seek to repair relations with both countries. If Obama administration officials cannot achieve that goal, they should at least focus their efforts on containing one major power while taking steps to placate the other. It would be unproductive, and potentially disastrous, to end up on bad terms with both governments, yet that is where we are headed. The last thing we should want to do is inadvertently help reverse the deep split between Moscow and Beijing that began in the late 1950s. 

A reasonably adept US foreign policy would reduce the chances that the current rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing would endure. China especially has a crucial, wide-ranging economic relationship with the United States that it would be reluctant to endanger for casual reasons. Moreover, there are long-standing bilateral grievances between Russia and China. They include bitter border disputes going back into the 19th century (which exploded into armed clashes in the late 1960s and early 1970s) and at times bruising political and economic competition in Central Asia. 

But Washington’s conduct appears to be pushing Russia and China together, causing them to mute their own serious differences to deal with more pressing worries about the United States. The Obama administration’s clumsy, at times needlessly abrasive, diplomacy threatens to produce a most unsatisfying result. A more cautious, calculating approach is needed.