Thanks to our self-defeating foreign policy, these two mismatched powers are now strengthening relations on a global scale.
One of history’s most competitive rivalries is experiencing a golden age of cooperation. Over the past decade, China and Russia have jointly participated in several high-profile military drills, with theaters in the South China Sea, the Baltics, and the Mediterranean. This includes the VOSTOK-18—Russia’s premier military exercise involving over 300,000 military personal.
The two countries have also negotiated several significant border agreements, one of which settled over 4,000 kilometers of contested land. And as with all of China’s neighbors, their economic relationship has grown, with trade having increased by approximately 50 percent over just the past 10 years alone. For Russia, this mostly means exporting raw materials, including energy and metals, but also selling some of its most highly advanced military equipment, such as the S-400 air defense system and the Su-35 attack aircraft.
So while Xi Jinping was correct to claim that relations between Russia and China “were at their best ever,” it is also true that the current Sino-Russian partnership is shallow. For most of their history, Russia and China have been geopolitical rivals. This was inevitable as the two countries are large neighbors with distinct civilizations that were forced to share space on the same continent. Competition was to be expected. Yet in the era of American hegemony, Russia and China have largely overcome their complicated history as well as structural pressures to compete in order to balance against American power.
Despite one being a rising power and the other a declining, China and Russia share remarkably similar outlooks regarding security. When either country looks beyond its borders, it sees a series of hazards that largely emanate from American foreign policy.
In Eastern Europe, the United States has enlarged NATO by over one million square kilometers, led a military campaign to democratize the Balkans and Afghanistan, deployed an anti-ballistic missile defense system in Romania, supported democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Even after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the United States still talks about including Ukraine, the birthplace of Russian history, inside its own security orbit.
China observes similar behavior in Asia. In an attempt to counter Beijing’s rise, the United States has normalized relations with Vietnam, deployed Marines to Australia and the Philippines, signed a civilian nuclear agreement with India, increased freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, designed the now defunct TTP to exclude China, and attempted to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea. While many in America would like to think of this pivot as benign, China views it as hostile and encircling.
But it is not just American behavior that concerns Russia and China. What makes American foreign policy so alarming is what motivates it. From America’s perspective, the fall of the Berlin Wall not only meant the containment of international communism but the triumph of Western principles. Accordingly, the United States and its allies embarked on an ambitious social experiment to extend liberalism to wherever it was absent. That included Russia and China. Over the past 30 years, the United States has meddled in the domestic affairs of both countries—publicly criticizing their illiberal policies as well as funding domestic dissidents.
Considering American behavior and intentions, it shouldn’t be surprising that Beijing and Moscow view the U.S. as their principal threat. Their current “friendship” is therefore nothing more than a shared attempt to discipline American power.
Such cooperation, however, is all but impossible to sustain. For while China and Russia can agree that America needs to be restrained, they have conflicting visions for a post-unipolar world.
It is China’s dream to become the hegemon of Eurasia. What motivates it is a combination of security and status, but the fundamental reason Beijing is pursuing a new empire is because it can. The desire for more influence abroad is a natural consequence of a rise in power, and China is no different. So far, it has pursued its ambitions through economic predominance, constructing what Robert Kaplan describes as an “empire based on roads, railways, energy pipelines and container ports whose pathways by land echo those of the Tang and Yuan dynasties of the Middle Ages, and by sea echo the Ming dynasty of the late Middle Ages and early-modern period.” But a security architecture is also beginning to emerge. In addition to building one of the world’s premier navies, China is also in the beginning stages of establishing its military presence throughout the continent. It currently has troops in Tajikistan, has opened a military post in Djibouti, and has militarized the South China Sea. And there are plans to come, most probably in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It is inevitable that China’s expansion will conflict with Russian interests. Regardless of who is in power, the central goal of the Russian security strategy has been to control the near abroad. This was true as early as the mid-17th century when Afanasy Lavrentievich Ordin-Nashchokin, a minister of Czar Alexei, explained that the goal of Russian foreign policy was to “expand the state in every direction, and this is the business of the Department of Foreign Affairs.” Such a goal is born out of geography. Russia contains over 17 million square kilometers and has virtually no natural defense barriers, making it highly vulnerable to foreign invasion. In just the past 200 years, Russia has been invaded three times, and each time it’s been saved by its strategic buffer. This has had a significant impact on how it conducts its foreign policy and has produced what Kennan described as a “neurotic view of world affairs.” So whether it is a czar, Stalin, or Putin in charge, it is assumed that in order to protect the Russian core, it is essential to control the periphery. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent expansion of NATO, Russia’s buffer shrank dramatically, and its restoration has been a priority ever since.
There is no reason to think that Russia would be any more comfortable with Chinese influence in its neighborhood than it is with American influence. While China does not have the American issue of letting “Russia be Russian,” Moscow wants an exclusive sphere of influence that excludes other major powers. This is bad news for the long-term prospects of Russian-Chinese cooperation, but is welcome news for the U.S., as it is in America’s interest to ensure that a great power does not accumulate in any part of the world. And a Russian-Chinese alliance would arguably be the most dangerous concentration of power imaginable.
Preventing such an alliance should therefore be a priority, and considering the current power distribution, it would be wiser for America to address Russian interests than those of the Chinese. This may prove difficult to do politically, but there are many policies Washington could adopt that would accommodate Moscow without jeopardizing American security. The most obvious place to start would be in Eastern Europe, where America should halt weapons shipments to Ukraine as well as nix the idea of adding new members to NATO. The idea of establishing a permanent military base in Poland should also be rejected. America should further seek to repair its relations with Russia, which are arguably worse now than they were during the Cold War. This should include a gradual reduction in sanctions as well an end to its incessant prophesying about Russian politics. Since the 1990s, the United States has used nearly all measures short of war to remodel how Russia is ruled. It hasn’t worked. Russia is less democratic now than it was when America started, and Washington’s intrusions into Moscow’s politics have only encouraged it to align with America’s competitors.
Once Russia has been relieved of American pressure in Eastern Europe, it would have no choice but to divert its attention to the rising hegemon to its rear. Despite the recent goodwill between China and Russia, a long list of potential points of conflict exists between the two, including Russia’s weapons sales to Vietnam, the continual expansion of “One Belt, One Road” into former Soviet territory, influence over Iran, and the spread of Huawei, which will inevitably be used for espionage purposes. There is also the convenient fact that between both capitals lies the resource rich yet sparsely populated Eastern Russia, some of which belonged to China at one point. None of these matters have been resolved because of the higher priority of American activism, yet if the United States were to moderate its mission in Eastern Europe and improve its relationship with Russia, they would inevitably become wedge issues for the two regional powers.
What shape a Chinese hegemon will ultimately assume is arguably the most important question facing American foreign policy. It is those powers that have revisionary goals that have produced the most violent periods in history. It is doubtful that the world will again witness the kind of bloodshed seen during past transitions, but as China likes to remind the West, the current order was created when they were weak and had little input into how it was built. There are many elements of the current order that China would like to change, starting with the American military presence in the Pacific. But even if it doesn’t become a fully revisionist power, it is all but certain that the more China grows, the more assertive it will become. The United States should prepare for this by strengthening its relations with those countries that share an interest in controlling a more powerful Chinese state. Russia is an obvious candidate and the fact that China and Russia are enjoying a period of unprecedented goodwill is a testament to how stubborn and self-sabotaging American foreign policy can be.