In 2017, the US response to Sino-Russian relations has again risen to center stage. Donald Trump has sought to tilt US policy toward Russia, while at times warning strongly against China. In contrast, Congress and many alarmed by the way Russia interfered in the US presidential elections have sought to harden policy against it, while in some cases prioritizing more incentives for China to do more to pressure North Korea (as Trump has also suggested intermittently). Meanwhile, close ties between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have grown increasingly undeniable, raising further questions about the impact of US policies on this strategic partnership.
Reflecting on a recent assessment under the auspices of the National Bureau of Asian Research on “Russia-China Relations: Strategic Implications and US Policy Options,” this article draws on more than half a century of following relations between Moscow and Beijing to analyze the findings presented in the report and to consider US policy options in coping within this strategic triangle. The report succeeds impressively in balancing diverse views and giving a timely and thoughtful jolt to strategic triangle analysis, and it will serve its purpose best if those who read it are stimulated to ask questions about both its contents and conclusions. Indeed, this is an interim report, complementing many such exchanges that are yet to come.
The notion of a strategic triangle of Washington, Moscow, and Beijing has hovered over international relations studies and US policymaking since the 1950s. In the late 1950s and 1960s, it led to clashing interpretations of the Sino-Soviet relationship as policy wrestled with decisions related to the aftermath of the Korean War and entry into—followed by expansion of—the Vietnam War. Which was the greater threat, Red China or the Soviet Union, and how serious were divisions between them? For two decades from Sino-US normalization to the breakup of the Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War, there was a more triumphant attitude toward US policymaking in response to the Sino-Soviet split—success in capitalizing on it and then winning the Cold War. What accounted for US success and how could that be sustained through new policies? The past quarter century has witnessed gradual revival of the strategic triangle, which had been dismissed by many—Russia was deemed too weak or dependent on the West and China was too integrated into the world economy to be characterized in this manner. Why was the triangle reappearing and what should be done? As Russia and China proved that by working together, they could add to their clout against the United States, the term strategic triangle gained increasing traction, raising questions long-associated with managing triangular great power relations.
Strategic triangle analysis is rooted in realist international relations theory. China, the weakest of the three in the Cold War era, had reason to turn away from the Soviet Union—an increasingly powerful, neighboring state seen as on the offense—and forge a “marriage of convenience” with the United States, altering the shape of the triangle. After the Cold War, Russia likewise found cause to break with the United States—a triumphalist, lone superpower, insistent on forging a world order under its leadership. With these two cases in mind, realists focus on relative power, often concluding that Russia will be inclined to reconsider its close ties to China as US power recedes and China’s grows. This logic, however, is countered by an alternate international relations perspective—associated with liberal theory—that economics also matters and close integration into international institutions results in common bedfellows. Thus, China will be inclined to move cautiously to change the global order, refusing to align with Russia, which rallies against that order, and US accommodation of China would suffice to prevent any sharp realignment of the strategic triangle against US interests. Such arguments are inherently deductive, ignoring national narratives.
In today’s discussions about the strategic triangle—focusing on the central question of whether US policy should tilt toward Moscow or Beijing, or stand strong against both—we should be careful to ask the right questions and avoid falling into the trap of making deductions solely based on IR theory and being inattentive to evolving narratives in both Moscow and Beijing. Both Soviet and Chinese narratives in the Cold War era showcased national identities and ideologies that drove the Sino-Soviet split and opened space for US policy options. Debates in the transitional 1980s-90s revealed an uncertain quest for a new path. The Chinese and Russian narratives since the start of the 2000s have buttressed the rapid pace of increased partnership with ramifications for transformation of the strategic triangle. The NBR assessment has been admirably prepared over two years—I have had a chance to join in discussions and to comment on drafts—and it leaves few aspects of the relationship uncovered. Nonetheless, in light of the lessons we can draw from the history of the strategic triangle and its many narratives, there is reason to question parts of the analysis and the policy preferences.
My reservations about the report rest mainly on five themes: 1) drawing lessons from the history of strategic triangle coverage; 2) finding the right balance for the drivers of Sino-Russian relations between national interests and national identities; 3) recognizing China’s long-term strategy, not only its short-term tactics; 4) seeing clearly Russia’s options in Asia, given recent developments; and 5) acknowledging the limitations and opportunities in available US options.
Drawing lessons from the history of strategic triangle coverage
The NBR report does not focus on the lessons of failure over fifty years to predict the course of this strategic triangle, nor explain what needs to be done differently. It only briefly notes that in the 2000s, observers took seriously the argument that Sino-Russian relations were an “axis of convenience,” instead of clearly pointing out that such thinking was proof of analysis inattentive to crucial evidence, as was often the case in studies of relations between Moscow and Beijing. Many analysts overstated the impact of the border dispute over several decades and later treated a clash over spheres of influence and Chinese pressure on the Russian Far East as more serious than it really was. Getting right the drivers of the Sino-Soviet split and delayed normalization, or the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, while weighing in a balanced manner the barriers to closer ties has often proven difficult.
In my opinion, the NBR report underestimates the drivers of Sino-Russian relations and overestimates the barriers, as has occurred repeatedly since the 1980s. Failing to predict the intensity of improving relations has been the key problem of analysis and should be the pitfall of greatest concern now. Yes, the report notes common Sino-Russian objectives, shared concerns about vulnerabilities in the face of US and Western pressures, and perceived opportunities for the two powers to expand their influence at the expense of US and allied leaders, that are seen as cautious, distracted, and in decline. There is no rosy-eyed finding that the relationship is poised to deteriorate, but missing is a sense of the powerful legacy of communism, the depth of overlap on national identity issues that matter profoundly to the elites in charge of these states, and the degree to which the United States represents an irreversible threat. The report argues that the preference of the Xi and Putin governments supports further strengthening of their relations over the next five years and probably longer—that China has strong incentives to further enhance its relationship with Russia, covering economic, military, and diplomatic cooperation, and that these incentives remain robust. Yet, I find that both the timetable and causality still fall short of what other evidence supports.
Elsewhere the report sees a “transactional relationship, focused on overlapping interests and with few broadly binding commitments. Such limited engagement reflects the two powers’ negative Cold War history and conflicting contemporary interests.” Again, this is a cautious evaluation of Sino-Russian relations, steeped in interests, not identities. A history of what both sides learned from their “split” could refocus the conclusion. There is brief mention of their desire to avoid a repeat of the split that cost both dearly, but that is not the same as probing the two worldviews.
The 1971-72 realignment of the strategic triangle inevitably serves as a reference point for what US policy might accomplish today if only the right lessons are drawn. There are at least four reasons why it does not work. One, China had painted itself into a corner of maximum isolation, a far cry from Russia today. Two, Beijing is much more attentive to and supportive of Moscow in our time than was Moscow of it 50 years ago. Third, there is no sign of a Sino-Russian split today, presenting an opening for the United States. Finally, US concern about China is far less than was US concern about the Soviet Union. US success in the 1980s came from an economically desperate China and an inflexible Soviet Union, unduly confident of its prowess until a sudden reversal took place under a new leader. The report does not make this contrast, which serves to show the lessons of history. Moscow and Beijing regard the Sino-Soviet split as a disaster, and are highly attentive to reassuring each other that any overtures taken to the United States are limited. Both are heavily under the spell of strategic triangle logic in ways that limit US options.
Finding the right balance between national interests and national identities
One of the shortcomings of past studies of Sino-Soviet and Sino-Russian relations is the overemphasis on national interests—however difficult they may be to define—at the expense of national identities, which may appear amorphous to some, but can be specified through close examination of evolving national narratives. The tendency to overlook national identities leads to paying too little attention to the overlap in how Beijing and Moscow are striving to transform the international order. The report recognizes that both “states pose increasingly serious challenges to the US-supported order in their respective priority spheres of concern—Russia in Europe and the Middle East, and China in Asia along China’s continental and maritime peripheries—and that leaders in both take satisfaction in the deteriorating US position in triangular relations.” Yet, I do not find that the nature of the challenge or the degree to which it permeates thinking on both sides is taken seriously enough. Communist ideologies—the main dimension of national identity at one time—posed an existential threat to the US-led global order. Ignoring the rebirth of ideology and its fit within multiple dimensions of identity leaves vague to what degree there is an existential threat today and how much shared thinking about it serves as a driver for improved Sino-Russian ties.
The report does recognize a “strongly engrained common identity and strategic culture,” point out that Moscow and Beijing share a negative view of American and allied intentions, which reinforces Russia-China cooperation against perceived outside threats. It adds, “The rapport between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping rests in part on this common outlook.” This theme is present but it has a peripheral place in the main narrative.
Recognizing China’s long-term strategy, not only its short-term tactics
Repeatedly, the report gives China the benefit of the doubt in its opposition to the United States and acceptance of the existing world order. It misjudges the depth of Chinese animosity to that order and confuses short-term tactics aimed at buying time (once associated with Deng Xiaoping’s “taoguang yanghui” slogan) with long-term strategy, which, arguably, draws China to Russia and away from the United States. For instance, the report states, “President Xi Jinping’s government continues to balance strong opposition to U.S. international leadership and perceived U.S. encirclement in Asia with managing differences with the United States in order to avoid confrontation and conflict.” Yes, China has a much greater stake in the US-led international order than does Russia, but that is not indicative of Beijing’s long-term intentions.
In addition, we read: “Beijing also seeks a stable working relationship with Washington. Beijing does not want to be seen as an adversarial revisionist power and formally eschews alliance with Russia. Meanwhile, major Chinese banks have gone along with Western sanctions on Russia, with Beijing resorting to other means to provide Russia with economic support.” Again, long-term goals rooted in identity narratives are not mentioned. The report continues: “Beijing generally uses these tools cautiously except in near-by areas concerning key sovereignty and security issues. China seeks to continue to benefit greatly from various aspects of the existing world order and to avoid the risks and possible costs of serious disruptions apart from matters of security and sovereignty.” This too minimizes China’s aspirations.
If China has “many more positive and cooperative interactions with US policymakers,” “benefits greatly from the existing US-led international order and wants to sustain those benefits,” and “[t]he disputes it has with the United States are serious, important and have been growing in recent years, but they have not yet reached a stage of overshadowing Chinese interests in sustaining a good working relationship,” the key words are “yet” and “interests,” omitting any talk of “identities.” Missing is an effort to grasp China’s strategy and the narrative on which it is based. Controversy does exist over China’s intentions, but in light of China’s recent policies and much of the narrative found in Chinese writings, there is reason to disagree.
Seeing clearly Russia’s options in Asia
The report puts a lot of emphasis on specific factors—support for demonstrations in Russia and sanctions against Russia’s moves in Ukraine—that drove Putin in 2012 and 2014 to shift against the West and tilt toward China, failing to recognize the long-term reorientation by Putin in these directions. Thus, it raises doubts about the depth of origin and the durability of Putin’s harder line toward the West and alignment with China. The report states, “A perceived vulnerability of the Russian regime in the face of internal instability seen fostered by the West prompted the Putin regime to shift policy to insure self-preservation” and “convinced the Russian leader that the West was committed to regime change in Russia.” Missing here is a more far-reaching explanation of Russia’s shift in both directions. Clearly, the function of Russian foreign policy is heavily domestic—to maintain the stability of the regime. The goal of Russian foreign policy is to provide for the security and the well being of the country’s elite.” However, catering to and shaping the ideas of the elite matter, too. The argument that “[a] rapprochement with the West and participation in its institutions would improve Russia’s security, economy and popular well being” is misleading in the context of the struggle between EU institutions and what Russians are seeking.
The report raises the “possibility that Moscow may be persuaded to improve relations with Tokyo that could work against Beijing’s hard line against Japan,” failing to mention Moscow’s turn away from that option since late 2016. It identifies India, Vietnam, and, oddly, Taiwan, as places where Moscow may work to balance Beijing’s power and sustain what Russians have called a multipolar foreign policy in Asia. However, as seen recently, the time for pursuing balanced Asian policies is rapidly passing, and none of these targets is offering Moscow the kind of balance—in identity or interests—it is seeking. Perhaps, the report is correct that “[u]p to this point, it has been hard to find instances when Russia took substantial risks in support of China’s serious challenges to the United States that did not involve overlapping Russian interests, and vice versa,” but that overlooks the degree to which Russia turned away from possibilities for multipolarity in favor of a China-led order.
North Korea has been the primary test of the strategic triangle in Asia, and Russia has sided with China—shifting away from South Korea or acquiescing to the US-Japan alliance. While Russia and China differ at times in how they deal with Kim Jong-un and prefer different outcomes for the economic integration of the North, identity factors as well as interests have made them strong partners in opposing the United States and its allies on most key issues. This is the challenge of greatest consequence, and it has been the subject of the most prolonged and intense negotiations. Failure to persuade Russia by Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington is proof of a problem.
For two decades, observers have predicted that Central Asia would be the graveyard of Sino-Russian relations. Interests clash there, as do identities—Russocentrism leading to Eurasianism and Sinocentrism to a “community of common destiny.” Despite recurrent Russian resentment and pretenses of a “Eurasian Economic Union,” China has the dominant economic role and can expect further Russian deference as long as it proceeds cautiously. Any serious clash in Central Asia appears unlikely.
The report recognizes that “[t]he Russian and Chinese goals are at odds with the core interests of most of their neighbors. Taken together, Moscow and Beijing favor fragmentation of NATO, the EU, the US alliance structure in Asia and regional groupings led by ASEAN and others that impinge on Chinese or Russian ambitions. The United States opposes coercive changes in the status quo and supports existing boundaries, stronger regional collective security, and the sovereignty and aspirations of all states in accord with international norms; a strong United States provides a welcome counterweight.” There is no recipe here for Moscow shifting away from Beijing toward other Asian states with an opening for US policymakers.
Acknowledging the limitations and opportunities in available US options
To calibrate US strategy to minimize the negative fallout from Sino-Russian relations is a goal of many these days, often with the assumption that an assertive US policy would be capable of having a major impact. There is an urge to do something. The report mentions, “Some urge the United States to seek as a matter of strategic importance to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing. The failure to do so would leave in place an authoritarian axis increasingly capable of challenging the liberal order central to the American position in the world.” Yet, the report is candid in finding “any American effort to manipulate one against the other very difficult. Unlike the Sino-Soviet animus of the Cold War, the two powers have come to depend on each other for economic, military and diplomatic support in the face of challenges they face brought on in particular by U.S. and Western policies at odds with their domestic and international ambitions.”
Nonetheless, the report also raises hopes for US effectiveness, seeing Sino-Russian ties as “a transactional relationship, focused on overlapping interests and with few broadly binding commitments. Such limited engagement reflects the two powers’ negative Cold War history and conflicting contemporary interests.” Later, the report adds, “the problems posed by Russia-China relations are big and that there are no easy fixes for these problems.” It makes the right call in asking US leaders to “play the long game” and to concentrate on strengthening US power—economic, military, and diplomatic—and the US-led international order. This means tackling the domestic volatility that preceded Trump and, even more, the serious setback to US leadership from Trump’s words and policies. It also requires making the right strategic choices, not flailing toward Russia or China in a manner that would reinforce perceptions of US weakness, not confusing the public with maneuvers that undermine US resolve and alliance confidence. The report strikes the right balance by stressing the limited impact US policy could have. It is a wakeup call to consider Russia and China together as well as separately.
The report considers five options. First, an accommodation of both Russia and China is seen as poorly timed and prone to be interpreted as weakness, while damaging US image at home and abroad. Second, a weaker form of accommodation coupled with strengthening at home and abroad is correctly seen as unlikely to be persuasive to Russia or China, which are prone to focus on the strengthening as a form of containment. Third, strengthening to sustain US primacy, while exploiting signs of differences between China and Russia, risks driving Russia and China closer—but if the two are drawing closer anyways, then there appears to be little added cost. Missing in this option is the importance of multilateralism by boosting alliances and partnerships, striving to overcome efforts at hedging by many states. Instead, a fourth option is posed, which combines support for allies and partners and some accommodation of Russia and China along with moderate US strengthening. I find this a confused choice, which will satisfy neither the allies nor Moscow and Beijing. Finally, there is an option to avoid values as the US strengthens itself. I do not see what problems that resolves.
A modified version of the third option is, in my view, the logical conclusion from the bulk of the report, especially if the reservations I have raised are added. This does not preclude continued efforts to persuade both Beijing and Moscow of benign intentions and eagerness for talks.
The report reviews various choices, noting pros and cons. It expresses a slight tilt toward China since Russia is more troublesome, but also rightly doubts China’s receptivity. A tilt toward Russia faces the same barrier that Russia is too close to China to proceed. Sino-Russian ties are too strong to make either of these choices. Although I find the report rather timid in expressing the strength of Sino-Russian relations, it rightly accepts that reality. The third choice is to offer incentives that exploit differences and encourage other states to follow the same approach, but this would be premised on overstating the differences and the leverage available as well as the US ability to manage allies and partners whose views vary as well as to limit Chinese or Russian exploitation of signs of weakness. This actually means tilting to one side with drawbacks to allies. Similarly, trying to meet China and Russia halfway has the same consequences.
It is important to refine strategic triangle analysis with two perspectives. First, US power is preponderant; we must avoid the trap of acting as if there are three equal powers. US leverage is, thus, greater, to proceed with the strengthening option after years of slippage. Second, the triangle is situated within a broader matrix, greatly favoring the United States and giving it compelling incentives for alliance- and partnership-building, concentrating on such forces as Japan, NATO, Australia, South Korea, and India. For both balance of power and a struggle over values and identities, the multilateral advantage is enormous.
In weighing options for US policy, these factors need to be incorporated. The strategic triangle framework offers a good starting point, but, as in the Cold War era, conclusions based on it need to be qualified by other considerations. In Europe, Russia’s power is dwarfed by NATO’s, and in Asia, China’s rising power has aroused a countervailing force led by the United States. Despite recent belittling of alliances by Trump, they are a critical force not to be overlooked due to a preoccupation with the strategic triangle.
This strategic triangle analysis directs attention to calculating the strength of the Sino-Russian relationship as well as their points of tension to recommend policy options for the United States. Reviewing the history of this analysis and its impact on earlier policy choices alerts us to pitfalls from deductive approaches on the basis of realist theory and inattention to national narratives. The lessons from earlier analyses point to a pattern of underestimating the force of national identities long-driving relations downward against the national interests of Moscow and Beijing—and for the past three decades, with brief exceptions, driving relations forward beyond expectations by outside observers. Focusing heavily on interests rather than identities is a prescription for underestimating the forces driving Sino-Russian relations in one direction or the other and overestimating the potential for the United States to find an option to redirect them.
Downplaying the growing strength of the Sino-Russian relationship centers on three lines of reasoning, suggestive of new US opportunities: first, the expectation that Russia keeps falling behind China, jeopardizing its interests and drive for status; second, the emphasis on a legacy of distrust and suspicion of double-dealing with the United States; and third, receptivity to optimism that China is inclined to work within the existing world order. Such thinking heightens hopes that a policy option can be found to transform the strategic triangle through US assertiveness. Realist logic has led to suggestions that, reminiscent of the 1970s, Washington can find a way to split Beijing and Moscow, with some focusing on China’s greater interest in globalization as a force for its vulnerability to carrots, and others arguing that Russia’s weaker status and conflicting sphere of interest with China make it the real target. Whether Russia is a “junior partner” to China as it had once been to the Soviet Union, Russia is part of the West and China is not, or Russia’s interests overlap more with those of the United States and its allies, Russia is ripe for carrots—and sticks—to abandon China and throw in its lot with the West. Others, however, lean to China as the weak link in this relationship. They argue that the “two powers differ in their opposition to the United States and the US-backed international order, with Russia much more willing to take risky measures to disrupt the existing order and confront the United States, whereas China wants to preserve much of the current order that benefits China and Beijing avoids potentially costly initiatives that risk significant backlash.” Temptations to move in either direction can be detected, prodding studies to guide policy choices.
The NBR interim report cautions against options that lean heavily to one side or the other, while urging alertness to a relationship that is likely to be exposed to further pressures beyond the next five years or so. It largely recognizes the strength of the Sino-Russian relationship and signs of US weakness and failure to widen divisions. Stress is put on what the United States can do to strengthen itself, thereby altering the triangle. Yet greater stress should be put on US moves beyond the triangular framework, given great advantages from alliances and partnerships. While Russia’s sensitivity to status loss and sphere of influence encroachment from China’s rise seems overstated, as long as China proceeds cautiously—as does China’s commitment to the established world order—the report hesitates to forecast how or when Sino-Russian relations may sour due to those or other factors. Since my reservations lower doubt about the durability of the relationship over a longer time frame, in light of national identity narratives that overlap, they reinforce recommendations centered on strengthening US leverage by policies and rhetoric at home and by boosting alliances and partners.