The Case of Sino-Russian Relations in the US Shadow

Editorial Staff

Studies of the history of the Cold War find the impact of values so overwhelming that national interests were left on the sidelines by Beijing and Moscow to their deep, later regret. Claims by both Moscow and Beijing over the past quarter century to be building a relationship based only on national interests defy evidence in plain sight. Throughout both periods, Washington looms high over this bilateral relationship, influencing how much values as well as interests matter. In looking back to earlier decades, what lessons should we draw about the balance between the two poles of policy-making? Which earlier decades are most relevant to where relations are heading? In looking ahead, what balance between interests and values should we foresee for this pairing?  If US relations with Japan and South Korea are being reassessed for the balance of interests and values, there is no less reason to examine the critical Sino-Russian nexus for that balance too.

Lessons can be drawn from past configurations over 70 years of the triangle of Beijing, Moscow, and Washington. As we look ahead, we find parallels in the strong Sino-Soviet bond of the 1950s demonizing the US, the sense of shared threat in the 1970s that drove two states together (in that case the US and China), and the peak of bilateral cooperation in the 1980s as Sino-US ties were close, while Moscow and Beijing vainly sought more balance in the triangle. The weakest leg of the triangle may chafe at one-sided dependence, but there is no easy way out. In the 2000s, Sino-Russian relations drew considerably closer, as each challenged the US separately despite various overlapping concerns. In their prevailing caution and limited coordination, we see a contrast to what is likely to happen in the 2020s. In the 2010s, as Putin and Xi Jinping set more assertive courses, the forces of alienation from the US have been continuously building, which bodes poorly for trust with the US in the 2020s. By separating the economic, military, and national identity dimensions, the comparisons with prior decades deepen. The 1980s are most instructive.

The chance of a Chinese Gorbachev—the hated target of heated Chinese invectives for three decades—is close to zero, making a turnabout highly unlikely. In the strategic reaffirmation after Trump, a US turnabout to woo Putin or Xi is also highly improbable. A Putin defection from China might appear possible, as could have occurred in the 1980s with a Chinese defection from the US, but the chance that Moscow will rethink antagonism to Washington is smaller than was the chance that Beijing would reconsider its hostility to Moscow in the 1980s. Values again take precedence over interests in ties between Moscow and Beijing, as panels in Washington, DC and at the International Studies Association (ISA) meetings in Toronto have explored over recent months.

The triangle of Beijing, Moscow, and Washington has been of the utmost consequence over the past seven decades and promises to be so in the coming decade. Whether the focus be the spread of communism across the globe, the breakdown of the communist bloc, or the victory of the US-led world order, this triangle and its components have continuously served as the principal test for anyone adventurous enough to predict the future in geopolitics on an international scale. On matters of global ideology, strategic arms, and spheres of influence, these three powers stand at the forefront. Drawing lessons from repeated historical shifts, this article puts the forces driving Moscow and Beijing at the center of attention while looking ahead to the coming decade of the 2020s with an eye to the balance of values and interests in setting a future course for the triangle.

Two types of values are differentiated in this analysis: universal values and national identities. The former were anathema to the traditional communist regimes in Beijing and Moscow, and in the era of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin they have regained that irredeemable stigma. Resistance to the danger of democratization, rule of law, and human rights spreading in their countries keeps appearing as a shared objective influencing the relationship. Meanwhile, the highly charged role of a dogmatic ideology dominating in national identities has been replaced by multi-dimensional identity construction amenable to closer relations. Ironically, narrow orthodoxy overlapping in many respects about the pillars of communism made agreement on national identity aspirations nearly impossible, while diverse identity themes with varied areas of overlap make it compelling.

If one were to take a realist perspective on possible threats in an indeterminate future, then China and Russia would be doubtful cases for a close relationship in the current period. Russia has a long border with China, whose past claims to vast stretches of Russian territory are remembered. It prizes hegemony if not reunification with Central Asia, where Chinese inroads are increasing. In proclaiming multipolarity, including in Eurasia, its objective, it cannot but recognize that the main barrier to that is China’s quest for regional hegemony. Even should national interests seen on a global scale or in Europe and the Middle East not prioritize hedging against China, the case against doing so in Northeast Asia—where Russia has the highest territorial stakes—would be unmistakable. If, in the 1980s-2000s, interests were often interpreted differently, leading to a lesser priority for close ties to China and, correspondingly, a greater role for the US relationship, newfound confidence has altered thinking on interests and boosted the priority of narrow values. Values versus interests in Sino-Russian relations are best clarified in the triangular US context.

Reviewing the past 70 years

Looking back on the history of this triangle over the 70 years since the Chinese communists took power, we can find some similarities in past decades to the one we are about to enter. China was far too weak to stand as a leg in a strategic triangle throughout the century prior to World War II. However, in the 1940s when Moscow and Washington suspiciously eyed each other as allies against Japan’s aggression and, later, as rival forces in China’s civil war, there were important elements of triangularity. Subsequently, during most decades, different combinations of two countries stood side by side in opposition to the third with critical variations depending on factors such as relative economic and military strength, ideology, and degree of economic integration. As the 2010s come to a close and we look ahead, we can draw certain parallels with previous decades, taking account of the impact of values vs. interests.

The 1950s were similar to today in the fact that Moscow and Beijing had a strong bond despite gnawing tensions, while each had a troubled relationship with Washington. Yet, they differ in three main respects: the low level of economic integration of Moscow and Beijing with each other and the outside world; the national identity discourse in the two countries on a dogmatic version of Marxist ideology with ramifications for their openness to the outside and their views of each other; and strong US confidence and consensus in opposing communist states.1 The 1960s were a time of maximum isolation for China with scant hopes in Moscow or Washington for better relations, leaving diplomacy at a virtual dead-end despite Soviet-US summitry—a sharp contrast to the present.2 The 1970s suggested greater similarity—since Washington and Beijing were building closer ties as they both viewed Moscow as a shared threat. Yet, China’s weakness and delay in forging a path forward contrasted with the mood of any of the three today. In the 1980s, Washington and Beijing were at the apex of strong relations, while Beijing and Moscow vainly explored ties to each other to make a more balanced triangle.3

There are possible parallels with the 2020s if Washington and Moscow should prove inclined to explore new ways to improve relations against the backdrop of close Sino-Russian ties. Thus, these four decades of strategic triangularity during the Cold War era offer multiple precedents. In particular, the 1970s and 1980s suggest two alternative scenarios that could be instructive as we look forward. Sino-US interests in the 1970s and part of the 1980s drove ties closer, while Sino-Soviet value divergence kept ties far apart. Then, from the mid-80s, there was still momentum from Sino-US interest overlap, even as the Sino-Soviet identity gap narrowed, and as national interests were gaining ground in impacting this relationship, but just as Gorbachev focused on narrowing the national interest gap with the US, Deng reacted to Gorbachev as more of a national identity threat, while only slowly shifting direction in assessing national interests.

The post-Cold War era provides three further examples of increasingly relevant triangularity for the 2020s. The 1990s saw Russia lying low, frustrated by its dependence on the US. In stages, Russia turned toward China, even if more rhetorically than substantively. Meanwhile, China continued to bide its time, angered by the US but only daring to pose a challenge rhetorically given the power discrepancy.4 If two weak and sullen states are not what we should expect in the 2020s, increased economic trouble in both could lead to a period of greater caution. In the 2000s, Sino-Russian relations drew considerably closer, as each challenged the US more openly. However, their agenda of active diplomacy to deal with shared interests was still limited.5 Neither felt empowered enough to challenge the US assertively, nor did they yet work closely together despite various overlapping concerns. In this prevailing caution and still limited coordination, we see a contrast to what is likely to happen as we look ahead to the 2020s.

The temptation for many is to extrapolate future trends for the 2020s from what happened in the 2010s, a decade that has seen both Putin and Xi Jinping set an assertive course to reestablish a sphere of influence, to demonize the US role in the world, and to regard each other as principal strategic partners with overtones of an alliance. In the waning Obama years, they harshly condemned US policy in Ukraine and the South China Sea, respectively.6 In the first Trump years, they expressed mixed sentiments about their chances to build a personal relationship with Trump that could bridge important geostrategic, economic, and national identity differences. On all three dimensions, US ties to Russia and China have grown more antagonistic. As problems mounted, there was a glimmer of hope that Trump would cut a deal to set relations on a more positive path. However, the forces of alienation from the US have been building continuously, which bodes poorly for forging trust with the United States in the 2020s.7

Looking toward the 2020s

Expectations are high for considerable parity in economic power between Washington and Beijing. Moscow is a distant third, with a GDP only about one-tenth of either of the others. In terms of military power, the discrepancy will be much smaller, subject to varied interpretation depending on whether the focus is on strategic weapons, regional arenas, or new forms of warfare in cybersecurity or space. While Washington will maintain a considerable overall lead, Moscow and Beijing will vary in the capabilities they bring that serve as a balance or area denial to US forces in their respective neighborhoods. In the realm of ideology or national identity, the Sino-Russian overlap will be conspicuous, as has become unmistakable under Xi and Putin.8 They overlap in the residue of socialist ideology, in historical thinking on the negative impact of the West, in demonization of Western civilization, in rejection of civil society, in opposition to the liberal, international order, and in insistence that US-led “cultural imperialism” is dangerous.

Given three dimensions, what parallels to past decades are discernable? The economic dimension parallels the situation in the 1970s, when Moscow was insistent that it continue to catch up to the US with parity in sight, while Beijing trailed decisively. The military dimension is moving away from the situation after the end of the Cold War when US power was militarily dominant, toward triangular military concerns with significant powers unlike in any previous decade. The ideological dimension only has a parallel in the 1950s with two of the three powers standing together, although communist dogma has now been replaced with clear national identity overlap. Given today’s internationalization of economic relations, some may take substantial ideological as well as economic differences as evidence that similarities are not to be found in triangularity in past decades. This mindset leads to underestimating the other ways ideology can be expressed within the broader context of national identity and to downplaying the prospects of decoupling economies, which is easier to do in today’s increasingly tense environment, even if it is likely to fall short of a hot war. The Sino-Russian link is buttressed by many national identity dimensions.

Beijing and Moscow have seen their relations shift as a result of leadership changes. The time lag from Stalin’s death in 1953 to the open eruption of the Sino-Soviet split in 1960 was seven years, punctuated by the divide over Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization in 1956. The time lag from Mao’s death in 1976 to the announcement of normalization talks as Brezhnev was dying in 1982 was six years, punctuated by Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” in 1978. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were secondary figures in the overall timetable, each complicating the rapprochement in relations between Moscow and Beijing, as Deng did as well. In this long-term perspective, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are natural outcomes of long-term, triangular dynamics, unlike these earlier leaders hesitant about Sino-Russian relations at moments when either Beijing or Moscow was obsessed with domestic transformation. Exceptional weakness drove Beijing from the late 1970s and Moscow from the late 1980s to be cautious toward each other—a contrast to greater confidence at other times and, presumably, in the 2020s.  Xi and Putin will be in office well into the 2020s and possibly, through the decade’s end. There is no reason to anticipate a leadership change that would alter the visible pattern of triangularity.

Donald Trump has a soft spot for Putin and has been tempted to reach a grand deal with Xi, but the backlash to his impulsiveness only reinforces the call for historically informed strategic thinking. Overconcentration on the challenges of an established hegemon facing a rising aspirant to gain hegemony have led to downplaying the communist legacy and triangularity. China in the 2020s will, arguably, be too weak to mount a direct challenge to newly reinforced US determination, as in the Cold War, to stand firm against a perceived foe. Russia with China’s backing, however, may continue to probe for weaknesses in the US armor in Europe and the Middle East. Trump should be viewed as the anomaly. A progressive Democratic inclined to retreat from “world policeman” responsibilities is a longshot. One against two, with US allies more than compensating for these odds, is the probable pattern of the strategic triangle. The decade of triangularity most similar to the emerging pattern is the 1980s. The Sino-Russian relationship of the 2020s would, accordingly, resemble the Sino-US relationship of the 1980s. It promises to be strategically close on the surface without a lot of depth behind it, but only to a slight degree tested by Russo-US diplomatic overtures to each other as Sino-US relations set the main direction for the coming decade. The chance of a Chinese Gorbachev is meager, making a turnabout highly unlikely. A US turnabout to woo Putin or Xi is also highly improbable. A Putin defection from China might appear possible, as could have occurred in the 1980s with a Chinese defection from the US, but the chance is even lower for that to occur, given his identity concerns.

Comparing the 1980s and the 2020s

Washington and Beijing had a close relationship in the 1980s, but Beijing felt slighted by how its interests were taken for granted. The next decade could also expose a Russia feeling slighted by China. Moscow’s current great power expectations are higher than Beijing’s were in a decade in which economic reform and openness were its driving forces. Xi Jinping’s arrogance about Putin’s lack of an alternative to dependence on China is comparable to Ronald Reagan’s high confidence that Deng Xiaoping would stick to the US side. The stronger power faces recurrent challenges in keeping its weaker partner content, but as long as both deem the third side of the triangle the enemy, the quasi-alliance is safe. The chance that Moscow will rethink antagonism to Washington is, arguably, smaller than was the chance that Beijing would reconsider its hostility to Moscow in the 1980s. Moscow lacks the optimism of growth that Beijing had then.

What held Beijing back from complete normalization with Moscow in the 1980s?  Are similar forces at play in Moscow’s view of Washington in the 2020s? Deng declared “three obstacles” that inhibited normalization: Moscow’s support for Vietnamese forces in Cambodia; the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan; and the Soviet military build-up in Mongolia and along the northern border of China. Gorbachev satisfied all three of these demands in the late 1980s, but there proved to be further obstacles hindering the establishment of relations. As the decade proceeded, doubt about the Soviet economy intensified—the economic benefits of normalization faded quickly, just as trade and investment with the US and the countries linked to the US rose precipitously in the eyes of China’s leaders. Furthermore, at decade’s end, the ideological case for making common cause with Moscow shifted from positive (if only Soviet officials could turn from ideological hostility to Deng’s reforms, which they did in “new thinking” in 1986) to negative. Gorbachev allowed that very thinking to undermine the pillars of communist rule deemed essential in Beijing. Even, in strategic terms, Moscow suddenly lost a good deal of its appeal, as Gorbachev put aside the struggle with Washington for common objectives, uprooting balance of power calculations. Thus, there was only hollow normalization of relations until well into the 1990s in spite of the aspirations of part of the Chinese leadership, especially after the divide with the US widened from June 1989. From a balance of power perspective or a national identity one, Beijing and Moscow should have forged stronger ties through the 1980s but did not.

Putin’s Russia in the 2020s has, according to this framework, more reasons to stick with China than did Chinese leaders to stick with the United States four decades earlier. US national identity underscored by criticism of Russian authoritarianism and its international support for “rogue” regimes, such as in Venezuela and Syria, poses a far greater challenge to Moscow than did Soviet national identity to Deng’s China once Deng had broken with Mao’s ideological legacy. For an energy exporting state, today’s energy-rich US lacks appeal, as the Soviet Union lacked appeal for Deng’s China, but US leverage over the global financial system may change the calculus if Xi Jinping does not follow the US example in the 1980s of finding increasing ways of holding a partner’s interest. The balance of power matters too: Beijing prioritized the Soviet threat along its border, but that faded quickly. In the 2020s we can expect Russia to keep prioritizing the US opposition to its annexation of Crimea and US pressure on Russian policy toward Ukraine as well as to other former Soviet republics and allies. The strategic case for Russia sustaining firm geopolitical opposition to the US is much stronger than it was for China to maintain its anti-Moscow position.

Chinese leaders faced strong opposition in top party circles for preserving close US ties, but they did not have an appealing alternative as Moscow succumbed to thinking that was disdainful and to decline that made it undesirable in the 1980s and early 1990s. Russian leadership has clearly been more fully consolidated under Putin, but it, too, is unlikely to perceive a viable alternative to staying close to its current strategic partner. Washington is less attractive than Moscow was 40 years earlier for reasons of national identity and balance of power, even if economics raises a more complex variable. Beijing has ways to make the economic case stronger for Moscow to stand with it by assisting Russian infrastructure expansion and boosting trade and investment just as Washington did, especially in the 1990s, slowing the pace of Sino-Russian rapprochement. Some may surmise that deft US wielding of the “economics card” could alter the calculus in Moscow, in contrast to the hopeless economic situation in Russia during the 1990s that kept Beijing wary, but the weight of other factors in Russo-US relations and the manner in which Russia’s economy has evolved (away from Medvedev’s “modernization” and toward a “turn to the East” heavily reliant on natural resource exports) leave such incentives doubtful.  

Conclusion

Over the past three decades, the Sino-Russian-US strategic triangle has shifted continuously in the direction of a stronger Sino-Russian nexus with deeper cleavages repeatedly emerging in the ties of both with the United States. The 1950s precedent is a poor model for today when ideology is less significant, dependency less pronounced, and levels of economic integration far greater. Yet, in comparison to all later decades, the national identity overlap of Beijing and Moscow is rising to a level second only to the 1950s. The 1960s with one party isolated does not serve as a model, and the 1970s does only insofar as two parties joined versus a third but does not given the absence of national identity overlap or meaningful economic ties. The 1990s saw suppressed affinity due to calculations in Beijing and Moscow of urgent economic requirements. Incipient tendencies in the 2000s are better revealed in the 2010s, which appear headed to fuller expression in the 2020s. In the 1980s we can identify the most parallels to the outcome of these tendencies without positing a turnabout similar to what occurred under Gorbachev, who was an anomaly unlikely to reappear.

In regard to security, the United States poses a formidable obstacle to Xi’s Sinocentric regional aspirations and Putin’s resurrection of a Eurasian (Soviet) sphere of influence. It will continue to drive Russia and China together, not unlike the impact in the 1980s of Soviet military behavior that drove the United States and China together. The alternative to Washington accepting Moscow’s control over Ukraine and beyond and Beijing’s control over the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, and beyond is not realistic. Moscow’s retreat in the second half of the 1980s paved the way, albeit with a time lag due to other factors, for far-reaching change in the strategic triangle. Such a shift appears highly improbable for the US, given its strategic outlook and its alliance partners. The pattern of the 1980s is already being recreated in the 2010s; it can endure.

In regard to national identity, on all dimensions—ideology (albeit watered down from the Cold War era), history, sectoral (including civilizational), vertical (including attitudes toward civil society, democracy, and external NGOs), and horizontal (including views of the international order)—prospects for bridging the Sino-US or Russo-US divide keep diminishing. In contrast to the rapidly improving prospects in the 1980s-90s for narrowing the divide between Moscow and Beijing (despite the interval of Chinese reform thought in the mid-80s and of Soviet and Russian liberal thought reaching a peak in Yeltsin’s few years), there is no sign of similar prospects for the US national identity gap with either country. The 2010s promise to be a precursor of what we should expect in the 2020s—a deepening divide with growing, forthright ideological overtones.

Finally, we must keep our eyes on economics as a wildcard in this strategic triangle. In the 80s and 90s, economic expediency delayed the likely course of triangular dynamics. Slowing growth in China and stagnation in Russia without success in forging the economic plans both are dangling in front of the world (including a new international financial order freeing them from the weight of US pressure, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Eurasian Economic Union) could lead to new delays in reshaping the triangle. Sino-Russian relations would not draw much closer, Sino-US relations would be marked by renewed restraint, and even Russo-US relations might not resume their sharp descent. However, no fundamental readjustment in the strategic triangle is in sight. Russo-US economic ties are unpromising, as is Russo-Japanese economic integration after six years of Abe Shinzo and Putin exploring that prospect. Sino-US economic tensions may lead to short-term agreements, but tensions are bound to deepen. Even if Sino-Russian economic ties were to fail to leap ahead as promised, that would not likely have a major triangular impact. If a delay occurs, as happened earlier, it is hard to foresee any about-face in the underlying pattern of triangularity in the 2020s. More likely, there will be no such delay due to economic factors, as the Sino-Russian relationship strengthens, unlike the Sino-US relationship during the 1990s. If interests may prove ambivalent, values are likely to be decisive in boosting Sino-Russian ties.   

1. Odd Arne Wested, Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945-1963 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998).

2. Sergey Radchenko, Two Suns in the Heaven: The Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962-1967 (Washington, DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2009).

3. Gilbert Rozman, The Chinese Debate about Soviet Socialism, 1978-1985 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

4. Gilbert Rozman, “Sino-Russian Relations in the 1990s: A Balance Sheet,” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring 1998), pp. 93-113.

5. Gilbert Rozman, Kazuhiko Togo, and Joseph Ferguson, eds., Russian Strategic Thought toward Asia (New York: Palgrave, 2006): and Gilbert Rozman, Chinese Strategic Thought toward Asia (New York: Palgrave, 2010).

6. Alexander Lukin, China and Russia: The New Rapprochement (Cambridge: Cambridge Polity, 2018).

7. Richard J. Ellings and Robert Sutter, eds., Axis of Authoritarians: Implications of China-Russia Cooperation (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2018).

8. Gilbert Rozman, The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National Identities, Bilateral Relations, and East vs. West in the 2010s (Washington, DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2014).

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