The United States / Russia / China Triangle and the Improbability of a Reversal of Alliances

The priority given by American diplomacy to the Chinese threat sometimes leads to fears of a shift in favor of Russia, the objective being to drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow. Ready to relay the language of Russian propaganda, some enthusiasts were already explaining that the meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva on June 16 would pave the way for a new Russian-American rapprochement at the expense of China. In truth, such a geopolitical scenario overlooks the strength of the Sino-Russian alliance.

Revisionist powers working to subvert the international order, Russia and People’s China are united by hostility to the West and the feeling that it is time for revenge. In the diplomatic and military spheres, cooperation is concrete and extensive. Propaganda systems support each other and there are signs that the two countries are working together in the field of cyber attacks. This alliance should not be seen as a purely circumstantial and aberrant phenomenon.

For too long neglected, the rise of People’s China is upsetting the global power equations. Of course, the United States was already concerned about it at the beginning of the century, but the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the “war on terror” focused attention on the Greater Middle East. It is under the presidency of Donald Trump that the risks and threats linked to Beijing have become the priority. On the European side, the awakening was even later. When China deploys its power over a large geographical arc, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, maneuvering in the heart of Europe, and investing in the common spaces that condition security and prosperity (aerospace, sea and deep sea, digital space and information field), some relativize: China would be a “continent too far” for NATO.

However, the shift in the balance of power and wealth towards Asia determines a general realignment, which the final declaration of the NATO summit stipulates: the People’s Republic of China is considered a “systemic challenge” (Final Declaration, 14 June 2021). In the early 1970s, it was a kind of alliance that Richard Nixon, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, had negotiated with Mao Tse-tung. Since the death of Stalin, the alliance between Beijing and Moscow was disintegrating. From March to August 1969, the Chinese and Soviets had clashed on the Ussuri River (Far East) and on the borders of Sin-Kiang (East Turkestan). In the Kremlin, there was talk of preventive nuclear strikes on Chinese soil.

Faced with the USSR, Beijing and Washington came closer together. In July 1971, Henry Kissinger went secretly to Peking, a prelude to the official visit of Richard Nixon, from 21 to 28 February 1972. Diplomatic normalization took place in 1979. Almost a decade after Richard Nixon’s visit, this partnership was extended to the economy. During Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms (“market socialism”), the Americans made a bet on China. Economic openness and development were supposed to pave the way for political liberalization, which would facilitate the peaceful integration of this civilization-state into international structures. We are at the end of this “romance” that will have upset the power relations.

It was under the Trump presidency that the “Nixon in reverse” theme took hold; the “decoupling” of the American and Chinese economies was supposed to have as its corollary a new American-Russian “reset”, in order to make it possible to untie the strategic interests of Moscow and Beijing. The first occurrence of the expression is uncertain. This diplomatic-strategic option was promoted quite early on by Dimitri K. Simes, director of the Center for the National Interest, editor of the magazine The National Interest. In fact, Kissinger, in a conversation with Richard Nixon on February 14, 1972, spoke of the need for such a swing of the pendulum, when it would be time to counterbalance China.

Since then, Beijing’s self-assertion and the shift in the balance of power to Asia have turned the tide. It seems a long time ago that Europe, after the 2008 crisis, feared the emergence of a Sino-American G2. That said, the political-strategic hopes invested in a “Nixon in reverse” overlook the strength of the ties between Beijing and Moscow. The partnership was established in the 1990s with limited objectives. The “multivalent diplomacy” theorized and practiced by Yevgeny Primakov aimed at changing the “terms of trade” in order to negotiate an advantageous partnership with the United States (a “new Yalta”!).

In the two decades that followed, political-strategic ties were steadily strengthened, and the “anti-hegemonic” objective prevailed over considerations of expediency. At the bilateral level, several treaties have resolved border issues. In 2011, the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed ten years earlier was strengthened and re-characterized (“Comprehensive Strategic and Cooperative Partnership based on equality, mutual trust, mutual support, and joint prosperity and friendship from generation to generation”). At the multilateral level, the “Shanghai Group”, established in 1996, has become an organization: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes six countries: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This vast Eurasian geosystem, used by Russia and China to promote an “anti-hegemonic” discourse against the United States and the West, is designed to duplicate the UN.

In terms of arms sales, Russia has given up S-400s and Sukhoi-35s to the People’s Republic of China. In October 2019, Vladimir Putin made it known that Russia would sell a warning system for Chinese missile defense. He himself spoke of an alliance between Moscow and Beijing. The two capitals coordinate their diplomatic positions at the UN and show their convergence on regional geopolitical problems. The People’s Liberation Army participates in Russian military maneuvers (Vostok-2018, Tsentr-2019, Kavkaz-2020). In July 2019, a military and diplomatic incident revealed the existence of Russian and Chinese bomber patrols in the approaches to Korea. Finally, this alliance extends into cyberspace and propaganda.

In short, an examination of Sino-Russian relations reveals the contours of a geopolitical whole whose substance is far more substantial than a vague “strategic partnership. The convergences are deep, the resentments against the West are shared and the leaders of both powers believe that the future belongs to them. Ideologically, this alliance resonates with the great themes of Slavophilia and Eurasism, reinforced by the reversal of the dynamics, now from East to West.

So we should not see it as a purely circumstantial and aberrant phenomenon. If the “Nixon in reverse” is not a logical impossibility (in the sense of a square circle), it is no less unlikely in the short and medium term. If they are unable to dissociate the scourges, the Western powers will have to respond together, simultaneously and in a coordinated manner, to the Russian and Chinese threats.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.

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