In a world filled with conflict and threats, foreign policy increasingly means the difference between war and peace. Yet relationships among the world’s three most important and powerful nations, the U.S., China, and Russia, appear to be increasingly based on a disarmingly simple principle: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
There have long been serious tensions among the three. Imperial China suffered at the hands of the Russian Empire and United States. The U.S. responded to the Bolshevik revolution by sending troops and took years before establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
The -USSR supported and then turned on the Republic of China, backing the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S. refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China, before finally reconciling in 1972. The Soviet-China relationship turned bad, as the two states fought a bloody border war. Moscow eventually improved relations with China and, after the Soviet collapse, with Washington as well.
However, the good times did not last. The U.S. has fallen out with both the Russian Federation and the PRC. In contrast, over the last decade or so, Beijing and Moscow have gotten closer and closer.
Significant differences between the latter two remain. For instance, China is supplanting Russia economically in Central Asia and growing Chinese predominance creates the possibility of Beijing demanding that Moscow reverse “unequal” treaties from the 19th century. However, the center of their relationship increasingly is the U.S.—in a negative way. Their shared adversary, America, makes them friends, even if uncomfortable ones at times.
U.S. policymakers have tended to dismiss the strength of the Sino-Russian relationship. Before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, some argued that in time Russia would come to its senses, reject the Chinese temptation, and submissively join the U.S.-European consensus. After the invasion, the consensus shifted. Now the presumption of optimists in the West is that Beijing will come to its senses, dump Moscow, and improve relations with the West, even if they come short of accepting the U.S.-European consensus.
It is dangerous to assume anything about international affairs is permanent, but U.S. and European relations, tightly linked through NATO, with Russia are seriously— perhaps irrevocably—damaged. By starting a war in Europe, even at its periphery, Moscow has turned the continent hostile. Even Germany and France will find it difficult to reestablish their previous relationships with Russia after the fighting ends. And there was little goodwill toward Moscow in Washington before the conflict.
By the same token, the Russian Federation has little reason to trust the U.S. or Europe. Both violated multiple assurances that NATO would not expand, exploited Moscow’s weakness to extend allied influence, dismantled Russian friend Serbia, sought to exclude Moscow from Balkan affairs, and supported regime change in states along Russia’s border. Washington might respond that all is fair in love and geopolitics, but the U.S. would never accept similar treatment—say a Russian-coup against a pro-American president in Mexico and subsequent admission of Mexico to the Warsaw Pact. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was criminal and unjustified, but not entirely surprising.
China’s ties with the U.S., as well as, to a surprising degree, Europe, also have deteriorated sharply. The Europeans traditionally emphasized economics over security when addressing Beijing. However, issues of human rights, trade competition, and aggressive military behavior have soured relations. NATO’s Madrid summit hosted Asian leaders; the alliance released a statement mentioning China for the first time.
Worse is the relationship between Washington and Beijing. Trade, industrial policy, Asia-Pacific territorial claims, human rights, Hong Kong, and especially Taiwan have come between the world’s two great powers. Taiwan is proving to be particularly incendiary, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip greatly exacerbating tensions. With President Joe Biden pledging for a fourth time that he would take military action to defend Taiwan, war between America and China over the island looks increasingly possible.
At this dangerous time the two governments are losing contact with one another. Noted Jane Perlez of the New York Times, after Pelosi’s publicity stunt: “Beijing canceled three rounds of military talks and postponed five others on climate and international crime.”
Falling along with inter-government ties has been public opinion of Russia and the PRC. According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs: “In July 2022, Americans give China an average rating of 32 [out of 100], and Russia an icy 22. Americans felt warmest toward China in 1986 (with an average of 53) after President Reagan visited the country in 1984, and warmest toward Russia in 1990 (average reading of 58), after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
At the same time, Moscow and Beijing continue to move forward together. At the February Olympics the two famously proclaimed a “friendship” with “no limits.” Admittedly, Russia’s debacle in Ukraine is a setback: Even Vladimir Putin was forced to admit that Xi Jinping had “concerns” over the so-called “special military operation.” However, Beijing’s need for a partner in confronting the U.S. and Europe remains as great as ever.
In fact, China has gained greater leverage over Moscow, with the latter reduced to junior partner. And so far, despite U.S. threats over Beijing’s stance, the PRC has maneuvered carefully. Noted the Economist: “Taking advantage of Russia’s semi-isolation, China is buying its oil and gas at low prices, and will soon pay for more of it with its non-convertible currency, the yuan. Ever-cautious about its interests, China has avoided overt challenges to Western sanctions.”
Unfortunately, a foreign policy based on the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle exacerbates tensions globally. A new Cold War with Russia is not in America’s or Europe’s interest, especially with the risk of the Russo-Ukraine war spreading.
Even more dangerous is the collapse in relations between the U.S. and China. Forcing countries to choose between Washington and Beijing would spread political division globally. Radical commercial decoupling would undermine economic growth around the world. War between the two would be catastrophic.
While there is still time, the U.S., China, and Russia should reset their relationships, difficult though that will be. Doing so will require settling the Russo-Ukraine war, maintaining a peaceful status quo for Taiwan, cooperating when possible, and moderating disputes over the big issues.
The difficulties in doing so would be great; the costs of failure would be even greater. The time to begin reforming ties is now.