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Foreign Policy

Washington Is the Midwife to the Birth of Any China-Russia Alliance

Mar 06, 2023

Two important and revealing news stories appeared on the same day in late February.  One announced that the United States and its allies imposed yet another round of economic sanctions on Russia.  The other reported the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is considering selling military drones to Moscow.  That story was even more specific than Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement a week earlier that Beijing was contemplating providing Russia with “lethal support”—including weapons and ammunition—to help the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine.  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield subsequently told the press that both President Biden and Secretary Blinken had conveyed warnings to their Chinese counterparts that such a move would be a “game-changer” in U.S.-PRC relations. 

The Biden administration and much of the news media were already expressing growing suspicions about the emergence of a de facto alliance between Moscow and Beijing.  Such worries are still somewhat premature, but Russia and the PRC definitely are drawing closer together—especially in their respective stances toward the United States.  U.S. leaders have no one to blame but themselves for that development.  Washington has pursued disturbingly confrontational policies toward Moscow and Beijing simultaneously.  Such an approach violates a cardinal rule of effective foreign policy against antagonizing two great powers at the same time, thereby pushing them into close collaboration to counter a mutual adversary.  

At this point China’s policy still seems to be one of nominal neutrality regarding the mounting tensions between the United States and Russia—but with a noticeable “lean” toward Moscow’s position.  Emblematic of that approach, Beijing has just issued a new peace plan to end the war in Ukraine, and PRC officials continue to portray China’s role as one of a concerned neutral power trying to resolve a bloody, disruptive conflict.  Unfortunately, the Biden administration, increasingly frustrated in its efforts to forge a global coalition against Russia, regards a neutral posture on the Russia-Ukraine war as de facto support for Moscow.  

That intolerant attitude is one example among many of how Washington’s behavior is alienating China and driving Beijing and Moscow together.  Reports that PRC President Xi Jinping will make a summit trip to Russia are merely the latest confirmation of a warming bilateral relationship.  The two countries have signed several agreements in recent months increasing the extent of economic cooperation.  Given China’s status as a major energy consumer and Russia’s role as a leading global energy producer, collaboration in that field is extremely logical.  U.S.-European Union sanctions on Russian energy exports have pressured Moscow to seek other markets, and China stands out as the largest, most appealing option.  In June 2022, Russia became the PRC’s largest oil supplier, eclipsing Saudi Arabia. 

However, something deeper than growing bilateral ties on energy policy seems to be taking place.  Russia and the PRC (along with Iran and some other actors) are making an unsubtle effort to dilute the U.S. dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.  Sino-Russian cooperation on strategic issues is increasing as well.  Joint military exercises have taken place on several occasions over the past 18 months.  These various factors appear to reflect a collaborative effort to resist U.S. hegemony on multiple levels.  Washington’s conduct toward both Russia and China—some of it going back decades—has become a key reason for that development. 

Unduly provocative moves by the United States since the 1990s have wrecked relations with Russia—perhaps beyond repair.  A minority of foreign policy analysts, including me, warned early on that expanding NATO eastward would ultimately lead to a nasty confrontation with Moscow.  We especially admonished U.S. leaders against ignoring the Kremlin’s “red lines” with respect to making Ukraine a NATO military asset.  The ongoing war confirms the accuracy of those warnings.  Unfortunately, 5 U.S. administrations treated Russia with contempt—trampling on its historical ties in the Balkans, interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs while ignoring Moscow’s core security interests there, and rescinding key arms control measures, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies agreement, both of which were important to the Kremlin.  By treating Russia as an enemy, the United States created a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

One might think that with U.S.-Russian relations in a death spiral, basic prudence would have compelled U.S. policymakers to adopt a conciliatory stance toward Beijing.  However, the opposite trend has taken place.  Washington has implemented one hostile measure after another toward the PRC.  On the economic front, both the Trump and Biden administrations embraced a variety of protectionist trade measures.  In October 2022, Biden escalated economic tensions by placing sweeping tech restrictions on China, including a provision barring the PRC from using semiconductor chips made with U.S. tools anywhere in the world.  It constituted the harshest economic measure by far ever leveled against Beijing since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979. 

The principal source of tensions between Washington and Beijing remains the Taiwan issue, and that dispute has the greatest potential to make Beijing receptive to an alliance with Russia to counter U.S. power.  Already by the end of Donald Trump’s administration, Washington’s security relationship with Taipei had reached the point that it nearly constituted a rebirth of the old bilateral military alliance during the Cold War.  That trend has continued and intensified under President Biden., Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen recently boasted that the island was boosting its military ties with the United States again.  Already extensive bilateral military cooperation certainly appears to be on the rise.  

Taiwan is fast becoming a de facto U.S. strategic ally as well as an economic and political client, and U.S. leaders are ignoring Beijing’s red lines on that issue, much as they did Russia’s red lines regarding Ukraine.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s high-profile trip to the island in the summer of 2022, especially her meeting with Tsai, highlighted that development.  U.S. support has become increasingly blatant since then, with numerous visits by congressional delegations and high-level executive branch officials.  In late February, while the Biden administration was pressing Beijing not to send lethal aid to Russia, yet another U.S. congressional delegation was on its way to Taipei to underscore Washington’s continued support.  Hawks in the U.S. foreign policy community increasingly try to link the Taiwan and Ukraine issues, pushing for a confrontational stance on both fronts to “defend democracy.”  

The deterioration of Washington’s relations with China are noticeable and alarming.  U.S. leaders have managed to blow even minor incidents, such as the flight of a Chinese balloon through U.S. airspace utterly out-of-proportion.  The bilateral tensions regarding trade relations and Taiwan are more substantive and alarming. 

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once cautioned that it must be a high priority for U.S. leaders to make certain that Washington’s relations are closer with both Moscow and Beijing than their relations are with each other.  U.S. policies have produced the opposite result.  We now face a situation in which cooperation between Russia and the PRC on both economic and security issues is surging.  Thanks to Washington’s arrogant, tone-deaf behavior, Moscow and Beijing are concluding that they must collaborate against a common enemy that threatens their security and well-being.  The Russia-PRC relationship is not yet a full-fledged alliance, but developments are moving rapidly in that direction.  Washington’s own ineptitude may bring about the strategic nightmare U.S. leaders wanted to avoid.  Ironically, the United States may be the midwife that brings a newborn Russia-PRC alliance into the world.

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