Is a Sino-Russian alliance in the offing? Some analysts answer this question in the affirmative, pointing to Beijing and Moscow’s signing of a landmark natural gas deal, joint naval exercises in the East China Sea, and cooperation in the United Nations over Syria and other international issues. More broadly, it is argued that China and Russia share a general interest in curbing U.S. influence on the world stage and hastening the global transition from unipolarity to multipolarity.
While there is considerable room for debate over the future extent of Sino-Russian relations (a formal alliance looks far from likely), it is worth considering the potential geopolitical implications of a growing entente between the two Great Powers. In no short measure, close alignment between Beijing and Moscow would accelerate the decline of U.S. relative power and hinder Washington’s capacity to influence international politics. While this scenario is particularly ominous in (East) Asia, it also has the potential to manifest in truly global terms.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the British Empire faced a similar strategic quandary. Already experiencing relative decline vis-à-vis the rising states of the day – especially the United States, Germany and Japan – Britain’s geopolitical calculus was thrown into disarray when its two nearest peer competitors, France and Russia, concluded a military alliance in 1892. Taken together, the French and Russian militaries threatened to upend the balance of power in Europe, which had been relatively stable since Berlin’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War.
According to the historian George Monger, however, it was at sea that the Franco-Russian rapprochement mattered most from London’s perspective. For the first time in generations, Britain’s naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea – a vital link between Britain and its eastern dominions – was called into question. To maintain mere parity with the combined Franco-Russian fleets in the Mediterranean, Britain would have to scale back its commitments elsewhere. In turn, there would be inevitable knock-on effects for international politics across the globe.
How could Britain retain its dominance in the Mediterranean? Already withdrawing from the Western Hemisphere and unable to bankroll a massive shipbuilding program (“internal balancing”) because of domestic pressures to keep fiscal outlays to a minimum, any new deployments to European waters would have to come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific. Yet this region was a geopolitical tinderbox: the European colonial powers seemed on the verge of an all-out “scramble for China,” Russia was feared to have designs on British India, and Japan’s growing power meant that, ideally, the Royal Navy should be deploying more ships to the Far East rather than fewer. To scale back in Asia would be to jeopardize the security of colonies and Dominions such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and New Zealand. Ultimately, even India – the jewel of Britain’s empire – might become difficult to defend against predation if the naval situation was not handled with the utmost care.
The diplomatic solution that London ultimately settled upon was to co-opt Japan as a partner in East Asia. With Japan’s growing naval strength allied to its own, Britain could reliably retain naval mastery in East Asia while simultaneously checking the emerging threat posed by France and Russia in Europe. At times, Japan was even approached to assist in the defense of India.
In time, Britain’s strategic bind eased as diplomats were able to iron out the country’s various diplomatic disputes with France and Russia. In the early twentieth century, London even aligned with Paris and Moscow as part of the so-called Triple Entente. Nevertheless, Britain’s longstanding policy of “splendid isolation” had been consigned to history and it would never again be able to press its interests on the world stage without the cooperation of allies.
A serious rapprochement between Russia and China has the potential to change the strategic calculus of the United States in ways reminiscent of the challenge to Britain in the late nineteenth century. Today, the United States also risks losing naval supremacy, especially in the South China Sea, which Robert Kaplan calls “Asia’s Mediterranean,” if it becomes out-maneuvered in the diplomatic realm.
According to Kyle Mizokami, China and Russia boast the world’s second and third strongest navies, respectfully. Moreover, both governments are busy expanding their navies. While they are still no match for the U.S. fleet on paper – and are far from being able to challenge the U.S. in the open Pacific let alone farther afield – Beijing and Moscow’s navies would nevertheless achieve a major strategic advantage if they were to grow to a size where they threatened U.S. preponderance the East and South China Seas.
As E.B. Montgomery has argued, military and technological innovation by China already has gone a long way towards undermining Washington’s potential military effectiveness in East Asia. An alliance with Russia would further embolden Beijing and undermine the U.S. capacity to deter aggression in the East Asian littoral, not only because it would help to close the power disparity between the U.S. and its rivals but also because it would force the Pentagon to prepare for crises emerging on two or more fronts. How would the U.S. react if it was forced to balance against China and Russia in the East and South China Seas while simultaneously deterring Russian meddling in Central Asia, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe?
There are several options from Washington’s perspective, although perhaps none of them promise to staunch the inevitable migration of power and influence away from Washington. First, the U.S. can – and, out of strict self-interest, probably should – try to prevent an alignment from occurring between China and Russia. This means actively pulling all diplomatic levers available while also refraining from making any mistakes that would push the two together.
Second, the U.S. can look for allies of its own to counter the joint threat posed by China and Russia. As for Britain in the late Victorian era, Japan again appears the most likely candidate: Under Shinzo Abe, Japan is already taking steps to expand its capacity to deploy its (considerable) maritime forces in the service of collective security. Embracing Japan, however, entails the obvious risk of pushing Russia and China even closer together.
Greater cooperation between the U.S. and India would be another way to buttress America’s ability to affect change in Asia, yet New Delhi has historic and enduring ties with Moscow that render India’s support for U.S. foreign policy goals impossible to take for granted.
Further afield, smaller (potential) allies like Australia, which is a reliable supporter of the U.S., and the ASEAN member states, most of which have reason to be wary of China’s rise, offer the potential for a broad (if tacit) anti-Chinese coalition. Yet these states have little direct stake in balancing against Russia and even their combined strength would be unlikely to buoy U.S. maritime dominance to a significant extent.
In the long-run, the drift towards greater multipolarity – first in East Asia, ultimately on the world stage – looks inevitable. Whether or not its demise will be hastened by a Sino-Russian rapprochement, America’s “unipolar moment” cannot last forever. The broader challenge, then, is how to maintain peace and stability in a multipolar world, not how to maintain U.S. hegemony in perpetuity. The descent from unipole to primus inter pares will be treacherous for U.S. leaders. A successful navigation will require adroit diplomacy and reliable allies. From Washington’s perspective, it would be better to beginning planning now for how the transition will be managed rather than wait for others to take charge of the process.
Peter Harris is a doctoral candidate in Government at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a fellow of the Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft. He blogs for the The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @ipeterharris.