Zachary Keck

Russia as a U.S.-China Battleground State

The strategic triangle from the Cold War is returning. Only this time, Russia is the prize.

During the Cold War, China was arguably the only major state whose allegiance was up for grabs among the superpowers. Thus, upon its founding the People’s Republic of China put itself squarely inside the Soviet camp, only to later have a falling out with Moscow. As relations with Moscow deteriorated throughout the 1960s, China laid the groundwork for a rapprochement with the United States. By the late 1980s, however, China began recalibrating its position again, and began repairing ties with the Soviet Union.

China’s wildcard status in this “strategic triangle” brought it numerous benefits. As Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell have observed, China’s uncertain loyalties “allowed a country that was poor, isolated, and unable to project military power beyond its borders — China — to become the third most important strategic actor in the world, playing a larger role than England, France, Germany, India, Japan, or any state other than the two superpowers.” Another irony of the Soviet-U.S.-Chinese strategic triangle, the same authors point out, is that the “weakest of the three countries reaped the most benefits from tripolar diplomacy because it was the asset in play in the three-way game.”

As China rises and tensions with the U.S. mount, a new strategic triangle is developing between Beijing, Washington and Moscow. Although many of the same factors are present, one overarching difference between the contemporary strategic triangle and its Cold War predecessor is that Russia and China have swapped roles. That is, now and in the future Russia is the key prize of a Sino-U.S. bilateral competition. With some strategic acumen, Russia can turn this to its benefit in numerous ways.

Russia’s allegiance will be central to Sino-U.S. relations for many (though not all) of the same reasons China was such a major component of Soviet-U.S. competition. First, it is simply an enormously large state that is destined to play a critical role in regional and global politics. Although Russia’s population is likely to decline in the coming decades, it will still be much larger than the vast majority of countries in the world. Furthermore, although Russia’s structural economic problems will continue to erode its national power, Moscow will almost certainly remain more powerful than China was for most of the Cold War.

Geography is arguably the biggest reason that Cold War-era China and contemporary Russia are important. Most notably, China and Russia share a large land border. This will be either a huge vulnerability for China or an immense opportunity. If the U.S. successfully brings Russia onto its side — or if Russian-Chinese relations deteriorate independently of Washington, much as they did during the Cold War — this will do much to thwart China’s ability to project power in the Western Pacific.

Beijing has historically been a continental power for the simple reason that this is where its primary security threats have come from. A crucial enabling factor in China’s naval modernization was its ability to secure its land borders in recent decades. Beijing’s ability to sustain its maritime focus in the future will be largely dependent on whether it needs to concentrate its military resources on its borders with countries like Russia, India and North Korea, as well as its western autonomous regions. Thus, an alliance with Russia would undoubtedly make it easier for the U.S. to contain China’s expansion in the Western Pacific and beyond.

Conversely, maintaining close ties with Russia will allow China to continue to focus its military resources outwardly. Additionally, close Sino-Russian cooperation will significantly reduce Beijing’s vulnerability to the U.S. military and its allies. U.S. defense circles are currently debating the utility of imposing a blockade on China in the event of a complete breakdown in relations. This strategy would try to exploit China’s dependence on its seaborne foreign trade particularly in energy resources. Russia’s willingness to cooperate in such a scheme is crucial to its success. If Moscow is aligned with China it can use its considerable domestic energy resources, as well as its influence with Central Asian states, to do much to ameliorate China’s suffering if a blockade was imposed on it. In fact, Russia’s allegiance will only become more crucial to a blockade strategy in the years and decades ahead as ice caps and the Arctic melts opening up another potential trade route.

China appears to grasp the central importance of Russia. As myself and others have noted repeatedly on The Diplomat, Beijing has been courting Moscow extensively even as its relationship with many other neighbors deteriorates. Presidents Xi and Putin have met no less than five times over the last year. Much of the increased bilateral cooperation they have achieved is in strategic industries like energy and military technology, and some of it is aimed at creating deep, long-term ties.

By contrast, the U.S. has demonstrated the same level of understanding about Russia’s significance to its Asia Pivot. To be sure, the Obama administration came into office pledging to “reset” relations with Russia. All evidence suggests that this was more about winning greater Russian cooperation on issues like arms control, Iran’s nuclear program and Afghanistan. On the other hand, Moscow is largely absent from conversations about the U.S. pivot to Asia.

U.S.-Russian relations have also badly deteriorated over the last couple of years, particularly in the last six months. To be fair, Russia has done more than its fair share to contribute to these worsening ties. Furthermore, many of the spoilers in the U.S.-Russian relationship are insignificant issues when viewed over the long-term. Thus, a repair in relations should be easily feasible in the coming years. Moreover, the U.S. has inherent advantages over China in forming lasting ties with Russia, given the natural tendency of Beijing and Moscow, as large neighboring states, to fear each other.

But to exploit this natural advantage, the U.S. must establish clear prioritizes in its relationship with Russia. It cannot expect to form strong bonds with Russia in the Pacific if it continues to go out of its way to publicly shame Russia over human rights issues. This doesn’t mean it has to give up on trying to improve human rights conditions in Russia. But there’s certain ways to go about doing this without significantly setting back bilateral ties, and appointing democracy activists as U.S. ambassador to Russia, while passing legislation against certain Russian officials for human rights incidents are not among them. These kinds of gestures are purely symbolic and do not help human rights in Russia or U.S. strategic interests in Asia.

The U.S. must also prioritize Russian cooperation in the Pacific over other regions of the world. This is true in two senses. First, to the extent possible, Washington should try to avoid having disputes in other regions of the world affect its ties with Russia in the Pacific. Inevitably, this won’t always be possible. Thus, at some point the U.S. will have to make a choice about whether the issues in other regions are important enough to scuttle ties with Russia in the Pacific.

In the Asian Century, the answer to this question should almost always be “no.”