Policy prediction is always difficult, especially with someone like Donald Trump. He has been on every side of most major issues – with the exception of trade – sometimes switching his positions within the same day.
His provocation of China is a case in point. In December, Trump broke decades of diplomatic protocol by talking with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. I wrote then that this was either a simple – but consequential – mistake or the sign of a broader realignment that Trump had done little to prepare the groundwork for.
But some commentators suggest Trump may have a coherent and far-reaching strategy behind all this bluster. What if this is triangular diplomacy for a new age? Instead of splitting China off from and leveraging it against the Soviet Union, as Nixon did in 1972, the United States would corral Russian support against a rising China.
But this vision of a grand strategic bargain rests on faulty premises. The geostrategic conditions that led to the Sino-Soviet split do not hold today, and the U.S. would pay much more and receive much less from Russian assistance against the Chinese than it did from Chinese assistance against the Soviets.
Hints of this triangular policy emerged during the election. Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro – two Trump campaign advisers – described a muscular American foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific that directly challenges the Chinese. In the Washington Post, Marc Thiessen outlines several ways in which the incoming Trump administration could revamp stale relations with Taiwan, including by signing a free trade agreement and upgrading the island’s political representation. The president-elect has fanned these flames, stating that he may not uphold the One China policy, but also seeming to view Taiwan purely as a disposable bargaining chip.
All of this raises broader questions about American foreign policy. Vox suggests that Trump is flipping Obama’s script, working with Russia and attempting to isolate China. Richard Weitz at the Hudson Institute explicitly links Trump’s warmth toward Russia and his disruption of U.S.-Chinese relations, directly raising the comparison to Kissinger’s triangular diplomacy, which split China off from the Communist bloc. That echoes policy recommendations made by John Mearshiemer and Stephen Walt earlier this summer. They argue that the United States should pull Russia into Washington’s orbit as a counterweight to a rising China. Russia, in their view, is a critical “swing state,” and the U.S. should create some geopolitical deal that cedes ground to Russia to contain the Chinese and allow the United States to act as an offshore balancer.
Some analytical history. The Sino-Soviet split occurred because of two dynamics. First, China and the Soviet Union were enmeshed in a situation of complex interdependence. Moscow and Beijing each sought a position of ideological preeminence within international Communism. Mao, in particular, disagreed with Russia’s shifting socio-economic model, softer approach to the West, and relative political liberalization, seen in Kurschev’s de-Stalinization campaign. Yet China received significant economic assistance from the Soviet Union, and this need only deepened due to the disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famine.
Second, Moscow and Beijing were engaged in sustained, military geopolitical rivalry, with China generally in the weaker position. This was most clearly seen in the border conflict around the Ussuri River, where hundreds of thousands of troops were deployed by both sides, resulting in a few hundred deaths over the course of six months in 1969. China increasingly saw the USSR, not the United States, as its primary threat. The crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolution raised the possibility that Moscow would take similar actions against any Communist country that did not toe its political line, a point reinforced by Mao’s disagreements with Khrushchev over political and economic policy mentioned earlier. After a decisive break in 1963, the Chinese and Soviets engaged in proxy wars in Southeast Asia and Africa.
This created a fertile opportunity for the United States, where it could induce Chinese defection from the Soviet camp by offering integration into the international trade system, cooperation on science and technology, and a normalization of relations. The United States had relatively few policy conflicts with China as it steadily withdrew from Vietnam, and such a rapprochement would decisively shift the global balance of power away from the Soviet camp.
The Sino-Soviet split could only take place thanks to the geopolitical rivalry between Moscow and Beijing, as well as the benefits that alignment with Washington would provide, not the least of which was integration into lucrative international economic systems and broader global status. Nevertheless, Washington still had to pay a price: relations with the Republic of China. This was contentious enough that Congress took the extraordinary step of enshrining foreign policy in domestic law, the Taiwan Relations Act. Among non-treaty U.S. partners, even Israel lacks this formal a commitment.
These dynamics do not hold today. China and Russia are not vying for international leadership over a more or less committed bloc of states. Together, they are not challenging the U.S.-led order in a coordinated fashion. Nor do they have a formal alliance or defensive agreement. They engage in only limited military exercises, and the security bodies of which they are members – like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – focus on counterterrorism and non-traditional threats, not conventional defense.
Although China is one of the largest markets for Russian goods, Germany is not far behind, and the bulk of Russian exports are petroleum and related products. For China, trade relations with Moscow matter even less. Russia is China’s ninth largest trading partner, falling behind Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brazil. In trade volume, Russia only accounts for about 2 percent of total Chinese trade.
In short, we have neither the interdependence nor the conflict to make a Chinese-Russian split as geopolitically momentous or beneficial as it was during the Cold War. Without interdependence, a defection by one power has little effect on the behavior of the other. China can fairly easily find substitutes for Russian products, and a Russian embargo of hydrocarbons would simply raise the market price. This would hurt Beijing, but also everyone connected to the global oil market, including the United States.
Obviously, we do not know what Russia would want in exchange. Indeed, we do not even know if Trump is truly serious about this kind of triangular policy. But the structure of such a deal should be worrisome. Any realignment against China will take years to fully come to fruition. In the meantime, the United States would cede authority and international leadership in areas critical to European and even global security in the short-term on the uncertain hope that Russia maintains alignment with the U.S. against China in the medium- to long-term. During the Cold War, China’s economic doldrums bolstered the durability of the realignment, as Beijing required continued access to international markets to emerge from poverty. This allowed it to take advantage of its large labor supply, which could very quickly have become a political force disrupting the Communist Party’s rule if their economic needs were not met.
Today, we have no comparable dynamic with Russia, given its sustainable isolation from international institutions, markets, and security bodies. So Washington would be entering a costly pact with little medium- to long-term durability, with its individual benefits accruing in a much longer timeframe. This is a bad deal.
Dr. Raymond Kuo is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Fordham University, where he studies international security. He has previously worked for the National Democratic Institute, the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan, and the United Nations Department of Political Affairs. The views expressed in this article are his own.