The world’s three foremost geopolitical players and leading military powers of the day—the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation—find themselves in a complex triangular relationship. America is in a state of confrontation with China and Russia; China and Russia are strategic partners; yet while the United States is bolstering NATO to oppose Russia and simultaneously expanding and intensifying its relations with Indo-Pacific countries to check China, Beijing and Moscow have not created a formal alliance to jointly stand up to the United States and its allies. U.S.-China bipolarity has set in, but bloc-building is only proceeding on one side. Is this asymmetric configuration sustainable, or is the world going to see a reemergence of the rigid blocs that were a salient feature of the Cold War?
The main thesis of this essay is that in a world increasingly shaped by U.S.-Chinese superpower rivalry, the United States is clearly interested in preventing China and Russia from becoming too close; China appreciates its close partnership with Russia, but, as essentially a solo player, is neither ready nor willing to enter into a military alliance with it; and Russia, a major independent international actor but not a superpower like the other two, seeks to maintain an equilibrium, though not equidistance, vis-à-vis China, America, and their rivalry. This state of affairs within the geopolitical and military triangle is likely to continue until a major crisis in U.S.-Chinese relations—e.g., over Taiwan—which would put the two countries on the brink of a military collision and make them energize their alliances and partnerships.
For now, Moscow continues to carefully expand and amplify its relations with Beijing, even as it manages its own ongoing confrontation with the United States. To side with Washington against Beijing would be an act of strategic folly: turning China into an adversary would have far worse strategic consequences for Russia than continuing to confront America and all its allies. To side with Beijing against Washington in peacetime would be giving away a large chunk of Russia’s strategic sovereignty and leaving the fate of the country dependent on the outcome of a rivalry between other powers.
This calculus might change in a time of crisis, should the Russian leadership conclude that allowing the United States to first deal militarily with China and then, if successful, turn to bring pressure to bear on Russia would lead to a strategic defeat and possibly a catastrophe. At this point, there are too many unknowable factors to be able to speculate on the course of action that Moscow will decide to take. One would only hope that the lessons of the First World War, when the Russian Empire got itself involved in the conflict between Germany and Britain and perished as a result, will not be entirely lost on Russia’s twenty-first century leaders. That said, to keep the vital equilibrium vis-à-vis the increasingly antagonistic relationship between Washington and Beijing, Russia will need to substantially strengthen its national power base in a number of areas, from economics to technology to morals.
Several seminal developments during 2021—the founding of AUKUS, a new U.S.-led alliance pointing at China; the revival of the Quad as a U.S.-designed politico-economic-technological compact that includes India; and the precipitous U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan—merit closer scrutiny in terms of how they might impact on Russia’s strategy with regard to the intensifying Sino-American rivalry.
The announcement in September 2021 of a major nuclear-powered submarine contract for Australia that further solidified Canberra’s long-standing alliance with Washington, with London playing an auxiliary role, materially supports the shift of America’s strategic focus toward China. The new pact will allow the Australian navy to patrol the waters of the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and beyond, and thus bolster the U.S.-led containment of China. In the future, Australian submarines would potentially be able to sail up to the Russian Pacific shores and even enter the Arctic, and thus AUKUS cannot be ignored by Moscow. This prompted Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev to characterize the alliance as a both anti-Chinese and anti-Russian move.
There is a big difference, however, between AUKUS’s respective impacts on China and Russia. Australian nuclear-powered submarines will not add much to the U.S. military capabilities trained on Russia. Crucially, unlike China, Russia has no territorial claims in the Pacific. Overall, Moscow’s relations with virtually all countries in the region are normal, and in many cases friendly. The absence of a peace treaty with Japan following the end of World War II and the long-standing Japanese claims to the South Kuril Islands are being tackled by Moscow and Tokyo diplomatically.
Importantly, where the future Australian naval capabilities would matter most—in the South China Sea—Moscow has a neutral stance on the maritime disputes involving China and other littoral countries. Russia has adopted an anodyne position there in support of a diplomatic solution to competing territorial claims to be reached between Beijing and the relevant ASEAN capitals. Within ASEAN, Vietnam, which is wary of China, is Moscow’s strategic partner, and a traditional arms customer. Russia also seeks to expand military sales to Indonesia and Malaysia. While Moscow doesn’t recognize a role in the South China Sea for nonregional actors such as Washington, Canberra, or London, it is certainly not going to challenge their naval operations there.
In the East China Sea, too, Russia has adopted a neutral stance in the China-Japan dispute over the ownership of the Japan-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Beijing, for its part, is also neutral vis-à-vis the South Kurils owned by Russia and claimed by Japan. By contrast, Moscow has always—even during the worst years of Sino-Soviet confrontation—regarded Taiwan as an integral part of the People’s Republic of China, and considers the relationship between Beijing and Taipei to be an internal Chinese affair. Yet this also means, in all probability, Russia staying on the sidelines of any conflict involving just Beijing and Taipei. A wider military conflict involving the United States and threatening a full-scale war between America and China is another matter. Moscow would likely not allow itself to be drawn into Sino-American hostilities, but it would presumably condemn U.S. interference in China’s domestic dispute while seeking an early end to the conflict between the superpowers.
Certainly, the founding of AUKUS, essentially a naval alliance, should make Russia pay more attention to its naval capabilities and coastal defenses along its Pacific coastline, from the Sea of Japan to the Bering Strait. Its Pacific Fleet is no match for the U.S. forces in the area, and would need to be modernized. However, Russia’s principal task in the Asia-Pacific is national defense rather than power projection. As elsewhere, Russia’s defense policy in the face of a prevalent power can only be asymmetrical. As far as Russia is concerned, AUKUS represents only an incremental change: not to be ignored, but hardly a major threat.
India and the Quad
The 2020 Sino-Indian border clash in the Himalayas led to a lasting deterioration in the historically strained relations between New Delhi and Beijing. This put Russia in the uncomfortable position of its two principal strategic partners actually shooting at each other. In this conflict between its two close friends, Russia could not take sides without risking its entire relationship with one of the key partners. Moscow did invoke the trilateral Russia-India-China consultative format and facilitated high-level meetings between Indian and Chinese ministers visiting Russia. It was impossible, however, for Russia to do more, given that both of its partners rejected any third-party mediation from the start.
Yet Moscow’s neutrality was seen by many in New Delhi as a betrayal, and a sign of Russia’s growing dependence on China as the senior partner. This optic strengthened the hand of those in India who favor loosening the country’s historical engagement with Russia (particularly in the field of defense cooperation) and a faster and more comprehensive rapprochement with the United States. Simultaneously, the Joe Biden administration in Washington made an effort to energize the dormant Quad cooperation format that brings India together with Australia, Japan, and the United States. In 2021, India took part in the Quad virtual summit, attended the G7 summit in the UK, and joined the U.S.-convened virtual Summit of Democracies. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United States to meet with President Biden. Yet India remains in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; its military continues to use much Russian-made weaponry and equipment; and the political relationship between New Delhi and Moscow still looks cordial.
Thus, Indians and Russians face a new challenge: how to manage their partnership going back almost seventy years, given that each partner is now closely cooperating with a country with whom the other partner is engaged in an active confrontation. If they succeed in addressing that challenge, what might emerge is a nonexclusive relationship, more difficult to manage but better adapted to the dynamic realities of the twenty-first century. That more flexible model would encompass not only Moscow and New Delhi’s diverging relationships with both superpowers, but also their differing perspectives on regional issues. While Russia sees Pakistan, for example, as an important country in terms of managing post-American Afghanistan, New Delhi considers Islamabad its archenemy on the subcontinent and a supporter of terrorism directed at India.
Russia’s objection to the revival of the Quad is not limited to its competition with the United States for the Indian arms market or even the wider issue of the status of Moscow’s ties to New Delhi. Like AUKUS, Russia sees the Quad as an example of U.S. policies of creating a political, economic, technological, and military architecture in the Indo-Pacific region that would serve the central U.S. objective of competing against China and defending America’s primacy. This Washington-designed architecture and the Indo-Pacific concept that underlies it are replacing the earlier—and, to Moscow, much more palatable—mix of more inclusive institutions such as ASEAN-centered meetings, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conferences, and East Asia Summits, to which both China and Russia belonged. While America’s partnerships, particularly with India and Vietnam, have not morphed into alliances, Russia will try to counter U.S. moves by reaching out more proactively to its friends in the region.
The U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan and Iran’s Accession to the SCO
The precipitous end in August 2021 to two decades of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the immediate collapse of the U.S.-installed Kabul regime, instantly followed by the takeover of the country by the Taliban, have finally closed the books on an era in U.S. foreign, defense, and security policies that began on September 11, 2001. The actual decision on the full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan taken by President Biden, and the agreement on the withdrawal concluded with the Taliban in the fall of 2020 by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, clearly aimed at refocusing the thrust of U.S. geopolitical and military efforts away from the Middle East and terrorism—and toward major power competition with China.
While using America’s abandonment of an ally as a prized propaganda argument in the information war, Moscow, like Beijing, immediately faced the need to defend its national security interests more directly. Each responded to the need by engaging with the Taliban rulers, but also with broader regional engagements with the countries of Central Asia, Pakistan, Iran, and, in Russia’s case, India. At the same time, Moscow brushed off Washington’s desire to use bases in Central Asia—including Russian ones—to keep an eye on and react to developments in Afghanistan. Russia’s main security response to the situation in Afghanistan has been to strengthen its own military presence in Central Asia; support its regional allies, particularly Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; and conduct exercises with them and neighboring Uzbekistan. Cooperation with China has been mostly political and diplomatic.
As for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Moscow de facto co-leads with Beijing, and to which India and Pakistan belong, alongside Central Asian countries, it was used mostly as a platform to exchange views and keep others informed about a country’s moves. In September 2021, the SCO launched the process of admitting Iran to the organization: something that both Moscow and Beijing had long favored. Since the SCO is not a military alliance or even a political coordination mechanism—that would be impossible with such diverse membership—Iran’s entry into it does not signify the formation of a bloc of countries that are opposed to the United States. Yet Iran’s accession to the SCO, along with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, is another step toward the geopolitical consolidation of continental Asia, where China and Russia are playing leading roles.
Immediately after the U.S. departure from Afghanistan, concerns were raised about the security and longevity of America’s two other exposed proteges, Taiwan and Ukraine. Washington was quick to reaffirm its support for Kyiv and Taipei, but while tensions in both regions remain high and in the latter case are visibly rising, it is most unlikely that Moscow and Beijing would coordinate their policies on Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively, in order to keep the United States off balance. Washington has taken a considerable risk in taking on both Beijing and Moscow simultaneously; the other two capitals, however, want to retain their strategic flexibility by each pursuing only its own confrontation with the United States.
The Future of the Sino-American Confrontation and Russia
AUKUS, the Quad, and Afghanistan apart, Russia and China continue to expand and develop their bilateral ties. The relationship between the two powers is not, of course, a result of each country’s confrontation with the United States. Rather, it progresses largely on the basis of mutual interests; the commonality of the leaderships’ worldviews; the complementarity of the two economies; and geopolitical considerations, starting with the long shared border. The rapport between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping plays a significant role, though it is not all about personal chemistry.
Since 2014, when Western sanctions were first imposed following the Ukraine crisis, Russia has increased its reliance on China. Yet Beijing did not take advantage of the opportunity to bind Russia tightly to it, particularly in the economic and financial spheres. At that time, the Chinese were still focused on the benefits that they were drawing from their economic and technological connection with the United States. Things began to change from 2017, when U.S. President Trump replaced Washington’s long-standing China policy of engaging China and hedging against it with one of containment and confrontation. President Biden not only continued Trump’s policy of confronting China, but intensified it, supported by a strong consensus within the U.S. body politic. As a consequence, China has had to increase its reliance on Russia for the transfer of military technology.
Yet the China-Russia relationship, while close, is not too close, as is normal between great powers. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the home truth that for each country it is the national interest that matters most. Both sides closed their shared border promptly; flights were suspended; information was shared between partners on a limited basis only. At the same time, the top-level dialogue between the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai continued, albeit in a remote format; trade has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels; and the armed forces of the two countries practiced interoperability. The 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation has been extended for another five years.
Despite the propensity of the Western media to refer to Russia as China’s junior partner or vassal, the relationship has continued largely on an even keel. While much smaller economically, Russia has not and will not become China’s follower. Independence from foreign tutelage or leadership is part of Russia’s DNA. Russia has a long history of economic, technological, and financial reliance on leading European countries, which, however, never made it overly dependent on them politically. Russia also has a number of countervailing factors—natural resources, from water to fertile soils; advanced military technology; and vast experience as a major power—that it adds to the equation with its bigger, but not senior partner.
In keeping its cool regarding the U.S.-China rivalry so far, Moscow may have borrowed a leaf from Beijing’s own playbook. When in 2014 the crisis broke out between Russia and the United States over Ukraine, China did not join those accusing the Kremlin of aggression and annexation, but nor did it fully take Russia’s side. True, China did not accede to the economic and financial sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and its allies, but Russian businessmen complained that Chinese banks had refused to extend loans to them without even bothering to look up whether their companies had been sanctioned by the West. China, of course, did not recognize Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation, as it had continued to view Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of Georgia. At that time, in private discussions with Russian experts, various Chinese scholars gently berated Moscow for not being able to build normal relations with its post-Soviet neighbors and took pride in their own handling of foreign partners, including the United States. Things have not changed much on the Russian side since then, but they certainly have at the Chinese end.
In the longer term, the current equilibrium in Sino-Russian relations is not stable, however. China dwarfs Russia economically and offers a viable alternative to Western technology and financial resources that are becoming less available or are increasingly considered unreliable and unsafe in Russia. Domestic economic development, including energy transition as a result of climate change, and technological transformation have moved up the Kremlin’s agenda—above even military power and political cohesion, which are the principal achievements of the Putin era—as the key factors shaping Russia’s international position in the twenty-first century. In the next few decades, Russia’s status and role in world affairs will depend far less on its military and diplomats and much more on the success or failure of its domestic transformation.
This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.