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The Uneasy Triangle: the US, China, and Russia

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At their summit in Beijing on February 4, 2022, the two presidents, Russian Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, affirmed in Beijing that the relationship between their countries is based on ‘friendship without borders’ and that there are no ‘prohibited areas of cooperation in the context of their strategic partnership. At the time, both Moscow and Beijing did not hide that their main goal was to break the US hegemony in the world and to reshape the rules of the international system that favored it. As well as launching a camp led them to counterbalance the camp led by the United States. Indeed, the past few days have witnessed substantial steps in this regard. In early September, China, along with other countries, participated in large-scale Russian military maneuvers in the Russian Far East, which lasted for a week. This was followed, a few days ago, by the Russian energy giant Gazprom’s announcement that China would start paying for Russian gas shipments in the two countries’ national currencies, the Ruble and the Yuan, instead of the dollar, as part of Moscow’s efforts to ease the impact of Western sanctions imposed on it due to its invasion of Ukraine.

In the face of these geopolitical developments, which may lead to the reconfiguration of the international order, the United States, Russia and China find themselves facing complex calculations that recall the ‘triangular diplomacy’ approach.  This strategy was adopted by Washington in the early seventies of the last century, that is, at the height of the Cold War, as part of its efforts to take advantage of the sharp ideological division that occurred, in the late fifties of the last century, between the Soviet Union and China. However, if the last century was characterized by intense competition and great sensitivity between the two communist countries, in a way that enabled the United States to strike each other, the reality today seems more different, and more complex, without any similarities.

Only three weeks after the Putin-Xi summit, Russia was invading Ukraine, but Washington and its allies succeeded in turning the invasion into a very costly war of attrition for Moscow, economically, militarily, and politically. At that time, China found itself in a critical situation, as it could not abandon its Russian ally, nor did it want to risk angering the US, in a way that might necessitate imposing economic sanctions on it. Although the Biden administration was careful during the year and a half of its tenure, only the Russian invasion of Ukraine, not to pressure Russia to the point of pushing it into the Chinese embrace. However, the strict and stifling sanctions the administration imposed on Moscow, especially in the energy sector, left it no choice but to knock on the doors of Beijing. This represented, and continues to be, a dilemma for Washington, especially since the Biden administration, according to the ‘Interim Strategic Directives’ document issued by the White House in March 2021, considers China ‘the only potential competitor able to combine its economic, diplomatic, military and technological strength to form a sustainable challenge to achieve stability and an open international order.’ After that, what China considers the US harassment in the Taiwan file, which reached its climax last month, after the visit of the US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to the island. The China’s large-scale military maneuvers around Taiwan ensued as a response. The situation escalated further when the Biden administration announced its intention to sell advanced weapons to the island worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, Washington is not alone in facing dilemmas. Moscow and Beijing are also facing quandaries, if not greater, as their alliance is based on necessity and not convictions. It is known that both Russia and China are seeking to impose themselves as two world rivals to the United States, and therefore, an alliance between them without borders carries great risks for them.

Russia realizes that China represents the second world economy with a volume exceeding 16 trillion dollars annually, compared to its economy, which ranks eleventh in the world with less than two trillion dollars per annum. Moscow also does not forget that it has border disputes with Beijing. Furthermore, although China imports about 70% of its weapons from Russia, in the past decade and a half, it has focused more on manufacturing its weapons, taking advantage of its theft of Russian military technology, according to accusations by Russian companies. For Moscow, this means that China is on its way to becoming the second world military power, and this power lies on a common border with it of thousands of kilometers. The most bitter thing for Russia is that the trade balance between the two countries is blatantly imbalanced in favor of China, which, although it imports its oil and gas more now, in a way that eases the impact of Western sanctions on it, Russia has increased its dependence on the Chinese market, which made China its largest trading partner. Here, it is necessary to recall the reluctance of Chinese investors, subject to the government of their country, to invest in Russia, for fear of Western sanctions, and the absence of a promising Russian economic market.

Russia’s concern about China is multiplied in light of the latter’s expansion in its traditional areas of influence, as well as in Central Asia, which is today an essential part of China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. The initiative is a series of infrastructure projects stretching from Europe to East Asia and aims to secure economic and diplomatic expansion for Beijing, which it finances with hundreds of billions of dollars in loans. In this sense, the landlocked countries of Central Asia will no longer depend on Russia to export their goods abroad. Russia’s loss of influence in Central Asia will also undermine Putin’s attempts to rehabilitate his country’s image as a great power by making it a mere junior partner and vassal of China.

On the other hand, Beijing also finds itself forced into a necessary alliance with Moscow, at a time when it does not want to sacrifice huge Western economic markets for the sake of a very small Russian economy by comparison. China needs Russia to strengthen its position in the face of what it considers the US harassment and containment attempts, backed by a broad global alliance that includes Europe and countries in Asia. China hopes for Russian support in the event that it invades Taiwan, but at the same time it is apprehensive about the bad Russian military performance that exposed its invasion of Ukraine. However, in the absence of its allies that seem powerful, such as a nuclear Russia, Beijing still needs Moscow, but within very difficult budgets.

The bottom line is, that the world is on the threshold of a new world order in which the US is trying to preserve its privileges, but a Russian-Chinese alliance will present a fundamental challenge. While Russia and China are trying, together, to disrupt the foundations and rules of the existing international system, they are wary, at the same time, of losing each other’s “ally”. In the context of competition and attraction between the three powers, Russia appears to be the weakest side, unlike what was the case in the last century, at the time of the Soviet Union.