It was a brilliant stroke in 1971, when Nixon and Kissinger took advantage of China’s fears of the USSR with the historic U.S. opening to China. That chess move created a strategic triangle with the United States in the catbird seat and turned ideology on its head, dividing the two communist regimes. Now amid a surprising attention deficit in the United States, tensions with Russia are resulting in Washington getting the short end of the stick, with risky implications for the global order: Sino-Russian relations are closer than they have been at any time in the past fifty years, giving them the chance to reshape the global order to their liking.
Whereas Kissinger’s strategic logic was to gain advantage for the United States by having better relations with both Moscow and Beijing than they had with each other, it now looks like China will be the winner as the rift grows between Washington and Moscow. While there is a tendency to focus on historic differences, racial fears and geopolitical competition, the new Sino-Russian trend may be more of a marriage of convenience than anybody in the Washington foreign-policy elite will admit.
U.S.-led sanctions against Putin’s Russia has led it to look East, particularly to China, even if it means a weakened Moscow being the very Junior Partner. Its long-term energy future lies in Asia, and nearly half a trillion dollars in gas and oil deals with China will bolster a sagging Russian economy. China gains a valuable partner—instead of a rival—for stabilizing and modernizing Eurasia, which China increasingly sees not as a backwater, but its economic future. China’s new “One Road, One Belt” pivot west to Eurasia seeks to turn its vulnerability—a border with fourteen nations—into a strategic asset. Together they seek to realize MacKinder’s vision of a Eurasian heartland unopposed—with the possible exception of India.
A successful partnership in Eurasia—boosting its economic prospects by putting in infrastructure and stymieing extremism that threatens authoritarians in Moscow, Beijing and Central Asia—would underline the success of the non-Western model of authoritarian state-centric capitalism. Not just the region, but also Africa and Latin America—where China already has made inroads with its development largesse—are bound to take notice.
To a degree, it already exists. China usually follows Russia’s lead in the UN; together they have blocked sanctions against Assad in Syria, making sure the Western-led operation to depose Qaddafi in Libya is the last R2P operation of its kind. The backtracking on democracy which Freedom House already decries—nine years in which there has been declines—would accelerate. Both make no bones about preferring to deal with authoritarians.
Russian efforts on a Eurasian Union would get a further boost. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is already enlisting more members (Pakistan and India recently joined) as the region senses where the wind is blowing with the United States and NATO leaving a mess behind in Afghanistan. The United States and its Western partners are seen as having their hands full in the Middle East, while also assuring Central/Eastern Europeans that NATO’s Article V security commitment still stands.
At least for the short-term, Moscow and Beijing have avoided strategic competition in Central Asia. There appears to be at least a tacit Sino-Russian division of labor in Central Asia, with Moscow taking the lead on security and Beijing flooding the zone with aid and investment. Its new BRICS Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank should lubricate its efforts. In contrast, the U.S. Shale Revolution and new players like Iraq and Iran have reduced the attractiveness of the Central Asians. The West has more than enough oil. Their markets are local. The age of the big pipelines is over.
Counterterrorism was another source of attractiveness to the region. Supplying Afghanistan with troops and supplies meant the United States and its allies needed the Central Asians. Now the footprint is much less. Counterterrorism is done on the cheap with drones—and in Pakistan and Afghanistan we don’t even need permission. Our exit is an opportunity for China’s Eurasian gambit.
Beyond their Eurasian symmetry, there are a host of common interests, both in opposition to U.S. primacy, U.S. values of democracy and transparency and a shared desire for a more multipolar world order. Both are pursuing nationalist agendas, drawing on historic, cultural identities. Both seek an authoritarian capitalist model in opposition to the “Washington Consensus.” Both oppose an open internet and seek to Balkanize it.
This raises profound questions about the future of global governance and the dynamics of world order. In the worst-case scenario, a new bipolarity could emerge, with China, Russia and a handful of authoritarian regime from Central Asia on one pole and the United States, EU and Asian allies and partners on the other. This is not a recipe for peace and prosperity. It would leave many of what were once known as “nonaligned” nations like India, Brazil and others caught in between.
Yet there are also other trends. While Russia has sought to pull back from the global economy it entered into upon the collapse of the USSR in 1991, China has bet its future on the global economy and has a domestic agenda of market reforms aimed at transforming its investment-driven, export-oriented economy into a consumer-led innovative economy. Then there is China’s economic calculus: Chinese trade with the United States and EU was $1.1 trillion in 2014 compared to $100 billion in Sino-Russian trade. Some of the oil and gas megadeals they have signed over the past several years may be at risk—or at least slow to be realized. A slowing Chinese economy, flatter energy demand growth, lower oil prices and a changing global gas market have changed Beijing’s energy calculus.
While the Russian petro-state appears in slow, but steady decline, China is a rising state, increasingly defining itself as a Great Power, and one seeming intent on fostering a contemporary version of pre-modern Sino-centric tributary rule in Asia.
China is also uncomfortable with Russian intervention in former Soviet republics where breakaway movements have been encouraged, as in eastern Ukraine. Beijing is obsessed with sovereignty issues. It has not been an enthusiastic supporter of Russian moves in Ukraine.
And as with some Trump-like American nativists fearful of Latin influence, Russia is ill at ease with the Asianification of the Russian Far East. This has racial overtones as well. Moreover, many of China’s territorial assertiveness in the East and South China Seas has been based on historical claims. China’s Ming dynasty claimed much of the Russian Far East, before Moscow occupied it in the 17th century.
Russia can only hope that the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas pitting the United States and its allies against China will escalate, throwing Beijing into Moscow’s arms. Beijing will see how much the United States respects China’s maritime interests.
Do these trends mean that Sino-Russian amiability may not be as durable as some argue? Will historic fears and competition reassert itself? Is there an opportunity for the United States to recreate something closer to the Kissingerian strategic triangle?
Ball in the United States’ Court
Whether the world moves towards this new, troublesome bipolarity or moves in the direction of a more inclusive, still globalizing international order will depend in no small degree to what role the United States plays in a complex landscape where power is diffused and no single nation can singularly shape international outcomes.
It will require more U.S. agility and pragmatic realism, abandoning unipolar tendencies and acting more as first among equals. Can the United States afford confrontational approaches to both Russia and China? Finding a new equilibrium with Russia may require uncomfortable compromises. Yet all the presidential campaigns are likely to outdo themselves in their rhetoric against both Russia and China, missing the opportunity to talk about how the US will need to grapple with a changing world order. We may wish we were back in 1971, but Silicon Valley has yet to construct Jules Verne’s time machine. Both the media’s and various campaigns’ inclinations to sweat small stuff is blinding us to the big strategic shifts. Yes, there’s a new Great Game afoot, but we’re being seriously outplayed.
Mathew Burrows is director of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Foresight Initiative. His recent book is The Future Declassified: Megatrends that Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action (Palgrave/Macmillan). In August 2013 he retired from a 28-year career in the CIA and State Department, the last ten being spent at the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Robert A. Manning is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.