Nearing his 100th day in office, President Joe Biden delivered an address to a joint session of Congress. While only a small portion of his address touched directly on foreign policy, the speech was premised from beginning to end on a distinctly universalist understanding of America’s place in the world. Biden reiterated the core message of his February State Department remarks: there is no longer a clear line between foreign and domestic policy. In Biden’s retelling, Washington’s sacred charge is to wage and win the war between democracy— a word repeated sixteen times throughout the address—and autocracy, against enemies within and without.
“Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?,” he asked. “America’s adversaries—the autocrats of the world—are betting it can’t. They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works—and can deliver for the people. Referring to the January 6 storming of the Capitol, Biden said we have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy—of pandemic and pain—and ‘We the People’ did not flinch.”
The President identified China as a competitor further into the speech, challenging Beijing’s alleged human rights abuses with tough language mirroring his prior remarks on social justice issues in the United States: “And, I told him [China’s leader Xi Jinping] what I’ve said to many world leaders—that America won’t back away from our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms. No responsible American president can remain silent when basic human rights are violated. A president has to represent the essence of our country. America is an idea—unique in the world. We are all created equal. It’s who we are. We cannot walk away from that principle.”
Biden’s comments on Russia were brief and somewhat more restrained. Biden framed his administration’s earlier sanctions on Moscow as a “direct and proportionate response” while assuring the audience that the United States and Russia “can also cooperate when it’s in our mutual interests.” The official transcript shows that his Russia remarks were supposed to end on a hopeful note, stressing cooperation on nuclear arms control and climate issues, but Biden decided to issue a final warning to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin before moving on: “but he understands, we will respond,” he insisted, with dramatic pause.
“The autocrats will not win the future,” Biden concluded. “America will. The future will belong to America.” The two targets of Biden’s comments have not sat idly over the past several months. Both China and Russia have implemented unprecedented unilateral countermeasures against sanctions by the Biden administration. The Kremlin announced a policy of zero tolerance for further sanctions in the weeks following a new round of Western punishments over the imprisonment of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Breaking with the Kremlin’s longstanding commitment to “proportionate” retaliation, Putin vowed an “asymmetrical” response if the West “crosses the red line with regard to Russia.” Meanwhile, Beijing has sanctioned a slew of Western government officials, including head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Gayle Manchin, amid the scandal over China’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority. China has likewise threatened a “robust response” if Washington boycotts the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, a measure that the Biden administration floated but quickly backed away from.
The increasingly bold unilateral measures coming from Moscow and Beijing pose a clear challenge to the Biden administration, but an even greater strategic threat looms on the horizon: the possibility of Sino-Russian coordination to contain the West. During a joint press conference with his counterpart Wang Yi, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that the deteriorating ties between Moscow and Brussels will further the cause of Russian-Chinese friendship. In an interview with Chinese media, Lavrov expressed Moscow’s interest in forming a coalition of countries united against “unilateral sanctions,” such as the ones being imposed on Russia and China by Western governments.
Beijing, for its part, has signaled a willingness to support Russia against Western sanctions. “We strongly oppose the use of unilateral sanctions. China and Russia maintain relations of comprehensive partnership with each other. China and Russia will support each other in matters of protecting state sovereignty,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin earlier this week. “Unilateral sanctions are a manifestation of hegemony, they spark general protest,” he added.
But what exactly are the policy fruits of this “strategic partnership”? In an article titled China-“Russia ties deepen while U.S. and allies flail,” Chinese state news outlet Global Times wrote that the “most influential bilateral relationship in Eurasia is the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era,” but struggled to cite concrete policy examples of this partnership in action.
The Global Times did, however, make a sound geostrategic observation: “To be honest, no country in the region can stand alone against either China or Russia, let alone fight against the two powers at the same time.” To be sure, there is no indication that either Moscow or Beijing is currently interested in anything approaching a formal military alliance and—for now—the vaunted “strategic partnership” between Moscow and Beijing has largely been confined to abstract proclamations of moral support.
But there is a crucial, oft-overlooked nuance to this point: the two powers need not officially strike an alliance to pin Washington into a disastrous two-front conflict. Experts have warned for years that, in the event of a major conventional war between the United States and either China or Russia, the non-belligerent power will not simply be a passive observer. There are countless catastrophic contingencies that could arise from such a conflict. Here is but one of them: Beijing would be highly tempted to exploit a potential U.S.-Russia conflict in eastern Ukraine or in the Baltics, finally realizing its long-held plans to seize Taiwan while Washington is politically and militarily occupied elsewhere.
The implications are clear: as the Biden administration gears up for a policy of values-driven confrontation with Moscow and Beijing, Washington cannot afford to lose sight of the geopolitical risks underlying the U.S.-China-Russia strategic triangle.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest.