Treacherous Triangle

China, Russia, the United States, and the New Superpower Showdown

Putin and Xi in Shanghai, May 21, 2014.
Putin and Xi in Shanghai, May 21, 2014. (Mark Ralston / Courtesy Reuters)

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in China, looking to deepen ties between his country and his neighbor to the south. The trip could mark the start of a new era in U.S.-Russian-Chinese relations, the trilateral relationship that dominated the final decades of the Cold War and is now making a comeback. After Russia’s aggression in Crimea, Moscow and Washington are locked in conflict. Beijing has thus become the new fulcrum, the power most able to play one side off the other.

It is hard to overstate just how significant the shift could be. During the Cold War, the United States capitalized on the constant, at times extreme, Sino-Soviet tension. Thanks to the United States’ closer relations with China, first illustrated during U.S. President Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to Beijing, the Soviet Union feared total isolation. It consequently became more willing to accommodate U.S. demands. American leverage increased, manifesting itself in the U.S.-Soviet agreement on the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty just three months after Nixon’s trip, and in the Helsinki Accords three years later. In return for Chinese support, Washington gradually normalized its dealings with Beijing, culminating in 1979 in the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, which had been suspended after the communist takeover.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the shock of Tiananmen Square marked the end of the first era of triangulation. In the post–Cold War unipolar era, the United States did not need to use a reeling Russia against an internally focused China to achieve its goals. But, thanks to China’s rise as a major power and Russia’s newfound assertiveness, trilateral dynamics are back. This time, though, the United States isn’t the dominant player.

CHINA'S CHOICE

If animosity between China and the Soviet Union defined trilateral relations during the Cold War, today it is U.S.-Russian tensions that drive the triad’s dynamics. Clashing interests, a real ideological divide, and the likely escalation of U.S. sanctions will add to the strain. Unlike U.S. President Barack Obama at the start of his first term, though, the next president will not likely attempt a “reset” with Russia, if only to avoid the domestic political blowback. Likewise, Putin has his own reasons for keeping tensions high; he would like to stir up nationalism to preserve his popularity at home, especially in the face of continued economic contraction.

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