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.
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.
Between these two clashing powers lies China. As the nation in the triad with the broadest policy options, China is positioned to play Russia and the United States off each other, much as the United States did with China and Russia in years past.
Putin has hoped to convince China to use its influence to provide Russia significant economic and political support. In that, he is likely to be disappointed. For one, the two sides don’t have the same strategic goals. China wants global respect for its peaceful rise to great power status. Russia wants to challenge and undermine the West at every opportunity. Further, China sees the United States as its most important partner because of the two nations’ economic interdependence. In other words, even as China balances between the United States and Russia, it won’t risk provoking a real falling out with the United States. It will, however, drive hard bargains and extract concessions from both sides, particularly from Russia.
For example, Putin would like China to legitimize Russia’s aggressive regional stance. To this, China won’t say “no,” but it won’t say “yes” either. The last thing the country would want to do is lend public support to the principle that issues of sovereignty can be decided through referenda. The spillover effects in Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang would be too severe. What Russia can reasonably expect, though, is for China’s leaders to maintain their benign neglect, continuing to abstain on UN votes against Russia and undermining Western sanctions.
Putin has also been looking to dramatically expand Russia’s role as an energy provider to Beijing, which would create leverage for Russia in its energy dealings with Europe. And, after a decade of false starts, during the first part of Putin’s trip to China, Moscow and Beijing did ink an agreement for the “Power of Siberia” pipeline, presaging a new phase in bilateral energy relations. On this issue, Moscow’s desire to expand energy exports intersects with Beijing’s search for greater energy security. And although Russia secured some $25 billion in prepayment to finance the pipeline -- very important in the face of Western sanctions -- China got the better the deal. Russia will supply it natural gas at significantly lower-than-market rates, saving China tens of billions of dollars and pushing down the price of gas across Asia.
In addition to energy, China would like Russia to make it easier for Chinese firms to invest in Russia and sell to Russians. For China, Russia’s middle class economy is a huge market opportunity, especially now that Western firms have started to defer investment there. Russia, fearful of competition, has tended to restrict access to the Russian market for Chinese companies. But in the new geopolitical triangle, Russian and Chinese economic interests will converge; Moscow is already loosening restrictions on Chinese investment and will likely speed up the process.
China might also ask Russia for access to Russia's most advanced military technology. Moscow has been reluctant to sell Beijing its highest-end materiel, partially out of fear that China might someday use these weapons against Russia. Russia might now be more willing to share some technology in return for strategic concessions, but such a policy shift will be gradual. And it might have spillover effects outside of the triangle, for instance driving India into the arms of U.S. arms manufacturers in its search to match China’s increased military capabilities.