Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brasilia, Brazil, November 2019
Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

As Washington searches for an effective strategy to manage China’s rise, U.S. President Joe Biden is right to lean heavily on one of the United States’ clearest advantages: its global network of alliances. But even as Biden builds a coalition to tame Beijing, he also needs to work the other side of the equation by weakening China’s own international partnerships. He can’t stop China’s rise, but he can limit its influence by trying to lure away from China its main collaborator: Russia.

The Chinese-Russian partnership significantly augments the challenge that China’s rise poses to the United States. Teamwork between Beijing and Moscow amplifies China’s ambition and reach in many regions of the world, in the battle for control of global institutions, and in the worldwide contest between democracy and illiberal alternatives. Piggybacking on China’s growing power allows Russia to punch above its weight on the global stage and energizes Moscow’s campaign to subvert democratic governance in Europe and the United States.

The bond between China and Russia appears to be strong—but there are cracks beneath the surface. It is an asymmetrical relationship, one that pairs an ascendant, confident, and self-regarding China with a stagnant and insecure Russia. That asymmetry gives Biden an opening: to put distance between the two countries, his administration should exploit Russia’s own misgivings about its status as China’s junior partner. By helping Russia redress the vulnerabilities that its relations with China put in stark relief—in effect, helping Russia help itself—Biden can encourage Moscow to drift away from Beijing. Splitting Russia from China would check both countries’ ambitions, making it easier for the United States and its democratic partners to defend their liberal values and institutions and to shape a peaceful international system in an increasingly multipolar and ideologically diverse world.

AN UNEQUAL PARTNERSHIP

China and Russia may be in a marriage of convenience, but it is a very effective one. China generally goes it alone on the international stage, preferring transactional and arm’s-length relationships with other countries. Yet it makes an exception for Russia. Today, Beijing and Moscow have forged a relationship that is “alliance-like,” to use Russian President Vladimir Putin’s term. It encompasses deepening economic ties, including efforts to reduce the U.S. dollar’s dominance in the global economy; the joint use of digital technology to control and surveil Chinese and Russian citizens and sow dissent inside the world’s democracies; and cooperation on defense, such as joint military exercises and the transfer of advanced weapons systems and technology from Russia to China.

Russia’s tilt toward China has accompanied its estrangement from the West, which deepened with the extension of NATO’s eastern frontier to Russia’s western border. Moscow’s outreach to Beijing intensified after the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Beijing has reciprocated, leaning toward Moscow to magnify China’s influence amid mounting economic and strategic rivalry with the United States. Since Xi Jinping became China’s president in 2013, he and Putin have met or spoken on the phone around 40 times.

The Chinese-Russian relationship is grounded in a realist view of the world, and both countries reap mutual and individual benefits from it. Diplomatic teamwork advances their unifying goal of resisting what they see as the West’s encroaching geopolitical and ideological ambition. The partnership allows Russia to focus its strategic attention on its western frontier and China to focus on its maritime flank. Russia gets substantial revenue from energy and arms sales to China, and China fuels the expansion of its economy and boosts its military capability with the help of Russian weaponry.

The relationship between China and Russia has begun to resemble the close Chinese-Soviet coupling of the 1950s.

But the two countries are not natural partners; historically, they have been competitors, and the sources of their long-running rivalry are hardly gone for good. The Kremlin is acutely sensitive to power realities, and it knows full well that a sluggish Russia of some 150 million people is no match for a dynamic China of nearly one and a half billion people. China’s economy is roughly ten times as large as that of Russia, and China is in an entirely different league when it comes to innovation and technology. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has made deep inroads into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia, and the Kremlin is justifiably worried that China also has designs on the Arctic region.

That Russia still cleaves to China despite such asymmetries is a potent sign of Moscow’s disaffection from the West. Yet the imbalance will only grow over time and will become an ever-larger source of discomfort for the Kremlin. Washington needs to capitalize on that discomfort and convince Russia that it would be better off geopolitically and economically if it hedged against China and tilted toward the West.

Such a gambit will not be easy to pull off. Putin has long strengthened his grip at home by playing to Russian nationalism and standing up to the West. He and his apparatchiks might prove too set in their ways and unwilling to countenance a foreign policy that is not predicated on such posturing. Accordingly, the Biden administration has to approach Moscow with eyes wide open; as it tries to lure Russia westward, it cannot acquiesce to the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior or allow Putin to exploit Washington’s extended hand.

Biden’s challenge will be more complicated than that faced by U.S. President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, when he reached out to China and succeeded in roiling Chinese-Soviet relations and weakening the communist bloc. By the time of Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Beijing and Moscow had already parted ways. Nixon had it easy; his task was to build on, not initiate, a rift. Biden faces the higher hurdle of prying apart an intact partnership—which is why his best bet is to stoke latent tensions in the Chinese-Russian relationship.

THE ODD COUPLE

China and Russia have long competed over territory and status. The land border between the two countries currently runs more than 2,600 miles, and their disputes over territory, influence in the border regions, and trade go back centuries. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, China held the upper hand and generally prevailed. The tables turned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with Russia and other European powers resorting to a mix of military predation and coercive diplomacy to wrest control of territory from China and impose exploitative terms of trade.

The coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949 cleared the way for a historically unprecedented period of strategic cooperation between China and the Soviet Union. Building on their shared commitment to communism, the two countries concluded a formal alliance in 1950. Thousands of Soviet scientists and engineers moved to China, sharing industrial and military technology and even helping the Chinese develop a nuclear weapons program. During the Korean War, the Soviets provided China with supplies, military advisers, and air cover. Bilateral trade mounted quickly, representing 50 percent of China’s foreign commerce by the end of the decade. Chinese leader Mao Zedong asserted that the two countries had “a close and brotherly relationship.” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev called China’s communist revolution “the most outstanding event in world history.”

Looking like Xi’s sidekick does not play well at home for Putin.

But the alliance soon eroded as quickly as it had come together. Mao and Khrushchev began to part ways in 1958. Their falling-out stemmed in part from ideological differences. Mao sought to mobilize the peasantry, stoking revolutionary fervor and social upheaval at home and abroad. Khrushchev, in contrast, supported ideological moderation, industrialized socialism, and political stability at home and abroad. The two countries began to compete for leadership of the communist bloc, with Mao remarking that Khrushchev “is afraid that the Communist parties . . . of the world will not believe in them, but us.”

Such differences were magnified by China’s discomfort with power asymmetries that decidedly favored the Soviet Union. In a 1957 speech, Mao accused the Soviet Union of “big-power chauvinism.” The following year, he complained to the Soviet ambassador in Beijing that “you think you are in a position to control us.” In Mao’s estimation, the Russians considered China “a backward nation.” Khrushchev, for his part, blamed Mao for the split. After Chinese and Indian troops exchanged fire across their contested border in 1959, Khrushchev commented that Beijing was “craving for war like a cock for a fight.” At at a gathering of party heads from the communist bloc, he derided Mao as “an ultra-leftist, an ultra-dogmatist.”

This rupture between the two leaders resulted in the unraveling of Chinese-Soviet collaboration. In 1960, the Soviets withdrew their military experts from China and broke off strategic cooperation. In the two years that followed, bilateral trade plummeted by some 40 percent. The border was remilitarized, and fighting that erupted in 1969 almost triggered a full-scale war. In the early 1970s, Nixon capitalized on and exacerbated the rift by reaching out to China, a process that culminated in the normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations in 1979. It would not be until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that relations between Moscow and Beijing would recover.

TRYING TO MAKE NICE

Following the end of the Cold War, China and Russia began to patch things up. Over the course of the 1990s, the two countries resolved a number of remaining border disputes, and in 2001, they signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. They gradually deepened military cooperation and trade ties, with the first oil pipeline from Russia to China completed in 2010. Beijing and Moscow also began to align their positions at the United Nations and collaborated on initiatives meant to counter Western influence, such as establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001 and the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) economic grouping in 2009.

These incremental steps toward bilateral cooperation deepened and quickened under Xi and Putin, fueled by Moscow’s breach with the West following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing rivalry between the United States and China. In recent years, the relationship between China and Russia has begun to resemble the close Chinese-Soviet coupling of the 1950s. Building on the military cooperation that began in the 1990s, Russia has been helping China address its top defense priorities by providing jet fighters, state-of-the-art air defense systems, antiship missiles, and submarines. Some 70 percent of China’s arms imports have come from Russia in recent years. The sale of oil and gas to China buoys Russia’s economy and reduces China’s dependence on more vulnerable maritime supply routes. Russia now rivals Saudi Arabia as China’s top oil supplier, and China has replaced Germany as Russia’s top trading partner. Under Xi and Putin, China and Russia have teamed up to counter liberal norms in international bodies and propagate a brand of governance based on autocratic rule and state control of information platforms. In many parts of the world, Russian disinformation campaigns and intelligence operations are combining with the coercive leverage afforded by Chinese investment to support illiberal regimes.

This cooperation across multiple dimensions is impressive and consequential. But it rests on a fragile base and lacks a foundation of mutual trust—as did the Chinese-Soviet partnership of the early Cold War. In the 1950s, close ties between China and the Soviet Union were highly personalized, making them vulnerable to the vagaries of the relationship between Mao and Khrushchev. Today, Chinese-Russian cooperation depends heavily on the unpredictable relationship between two individuals, Xi and Putin. During the Cold War’s first decade, Moscow sought stability at home and abroad while Beijing favored continuous revolution. Today, Beijing banks on domestic and international stability to speed its rise, whereas Moscow flexes its muscles beyond its borders to foster disorder. During the 1950s, Moscow’s dominance of the partnership bred resentment in Beijing. Today, China enjoys the upper hand and stark power asymmetries rankle Russia.

The power gap is particularly hard for the Kremlin to swallow; looking like Xi’s sidekick does not play well at home for Putin, whose political brand rests on his bid to restore Russia to great-power status. But the disparity between the two countries is glaring and growing. Trade with China accounts for more than 15 percent of all of Russia’s foreign trade, whereas trade with Russia represents around one percent of China’s foreign commerce. And this imbalance is mounting as China’s high-tech sector advances. In Russia’s Far East, some six million Russians live across the border from roughly 110 million Chinese in the three provinces of Manchuria, and the region is becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese goods, services, and labor. Dmitri Trenin, a prominent Russian analyst, has gone so far as to speculate about a potential “Chinese takeover” of the region.

Russia has aided and abetted China’s military modernization—perhaps at its own expense.

It has been a long time since the two countries have openly quarreled over territory and influence in the border regions. But nationalism and ethnocentrism run deep in both political cultures and could reignite long-standing territorial disputes. The South China Morning Post recently ran a commentary arguing that “Xi’s courtship of Moscow makes no sense because it ignores the animosity that has defined Sino-Russian relations since the . . . 17th century.” And anti-Chinese sentiment in Russia continues to get traction—stoked, as elsewhere, by COVID-19’s Chinese origins. But such biases long predate the pandemic, sustained in part by the same racial prejudices that Mao complained about six decades ago.

Russia’s growing economic dependence on China leaves it increasingly exposed to Beijing’s coercive leverage and deepens Russia’s addiction to exporting fossil fuels, the sale of which represents over two-thirds of Russia’s export income and one-third of the federal budget. This hardly represents a good bet on the future as the world turns toward renewable sources of energy. China’s BRI is spreading investment and infrastructure across Eurasia, but the initiative mostly circumvents Russia, providing it few benefits. Only a handful of new border crossings have opened in recent years, and Chinese investment in Russia has been paltry.

The Russians envisage linking their own Eurasian Economic Union to the BRI, but the two systems compete with more than complement each other. In 2017, the EAEU proposed 40 transportation projects to China—and Beijing rejected all of them. Russia’s foreign minister was a no-show at a high-level meeting on the BRI last year, indicating, according to Ankur Shah, an analyst who focuses on Chinese-Russian relations, that Moscow “no longer feels obliged to bow before Beijing’s Belt and Road.” China has effectively replaced Russia as the dominant economic power in Central Asia, and Beijing’s interest in tapping into economic development and new shipping lanes in the high north—what China calls “the Arctic Silk Road”—poses a clear challenge to Russia’s strategy in the region. China’s plans for the Arctic ostensibly complement Russian ones, but as with the EAEU and the BRI, the competing visions stoke unease in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the defense relationship between China and Russia has lost some of its earlier momentum. The Chinese military has benefited from transfers of Russian arms and weapons technology, and Moscow has welcomed the resulting revenue and military cooperation. Yet advances in China’s own defense industry—made possible in part by Chinese companies’ theft of Russian weapons technology—are making China less reliant on Russian imports. China’s acquisition of intermediate-range missiles (ostensibly intended to counter the United States’ forward presence) also poses a hypothetical threat to Russian territory. And Moscow is no doubt closely monitoring China’s expanding arsenal of intercontinental missiles and the construction of new launch silos in western China. Russia has aided and abetted China’s military modernization—perhaps at its own expense.

HELP RUSSIA HELP ITSELF

If Russia is to be drawn westward, it will result not from Washington’s overtures or altruism but from the Kremlin’s cold reassessment of how best to pursue its long-term self-interest. An offer from Washington to reduce tensions with the West will not succeed on its own; after all, Putin relies on such tensions to legitimate his iron political grip. Instead, the challenge facing Washington is to change the Kremlin’s broader strategic calculus by demonstrating that more cooperation with the West can help Russia redress the mounting vulnerabilities arising from its close partnership with China.

Washington’s first step should be to drop its “democracy versus autocracy” framing of U.S. strategy. The United States and its ideological partners of course need to ensure that they can deliver for their citizens and outperform illiberal alternatives. But casting the contest in overtly ideological terms serves only to push Russia and China closer together. Instead, the Biden administration should have a candid discussion with Moscow about areas in which the long-term national interests of the United States and those of Russia overlap, including when it comes to China. To be sure, Russia and the United States remain at odds on many fronts. But rather than settling for continued estrangement, Washington should try to find common ground with Moscow on a wide range of issues, including strategic stability, cybersecurity, and climate change. This dialogue, even in the absence of rapid progress, would signal to Moscow that it has options other than alignment with China.

The Biden administration should press its democratic allies to have similar conversations with Russia; they, too, can probe areas of mutual interest and highlight how China’s growing strength comes at the expense of Russia’s influence and security. Given India’s long-standing ties to Russia and its skeptical view of Chinese intentions, New Delhi may be particularly adept at driving home to Moscow the merits of maintaining strategic autonomy and the potential perils of having too close a relationship with Beijing. To encourage India to help pull Russia away from China, Washington should waive sanctions that are currently pending against India for its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

The United States and its allies should also help reduce Russia’s growing economic dependence on China. Although China is now Russia’s biggest single trading partner, Russia’s trade with the EU is far larger than its trade with China, representing almost 40 percent of Russia’s foreign commerce. Biden’s decision to effectively greenlight the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will carry Russian gas to Germany, was a wise investment in encouraging deeper trade links between Russia and Europe. And although Western sanctions against Russia were a necessary response to Moscow’s aggressive behavior, they have had the effect of pushing Russia further into China’s economic embrace. Accordingly, the United States and its partners should think twice before introducing new sanctions and should lay out a clear set of steps that Russia can take to persuade Washington to scale back existing ones, including committing to a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and reining in Russia-based cyberattacks on U.S. networks.

Washington’s first step should be to drop its “democracy versus autocracy” framing of U.S. strategy.

The United States and its partners should also indicate that they are prepared to help Russia combat climate change and transition its economy away from its dependence on fossil fuels. In the near term, that task entails sharing best practices for capturing methane, assisting with the development of green alternatives to the production of oil and gas, and taking other steps to limit Russian emission of greenhouse gases. In the longer term, the United States should help Russia transition to a knowledge economy—a step that Putin has never taken, to the clear detriment of his country. China rarely shares technology; it is a taker, not a giver. The United States should seize the opportunity to share technological know-how with Russia to facilitate its transition to a greener, more diversified economy.

The United States should build on the conversation about strategic stability that Biden and Putin launched at their meeting in Geneva in June. Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty prompted the United States to withdraw from it in 2019. The United States and Russia now need to find a solution to their own looming missile race and also push China to accept a follow-on agreement that would put limits on China’s large and diverse arsenal of intermediate-range missiles. Even if a tripartite pact proved unreachable, trying to negotiate one would likely illuminate fissures between Moscow and Beijing, given China’s traditional reluctance to enter into arms control agreements. Russia also has a vested interest in pulling China into a broader conversation with the United States about nonproliferation—one that addresses nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, where U.S. and Russian interests overlap.

The Arctic is another area where Washington can help Moscow see the strategic downsides of abetting Beijing’s growing ambitions. Climate change is dramatically increasing the accessibility of the high north, prompting new Russian interest in the region’s economic and strategic importance and stirring Russian discomfort with China’s declaration that it is a “near-Arctic power.” Washington and Moscow hardly see eye-to-eye on the region, but through both the Arctic Council and bilateral dialogue, they should develop a more robust set of rules of the road governing economic and military activity in the Arctic and addressing their mutual concerns about Chinese designs.

Finally, Washington should encourage Moscow to help check China’s growing influence in developing areas, including Central Asia, the broader Middle East, and Africa. In most regions, Russian policy regularly runs counter to U.S. interests; Moscow still sees Washington as its main competitor. Yet as Beijing continues to extend its economic and strategic reach, Moscow will come to see that it is China, not the United States, that regularly undercuts Russian influence in many of these areas. Washington should make that case, helping bring Russian and U.S. interests into greater alignment and creating opportunities for coordinating regional strategy.

Given the antagonism and mistrust that currently plague relations between Russia and the United States, it will take time and purposeful diplomacy for Washington to change Moscow’s strategic calculus. Russia may well stick with its current course—perhaps until Putin eventually leaves office. But in light of the impressive pace and scope of China’s geopolitical ascent, now is the time to begin sowing the seeds of a Chinese-Russian split, especially among the younger cadre of Russian officials and thinkers who will take the reins after Putin departs the scene.

U.S. efforts to manage China’s rise successfully and peacefully will be significantly advanced if China faces strategic pressure on more than its maritime flank and can no longer count on Russia’s steady military and diplomatic support. Currently, China is able to focus on expansion in the western Pacific and farther afield in part because it has a relatively free hand along its continental borders and enjoys Moscow’s backing. The United States would be wise to invest in a long-term strategy to change that equation by helping put China’s relationship with Russia back into play. Doing so would be an important step toward building a pluralistic multipolar order and heading off Beijing’s potential efforts to construct a Sinocentric international system.

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