At a recent meeting in Beijing between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, Xi made clear that China backs Russia in opposing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion. This rightfully has received media attention.
Both parties achieved closer security cooperation, expressed their displeasure at the AUKUS agreement, and announced a natural gas energy supply agreement. Notably, they also called for the formation of a new era of international relations and global sustainable development.
This indicates that a cost of supporting Ukraine is a closer relationship between Beijing and Moscow. Should that relationship develop into an entente or even an alliance, the rest would be a disaster for the West. The United States must prevent this. In order to understand how to do so, it is important to consider the motivation of China, Russia, and the United States.
China wants to use Russia as a junior partner in an entente or alliance. Russia secures China’s northern flank and occupies the strategic attention of the United States in Ukraine and with pressure against NATO states. China has greater freedom of action to increase pressure on Taiwan, Japan, or against India in this window. Russia also is a counter to the United States and U.S. allies’ influence in the Arctic, Iran, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Yet in this summit, China stopped short of backing Russian expansion into Ukraine. Russia’s expansion is a violation of Kyiv’s sovereignty and so sets a dangerous precedent for the preservation of the Chinese regime’s territorial integrity regarding Tibet, Xinjiang, and international support for Taiwan.
Russia wants to use China to balance the United States and NATO’s power. So long as Putin leans to one side, that is, balances toward Xi, he can scare the West. At the same time, Putin is aware of Russia’s vulnerability to China. China is an emerging superpower with whom Russia shares a long border, and covetously eyes Russia’s natural resources and territory, as Russian power wanes. Russia does not have an adequate conventional deterrent and so must depend on its strategic and tactical weapons to deter China.
At the same time, the relative power imbalance between China and Russia only grows greater. Russia has a declining population and economy, with only energy to sell—although it can be an effective weapon as German and French appeals to Russia show. China has become the peer of the United States and is a threat to Washington as well as Moscow. Putin’s bandwagoning with Beijing is profoundly risky as Russia needs China far more than the reverse. China can clearly discount or dismiss Russia’s interests if it needs to do so with no adverse effects on China’s power or global position. Putin is feeding a crocodile, hoping that the crocodile’s fond memories of summits past will save him. The day may come when Xi executes a regime change in Russia as Putin is no longer useful to him.
For the United States, it needs to confront the center of gravity: China. Russia is a threat in the military realm, but it is only a great power threat. The Chinese regime is a peer enemy. The regime’s power challenges the United States every day in every aspect of global politics. China’s power is already formidable and continues to expand to the point where it might someday soon be ample to defeat the United States and its allies. Thus, Washington should perceive every act in international politics through the lens of whether it increases or decreases Beijing’s relative power. This should be an iron law for Washington.
Every act and every event in world politics, as well as in U.S. domestic politics, should be seen through the prism of benefiting or hurting China’s power. If it benefits China’s power, then it should be opposed. The Beijing summit aided China’s power and the United States does not want a Sino-Russian condominium. As communist China is the enemy of the United States in this triangular relationship, the only hope is to focus on Russia. Russia will never be an ally of the United States. At best, it will be “an ally of kind”—cooperating in areas of mutual interest while opposing the United States in all other matters. The Russians certainly understand power in global politics and the danger of China’s. If caught between the United States and China, they favor China now.
The United States needs to entertain how much worse a Sino-Russian alliance would be and how fundamental U.S. interests would be adversely impacted. The U.S. strategic arsenal and, thus, the credibility of the U.S.-extended deterrence is hard-pressed to cover either China or Russia, addressing both will require the expansion and accelerated modernization of the nuclear arsenal and of its conventional forces as well. The United States must have a strategy to prevent this relationship. Directly put, the United States does not have territorial designs on Russia. China does. NATO’s border with Russia is only a fraction of the over 2,400-mile border with China.