During the 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden characterized Russia as an “opponent” and China as a “competitor.” That contrast is likely to reinforce the current tendency to deal with Russia and China independently and leave policy toward the two countries lodged in separate silos.
We think that would be a mistake. Divorcing policy toward one country from policy toward the other not only distorts policy toward each country, it also leaves neglected, or perhaps unrecognized, the overarching challenge of the escalating strategic rivalry between the United States and the world’s two other most formidable military powers, whose polices are increasingly aligned.
The tendency to assign different priorities to the two countries is understandable. With its immense economic weight, world-class technological capabilities, swelling geopolitical ambitions, and growing global influence at a time of intricate U.S.-Chinese economic entanglement, China poses an unprecedented strategic challenge that has to be carefully weighed. Russia, by contrast, poses a more immediate threat with its aggressive actions in Europe, subversion of U.S. alliances and cyberassaults on U.S. elections and infrastructure, while America’s negligible economic and political ties with that country allow a harsher Cold War-like response. In other words, China has to be meticulously managed; Russia has to be resolutely contained—or so the rhetoric of Biden and his senior officials would suggest.
Other observers have used this great asymmetry in the nature of the China and Russia challenges to urge the new administration to focus its attention almost exclusively on China. Under this option, Russia would receive little attention in its own right as a strategic actor; rather, it would be viewed through the prism of U.S. relations with China. The aim of U.S. Russia policy would then become little more than preventing Russia from drawing closer to China and augmenting the latter’s power. The Anonymous article on U.S. China policy recently published in POLITICO epitomizes this approach.
Framing the policy challenge in either of these ways misses two critical points. First, it obscures the genuinely large stakes the United States has in a better U.S.-Russian relationship. These include the loss of control over an increasingly complex and dangerous multipolar nuclear world that can be reversed only with U.S.-Russian leadership; a renewed military confrontation at the center of Europe that can be contained only with cooperation among Russia, NATO and the U.S.; the burgeoning threat to U.S. cybersecurity that can be eased only by some level of U.S.-Russian reciprocal restraint; and the security and environmental risks associated with climate change in the Arctic that can be lowered only if the United States and Russia coordinate their efforts.
Second, separating U.S. policy toward the two countries or focusing exclusively on China disregards the urgent reasons for crafting policy in tandem. The first, if not the second, approach will deaden our sense of the trends pushing the two together and the perils of a U.S.-China cold war that will be greater still if Russia forms a hard alliance with China. Both, however, will weaken the effects of policies intended to alter similarly objectionable Russian and Chinese behavior. And they will numb sensitivity to areas where three-way cooperation is essential as well as to ways of pursuing it.
As is increasingly true, Russia and China coordinate key elements of their policies toward the United States. This they do when, for example, they both support third countries hostile to the United States, conduct military exercises designed to deal with U.S. contingencies, and oppose norms undergirding the U.S.-backed liberal international order. Their cooperation complicates the U.S. response to either of them separately. Similarly, continued tensions with Russia and growing tensions with China fuel greater collaboration between the two. As they draw closer economically, technologically, militarily and diplomatically, and their cooperation in each of these spheres crosses new thresholds, their combined weight in East Asia and across Central Eurasia swells the challenge far beyond that posed by either alone.
Moreover, policy conceived in separate silos inevitably obstructs the commitment needed to formulate and address an agenda where U.S., Russian and Chinese cooperation would yield outsize benefits. Such a trilateral agenda is admittedly narrow but of critical importance. While U.S.-Russian leadership is essential to recovering a measure of control over destabilizing nuclear trends, enhanced strategic stability among the major nuclear powers cannot be achieved without China’s buy-in. Retarding climate change will remain a fantasy if these three of the four largest greenhouse-gas emitting nations do not collectively play a leading role. If future health pandemics are to be prevented or mitigated, the combined scientific resources and talent of Russia, China and the United States will be critical. If institutions critical to global governance, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization are to be reformed and strengthened, rather than split among competing camps, Russia, China, and the United States must find common ground. And, if a new stable global equilibrium is to be established, and the tensions among diverse systems of values eased, these three countries hold the key.
In these circumstances, what should be the guidelines for the Biden administration in coordinating policy toward Russia and China? The point of departure must be what has been a central pillar of U.S. grand strategy since the beginning of the 20th century, namely, preventing an adversary or coalition of adversaries from dominating the Eurasian supercontinent or its strategically critical subregions, Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. Today that means preventing the emergence of a hard Russia-China alliance, which would wed Chinese dynamism with Russian natural resources into a potent threat to dominate Eurasia.
Success requires subtlety and patience. A crude U.S. strategy designed to pull Russia away from China or drive wedges between them has no chance of success and would almost surely have the opposite effect. The two countries’ political systems, the character of their leaders, the complementarities between their economies, and the parallels in their foreign policy agendas create a natural basis for what they describe as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” But there are reasons—including historical grievances and strategic calculations—for the two to think twice about a wholesale alignment, and a nuanced U.S. policy designed to exploit this reality would minimize the risk that a “strategic partnership” will congeal into a hostile anti-U.S. alliance. Restored diplomatic engagement with Russia and a recalibrated sanctions regime crafted to resolve conflicts and not merely punish are first steps in creating strategic options for Russia beyond China.
At the same time, the United States should eschew policies that could transform current tensions with China into a full-blown cold war. Here U.S.-Chinese interactions will obviously prove decisive. But improved relations with Russia could help reduce the risks. While Russia benefits from a certain degree of tension in U.S.-Chinese relations, in a cold war it would be under pressure to choose sides and thus sacrifice its strategic autonomy, a core element of national identity. Russian leaders will be loath to do so. Russia might have little direct influence over Chinese conduct, but improving U.S.-Russian ties and removing the incentives for Russian-Chinese strategic alignment would complicate Beijing’s calculus and could lead to less aggressive Chinese policies.
Another important part of the challenge, it goes without saying, is posed by China’s and Russia’s military might. Any effort to moderate this challenge through strategic dialogue and arms control measures must depend on a U.S. determination to deny a military advantage to either. But as China strengthens its capabilities and the current asymmetries, both nuclear and conventional, slowly melt away, the United States should think of the challenge increasingly in terms of its trilateral dimensions.
The final leg of U.S. Russia-China policy should be an effort to forge a trilateral framework for policymaking. In an increasingly polycentric world, clinging to a bilateralism in which trilateralism is assigned only a bit part no longer makes sense. The work of dealing with key issues in each relationship, of course, will take place at the bilateral level, but it is important that on other matters, U.S. relations with Russia and China be trained on the trilateral dimension.
The approach to trilateralism should be diverse. Some issues may be better addressed through coordinated parallel bilateral discussions, such as areas of economic friction or some aspects of military competition. Some in trilateral formats, such as the threat of terrorism or the challenge of managing Afghanistan-like regional disorder. Others in multilateral forums, such as the six-party effort to deal with a nuclear North Korea or the P-5’s attention to nuclear risk reduction.
As for the agenda, the goals should be modest. Rather than imagining an omnibus nuclear arms agreement binding all three countries, the emphasis should be on dialogue exploring areas where the three might cooperate and on negotiations that focus on parts of the problem that most urgently require three-way cooperation, such as space warfare, dual-use weaponry, cyberthreats to command-and-control systems, and hypersonic cruise and boost-glide missiles. Rather than expecting the three to form a compact to fight climate change, better that they concentrate on ensuring that progress in any bilateral arrangement complements arrangements with the other.
An effective U.S. trilateral strategy will require that the United States and its allies all be thinking similarly and working to ensure that their policies are reinforcing. Simply repairing U.S. alliances and rallying support for U.S. policy toward Russia and China will not suffice. To develop a coherent approach, considerable effort will have to be devoted to reconciling the different priorities and threat perceptions of our European and East Asian allies with regard to Russia and China and their strategic alignment.
As the United States seeks to coordinate its Russia and China policies, care should be taken to avoid distortions and hyperbole in characterizing Russian and Chinese behavior and the threat the two countries represent, separately or in tandem. The challenge they pose to the United States and our allies is real and should not be minimized; but neither should it be inflated out of proportion and in ways precluding any realistic prospect of three-way cooperation on issues where it is feasible and necessary.
Whether such an approach will bear fruit depends, to be sure, on Russia’s and China’s responses. Success is hardly guaranteed. But it is imperative that the United States try. To quote Zbigniew Brzezinski’s last published words, “The ideal long-term solution is one in which the three militarily dominant powers—the United States, China, and Russia—work together to support global stability.” It scarcely needs saying: Without that, what hope can there be for global stability?
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