How the US brought China and Russia together

The United States remains the world’s most powerful country. But the two next most powerful countries are aligning.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb. 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb. 4.

Two generations ago, President Richard Nixon realized that the intensifying partnership between Moscow and Beijing could ultimately threaten the United States. To prevent that, he launched what turned out to be a spectacularly successful effort to disrupt their partnership. Now we are doing the opposite: pushing China and Russia together. This month, the leaders of the two Eurasian behemoths signed a far-reaching “joint statement” that may end up shaping the 21st century.

“The new inter-state relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” they declared. “Friendship between the two states has no limits.”

The implications of this accord are daunting to contemplate — especially now, with Russia attacking Ukraine. Even though the United States remains the world’s most powerful country, it’s disconcerting to see the two next most powerful countries joining together. Worst of all, we brought it on ourselves. Bashing China and Russia for years was certain to turn them into partners at some point. It has just happened. The world turned.

American politicians like to imagine that accords between other nations barely concern us. This one does. In more than 5,000 words, it lays out a sweeping case for replacing US dominance with “multipolarity.” It seems calculated to strike chords in other countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping signed the joint statement at an elaborate ceremony before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. They pledged to promote “redistribution of power in the world” and specifically to support each other’s foreign policy priorities: for Russia, an end to NATO expansion, and for China, reunification with Taiwan. More intriguing was the two leaders’ list of complaints against the United States.

First, not surprisingly, is America’s insistence on projecting military power. “Some actors,” the statement says, “advocate unilateral approaches to addressing international issues, and resort to force; they interfere in the internal affairs of other states, infringing their legitimate rights and interests.” From there, the statement goes on to reject what the United States describes as its campaign to promote democracy and human rights around the world.

“There is no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy,” Russia and China declared. “The two sides believe that the advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries. They oppose the abuse of democratic values and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights.”

Those words could be interpreted as a demand for either simple self-determination or the right to brutalize populations. Just as important is the challenge they represent to the United States. We have not thought through the implications of our relentlessly anti-Russia and anti-China policies. The partnership sealed at Beijing this month should be a loud wakeup call. It won’t be. Our only likely response will be to seek increased military spending. Aides to President Biden said last week that he will soon do just that: present another record Defense Department budget.

The alternative would be to place America’s deeper interests ahead of today’s quarrels with China and Russia. The world needs Biden to stand beside Putin and Xi so the three of them can proclaim, “Together we will confront the threat of climate change, prevent the emergence of another pandemic, and end nuclear proliferation!” Instead, we are not only treating China and Russia as enemies but propelling them toward intimate embrace.

US-China and US-Russia tensions have risen steadily in recent years. For Russia, this month’s accord may have been motivated by the Ukraine crisis. As Russia put military pressure on Ukraine and faced intense opposition from the United States and other countries, having a powerful friend was reassuring. For China, the motivation may have come last year at a high-level meeting in Anchorage at which Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a blistering denunciation of Chinese foreign and domestic policies and very little in the way of offers to cooperate. Afterward, the retired ambassador Chas Freeman, who was Nixon’s interpreter during his groundbreaking trip to Beijing in 1972, offered an acid summary of Blinken’s message — and of how the United States addresses China today: “You’re a moral reprobate, I despise you, your values stink and I’m going to do everything possible to keep you down and maybe push you down. But by the way, I have a problem or two I’d like you to help me on.”

This elephantine approach to diplomacy helped drive China and Russia into their new accord. At the signing ceremony, Xi said he had met Putin 37 times over the last decade. The two countries have made major economic deals. Their armies conduct joint maneuvers. Meanwhile, the United States has systematically sanctioned, confronted, and sought to stymie them both. Given those realities, it’s easy to see how they fell into each other’s arms.

Shifting our approach to our two major rivals would require putting aside issues that many in the United States and beyond consider vital. Our obsession with conflicts of the moment prevents us from clearly seeing our own long-term security interests.

As the new China-Russia partnership was being unveiled, Putin called it “a relationship that probably cannot be compared to anything in the world.” For Americans to ignore it would be foolish. Continuing to antagonize this immense bloc would be even worse. If we cannot accommodate the changing world, it may leave us behind.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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