Relations between the United States and Russia continue to deteriorate, with the U.S.-led NATO alliance planning to station troops and heavy weaponry on Russia’s border. At the same time that U.S.-Russian relations are reaching frosty levels not seen since the days of the Cold War, ties between China and Russia are growing noticeably closer. Symbolizing that trend was a powerful visual seen on television sets around the world in early May. Chinese president Xi Jinping not only attended the celebration in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, he occupied the position of honor at the side of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The image was especially powerful because the United States and several other major Western powers pointedly refused to attend the gathering to show their continuing displeasure with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aid to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine.
As I point out in a recent article in Aspenia Online, the events in Moscow were only one signal of a Russian-Chinese rapprochement that seems motivated by a joint desire to curb America’s global dominance. Bilateral economic agreements between Moscow and Beijing are on the rise, including a May 2015 $400 billion deal to sell Russian natural gas to the voracious Chinese economy. In addition, Russia has now replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s principal source of oil.
The prevailing assumption in the West that Russia and China would become geopolitical competitors, if not outright adversaries, in Central Asia also apparently needs to be reassessed. Following the May 8 Putin-Xi summit in Moscow, the two leaders signed a new declaration announcing the coordinated development of the so-called Silk Road Economic Belt in Central Asia. Although Russian and Chinese ambitions in that region are still in conflict over the long run, it appears that both governments have declared a truce in their rivalry.
Significant bilateral arms sales agreements are creating yet another dimension to the relationship. That point is apparent with Moscow’s recent commitment to sell the sophisticated S-400 air defense system to China. Talks between leaders of the two militaries are also on the rise.
These diverse developments have one feature in common. Moscow and Beijing now seem to worry more about Washington than they do about each other, and that shared apprehension is driving them to cooperate against the United States and its allies. That trend should greatly concern U.S. policymakers. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once argued that it should be an important objective of the United States to make certain that its relations with both Russia and China are closer than their relations are to each other.
That remains wise counsel. The last thing that American officials should want is to drive two major powers that are natural adversaries into an alliance of convenience directed against the United States. Yet Washington’s uncompromising policy regarding the Ukraine issue and the increasingly transparent U.S. containment policy directed against China are creating the possibility of such a nightmare. A reassessment of the Obama administration’s strategy on both fronts is badly needed.