Driving a wedge between China and Russia won’t work

Sergey Radchenko

Fifty years after Henry Kissinger’s game-changing secret visit to China — which led to the Sino-American rapprochement and became a key turning point of the Cold War — there is no shortage of new would-be Kissingers. Important voices have called for a readjustment of America’s confrontational approach to Russia in a bid to play Moscow as a card against Beijing.

The argument hinges on a seeming power disparity between a declining Russia and its ambitious and much more powerful neighbor. Stephen Blank argues that this “ever-greater disparity … may, in time, allow the [United States] and its allies to exploit Russian feelings of resentment and resistance to subordination.” If only the United States found a way to fuel Russia’s fears of China to the point where it might, as Charles A. Kupchan recently put it, “leave a bad marriage.”

The proposed US approach to the Sino-Russian relationship rests on the assumption that Russia resents its junior position vis-à-vis an ever more powerful China, and that such resentment — and Moscow’s mistrust of Beijing’s intentions — can be profitably exploited.

The assumption that the United States can drive a wedge between China and Russia is flawed. Unlike in the past, the Sino-Russian relationship is not hierarchical and does not require Russia’s unquestioning deference to China’s wishes. The two countries are miles apart ideologically, and neither expects the other to embrace the same worldview. Finally, China and Russia work hard to avoid frictions, both because they have no desire to see these frictions exploited by third parties and because they understand — rightly — that they are destined to be neighbors. If history has taught them anything, it is that it’s much better to be good neighbors than to be at each other’s throats.

A Short History of the Sino-Soviet Alliance

Relations between China and Russia are better today than they have been at any time since the two empires first came face-to-face in the depths of Inner Asia in the 17th century. They are certainly better than during the short-lived Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s, when the Chinese positioned themselves as Moscow’s most important partner in the global Cold War. Outwardly monolithic, the alliance in fact suffered from deep fissures largely born of China’s dissatisfaction with its subordinate role of a “younger brother” to the Soviet Union. Within only a few years of its founding in 1950, the alliance crashed.

President Richard Nixon and Kissinger recognized the historic opportunity and reached out to China in what became the most significant geopolitical realignment of the Cold War. But they would never have succeeded if China and the Soviet Union had not parted ways for their own reasons years before. When Kissinger ventured out on his secret visit to China in 1971, Sino-Soviet relations had been in a tailspin for more than a decade. Most ties — political, economic, and cultural — had been severed. The skeletal Soviet diplomatic staff in Beijing feared for their very lives as enraged Red Guards besieged the embassy. In March 1969, tensions boiled over along the Sino-Soviet border, where the two countries fought a brief undeclared war. In response to a Chinese provocation, the Soviets blanketed the Chinese bank of the Ussuri river with rocket fire. Later that year, Moscow floated hints of a pre-emptive nuclear strike on China, though there is no evidence as yet that anyone in the Kremlin was serious about these threats.

Repeating the Nixon/Kissinger feat would be difficult today because none of the factors that made it possible — first and foremost, deep mistrust and hostility between Beijing and Moscow — are likely to materialize in the foreseeable future. Crucially, China and Russia have learned lessons from their turbulent past and remain determined to avoid a repetition of the 1960s.

Ironically, the reality that China and Russia are not formal allies makes it harder for the United States to play one off against the other. Neither side is overly keen to subject itself to the constraints of an alliance, which usually entails a commitment to come to each other’s defense, and to closely consult over foreign policy. Yet such constraints lead to disagreements over strategy and squabbles over leadership. One may object here by pointing out that while China and Russia are not in an alliance, they are nevertheless in an alignment on important strategic issues. But what does it matter? This issue-based alignment in no way creates a hierarchy: neither Beijing nor Moscow is in a position to impose its views on the other. In the worst-case scenario, they can agree to disagree. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the former Sino-Soviet alliance, which required conformity.

One of the problems of the Sino-Soviet alliance was that Beijing and Moscow had very different ideas about how to handle war and revolution in the so-called third world, and issues of East-West relations in general. For example, the Soviet approach to India (which Moscow hoped to eventually win over for socialism) differed from China’s (which saw New Delhi as a strategic adversary and a rival for influence in the developing world). In 1959, when China and India skirmished along their disputed border, the Soviet Union stayed neutral, angering the Chinese leadership. Mao Zedong’s resentment of Soviet betrayal in 1959 became an important contributing factor to the crash of the Sino-Soviet alliance.

Similarly, Beijing’s interest in the resolution of the Taiwan question on its terms clashed head-on with Moscow’s fear of being dragged into a nuclear conflict with the United States. Disagreements came to a head in August-September 1958, when China began bombarding the Taiwan-held offshore islands of Jinmen and Mazu. Although Khrushchev was not consulted beforehand, he wrote a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower extending the Soviet nuclear umbrella over China in case the United States intervened in the conflict. It’s unlikely that the Soviet leader was thrilled by the prospect of having a nuclear war with the United States over China’s inexplicable actions in the Taiwan Strait. Nevertheless, he felt compelled by the terms of the Sino-Soviet alliance to offer guarantees. As he subsequently put it to Mao, if the Americans learned or even suspected that the Soviets waivered in their commitment, “this would create a very dangerous situation.”

The fallout from the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis badly damaged the Sino-Soviet alliance by contributing to Khrushchev’s doubts about Mao’s reliability, or even his sanity. It was partly because of his concerns about Mao’s militant policies that Khrushchev reconsidered his promise to supply China with a prototype atomic bomb (though not before substantially helping the Chinese along with their weapons program, which led to Beijing’s successful atomic test in October 1964).

Although Khrushchev was unwilling to share nuclear secrets with China, he was very interested in other forms of military cooperation that would extend Soviet control over Beijing. A case in point was his proposal to create a joint navy with China, a proposal that touched a raw nerve with Mao because it was suggestive of China’s subordination to the Soviet Union. Mao famously lashed out at the Soviet ambassador in Beijing, Pavel Yudin:

You never trust the Chinese! You only trust the Russians! [To you] the Russians are the first-class [people] whereas the Chinese are among the inferior who are dumb and careless.

Khrushchev hurried to Beijing to mend fences but he had a hard time convincing Mao that he was not in fact plotting to impose quasi-imperial control over China’s military. What began as Khrushchev’s effort to make the Sino-Soviet military alliance more effective actually managed to deeply undermine trust on both sides.

The lack of trust was one reason that Moscow utterly failed in its endeavor to coordinate with the Chinese during the Vietnam War, though not the only one. The deeper problem was that where the Soviet leaders feared escalation and worried about the consequences of Vietnam for the broader project of East-West détente, Beijing was not really interested in finding a peaceful solution because tensions in Southeast Asia helped Mao’s project of continuous revolution in China. When Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin turned up in Beijing in February 1965 to compare notes on Vietnam (on the premise that, as Communists, surely the Chinese and the Soviets would find common language), he was surprised to hear Mao tell him that the Sino-Soviet struggle would continue for 10,000 years.

In the 1970s, China and Vietnam fell out completely, and Vietnam sought reassurance by concluding a formal alliance with Moscow in 1978. This alliance failed to deter China from briefly invading Vietnam in 1979, although if the Sino-Vietnamese war had continued, Moscow could well have been compelled to act in defense of its client with quite unpredictable consequences.

The fundamental problem was that the Sino-Soviet alliance was singularly ill-suited for reconciling different Soviet and Chinese strategies, leading to internal frictions and then to bitter rivalry.

There was a further unique aspect to the Sino-Soviet relationship that is completely absent from the Sino-Russian relationship today. The two sides claimed to adhere to a common ideology of Marxism-Leninism, maintaining internal consistency between their foreign policies as Communist states, and their domestic political agendas. This became especially important for China in the 1960s when Mao accused his domestic detractors of trying to follow the Soviet — or “revisionist” — line. Erstwhile comrades and prominent politicians ranging from former Defense Minister Peng Dehuai to State Chairman Liu Shaoqi to General Secretary Deng Xiaoping were (wrongly) accused of having “revisionist,” if not outright pro-Soviet, views. Liu became “China’s Khrushchev.” Confronting the Soviet Union thus became part and parcel of Mao’s domestic struggle against his real and imaginary opponents. For as long as this struggle continued, the chances of a Sino-Soviet rapprochement remained slim. It is very difficult to imagine Sino-Russian relations being afflicted by a similar interplay of ideological struggle and domestic power play. Nor is this accidental.

In fact, when Beijing and Moscow mended fences in the 1980s, both sides understood that the ideological “glue” that had once held the Sino-Soviet alliance together had turned out to be the substance that had poisoned its shallow roots. The key to rapprochement was to de-ideologize the relationship. Both sides equally understood that it was in their interest that neither side became the “elder brother.”

Lessons

Today, China and Russia coordinate their policies in some areas but manage differences in others. Beijing has not cracked the whip to force President Vladimir Putin to toe China’s line on the Sino-Indian border dispute or in the South China Sea. Vietnam has been a major recipient of advanced Russian weapons without triggering angry tirades from Beijing. Nor has Putin attempted to force the Chinese to embrace Russia’s position on Crimea. Predictions that power disparity will limit Russia’s policy space have simply failed to materialize.

The two sides no longer have ideological affinities beyond a vague commitment to authoritarianism and a shared vision of a post-American world order. This is a far cry from the quasi-religious disputes of the 1960s. Nor do Putin or General Secretary Xi Jinping see each other as a threat in their domestic power struggles. The ostensible power disparity between China and Russia means less than some (including French President Emmanuel Macron) would imagine. As a major nuclear power endowed with substantial human and natural resources and an advanced research and development capability, Russia will maintain considerable strategic autonomy, making it very difficult for China to force its partner into arrangements that it wants no part of.

Meanwhile, policymakers in Beijing and Moscow understand today that Sino-Russian frictions, such as they are, will likely be exploited by third parties. This realization dawned as early as the early 1980s, when Deng discovered that Sino-American normalization had not translated into greater US willingness to yield to Chinese pressure on Taiwan. Deng suspected — not wrongly — that the Americans were playing China off its arch-rival, the Soviet Union. “We look at the Sino-American relationship from the strategic angle,” he concluded in 1981. “The two sides should not be playing card games … If you play cards, the cards can change any time, and can also be discarded at any time.” By 1982, China was reciprocating Soviet feelers for normalization.

Having experienced intense hostility, Beijing and Moscow have worked hard to avoid a repetition. It is worth recalling, as others have done in these pages, that it was Mikhail Gorbachev who delivered complete normalization in 1989 (which became one of his more lasting legacies). His embrace of the West notwithstanding, Gorbachev sensibly realized that China was Russia’s inescapable neighbor and that good relations with China mattered just as much as rapprochement with the West. Indeed, Gorbachev redoubled his efforts at courting China post-Tiananmen, when much of the West condemned Beijing’s brutal crackdown against democratic activists. Today, there is a broad policy consensus in Russia about the desirability of keeping Sino-Russian relations on a positive trajectory in political and economic terms.

There is a tendency among some analysts to overlook this consensus and imagine that the strong Sino-Russian relationship is a consequence of good personal chemistry between Putin and Xi. The tendency to focus on personal relationships to the detriment of broader dynamics ignores historical precedent, including Kosygin’s failure to patch up the Sino-Soviet alliance after Khrushchev’s fall in 1964, or the failure to make any immediate headway in improving relations after Mao’s death in 1976. By the same token, once launched in the waning days of the Leonid Brezhnev era, rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow developed in a generally unbroken pattern from Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin to Putin, and from Deng to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, and then to Xi.

Even if Putin and Xi dropped dead tomorrow, it is hard to imagine Russia or China turning sour on a relationship that successive generations of leaders have worked so hard to build up. It would be a singularly bad idea for Russia, given that a positive relationship with China not only has tangible economic benefits for Russia (China is Moscow’s number one foreign trade partner) but also helps the Russians to leverage their global influence. It would be a bad idea for China, which values Russia as by far its most significant partner with global influence in an otherwise generally hostile neighborhood.

Tensions?

Experts occasionally draw attention to subterranean tensions in the Sino-Russian relationship. For example, Russia is said to be apprehensive about Beijing’s inroads into its sphere of influence in Central Asia or, indeed, about some unspecified future threat that China could pose to sparsely populated but resource-rich Siberia. While superficially attractive, predictions of a coming Sino-Russian clash have so far failed to deliver. Instead, Beijing treads softly in Central Asia — where, regardless of Russia, it faces suspicion and backlash from local actors — and has even tried to reconcile its Belt and Road Initiative with Russia’s regional integration projects.

While China’s exploitation of Siberian resources has triggered local ire, on the whole Russia’s problem is not the threat of Chinese expansion but, rather, Beijing’s lack of interest in investment projects. Nor have illegal Chinese migrants poured into Siberia in their millions, as once was feared. China and Russia also have no territorial disputes. Their border, once the world’s most militarized, has been demilitarized and demarcated, which cannot be said of China’s borders with some of its other neighbors. China and Russia are connected by cross-border infrastructure, including a massive gas pipeline, the Power of Siberia, which entered service in 2019. The two sides have also beefed up their defense cooperation, including by holding highly publicized joint naval exercises, although this cooperation falls far short of Khrushchev’s ambitious proposals of the 1950s. For a good reason, too: Both sides know that too much military cooperation may have unintended consequences if one side or the other feels that the embrace has become too tight.

Why Playing Cards Is a Self-Defeating Proposition

The notion that the United States could play Russia against China by offering Moscow carrots in the form of better relations with the West does not hold up to scrutiny. Citing a high degree of confluence between Beijing’s and Moscow’s interests, priorities, and threat perceptions, Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky, and Aleksandar Vladicic have rightly criticized such “magical thinking” among Western experts. The key issue is not even the convergence of interests but the two sides’ acceptance that, unlike during the infamous Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s, their interests do not always have to converge.

This is not to say that Moscow would not welcome such “magical thinking” — of course, it would. In fact, recent talk of triangulation in Washington have met with a sigh of relief in the Russian foreign policy community, not because they are so keen to break with China, but because they resent Russia’s pariah status in the West and want a return to dialogue. As a bonus, speculation about the need to play Russia against China considerably increases Russia’s space for geopolitical maneuver by signaling to Beijing that it should not take Russia for granted — which, to be fair, it doesn’t anyway.

As much as Washington would hope to induce Moscow to “leave a bad marriage,” it is unlikely to succeed. Not only are the alternatives not particularly plausible (the prospects for a rapid improvement of Russian-Western relations remain very dim) but Russia’s “marriage” with China is really not half bad. And what is this “marriage” in the end? It is a relationship that provides political and economic dividends to both sides, regardless of their increasing power disparity.

For what matters in the end is not the power disparity between the two partners but whether China is able or willing to use it for unilateral advantage over Russia. So far, it hasn’t — and even if it tried, it is far from clear that it would succeed.

Apart from overstating US capabilities, the card-player’s approach misses out on a broader issue. US relations with Russia are important on their terms, regardless of what happens or fails to happen between Moscow and Beijing. These relations span a range of critical issues, including strategic stability, nuclear arms control, cyber security, and regional conflicts. Whether Washington chooses engagement or containment (or a combination of both) to cope with Russia, it is a policy that should be pursued to achieve specific objectives and not because it might have instrumental consequences for the future of the Sino-American relationship.

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