On June 14, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to Russia’s “strategic partnership” with China. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently described Sino-Russian relations as a “comprehensive partnership” characterized by “strategic interaction.” In March of this year, the Global Times, China’s English-language mouthpiece, stated, “The most influential bilateral relationship in Eurasia is the Chinese-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.” At a recent summit in Beijing, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Minister Lavrov jointly criticized America’s “anti-Chinese” foreign policy.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in April of this year noted the “rapidly expanding” Sino-Russian strategic cooperation. Sino-Russian trade has increased “to new heights.” The two Eurasian giants have entered into bilateral energy deals and increased military and technological cooperation, including joint military exercises ranging from the Baltic Sea to the East and South China Seas, and plan to build a joint space station. CSIS predicts that Russia’s defense cooperation with China will grow because “China, more so than any other Asian power, enhances Russia’s standing globally.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that Moscow and Beijing are strategic partners in opposition to the United States. A new Sino-Russian bloc is emerging.
When the communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and quickly aligned their foreign policy to Moscow’s, the United States and the West faced a nightmare security scenario first envisioned by the British geopolitician Sir Halford Mackinder. Mackinder in 1904 and again in 1919 warned Western sea powers that their security would be endangered if a hostile power or alliance of powers gained control of the major power centers of the Eurasian landmass.
After October 1949, Western strategists began talking about the Sino-Soviet bloc, a Eurasian communist alliance that controlled Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia. The immediate U.S. response was a classified document known as NSC-68, which was finalized in April 1950. It makes interesting reading today.
The West can hope for another Sino-Russian split or it can formulate and implement policies to encourage that split.
At that time, the Soviet Union was considered to be the dominant partner in the communist bloc. In describing the background of the world crisis in 1950, NSC-68 noted that the world had experienced “two global wars of tremendous violence” and “witnessed two revolutions — the Russian and the Chinese — of extreme scope and intensity.” Confronted by the Sino-Soviet bloc, NSC-68 warned that “any substantial further extension of the area under the domination of the Kremlin would raise the possibility that no coalition adequate to confront the Kremlin with greater strength could be assembled.”
The geopolitical danger of the Sino-Soviet bloc was aggravated by the ideological conflict between communism and freedom. NSC-68 noted, “The existence and persistence of the idea of freedom is a permanent and continuous threat to the foundation of the slave society.” Communism “regards as intolerable the long continued existence of freedom in the world.”
NSC-68 noted the vast potential human and natural resources controlled by the Sino-Soviet bloc and warned that communist domination of Eurasia would drastically alter the global balance of power against the United States. Quoting a previous national security paper, NSC-68 declared, “Soviet domination of the potential power of Eurasia, whether achieved by armed aggression or by political and subversive means, would be strategically and politically unacceptable to the United States.”
In 1952, the Cold War strategist and CIA consultant James Burnham in his book Containment or Liberation? wrote that if the communists succeeded in consolidating territories they already controlled (Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia), “their complete world victory was certain.” Burnham had studied Mackinder. The West’s only hope, Burnham believed, was to disrupt and weaken the communist bloc.
Two years later in The Century of Total War, the French strategist Raymond Aron, invoking Mackinder’s warning, noted that the Sino-Soviet bloc had achieved control of so much of Eurasia that it threatened “universal empire.”
Fortunately, after Stalin’s death there emerged ideological differences and a power struggle within international communism, resulting in the Sino-Soviet rift, which grew eventually into the Sino-Soviet split that was accentuated and deepened by the shrewd policies of President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the last two decades of the Cold War, China became a de facto ally of the West against the Soviet empire.
But, as Henry Kissinger, among others, has noted, nothing is permanent in international relations. One era’s ally is another era’s adversary. Today, China is the senior partner in the emerging Sino-Russian bloc. China and Russia form an authoritarian alliance that seeks to replace the U.S.-led liberal world order. The geopolitical analysis of the 1950s still holds true today. Sino-Russian domination of the potential power of Eurasia is strategically and politically unacceptable to the United States. The West can hope for another Sino-Russian split or it can formulate and implement policies to encourage that split.
America needs bold, farsighted statesmanship — Nixonian statesmanship. Richard Nixon understood the world and how it works. He understood geopolitics and the limits of American power. He prioritized America’s concrete security interests and eschewed sentimental abstractions like “human rights.” Nixon knew all about Mao Zedong’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities, but that didn’t prevent him or his immediate successors from working with China against their common adversary, the Soviet Union.
To defeat the Soviet empire, America embraced Mao’s China. Before that, to defeat Hitler’s Germany, America embraced Stalin’s Soviet Union. To defeat China, or at least to successfully contain it, America can embrace Putin’s Russia. Improving relations with Russia will not help the people of Ukraine. Human rights groups and some conservatives will cry foul — as they did with Nixon’s opening to China. The Left will accuse the United States of cozying up to dictators. The naysayers will argue that it is not feasible.
Establishing a new détente with Russia will not be easy. It won’t happen quickly, and it will take political courage — Nixon’s kind of courage. But it should begin soon. The anti-Russian, anti-Putin rhetoric should be toned down. U.S. economic ties with Russia should be increased. The United States does not have to appease Russia, but it will have to confront China. And it will be more effective confronting China if it has better relations with Russia.
Even after his summit meeting with Putin on June 16 in Geneva, it is not clear whether President Biden has the desire, let alone the political courage, to move in this direction. The summit produced a joint statement on arms control and an agreement to resume diplomatic posts in Moscow and Washington. The National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn characterized this as taking “baby steps toward restoring a semblance of a diplomatic relationship.” Biden referred to Russia as a “great power,” and the two presidents discussed cyber security and human rights. Putin later described the meeting as “very efficient” and “substantive.” Biden said it was important for the two countries to establish “stability and predictability” in their relationship and to avoid slipping into a “new cold war.”
The summit was more stagecraft than statecraft. A new détente with Russia does not seem likely with this administration — but it wasn’t likely with Nixon’s either.
Should Biden move in détente’s direction, it would surely catch the attention of China’s leaders, and they would likely view it not as a sign of American weakness but rather as an indication of geopolitical maturity. The kind of maturity that heeds the wise 19th-century counsel of Britain’s Lord Palmerston: Nations have no permanent allies and no permanent enemies, only interests that are eternal.