The US-China-Russia strategic triangle has returned as a fulcrum of global geopolitics. As Chinese president Xi Jinping makes a high-profile visit to Moscow to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin, US President Joe Biden has been busy coordinating Atlantic and Pacific military alliances to box in both powers. The Biden administration often frames this division between the powers as the outcome of an abstract contest between democracy and autocracy. Far from inevitable, however, the China-Russia alignment against the United States crystallized just one year ago and is far more tenuous than most media commentary allows.
Washington is girding for a long-term contest with China and often views the war in Ukraine as an early skirmish in that larger struggle. Beijing views the conflict differently, feeling itself pushed by US hostility to back Putin despite substantial misgivings about his actions. Moscow, insecure and aggrieved, is lashing out with little consideration for the consequences. A tortured history of relations among the three countries has brought us to a turning point today, but that history offers more than one road into the future. We can still choose a path different from the current one into devastating conflict.
The US-China-Russia strategic triangle first took shape in the Cold War when revolutionary China under Mao Zedong established an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1950 against what it regarded as the US-led revival of Japanese imperialism in Asia. But over time Mao grew resentful of condescension from the Soviets and ideological disputes poisoned the relationship, leading to the Sino-Soviet split by 1963. This ultimately created an opening that Nixon seized in 1971, agreeing with Mao to align the United States and China against the Soviet Union.
The strategic impetus for US-China relations grew over nearly two decades before ending abruptly with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the Chinese government’s massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. US-Russia relations, meanwhile, seemed to be on the upswing with Yeltsin’s rise to power and uncritical embrace of US-championed free market reform. But a US-Russia alignment against China did not materialize. Instead, the events of the 1990s created a foundation for an uneasy accord on all sides even as it nurtured subterranean tensions that would later break into the open.
Market reform in the former state-planning systems integrated Russia and China into the US- and EU-crafted free-market globalization system, with China becoming the world’s sweatshop, Russia a major supplier of minerals and fossil fuels, and the United States delivering capital, technology, and know-how to both. Companies in all three countries prospered. At the same time, a growing fear of Islamist rebellion and terrorism united all three countries on security issues. Both Russia and China threw their support behind the US War on Terror after 9/11, while the US endorsed repression in Chechnya and Xinjiang.
The all-sides alignment behind corporate profit and anti-Muslim security politics broke down after the global financial crisis of 2008. In all three countries, the political economy of growth was badly dislocated, and expectations of prosperity through deeper international integration were discredited. In all three countries, the glaring economic inequality that had arisen under market growth now became a serious economic and political problem, providing an opening to those who had been marginalized under globalization—nativists, nationalists, protectionists.
Globalization itself prepared the way for a new era of great power conflict. After the crises of 1989, China and Russia had gradually grown closer, recognizing kindred resentments and fears of American power. Leaders in both countries had imposed sharp restrictions on political freedoms—in Russia’s case, Putin was attempting to restore order after Yeltsin’s chaotic free-market reforms devastated both state and society in the 1990s; China’s aim was to protect foreign and domestic business interests by repressing labor to keep wages low and by suppressing the social turmoil accompanying rapid growth and high levels of inequality.
Leaders in both countries believed that limiting the progress of liberalization was necessary to national success, but they faced American lectures about democracy and human rights, US support for the Color Revolutions that deposed leaders across the former Soviet realm, US military aggression to overthrow regimes it opposed, and the expansion of US military alliances.
US leaders, disappointed that Russia and China refused to follow their lead, interpreted illiberalism in both countries not as a response to market growth but as evidence that Russian and Chinese politics must be intrinsically authoritarian. At the same time, their sense of mastery over global events crumbled as defeat in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, and finally the crisis of 2008 discredited the “end of history” ideology that so many had internalized. Facing stagnant growth at home and loss of authority abroad, US leaders looked for someone to blame.
They found it in China, which was the only major economy to return to robust growth quickly—something it accomplished by moving domestic businesses into sectors that US exporters had long dominated. At the same time, in line with the rest of the world, China was becoming more nationalist and more authoritarian, a reorientation expressed in growing internal repression, strident foreign policy rhetoric, and a new willingness to throw its economic weight against countries, like US allies South Korea and Australia, that acted contrary to its wishes.
US leaders regard this as a threat not so much because of the “democracy vs. autocracy” slogan—Biden’s 2022 National Security Strategy, for example, explicitly states that authoritarian countries are welcome in the US coalition as long as they oppose China and Russia, and the administration has put significant energy into deepening relationships with increasingly authoritarian but strategically useful countries like India and the Philippines. Rather, China is threatening because, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, it is the only country that does not accept US authority while being strong enough to change the US-dominated international system. The Biden administration thus came to office determined to build on Trump’s anti-China turn, extending its reach by rebuilding alliances with the other rich countries to isolate and contain Chinese power.
Heeding the lesson of the 1950s to avoid treating the two countries as a monolith, Biden initially sought to peel off Russia. In June 2021, Biden went to Europe to refocus the G7, NATO, and the EU against China and, at the end of the trip, he held a summit with Putin aimed at stabilizing the US-Russia relationship. At a press conference afterward Biden said that Putin, faced with the growing power of China on his doorstep, was willing to set aside his security concerns about the US—“I think that the last thing he wants now is a Cold War.”
Biden was wrong. But rather than rethinking the strategic focus on containing China, the administration simply lumped Russia and China together, branded them the key force driving authoritarianism around the world, and began pushing the same charge sheet against both. This failure to distinguish China from Russia has led US policy into a dead end, pushing the two to align against the US threat and missing major opportunities to move off a path to disastrous great power confrontation.
One alternative to Biden’s approach would be, following former Trump administration official Elbridge Colby’s argument, to shift the focus away from Russia altogether in order to devote all US resources to containing China. This position maintains that China is the real threat to US power and Russia is merely a distraction.
What both the Biden administration and the “Asia first” position ignore are the hugely significant substantive differences between Russia and China. China is not just more powerful than Russia—it is more powerful precisely because it was successful within the global system in a way that has proven impossible for Russia. That means that China’s interests are interwoven with those of the US bloc and the Global South in a way that is not true of Russia’s. The history of the strategic triangle has created the possibility of a China-Russia alliance against the United States—but equally so, it has created the possibility of US-China negotiations over ways to stabilize and reform the global system.
China is undoubtedly sympathetic to Russia because of their shared grievances against the United States. As a result, China has provided some diplomatic cover for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and refused to impose sanctions on Russia. Like other great powers, China tossed aside cherished principles—in this case, its support for sovereignty and territorial integrity—when they became inconvenient.
At the same time, China has declined to provide lethal aid to Russia, has largely respected the US sanctions, has levied veiled criticism of Russian actions and threats, and has highlighted the deleterious effects of the war on the Global South. Last month, China released a set of principles for resolving the conflict that included measures alternately welcomed by both Putin and Zelenskyy.
The Biden administration’s response to China’s ambiguous perspective on Russia has been to simply dismiss the ambiguity and raise suspicions that China’s secret goal is to help Russia. On China’s principles for peace, Biden remarked: “Putin is applauding it, so how could it be any good?” For weeks, the administration has repeated the claim that China is considering sending weapons to Russia”—seemingly an attempt to undermine China’s protestations of neutrality—while also admitting, “We haven’t seen any indication that they’re moving in that direction.” Unlike in 2021, administration officials are no longer trying to amplify differences between China and Russia. Instead, they deny that any differences exist.
Rather than pressing Russia and China closer to each other, it is time for the United States to seek new possibilities within the strategic triangle. A more promising approach would recognize the salient differences between Russia and China and use that recognition not to split them but to establish a US-China modus vivendi. In addition to ending the current rush toward serious conflict with China—which Biden says he wants to avoid—comity with China would also expand diplomatic possibilities for bringing Russia to the negotiating table.
Today, the United States and China both view their differences as making them incompatible, but those same differences just as often create a potential for complementarity. Whether the issue is a global climate transition, a framework for developing country debt restructuring, or leveraging diplomatic influence over both sides to end Russia’s war against Ukraine, making space for China in the global system is a far better strategy for pursuing US goals than is a destructive attempt to isolate and exclude it.