In his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski defined “the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy” as follows: “to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.” Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser was summarizing in his signature Machiavellian language a policy that his Republican opposite number, Henry Kissinger, had daringly designed and implemented in bringing a Cold Warrior par excellence, Richard Nixon, to effect a turnabout in the US attitude toward the People’s Republic of China.
For the last two decades of the Cold War, the United States entered into close cooperation with China against the USSR, to the point of selling it weapons at the height of the Sino-Soviet tensions when China clashed with Vietnam in the late 1970s—something unimaginable today. The “triangulation” of US relations with China and the USSR was a brilliant strategic move, which helped Washington overcome the adversity that it faced with its Vietnam debacle. And yet, since the end of the Cold War, starting with Bill Clinton’s administration, Washington has failed to observe Brzezinski’s third grand imperative by antagonizing Beijing, thus pushing it to collaborate with Moscow. It was around Taiwan in 1996 that Washington staged military maneuvers that the former chief correspondent for The New York Times, Patrick Tyler, described as “the first act of American coercion against China since 1958.”
Ever since, Washington has been pursuing the first of Brzezinski’s grand imperatives—maintaining the security dependence of US subordinates—at the expense of the third: It chose to provoke tensions with Moscow and Beijing in order to perpetuate the dependence of its European and East Asian allies on its military suzerainty. This has had the inevitable effect of inciting China and Russia to close ranks in the face of what they have been calling US “hegemonism.” A different policy was possible over the past decades, not least because China’s economic intermingling with the United States has long been far superior to its exchanges with Russia. Intoxicated by the hubris of its post–Cold War “unipolar moment,” aggravated under the presidency of George W. Bush and its post-9/11 war drive, Washington acted as if it believed that it could manage to carry on antagonizing both its global rivals.
The only attempt to renew the triangulation happened in the clumsiest way under Donald Trump, whose rash hostility to China went along with a frustrated desire to cozy up to Vladimir Putin. His successor at the White House, Joe Biden, maintained Trump’s legacy of heightened hostility toward China at the very moment when the United States’ relations with Russia were heading toward a peak in tension comparable to the worst moments of the Cold War. One would have expected that Russia’s escalation of its military gestures against Ukraine in 2021, followed the year after by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor’s territory, would have induced the Biden administration to lay off Beijing (if not to actively mend fences with China) and try to cajole it into exerting pressure on Moscow for a cessation of the war and a UN-sponsored political settlement.
Beijing threw Washington a line to that effect at the beginning of the war: In March 2022, its present foreign minister, then–Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang, published an article in The Washington Post stating the following:
On Ukraine, China’s position is objective and impartial: The purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be fully observed; the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine, must be respected; the legitimate security concerns of all countries must be taken seriously; and all efforts that are conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be supported.
It was certainly possible to build upon this statement to work together with Beijing toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict, knowing that Russia’s reckless military adventure has considerably increased its dependence on China.
What happened is the exact opposite: Washington escalated the tension with Beijing through a series of statements and moves, such as upscaling its anti-China Quad alliance with Australia, India, and Japan, founding an odd AUKUS anti-China alliance with Australia and the UK, dangerously extending its North-Atlantic alliance into East Asia and the Pacific at NATO’s May 2022 summit in Madrid, and allowing for gratuitously provocative acts about Taiwan such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island. So when Beijing tried again to throw a line, on the occasion of the beginning of the second year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, by publishing a 12-point plan for a “political settlement of the Ukraine crisis,” it was immediately dismissed by the Biden administration, which even engaged in potentially self-fulfilling prophecies by accusing Beijing of planning to provide Russia with weapons.
The new Chinese plan reiterates from the onset the principle emphasized by Qin Gang a year ago: “The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld.” Although it criticizes Western policies and it demands that “unilateral sanctions” be stopped, the plan includes the basic principle upon which it should have been possible for Washington to work with Beijing toward a UN-based peaceful settlement of the ongoing war. This is even more the case since China’s plan does not call for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, which would risk perpetuating Russia’s present occupation of a significant portion of Ukraine’s territory. Instead of such a demand that could play into Russia’s hands, Beijing’s plan calls all parties to “support Russia and Ukraine in…resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire.”
Fortunately, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not follow in Washington’s footsteps. He requested to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to discuss with him China’s 12-point document. On Thursday, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, spoke over the phone with Qin Gang. According to China’s official statement, Kuleba “congratulated China on its recent success in mediating the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and noted that Ukraine takes a long-term view of its relations with China, will continue to strictly abide by the one-China principle and respect China’s territorial integrity, and looks forward to enhancing mutual trust and deepening cooperation with China in various fields.”
This sheds a particular light on the visit that China’s president Xi Jinping will make to Moscow on Monday. Instead of a gesture of endorsement of Russia’s aggression, as interpreted by some, it is more likely to be, after Beijing’s success in restoring diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, a further and much more important step in projecting China’s role on the world scene as a peacemaker in contrast to that of the United States.