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HomeGeopolitical CompassEurope, Russia, OceaniaA ‘Soft’ Balancing Ménage à Trois? China, Iran, and Russia Strategic Triangle...

A ‘Soft’ Balancing Ménage à Trois? China, Iran, and Russia Strategic Triangle vis-à-vis US Hegemony

Authors: Maria (Mary) Papageorgiou, Mohammad Eslami, Paulo Afonso B. Duarte

Affiliation: University College London

Organization/Publisher: Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs

Date/place: March 17, 2023/ US

Type of Literature: Research Paper

Word Count: 14397

Link: https://doi.org/10.1177/23477970231152008

 

Keywords: China, Russia, Iran, Soft Balancing, Strategic Triangle, Cooperation

 

Brief:

This article explores the driving factors behind the formation of a strategic alliance between Iran, China, and Russia in the post-Cold War context. The authors introduce these factors as based in the U.S. policy of unilateralism as well as NATO expansion to the east, sanctions against Iran and against Russia after the annexation of Crimea, U.S. economic war against China and hostile Covid-19 pandemic policies. According to the authors, in the post-Cold War era, middle powers increasingly opposed US unilateralism, forming alliances to challenge unipolarity. While the Sino-Russian partnership is well-studied, this research focuses on the less-explored strategic triangle of China, Iran, and Russia, highlighting its geopolitical implications. The trio’s cooperation, driven by dissatisfaction with US actions, spans economic, military, and political dimensions. The study explores the concept of soft balancing, a non-military strategy to counter hegemonic policies. The authors argues that China, Iran, and Russia employ soft balancing mechanisms, including entangling diplomacy and regional cooperation, but a clear resolve for hard balancing is absent. The article examines the strategic triangle’s implications for US foreign policy and the three countries’ short to medium-term balancing behavior.

The end of the Cold War left the United States as the sole superpower in the world, prompting expectations of hard balancing by second-tier powers like China and Russia. However, despite increased great power competition, hard balancing against the US has not materialized. Researchers propose that a “new balancing logic” called soft balancing arose from opposition to US unilateralism, especially evident after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Soft balancing aims to counter US power without harming economic ties and employs indirect tactics like entangling diplomacy, economic strengthening, and signaling resolve. Successful soft balancing could shift global dynamics, diminishing US dominance. Preconditions need to be met in order to achieve soft balancing; these driving forces or preconditions include concern over the hegemon’s power and military behavior. 

The authors maintain that understanding the soft balancing behavior collectively exhibited by China, Iran, and Russia requires viewing their relationship as a “strategic triangle,” a concept often overlooked in International Relations literature. This term serves as an analytical standpoint, emphasizing the internal logic of their relationship irrespective of power disparities. The formation of a strategic triangle, seen as a transactional game among three players, occurs when each player acknowledges the others’ significance, leading to complementary interests and continued cooperation. The China–Iran–Russia strategic triangle, characterized by symmetrical amities, is described as flexible, mutually beneficial, and characterized by a win–win dynamic. This strategic triangle, influenced by shared values and technological cooperation, serves as a check-and-balance mechanism against US power, offering new opportunities for states when balancing.

The article then delves into the driving forces behind the soft balancing behaviors exhibited by China, Iran, and Russia, particularly in response to their dissatisfaction with US hegemony and unilateral actions. The three nations align closely due to shared interests in challenging the US-led unipolar order, evident in their endeavors to support a multipolar system. The focal points of contention include Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the ‘Middle East’, where they aim to counteract US influence. The article emphasizes the impact of US unilateralism on these nations’ foreign policies.

The section further explores how US unilateralism has shaped relations with Iran and Russia separately. In the case of Iran, historic confrontations, such as the 1979 Islamic revolution, have fueled antagonistic foreign policies. The trajectory involves mutual accusations and antagonism, exacerbated by events like U.S. President George W. Bush’s labeling of Iran as part of the ‘Axis of Evil.’ The authors highlight the impact of US sanctions, tensions surrounding nuclear negotiations, and the assassination of key figures, contributing to a shift in Iran’s foreign policy narrative against US unilateralism.

The passage also outlines Russia’s evolving relations with the United States. Initially optimistic in the early 1990s, the relationship soured as Russia perceived US unilateralism and NATO expansion as threats to its security and geopolitical interests. Instances such as the 1999 war in Yugoslavia, the 2003 Iraq war, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea fueled Russian opposition to US-led actions and further strained relations. The article emphasizes Russia’s objection to US interventionism and unilateral decision-making, portraying these as driving forces for a balancing response. Overall, the narrative underscores the role of US unilateralism in shaping the soft balancing behaviors of China, Iran, and Russia.

Likewise, the dynamics of Sino-American relations have witnessed fluctuations between cooperation and conflict throughout history. Recent years have seen heightened tensions, with significant turning points such as President Bush’s strategy shift at the end of the Cold War and Trump’s explicit designation of China as a strategic competitor. Geopolitical competition for supremacy, resources, and allies in regions like Central Asia and the Pacific has intensified. Major events, including the Taiwan Strait crisis, NATO’s bombing of China’s embassy in 1999, and the War on Terror, have fueled distrust.

China perceives post-Cold War U.S. strategic interests as isolating and containing China, evident in actions like the ‘US pivot to Asia’ and opposition to China’s global influence. Trump’s tariffs, the Taiwan Travel Act, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 escalated tensions. COVID-19 further intensified the rivalry, as then-president Donald Trump called it the ‘Chinese virus’ and accused China of having a role in spreading the epidemic. The Biden administration has mostly continued this trend, as the administration’s Summit for Democracy and reinforcement of alliances continued strained relations.

By and large, the research paper explores a strategic triangle formed by China, Russia, and Iran to counteract U.S. unipolarity. Soft balancing mechanisms include territorial denial, economic statecraft, and entangling diplomacy. The trio resists U.S. influence through joint initiatives in Syria and Afghanistan, economic partnerships against sanctions, and regional institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The article suggests that while the three states express soft balancing, they have not formed an explicit alliance or engaged in hard balancing. The future trajectory depends on the evolving relationships among China, Russia, and Iran, influenced by their individual interests and the changing global geopolitical landscape.

In conclusion, this article aims to address the gap in literature on balancing, focusing on the evolving strategic triangle between Russia, China and Iran. Utilizing international relations theory, it systematically analyzes the soft balancing mechanisms China, Russia, and Iran have employed since 2018. The evidence suggests these states use entangling diplomacy, territorial denial, and economic strengthening to frustrate US decisions. Although ad hoc cooperative exercises and limited arms build-up indicate soft balancing, the authors assert that the transition to hard balancing may occur with stronger alignment during the Ukraine war. US concerns about this triangle’s strategic implications may also prompt continued soft balancing in the short to medium term.

 

By: Setareh Sadeqi, CIGA Non-Resident Research Fellow

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