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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Impact of Sino-American Rivalry on Russia’s Relations With China

The Impact of Sino-American Rivalry on Russia’s Relations With China

Author: Dmitri Trenin

Affiliation: Carnegie Moscow Center

Organization/Publisher: Carnegie Moscow Center

Date/Place: October 18, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Article 

Word Count: 3024


Keywords: The Strategic Triangle (The United States, China, and Russia), Russia’s International Stature, Russian-Chinese Relations, Geopolitics of Asia, and the Intense US-Chinese Rivalry.  


The article discusses the complex relations between the world’s three major geopolitical players (the US, China, and Russia) and Russia’s position amid these relationships, especially with the growing intense rivalry between two superpowers, the US and China. It also determines how this rivalry affects Russia then suggests the most appropriate way in which Moscow should manage these complex relations in order to maximize its international standing and avoid any strategic damage that might affect Moscow due to the competition between the two powers. The United States is interested in preventing China and Russia from achieving a close rapprochement, as the author basically assumes. While China values its close partnership with Russia, it is not ready to enter into a military alliance with it. As for Russia (which is a major international actor but is not a superpower), it seeks to maintain an equilibrium, though not equidistance, vis-à-vis China, America, and their rivalry. The relationship is likely to continue in this way until a major crisis occurs in US-Chinese relations, over Taiwan, for example, in addition to other factors. Currently, the author calls on Moscow to avoid standing with Washington against Beijing, fearing that it will turn China into a direct adversary, which will have dire strategic consequences for Russia. On the other hand, he believes that Moscow’s siding with Beijing against Washington in peacetime would mean giving up a large part of Russia’s strategic sovereignty and leaving the country’s fate dependent on the outcome of a rivalry between other powers. Therefore, Moscow must maintain a vital balance in the face of the increasingly hostile relationship between Washington and Beijing, which will require Russia to significantly enhance its national power base in a number of areas, from economics to technology to morals.

The article is divided into four parts. The first three parts discuss the impact of some important international developments on Russia’s strategy related to the escalating Sino-American competition, namely: the establishment of the AUKUS, the revival of the Quad, and the rapid US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although the AUKUS agreement has a greater negative impact on China compared to Russia, the latter cannot ignore it, as it is possible that the Australian nuclear submarines will, in the future, travel to the shores of the Russian Pacific Ocean and even enter the Arctic—something that has led Russian officials to describe it as the “anti-Chinese and Russian alliance”. Therefore, the author urges Russia to pay attention to its naval capabilities, modernize, and expand its fleet for the purpose of national defense in the Indo-Pacific, not just as a show of muscles.  The author asserts that Russia has good relations with East Asian countries and does not have territorial claims there, such as China, so Moscow plays a neutral role in pacifying maritime disputes and does not recognize the role of foreign actors in the South China Sea such as the US, Australia, and the UK, but it certainly will not challenge their naval operations there. Russia considers Taiwan as an inseparable part of China, so it is likely to remain on the sidelines of any conflict between them. But if a large-scale military conflict erupts, including the United States, and threatens a large-scale war, Moscow is supposed to condemn any intervention by Washington and seek to end the conflict between the two superpowers without being drawn into hostilities between them. With the conclusion of the Quad Agreement, Russia finds itself in an uncomfortable position between two close strategic partners, China and India, especially after the limited military border confrontation between them in 2020, as Moscow cannot take sides with one of the parties without risking its entire relationship with the other. Many in New Delhi saw Moscow’s neutral stance as a betrayal and called for a reassessment of India’s relations with it while pushing for a faster and more comprehensive rapprochement with Washington. The US invested in this ambiguity and worked to activate the Quad that includes India, which Moscow sees as a coalition similar in its aims to AUKUS, i.e. strengthening the American primacy in the Indo-Pacific at the expense of Russia and China. Therefore, Russian-Indian relations face a major challenge, further complicated by the importance Russia attaches to Pakistan in managing a post-American Afghanistan, at a time when India considers Pakistan a sworn enemy and a supporter of terrorism directed against it. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will further complicate relations between the three big players. Russia’s primary goal is to refocus Washington’s geopolitical and military efforts away from the Middle East and terrorism toward competition with China. This situation will increase Moscow and Beijing’s rapprochement and engagement with the Taliban, as well as expand their regional engagement with Central Asian countries, including Iran which was recently granted full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (led by China and Russia) after 15 years of waiting, which the author considers another step towards Geopolitical unification of the Asian continent. Moreover, Trenin points to the growing concerns of important countries such as the Ukraine and Taiwan (for Russia and China) about the extent of the American commitment to their protection, especially after Washington’s rapid and comprehensive withdrawal from Afghanistan, so it is likely that Moscow and Beijing will coordinate their policies regarding Ukraine and Taiwan to maintain a balance with the United States. Furthermore,  he believes that Washington has taken a great risk by confronting both Moscow and Beijing at the same time.

The last part discusses the future of the Sino-American confrontation and Russia’s position, especially after the United States has adopted a policy of containment and confrontation with China since the Trump administration. This has brought Russia and China closer, but their relationship is not very close, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic revealed the priority of the national interests of each country and the limits of their relationship. Trenin asserts that Russia has not and will not become China’s follower. Moscow will be keen to establish a relationship on an even keel with Beijing despite the small size of the Russian economy compared to the huge size of its Chinese counterpart. The main reason is “Russia’s DNA” which glorifies independence from foreign tutelage or leadership as demonstrated by Russia’s long history. In sum, the current balance in Russian-Chinese relations will remain unstable in the long run. Russia’s standing and role in world affairs over the coming decades will depend much more on the success or failure of its domestic transformation and economic development than on the capacity of its military, diplomats, or political cohesion. 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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