The convergence of Chinese and Russian foreign and defense policies has been ascribed to the fact that both are authoritarian regimes. That is a narrow version of the truth. They are very different kinds of authoritarian regimes, owing to vastly different histories, cultures and geographies. China’s is a deeply institutionalized, businesslike system overseeing a far more developed economy and technological base than Russia’s risk-tolerant oligarchic regime. The two countries harbor deep suspicions owing to a 2,600-mile land border that over the centuries has been disputed and fought over (most recently in 1969).
Yet in recent years, the two countries have participated in military exercises, involving hundreds of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft, designed to practice large-scale maneuvers conducive to great power conflict, not irregular warfare or anti-terrorist campaigns.
Russia has acquiesced to Chinese military transfers to former Soviet Central Asia, even as China’s Belt and Road Initiative features energy transfers from these former Soviet republics to China. Then there are the 30 meetings over the past six years between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as substantial collaboration in energy, aerospace and so on. Much of this precedes Trump’s election, but the pace of Sino-Russian cooperation has clearly quickened since 2016.
Not only has China — though relieved by the limited breakthrough — been rattled by Trump’s trade war and on-again, off-again negotiating strategy, but Russia cannot have confidence in a U.S. administration that combines sanctions, increasing troop and armored vehicle strength in East-Central Europe, even as the U.S. president calls NATO “obsolete” and lavishes unseemly praise on Putin. China and Russia do not expect nor do they deserve friendship from the United States, but they do deserve a practiced consistency in U.S. policy. And they are not getting it.
So rather than the United States moving closer to China to balance against the Soviet Union, as in the Nixon-Kissinger era — or moving closer to Russia to balance against China — China and Russia have been moving closer together to balance, in part, against a U.S. president who is dangerous precisely because he is impossible for them to analyze in conventional diplomatic terms.
Always remember that U.S. foreign policy is not just the actions that Washington takes abroad, but the record of presidential statements from the beginning to the end of an administration. This is what makes the present moment so disturbing for friends and foes alike.
India is a bellwether in all of this. While the media recently focused on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s triumphal visit to Texas (and the natural gas deal that came out of it), Modi and Putin signed 15 agreements last month in Vladivostok on defense, energy and other areas. Meanwhile, Modi and Xi have successfully scaled down a Himalayan border crisis that raged in 2017. There is also a personal chemistry between Modi and Xi, both obsessively self-disciplined and focused leaders. As India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said in August in Beijing, repeating what he had said about India and China in 2017, “At a time when the world is more uncertain, our relationship should be a factor of stability.”
Just as the United States and China had much to disagree about when President Richard Nixon went to Beijing in 1972, India and China now disagree about Pakistan, Kashmir, Belt and Road, their quiet competition in Nepal and Sri Lanka, and so on. However, India and China do see it in their interests to be as close as possible under the circumstances.
The point is: Given the foreign policy turmoil in Washington, no one should ever take India’s turn toward the United States for granted, or as permanent. The U.S.-India rapprochement that began under President George W. Bush and continued under President Barack Obama occurred under specific geopolitical circumstances that no longer exist: a U.S.-China rivalry that was, nevertheless, relatively low-key, contained and predictable; and a China-Russia relationship that while a partnership was still a somewhat cool one.
Now, under Trump, the U.S.-China rivalry is turbulent and unstable, while the China-Russia relationship has become increasingly warmer. India, given its geographical proximity to both these great Eurasian powers, cannot be locked completely out of a China-Russia embrace, and given a generally worsening climate between Beijing and Washington, might have to subtly rediscover its Cold War tradition of balancing between great powers — a tradition that served India well. This would be easily accomplished, and New Delhi would never even have to admit it has happened.
For all the loud headlines about the iniquities of Trump, it is the quiet shifts that might be taking place abroad that could leave the world forever changed. The dramatic policy changes and zigzags of the past few years have cheapened the word of the United States in crucial capitals. And this weakening of trust could have profound geopolitical implications.