President Biden has rightly made competing with China his top foreign policy priority. In its first major policy document, the Biden administration stated that China “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a challenge to a stable and open international system.” In his address to a joint session of Congress, Biden said, “We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.” With Biden in attendance, a NATO summit communique stated for the first time that the rise of China “has security implications for all allies.” So for this administration, and many more to come, formulating effective strategies for addressing China’s rise will remain the focal point of U.S. foreign policy, not unlike the central role that the Soviet Union played for U.S. strategists during the Cold War.
Certain lessons from the Cold War, therefore, are worth studying and repeating for dealing with China today. Others are not. One successful Cold War play not worth running again is trying to peel Russia away from China.
Abstractly, the idea of pulling Russia toward the United States to balance against China sounds appealing. It’s classic realpolitik logic. Along these lines, Daniel Yergin recently praised U.S. flexibility on sanctions toward the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a possible “olive branch” that would encourage Russia to distance itself from China, in what is described as “a priority strategy for this administration.”
Yergin’s outlook gives voice to a sentiment many self-described realists — sometimes publicly, often privately — express: Because President Richard M. Nixon succeeded in moving the People’s Republic of China away from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Biden should today attempt to pull Russia toward the United States and away from China. Conveying this strategy most comprehensively, an anonymous government official recently argued, “the United States must rebalance its relationship with Russia whether it likes it or not. . . . It is in the United States’ enduring interest to prevent further deepening of the Moscow-Beijing entente.”
The current Sino-Russian partnership is worrying, and the impulse to view all other foreign policy issues through the U.S.-China bilateral lens is tempting. But this particular Cold War play won’t work today — and even if it did, it would not yield the same benefits that it produced last century.
Advocates of the “Nixon-goes-to-China” strategy forget the essential precondition for its success: the Sino-Soviet split. Following a honeymoon after Mao Zedong seized power in 1949, the two communist regimes soon manifested a serious doctrinal divergence, which accelerated after Joseph Stalin’s death and what Beijing labeled as Nikita Khrushchev’s revisionist ways. In 1969, the two countries even fought a short border war. By the time national security adviser Henry Kissinger made his first secret visit to Beijing in 1971, he did not need to convince Premier Zhou Enlai to distance China from Moscow; that divorce had occurred long before.
By contrast, Chinese-Russian economic, security and ideological ties today are closer than ever. Vladimir Putin frames international politics in ideological terms: autocrats versus democrats. He sees Xi Jinping as his most important ideological partner, while Xi, in turn, has called Putin his “best friend.” So why would Putin abandon his autocratic soul mate to flirt with a democratic leader he’s met only twice? Moreover, the United States is a democracy, giving other actors — especially Congress — a say in foreign policy decision-making, particularly regarding human rights. In Putin’s view, Xi is a powerful, more reliable partner — in ways that Biden and his successors can never be.
Even if such a policy shift succeeded, rapprochement with Putin’s Russia would bring few benefits and many disadvantages. What concretely could the United States gain in its competition with China by having Russia on our side? The answer is not much. China needs Russia’s energy exports, while the United States does not. Beyond what’s in place now, Putin will never deploy additional Russian soldiers, missiles or ships to contain China in Asia. Maybe Putin could help isolate Xi at the U.N. Security Council and other international forums, but ultimately Beijing has its own veto.
Second, in return for pivoting, Putin would demand unsavory concessions, especially regarding Ukraine and Georgia. That’s a bad trade. A return to sphere-of-influence geopolitics — pro-Putin pundits sometimes call it Yalta 2.0 — hurts the long-term interests of the United States and our European allies.
Most detrimentally, closer relations with a Russian autocrat to help contain a Chinese autocrat will undermine Biden’s aspiration to unite the free world, about which he has spoken so passionately in the last six months. Biden’s professed global goals to fight corruption and support democracy would look hypocritical if he even toyed with rapprochement with a corrupt dictator in Moscow. Some of the United States’ most embarrassing and costly mistakes during the Cold War came from its toleration — and, in some cases, its outright embrace — of strongmen, generals, theocrats and apartheid in the name of containing the Soviet Union.
Someday, the United States should seek deeper partnership with Russia in containing and competing with China. But that policy should be initiated with a democratic Russia, not an autocratic Putin — however far in the future that moment might be.