The U.S. Needs to Stop Bringing Russia and China Closer Together | Opinion

This week, Russian and Chinese military forces began joint military exercises in China's northwest. The exercises are expected to include ground and air forces and a sizable quantity of Russian and Chinese officers who will learn how to synchronize operations. China's official Xinhua News Agency said the drills reflected "the new height of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership" both sides committed to years earlier.

U.S. officials in Washington are increasingly concerned about the probabilities of Russia and China teaming up to undermine U.S. security interests in Eurasia. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have been chummy toward one another for years. Xi went as far as to describe Putin as his "best friend and colleague." The two heads of state have met dozens of times since 2013 in an effort to broaden a relationship that used to be largely transactional. As expected, Putin and Xi's deputies are following in their footsteps. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi devoted part of their bilateral meeting in March to excoriating the U.S. for what they deem extraterritorial sanctions against Russian and Chinese interests.

In the military domain, Moscow and Beijing are pooling resources and becoming far more open in enhancing one another's development and capacity. Comprising nearly 80 percent of China's arms imports over the last five years, Russia is Beijing's primary source for military equipment. Many of China's domestic weapons systems are derivatives of Russian models. Putin has stated his intention to assist China in developing a more effective anti-missile radar system, no doubt with U.S. ballistic and cruise missiles in mind. Beyond hardware, the Russian and Chinese militaries have been conducting large-scale training exercises on an annual basis over the last decade. The likelihood Moscow and Beijing could decide to share a greater scope of military intelligence with one another would cause alarm in Washington, where national security analysts are now debating about how the U.S. can prevent the two from forming a formal security alliance.

Thus far, the Russian and Chinese governments have shown little interest in forming such an alliance. While NATO-like security arrangements can strengthen deterrence in some situations, they can also limit a country's flexibility by binding a nation to the defense of another. Russia and China may be willing to promote mutually beneficial relations, but the fraught history between the two powers (the former Soviet Union and China were principal competitors for the communist leadership mantle during the Cold War) and competing interests in places like Central Asia pushes formal security ties beyond the horizon.

 Vladimir Putin and  Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shake hands during a signing ceremony in Moscow on July 4, 2017. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Still, the mere possibility of Russia and China establishing an anti-U.S. bloc is a serious enough proposition for U.S. policymakers to at least be attuned to it. Were Moscow and Beijing to go down this route, the global balance of power would shift—and not to Washington's liking. Together, Russia and China boast a combined economy of $28.2 trillion, surpassing the U.S.' own. A Russia-China security alliance would allow both states to address one another's tactical shortcomings, put pressure on the U.S. to stretch its own military resources to an even greater degree in order to protect allies in both Europe and Asia and force Washington to hike an already astronomical $778 billion defense budget. While a Russia-China alliance is hardly a foregone conclusion, it would nevertheless be a high-impact reality.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy has often contributed to driving Chinese and Russian leaders into each other's arms. Bilateral trade between Russia and China is projected to reach $120 billion by the end of the year, a result in large measure to U.S. secondary sanctions against Russian entities that have forced Moscow to diversify away from European markets. The Biden administration's tendency to equate competition with Russia and China in ideological terms (as a global contest between democracies and autocracies) alienates allies who wish to preserve functional relationships with both powers and incentivizes the very anti-U.S. bloc Washington should aim to prevent. The U.S., in effect, is proving to be its own worst enemy.

How to guard against a budding Russia-China alliance? Some have recommended a "Reverse Nixon" strategy, whereby the U.S. seeks to peel Russia closer to its camp and later enlist Moscow in a wider confrontation with China. As appealing as this maneuver is, the U.S. would be wasting its time if it tried to implement it. Just because Vladimir Putin isn't yet keen on a formal mutual defense commitment with Beijing doesn't mean he is willing to allow Russia to sign itself up to a U.S.-led campaign against China, Moscow's more economically powerful neighbor. Doubly so today, when U.S.-Russia relations are at their lowest point in decades.

What the U.S. can do, however, is stop committing blunders and pursuing policies that inadvertently bring Russia and China closer than they otherwise would be. This means refraining from the type of ideologically-laced messaging on Russia that throws an emotional wrench into U.S.-Russia relations and helps poison the pragmatism often required for successful cooperation on shared interests. The U.S. should stop using sanctions as a crutch in its Russia policy, which have not only proved to be ineffective in changing Moscow's behavior but are also increasing Russian dependency on the Chinese market. The U.S. can also make it clear that it no longer supports NATO's further enlargement, an open-door policy that at this point carries no security benefit for Washington but significant risk—including Moscow solidifying its military relationship with China in response.

U.S. officials should not overestimate Putin and Xi's friendship. But neither should they simply write off the issue as a distant hypothetical, especially if Washington refuses to be smarter about how it approaches geopolitics.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.