Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

A Sino-Russian Entente Again Threatens America

| Jan. 29, 2019

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski warned in 1997 that the greatest long-term threat to U.S. interests would be a “grand coalition” of China and Russia, “united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.” This coalition “would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower.”

Few heeded his admonition. But this grand alignment of the aggrieved has been moving from the realm of the hypothetical toward what could soon be a geostrategic fact. Beijing and Moscow are drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the “American threat.”

The thought of an entente between Eurasia’s two great powers has for the most part struck the Washington establishment as so outlandish as not to require serious examination. Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in August that Moscow and Beijing have a “natural nonconvergence of interests.” And there can be no doubt that their values and cultures differ starkly.

Nonetheless, a fundamental proposition in international relations is that the enemy of my enemy is a friend. Students of history know how often governments have been surprised by unnatural bedfellows, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and the U.S.-Soviet alliance in World War II.

The U.S. and Russia have grown more antagonistic in theaters from the Middle East to Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Washington foreign-policy establishment is increasingly in agreement that China is the primary strategic adversary of the U.S. as the two countries clash over trade and the South China Sea. It would be surprising if strategists in Beijing and Moscow did not recognize a common enemy.

President Obama was visibly disdainful toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, and President Trump charges that China is “raping America.” By contrast, Xi Jinping took his first foreign trip as China’s president to Moscow and has recently declared the Russian leader his “best, most intimate friend.” Both Messrs. Xi and Putin see the U.S. as trying to undermine authoritarian regimes and therefore their own legitimacy as rulers.

In Chinese and Russian national-security documents, their relationship is called a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Mr. Xi said in 2013 that “the Sino-Russian relationship is the world’s most important bilateral relationship, and is the best relationship between large countries.” China and Russia coordinate their positions in the United Nations Security Council (where they vote together 98% of the time), the Brics summits, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia is also pivoting east economically. China is Russia’s top trading partner and the top buyer of Russian oil. With the completion of the Power of Siberia pipeline this year, China will become the second-largest market for Russian gas, just behind Germany.

American experts have discounted Sino-Russian military cooperation. But one Russian official described the relationship as a “functional military alliance.” Russia has started selling China some of its most advanced technologies, including the S-400 air defenses. The two countries share intelligence and threat assessments and actively collaborate on rocket-engine research and development.

True, Russian elites continue to look west when it comes to tradition, culture and history. Wealthy Russians buy second (and third) homes in London and New York, not Beijing. But as their hopes for integration with the West have eroded, the number of Russians learning Mandarin and traveling east has increased.

A half-century ago, recognizing the threat from the Sino-Russian behemoth, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon managed to forge a relationship with Mao’s China that widened an emerging fissure between the two powers. Over time, this helped the U.S. undermine the Soviet empire and achieve victory in the Cold War. Today China is taking a page from that script, pulling Russia into its orbit for a long confrontation with the U.S.

If the defining challenge to U.S. national interests in the 21st century is a rising China, preventing the emergence of a Sino-Russian entente should be a key U.S. priority. Persuading Russia to sit on the U.S. side of the balance of power seesaw will require American policy makers to revise substantially their strategic objectives in dealing with Moscow. As difficult as this is to imagine in the craze of American politics today, the starting point for the conversation must be clear-eyed recognition of cause and effect. When the U.S. seeks to punish Mr. Putin for his unacceptable behavior—no matter its intentions—it has the predictable consequence of pushing Russia into an unnatural alliance with China.

A sound U.S. global strategy would combine greater realism in recognizing the threat of a Beijing-Moscow alliance, and greater imagination in creating a coalition of nations to meet it.

Mr. Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, is author of “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” ( Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , 2017). Mr. Simes is president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest.

Appeared in the January 30, 2019, print edition.

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For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham and Dimitri K. Simes.“A Sino-Russian Entente Again Threatens America.” The Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2019.