Washington is foolishly provoking simultaneous confrontations with Russia and China.
Adopting a confrontational policy toward two major powers simultaneously violates a cardinal principle of Foreign Policy 101. The costs and risks of undertaking such a mission are daunting. It also tends to drive otherwise disparate powers together by making the United States their common enemy. Taking on two adversaries at the same time creates a potentially catastrophic situation for the American people, yet the U.S. foreign policy elite is in the process of making exactly that blunder with respect to relations with Russia and China.
Henry Kissinger emphasized that Washington should always seek to be on better terms with Moscow and Beijing than they are with each other. U.S. officials beginning in George W. Bush’s administration have ignored that advice, and the United States gradually commenced trying to wage a two-front cold war. That folly has deepened over the years as each of those Cold War theaters has a serious potential to turn hot.
If U.S. leaders are determined to conduct a confrontation against either country (not a prudent policy in itself), it is imperative to repair relations with the lesser adversary. Unfortunately, the current administration is plunging ahead on the opposite course.
The Biden foreign policy team seems incapable of making the crucial decision about which country, Russia or China, is America’s primary adversary. Washington has seemingly gone out of its way to antagonize both countries. Not only does such an approach court the risk of creating a very dangerous case of strategic overextension, it is driving Moscow and Beijing together. In essence, current U.S. policy is creating the opposite of Kissinger’s model: a situation in which Moscow and Beijing develop closer ties to each other than either has to the United States.
The surge in Russia–PRC cooperation is largely the consequence of our policies toward both countries, but especially toward Russia. Relations between Moscow and Washington have been deteriorating since at least 2008 when George W. Bush unsuccessfully pushed to have Ukraine admitted to NATO. Matters grew noticeably worse in late 2013 and early 2014 when the Obama administration at the very least encouraged demonstrators in Ukraine to overthrow the country’s elected pro-Russian president. The Kremlin responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula. The United States retaliated for that move by imposing economic sanctions on Russia and prodding its allies to do the same.
Bilateral tensions became much worse when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Washington’s policies toward Moscow became even more hostile and uncompromising. The Biden administration launched an effort to pour weapons into Ukraine and to give Kiev other security assistance. The United States and NATO essentially began to wage a proxy war against Russia. Aid began as the sharing of military intelligence and the shipment of defensive weapons with limited capabilities, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, but the United States and other NATO members are now transferring heavy battle tanks, drones, and missiles capable of attacking targets inside Russia, and even F-16 fighters.
The United States and its allies also conducted a global campaign to make Russia a diplomatic and commercial pariah. It pressured countries around the world to join in draconian sanctions on Russia. The Biden administration’s expectation that the rest of the world was willing to join the West’s crusade proved to be a serious miscalculation. Outside of NATO and Washington’s longstanding military dependents in East Asia, very few countries have hit Russia with sanctions. Washington’s effort to isolate Russia has failed, and the backlash from the attempt helped Moscow gain stronger ties with significant global players worried about the prospect of full-blown U.S. hegemony, such as India, Iran, South Africa, and most importantly, China.
U.S. relations with China have been on a downward trajectory for a shorter period than the chill in relations with Russia, and the level of animosity also has not been as severe yet. However, the trend is at least as alarming, given the potential consequences arising from a breakdown.
As in the case of fraying U.S.–Russia relations, serious tensions with Beijing became more frequent during George W. Bush’s administration, in contrast to the surprisingly cordial ties that had developed during the three decades prior. One ugly early incident took place in April 2001 when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter near Hainan Island. The collision killed the fighter pilot and forced the U.S. plane to land on Hainan under the most humiliating circumstances.
Chinese authorities were slow to release the crew, holding the members for eleven days, and Beijing initially refused to return the plane, which contained highly sensitive advanced surveillance electronics. China turned over the aircraft only after it had been thoroughly assessed and dismantled. That lack of cooperation annoyed Bush administration officials and infuriated hawks in the U.S. foreign policy community.
The episode was an omen of an emerging chill in relations between Washington and Beijing. Trade disputes became more frequent, and U.S. scrutiny of China’s growing human rights abuses became far more prominent. Members of America’s political and policy elites began increasingly to see China as more of an economic rival than a trade and investment partner. The perception of Beijing as a potential security threat also grew.
Trade tensions spiked during Donald Trump’s administration, as did concerns about Beijing’s intentions in the South China Sea and elsewhere in East Asia, impelling U.S. officials to give higher priority to that region. But it was the Taiwan issue that most reflected Washington’s mounting determination to confront Beijing. An important early measure was the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act in March 2018. That law not only authorized but explicitly encouraged high-level U.S. national security officials to interact with their Taiwanese counterparts, reversing a four‐decades-old policy. The following year, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton met with David Lee, secretary general of Taiwan’s National Security Council, to discuss regional security issues of mutual concern to Washington and Taipei. Operational military cooperation and soaring arms sales have been increasingly evident in the years since the passage of the TTA.
Those moves represented a huge change in the posture toward Beijing that the United States had adopted since Washington approved formal diplomatic relations with China’s communist government in 1979. Thereafter, U.S. administrations had interacted only with low-level Taiwanese officials, generally on nonmilitary matters. Now, security cooperation expanded significantly, as did U.S. arms sales to Taipei.
The U.S. level of military support has continued to surge during the Biden administration. Washington has forged closer security ties with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines with a clear motive to contain China’s power and influence and to secure explicit or implicit commitments to help the United States defend Taiwan if Beijing makes aggressive moves against the island. The U.S. military presence, especially naval, in the region has also continued to expand.
Biden himself has made several public statements contradicting official U.S. policy, which has been based on “strategic ambiguity” about the extent of Washington’s security commitment to Taiwan. During an October 21, 2021, CNN town hall session, the president was asked explicitly whether the United States would defend Taiwan from a PRC attack. Biden responded unhesitatingly: “Yes, we have a commitment.” He reiterated that position in May 2022 and again in September 2022.
All of these actions have enjoyed strong bipartisan support among America’s political elites. An especially clear example was the widespread backing in both parties for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s provocative trip to Taiwan in the summer of 2022. Republican leaders who never before said a favorable word about Pelosi on any other issue praised her move. Pelosi herself stated that the trip was intended to make “unequivocally clear” that the United States would “not abandon” the island in the face of PRC pressure.
Beijing reacted quite negatively to Pelosi’s visit to Taipei—and especially to her comments. China launched a series of extremely large military exercises near Taiwan during the months that followed, and bilateral relations took another step down. Given Taiwan’s historical, economic, and strategic importance to Chinese leaders, such a response should have come as no surprise.
Just as the United States has antagonized Russia and given the Kremlin compelling reasons to cooperate with China on multiple fronts against the United States, U.S. leaders have given Beijing compelling reasons to boost strategic and economic collaboration with Russia.
There are multiple signs of a tactical rapprochement, perhaps even a full strategic partnership, between Moscow and Beijing. The two countries have signed several agreements in the past year increasing the extent of economic cooperation. Given China’s status as a major energy consumer and Russia’s role as a leading global energy producer, collaboration in that field is extremely logical. Western sanctions on Russian energy exports have pressured Moscow to seek other markets, and China stands out as the largest, most appealing option. In June 2022, Russia became the PRC’s largest oil supplier, eclipsing Saudi Arabia.
However, something deeper and more significant than expanding bilateral ties on energy policy is taking place. Russia and the PRC (along with Iran and some other actors) are making an unsubtle effort to dilute the U.S. dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. Sino-Russian cooperation on strategic issues is increasing as well. Joint military exercises have taken place on several occasions over the past two years. Both the pace and scope of such war games are also increasing.
Given the lengthy border between Russia and China and the inherent jockeying of the two countries for preeminence in Central Asia, Moscow and Beijing should have more to fear about each other than either would about the United States. It required exceptionally clumsy, abrasive behavior on Washington’s part to forfeit that advantage, but U.S. leaders have managed to do so.
One might well argue that the Biden administration’s wisest course of all would be to abandon the increasingly difficult and unrewarding quest to maintain U.S. global primacy and seek to improve relations with both Russia and China. That objective would be ideal and might still be attainable. At a minimum, though, Washington needs to make a choice—pursuing a rapprochement with Russia or China to focus on effectively waging a confrontational policy toward the other power.
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If U.S. leaders are determined to have the United States confront a potential rival and contain its power, China is by far the stronger challenger to America’s position as the incumbent global hegemon. That means the United States should move to repair relations with Moscow as soon as possible. Admittedly, such a rapprochement would not be easy. Bilateral relations are now poisoned because of the Russia-Ukraine war and the West’s twin measures of aiding Kiev militarily and imposing draconian sanctions on Russia’s economy. The propaganda barrage encouraging a visceral hatred of everything Russian among Western publics will not be easy to reverse. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s indiscreet admission that NATO’s real goal in the Ukraine war is to weaken Russia, effectively eliminating it as a serious international player, likely has generated extensive suspicions and animosity among the Russian people.
Attempting to conduct a two-front economic and military confrontation, though, is the worst possible option. Unfortunately, that appears to be Washington’s de facto strategy. At best, the current approach will intensify an already alarming strategic overextension that is exhausting the country economically and otherwise. It also is likely to result in a diplomatic and military showdown with a Russia–PRC alliance that will outmatch the United States and its ragged network of reluctant allies and clients. Washington’s policy ineptitude already has created a two-front cold war, and if the United States continues on this path, that the situation could become a two-front hot war with nuclear implications.
A course correction is urgently needed, and it should begin with a much less belligerent policy toward Russia. China’s economic and military potential vastly outstrips Russia’s and the ideological gap with the West also is far larger. China is a totalitarian state whose values are quite alien from those of the West, while Russia, though corrupt and increasingly authoritarian, is culturally and economically still part of Western civilization. Because of all of those factors, Washington should pursue rapprochement and seek to rebuild ties at least with Moscow, if U.S. leaders can’t or won’t embrace that course toward both Russia and China.