A 3rd Wheel*

*Editor’s note: On March 4, 2022, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

Konstantin Sukhoverkhov, program coordinator of the Russian International Affairs Council, on why the U.S. is concerned about Russia and China’s rapprochement.

Recently in the U.S., there have been a growing number of allegations that China is considering supplying combat drones, small arms ammunition and artillery shells to Moscow. As such, there have been calls in Washington to impose sanctions on Beijing. More specifically, such calls began in February after the U.S. military downed a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, which crossed over almost all of American territory. So far, up to this point, the U.S. has only imposed limited sanctions against several Chinese companies and a research institute.

However, as early as Feb. 28, 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington could impose sanctions on Russian-backed Chinese companies and individuals. Thus, Blinken warned the Chinese businesses and its government about the risks of cooperating with Russia. Besides, this statement was also aimed at the U.S. audience, given the need to demonstrate the ability of the Biden administration to respond to any actions by Beijing.

The American establishment is pursuing several goals here. The first, of course, is preventing China from supplying the Russian military. The second is to put pressure on its main competitor on the world stage, as they call China in the U.S., to cause economic damage and prevent it from providing any future assistance to Russia, not just of a military nature. Third, the U.S. intends to create conditions under which relations between Moscow and Beijing cannot develop.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger already used this plan. In the second half of the 1960s, his shuttle diplomacy helped the Americans improve relations with China and even turned it against Moscow until the late 1980s. Of course, Kissinger’s success was due not only to his approach to changing relations with China but also to the fact that Moscow and Beijing already had ideological and political differences at that time.

Mikhail Gorbachev, however, was able to bring some positivity back to relations between the Soviet Union and China. In addition, in the late 1990s, due to the events in the former Yugoslavia, it became clear to Russia that Western countries were not ready to be friends to the extent that Moscow wanted them to be. Then a turning point came in 2001 when Russia and China signed the Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship and established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

This strengthening of relations between Moscow and Beijing does not suit Washington. That is because the U.S. is trying to prevent the emergence of a power equal to itself on the world stage. To do so, the Americans could offer Moscow various preferences to keep Russia in the sphere of Western influence. Thus, it would be easier for America to cope with the growing power of Beijing. But Washington’s actions in the post-Soviet space, its disregard of existential threats to Russia, such as NATO’s expansion, and economic sanctions has only pushed Moscow in Beijing’s direction.

Though, of course, Russian-Chinese relations are not perfect. Indeed, in the Chinese expert community, there is an understanding that Russia is a different ideological, cultural and economic world. In addition, there are fears that Russia could turn its back on China if the West offers appropriate conditions. However, this is hardly relevant after Feb. 24, 2022.

Notably, former U.S. President Donald Trump also promoted the need to drive a wedge between Russia and China. Therefore, the U.S. is continuing with the previous administration’s policy, seeking to threaten Russia and China with sanctions and surround them with a hostile environment where they can’t cooperate. The AUKUS and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue alliances, for example, are aimed at countering China’s influence in Asia and Oceania. NATO, on the other hand, is trying to contain Russia. The U.S. is also actively influencing post-Soviet countries. Blinken’s Central Asia tour, which began on Feb. 28, 2023, further exemplifies this policy.

Nevertheless, it will be hard to cause a rift in relations between Moscow and Beijing. First, the level of cooperation across various sectors between the two countries is extremely high. Second, Russia and China have many common foreign policy interests. Of course, this does not mean the countries agree on everything, but as they say, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Moreover, Moscow and Beijing know how to circumvent and resolve complex issues. They perceive themselves as partners with a high level of trust and mutual respect built up over a few decades.

As for the new U.S. sanctions against China, it’s hard to make any predictions. However, last month’s events show that the U.S. is preparing to introduce more measures against China. Even COVID-19 could serve as an additional pretext, as on March 1, the FBI announced that it considers a Wuhan laboratory leak the most likely cause of the pandemic. However, it remains to be seen whether Washington merely wants to scare China or is really preparing for an economic confrontation with its main competitor.

The author is the program coordinator of the Russian International Affairs Council. The author’s opinion may not necessarily reflect the views of Izvestia’s editorial board.

About this publication

About Nikita Gubankov 97 Articles
Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, I've recently graduated from University College London, UK, with an MSc in Translation and Technology. My interests include history, current affairs and languages. I'm currently working full-time as an account executive in a translation and localization agency, but I'm also a keen translator from English into Russian and vice-versa, as well as Spanish into English.

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