What is the myth?
This myth holds that it is possible for Western policymakers to set Russia and China against each other to impede their capacity to work in tandem to undermine the interests and values of the US and its allies. A corollary of the myth is the notion that Russia and China form a single strategic entity that was ‘allowed’ to develop by negligent Western policymakers.
Just as it overstates the role of the West in bringing Moscow and Beijing together, this ‘divide and rule’ narrative similarly exaggerates the West’s ability to pull the two powers apart, misunderstanding in the process the natural symbiosis that underpins the Sino-Russian relationship as well as the factors that constrain it.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
A succession of recent US presidential administrations has tried to halt the growth of Sino-Russian strategic cooperation by attempting to drive a wedge between Russia and China. President George W. Bush assured Moscow in 2001 that his missile defence scheme was not directed against the Kremlin, while failing to give comparable assurances to Beijing. President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, launched a ‘reset’ in relations with Russia (even using a big red button for symbolism) in 2009. In 2020, President Donald Trump extended an olive branch to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, by calling for Russia to rejoin the G7 (previously the G8, until Russia’s suspension from the grouping in 2014) in order to discuss China’s future.
Under President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has declared that the US ‘will deter, and impose costs for, Mr. Putin’s meddling and aggression’, while nonetheless suggesting that the Biden administration could use the increasing asymmetry between Russia and China – and Moscow’s growing dependency on Beijing, in particular – to create a rift. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Biden’s initial choice for National Security Council senior director for Russia and Central Asia, has acknowledged that the US has little leverage to exacerbate the tensions between Russia and China, yet still advocates ‘the goal of driving such mini-wedges’ between Moscow and Beijing in order to ‘sow doubt in their relationship’.
A recent strategy report by the US-based Atlantic Council declared: ‘Dividing Russia from China in the future is [critical].’ This anonymously published report, entitled The Longer Telegram, sought to replicate George Kennan’s famous ‘long telegram’ – published in 1947 under the pseudonym ‘X’ – that came to form the basis for the West’s policy of containment of the USSR. Numerous policymakers and commentators, primarily in the US, have warned that the West ignores the Russia–China revisionist axis of authoritarianism ‘at its peril’, urging Washington to act ‘before it’s too late’.
Why is it wrong?
Just as the West did not join Russia and China together, it cannot put them asunder. The ‘wedge-driving’ narrative gives rise to the false notion that Washington and its allies have the leverage and capacity to split the Russia–China entente apart, despite numerous failed attempts in the past and the Kremlin’s unequivocally adversarial stance towards the West.
Far from being the product of failed Western policy, the Russia–China partnership is a complex one, with its own rationale based on a natural symbiosis. While it is true that Moscow’s deteriorating relations with the West have catalysed the Sino-Russian partnership in certain areas, most aspects of cooperation are the natural outcomes of shared interests and geography. Relations between Moscow and Beijing began to normalize in the 1980s, decades before the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the consequent imposition of Western sanctions on Russia. The de facto non-aggression pact that Putin and President Xi Jinping of China have established in recent years constitutes part of the bedrock of each country’s foreign policy, standing in stark contrast to the fraught period of the Cold War when the Sino-Soviet split required the USSR to maintain nearly 40 army divisions along its 4,200-kilometre border with China.
Far from being the product of failed Western policy, the Russia–China partnership is a complex one, with its own rationale based on a natural symbiosis.
The two powers also have complementary economies and interests in the spheres of technology, cyber cooperation and defence. For its part, Moscow is in a hurry to close deals on the sale of sensitive military and other technologies to China before Beijing’s own research and development advances make such purchases obsolete. According to one of Russia’s leading sinologists, Alexander Gabuev, Moscow understands that this is its ‘last chance to make money off the remains of the Soviet legacy’, given that ‘the number of technologies that are of interest to China diminishes with every passing year’.
Not least, Russia and China enjoy a natural ideological compatibility, and an interest in eroding universal human rights and undermining US global dominance. Partnering with China dovetails perfectly with Russia’s quest to restore a measure of international prominence during its twilight years as a leading global power. China finds utility in Russian efforts to bring down a US-led international order, although it is less concerned with forming a fully fledged partnership with Russia than it is with ensuring that Moscow does not impede its own upward global trajectory.
Another way in which the myth distorts the nature of the Sino-Russian relationship is by ascribing to it a behavioural convergence and a grand conspiratorial character, while overlooking each state’s commanding imperative to retain full autonomy in decision-making. In addition, while Russia seeks a new global order in which it is on an equal footing with the US and China, the Chinese increasingly characterize Russia in private as a country in long-term decline with mounting corruption and a shrinking population. China’s relatively quick economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will reinforce its position as the principal driver of economic growth within the relationship, putting Moscow at risk of economic and political dependency on Beijing. According to some estimates, between 2014 and 2019 a mere 2 per cent of Chinese foreign direct investment went to Russia, in large part owing to the country’s risky business environment. Furthermore, Beijing’s distaste for Moscow’s foreign adventurism acts as a major disincentive for the establishment of a formal strategic alliance: China is averse to the possibility of becoming embroiled in paramilitary or military interventions in Ukraine and the Middle East, for example, and Beijing has yet to formally recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea.
However, given that the two powers currently have more to gain from cooperation than competition, both Russia and China have chosen to push their differences to the background for the foreseeable future. Moscow, in particular, does not aim to throw down the gauntlet to Beijing in a contest for supremacy that it ultimately cannot hope to win. This dynamic of accommodation is currently being played out in Central Asia, often cited by observers and specialists alike as perhaps the region in which rivalry between Beijing and Moscow is most likely to manifest itself, given the default assumption that both Russia and China cannot claim the same sphere of influence. Yet for more than three years it has been evident that the Kremlin has chosen to adapt to China’s growing influence in Central Asia rather than struggle to counterbalance it, even though only a few years earlier the consensus was that Russia would strongly object to Beijing making too many inroads into its ‘backyard’.
While the current Sino-Russian partnership has proven highly durable, in the longer term the widening gap in the two states’ capacities is likely to be a game-changer that presages a fundamental shift in the relationship, once the current dynamic of accommodation has run its course. As China’s ascendancy continues, the latent tensions and clashes of interests between Moscow and Beijing could come to the fore, particularly if Russia is no longer seen as a valuable counterweight to US hegemony.
What is its impact on policy?
In addition to glossing over the partnership’s complexity, the myth risks obscuring the relevant questions for Western policymakers. Does Russia really pose more of a threat to Western interests in alliance with China than it does alone? And, if so, is the West really in a position to slow Sino-Russian cooperation in areas that it has deemed detrimental to its interests, much less drive a wedge into the partnership? Does the growing asymmetry between Moscow and Beijing presage change within the relationship in the longer term?
Overselling Moscow and Beijing’s relationship and its capacity to upend Western norms and values leads to knee-jerk policymaking, whereby Western governments could perceive that every joint Sino-Russian action needs to be countered, even if that action has no substantive implications for Western policymakers. In addition, adherence to the myth increases the risk that policymakers, when formulating strategy, will fail to differentiate sufficiently between the two powers by overstating the unity of the two states’ positions. For example, the narrative engenders the false assumption that Russia would automatically involve itself in a conflict between the US and China, even if it were not in Moscow’s direct interests to do so.
Not least, by embellishing the degree to which Russia’s behaviour in the international arena is influenced by China, the myth soft-pedals the risks to Western interests posed by Russia acting on its own. While Russia’s partnership with China enhances its great-power identity, it is the disjoint between Moscow’s aspirations and its ability to achieve them that primarily fuels Russia’s high-risk foreign policy strategy, often dubbed as seeking to ‘punch above its weight’.
As a lone actor, Russia has shown itself expert at identifying power vacuums to undercut existing systems of order, and at using cyber and disinformation capabilities to disrupt critical infrastructure and influence public opinion. China played no role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its war in Ukraine, or its actions to support the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. As regards specific threats to US security, Kendall-Taylor has argued that it is imperative to focus on the actions of Russia and China in combination, given that ‘analysts understand well the challenges that Russia and China each pose to the United States’. Yet, to cite just one example of unforeseen and highly damaging operations by a single country, the SolarWinds cybersecurity attack in 2020, which was believed to have been perpetrated by Russia, blindsided the US Cyber Command and was one of the largest breaches in recent memory.
As a lone actor, Russia has shown itself expert at identifying power vacuums to undercut existing systems of order, and at using cyber and disinformation capabilities to disrupt critical infrastructure and influence public opinion.
The myth’s downplaying of tensions within the Sino-Russian partnership, coupled with its depiction of the relationship as a grand alliance against the West, allows Beijing and Moscow to use the spectre of coordinated action – particularly in the military sphere – to spook Western policymakers. The successful use of scaremongering tactics and the presentation of an ostensibly united front enhance the strategic leverage of Beijing and Moscow vis-à-vis the US and its allies.
What would good policy look like?
First and foremost, good policy calls for the prioritization of specific threats and challenges posed by the Russia–China partnership that can be met with concrete measures. Western governments should adjust notions of great-power competition in order to pragmatically target the areas where joint actions by Moscow and Beijing both (a) have real implications for Western security and (b) can be countered successfully.
Military resourcing is also a factor behind this imperative. Washington’s aim to retain global primacy carries the requirement to achieve a state of battle readiness in a large number of theatres internationally, potentially leading to classic strategic overreach at a time when the US defence budget is already under strain. Indeed, when discussing hypothetical grey-zone operations that could be launched concurrently by Russia and China in the Baltic region and the South China Sea, Kendall-Taylor has noted that ‘U.S. forces would be hard-pressed to respond to both threats’ and that ‘the resources required to fight in either theater are costly’. It is conceivable that Western officials could plan for coordinated Russian and Chinese action regardless of the likelihood of it occurring, which is not conducive to efficient or effective foreign policy.
Second, Western policymakers must fully recognize that they lack the leverage to craft policies that could dramatically alter the Sino-Russian partnership. Even the ‘mini-wedges’ set out by Biden’s policymakers that are designed ‘to pull at the seams in Russia-China relations’ are bound to have limited utility in exploiting areas of friction.
Third, the West should counterbalance the Sino-Russian partnership by nurturing more effective alliances with multilateral and regional organizations. Stronger alliances with key partners such as India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam should also be cultivated.
Efforts to pry Russia apart from China have proved futile. The Western construct of a Sino-Russian revisionist alliance that threatens to completely upend ‘the world system, and American influence in it’ plays into Russian and Chinese views of the US as a declining power seeking to reassert its dominance with limited advantage.