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The Ever-Shifting ’Strategic Triangle’ Between Russia, China and the U.S.

Saturday 20 July 2019, by Eugene Chausovsky

The U.S. trade war with China and Washington’s prolonged standoff with Russia — over matters from Iran to Venezuela to arms control — are increasingly driving Moscow and Beijing toward each other. Chinese President Xi Jinping is attending the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum June 6-7, but not before meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier in the week. China and Russia have signed economic deals that span everything from 5G networks to hydropower plant construction to establishing a joint research and technology innovation fund.

The deals come in the wake of Moscow’s recently indicated desire to collaborate with China in the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route as part of Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road initiative, while the massive Power of Siberia pipeline is completing the final phase of construction and is set to begin pumping ever-larger volumes of Russian natural gas to China by the end of this year. [1]

These developments are simply the latest in a broader trend of Russia and China strengthening political, economic and security ties. Such developments raise the question of how deep an alignment between Russia and China can go, and to what extent their relationship is forming in direct opposition to and competition with the United States. To begin to answer this question, it is important first to frame it in the appropriate strategic context, and then to look at how ties between Russia, China and the United States have evolved within this context. Doing so points to many more constraints than opportunities in a sustained elevation of the Russia-China relationship, one that will be shaped heavily by the United States.

The Postwar Evolution of the ’Strategic Triangle’

The end of World War II marked the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two primary global powers, while also marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This development ushered in an inherent "strategic triangle" relationship among the three countries, meaning that relations between any two of these powers would necessarily shape and be shaped by the strategic interests of the third power. These strategic interests include neutralizing and dominating their respective peripheries while projecting outward and pushing their own respective vision of global order, producing inherent contradictions and driving the so-called great power competition between them. [2]

In the initial years of the postwar era, China was the weakest of the three powers from an economic and military standpoint. Nevertheless, under Mao Zedong, China was able to use its size and political and diplomatic heft to maintain independence and balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the early years of the People’s Republic, Beijing aligned with the Soviet Union, partly because of their shared communist ideology but just as importantly because of their shared interest in rivaling U.S. power and influence. However, this alignment almost immediately became strained over issues such as the Korean War, border disputes and the succession from Josef Stalin to Nikita Khrushchev, with the latter pursuing policies like "peaceful coexistence" with the United States that Mao deemed as da