China, Russia, and Iran have held a joint naval exercise in the Persian Gulf. This occurred the same week as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Moscow. A burgeoning coalition like this should raise concerns in Washington about the unintended consequences of America’s foreign policy.
Russia and China are increasingly cooperating militarily and collaborating on technology including aviation and weapons. In summer 2021, the two countries held military drills in China, then naval drills in the fall. Adding Iran to these naval drills is relatively new, only having first occurred in 2019.
Despite all three countries being the target of American hawks, they have large diverging interests and might naturally mistrust each other. Iran is historically an ally of Moscow, yet China and Russia are not natural allies. The two countries share a massive border, while Russia has resources coveted by China’s far larger population and economy. The distrust between the two countries, just given geography, is so strong that China and Russia almost fell into open war in 1969.
The inarguable reason for increasing Russian and Chinese military cooperation is hawkish and interventionist foreign policy in Washington, pursued on a bipartisan basis and pushed by many entrenched elements in the American foreign policy and intelligence bureaucracy.
To be sure, it makes sense to view China as a competitor. China is the world’s number-two economy, just behind America, and Beijing seeks hegemony in Asia and in the South China Sea — areas where America still has a strong presence and influence. On top of this, some hawkish U.S. politicians appear to want to use Americans’ widespread negative views on the loss of industry and jobs to China as a means toward building up military resources around China.
Russia Driven toward China
Yet Russia being driven toward China is less easily explained by simple geopolitics, and largely centers on foreign policy choices made in both Washington and Moscow. Russia’s economy is relatively small — smaller than Italy’s — and incredibly dependent on selling hydrocarbons to Europe and Asia. Russia’s military spending is larger, relative to its population and economy, at about $60 billion per year. But that’s less than a tenth of what America spends, at more than $750 billion per year.
But Russian territorial expansion in Eastern Europe — in addition to claims of Russian influence in American politics — has caused U.S.-Russia relations to massively sour. The Trump administration hugely increased sanctions on Moscow, built up U.S. military forces in Eastern Europe, withdrew from an arms treaty, added two new countries to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an organization formed to confront Moscow militarily, and worked to block the export of Russian natural gas to Europe.
While the Biden administration has marginally taken a softer tone toward Russia, Russia’s military buildup has pundits from Bill Kristol to Obama administration official Ben Rhodes calling for a strong American response, including adding Ukraine to NATO. In fact, some of the rhetoric is apocalyptic. Rhodes wrote that “we are potentially on the verge of a land war in Europe aimed at extinguishing democracy.”
Russia’s motivations seem simpler. Just as Russia’s belligerent Crimea invasion in 2014 was motivated by wanting to secure its naval base in Sevastopol and create a buffer between itself and migrant crises in the Middle East, so too does its attempted annexation of Eastern Ukraine revolve around the deep Russian interest in creating a buffer between itself and Europe — although there are also ethnic-based motivations toward controlling an area where a large Russian-speaking population exists.
In the same vein, Russia views NATO expansion as a direct threat. NATO expansion objectively increases the odds that an Eastern European territorial dispute sucks nuclear-armed America and Russia into open war. None of this excuses Russia’s actions, but understanding Moscow’s motivations is necessary to assess the overall threat and contradict the over-the-top rhetoric coming from U.S. military hawks.
Stated bluntly, America is facing a larger combined threat of Russia and China because American military hawks are inflating the threat posed by each. Fortunately, the Biden administration has yet to fall sway to the bipartisan pro-war caucus. But Russia’s potential Ukraine aggression threatens this. The West is funneling weapons into Ukraine, which is at best a struggling democracy but at worst incredibly corrupt and dysfunctional.
The most immediate action that can push back against a burgeoning anti-U.S. coalition of Russia and China lies in recognizing Russian motivations and seeking pragmatic diplomatic solutions to the Russia-Ukraine crisis as well as other territorial concerns. War is not in the interest of either America or Russia, and a sane foreign policy will work toward a solution that avoids war between the world’s two preeminent nuclear-armed powers.
Longer-term, America must move away from viewing adversaries and competitors with one-size-fits-all moralizing. China and Russia are widely divergent on core interests, but the U.S. approach is inadvertently incentivizing these powers to deepen cooperation. The degree of Sino-Russian cooperation — especially on military issues — is dependent on America’s willingness to use careful diplomacy and restraint before we opt for economic sanctions and military support or action.