One of the strategic initiatives that the Biden Administration may be getting right is the diplomatic dialogue with Russia. From the very outset of the new administration, the US has pursued some low-hanging fruit, like the early extension of the New START Treaty for the maximum five years. It set a tone from the first Biden-Putin interaction. Biden has made clear he is prepared to engage Putin in a Great Power Dialogue. The US dropped some silly objections, like trying to belatedly stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline after it was 95 percent completed. And in the recent meeting with Angela Merkel and Biden, she agreed to sanction Russia if they use the pipeline to halt gas flows through Ukraine, which is a source of $2 billion a year in transit fees for Kiev.
This is all notable, and the recent Geneva meeting set a further framework for a series of bilateral expert groups to explore further nuclear disarmament, cyberwarfare rules of conduct, cyber crime, and even Afghanistan.
I am more interested in the longer-wave potential. This goes to the question of the Russia-China strategic partnership, which rightly worries the Pentagon, as it now focuses on a new military strategy for preparing for big war after the post-911 focus on small wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia) which seem to go on forever.
How deep is the alliance? This is really not clear. How enthusiastic is Putin for being junior partner to Xi Jinping? Clearly China does not see Russia as an economic partner, beyond a supplier of cheap and reliable gas and oil. Otherwise China would have invested some of its Belt and Road Initiative money in a northern route through Russia. That didn’t happen. And Russia is not thrilled that China has cultivated a close economic and political link to Ukraine.
The main glue that has held together the Russia-China strategic partnership (not a formal treaty alliance) is the common enemy: The United States. If the Russian and Chinese views of the United States and the prospects of negotiating some common interest verifiable deals widen, over time this can develop as a fault line.
History is always informative and recent history is still active and sometimes even more informative.
In January 1979 when the US and China normalized relations there were two little-noticed events that are vivid memories for policy-makers in both Beijing and Moscow.
Within weeks of Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Washington to sign the formal normalization of relations with the US, China invaded Vietnam. It was a short conflict, in which Chinese forces faired poorly. But the purpose of the brief military incursion was to test what the Soviets would do to support their Vietnamese ally now that China was engaged with the US.
The second event was that China secretly gave the US permission to establish sophisticated listening posts along the China-Soviet long border to verify Soviet compliance with arms control agreements and track Soviet military deployments. The Chinese obliged the US request at the point that the Islamic Revolution in Iran deprived the US of the same listening posts they had maintained until the Shah was overthrown.
If there was any skepticism about the Sino-Soviet split, it ended with the de facto US-China military cooperation against the Soviets.
Putin has said that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, so I doubt he is unaware of the China role in that demise. Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership have studied the fall of the Soviet Union and learned lessons. In a 2017 major article in a Communist Party journal, Xi spoke at length about avoiding the Soviet collapse.
The Putin-Xi love dance is hardly over, and it will require a more sustained smart diplomacy to gradually test the durability and depth of the China-Russia partnership, without any ham-fisted rhetoric or boasting, which would backfire badly.
Are there smart people still inside the USIC and the diplomatic corps to engineer this slow and careful effort? I think CIA Director and former top American diplomat William Burns is one such person. I hope there are others.