Paul Petrick: The Russia-China Alliance
What a difference half a century makes.
In February 1972, the People’s Republic of China hosted a historic American delegation led by President Richard M. Nixon, the most important Western visitor to the Middle Kingdom since Marco Polo. In February 2022, no Western heads of state were in Beijing as the city hosted the Winter Olympics.
Those hoping the US-led diplomatic boycott would make Red China blush were disappointed when Chicom chief Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their 38th meeting, just before the opening ceremonies. From their conference emerged a 5,000-word joint statement pledging cooperation on military and economic issues around the world and beyond (plans for a Sino-Russian moon base were announced last year).
Preventing such a combination, which Xi described as something “beyond an alliance“, has been a goal of foreign policy strategists since the turn of the last century. Failure to achieve this goal is nothing short of calamitous according to fin-de-siècle historian Henry Adams.
After ridding Spain of the remnants of its empire via the Spanish-American War, America became a new world power at the dawn of the 20th century. Around this time, Adams became a leading geopolitical prognosticator. A descendant of presidents and diplomats, Adams was notoriously bewildered by the modern world, but nonetheless possessed unprecedented foresight about the future of foreign affairs. He correctly predicted the decline of the British Empire, the World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, NATO and the Atomic Bomb.
But Adams’ most chilling insight came as his friend and neighbor, Secretary of State John Hay, desperately tried to prevent Russian colonization of China through his “open door” policy guaranteeing world powers equal access to Chinese markets. Adams warned: “If Russia organizes China into an economic powerhouse, the little drama of history will end with the overthrow of our clumsy (Western) civilization.”
Adams feared that if “the vast force of inertia known as China … united with the enormous bulk of Russia into one mass,” it could economically and militarily outmatch any coalition of nations straddling the Atlantic. “We can never compete with Asia, Chinese coal and labor, organized by a Siberian system,” Adams said in 1903.
A definite pessimist, Adams saw this Eurasian union prevail in 1950, the year Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung formally allied. But beyond Adams’ field of vision are developments more in line with the American agenda. The conflicting interests of Stalin’s and Mao’s successors soon led to the Sino-Soviet split and decades of mutual hostility between the two titans of the communist world. During this period, another influential Henry emerged who recognized the importance of maintaining distance between the Bear and the Dragon.
As a German refugee fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in his homeland, Henry Kissinger began life well outside the elite environment that Adams had inhabited since birth. Nonetheless, both men enjoyed the benefits of the antagonism between America’s adversaries. Having coordinated as national security adviser the change in relations vis-à-vis China during the visit that Nixon called “the week that changed the world”, Kissinger, like Adams, lived enough a long time to see events pass. Far from the cold logic of the Cold War, it is easy to consider today’s China as “Kissinger’s monster”. But that moniker ignores the fact that closer diplomatic relations with China were Nixon’s idea rather than Kissinger’s. It also ignores China’s real catalyst, the blind engagement of almost every Western country from 1991 to 2016.
Exhausted by the Vietnam War, the United States pursued détente with the Soviets and the Chinese. The thaw in US-Soviet relations was suspended by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, then reversed by US voters the following November. America’s detente with China lasted until the American electorate insisted on its demise in November 2016. This recalibration of American foreign policy was 25 years overdue. Chinese policy should have changed with the lines of the post-Cold War map. Instead, the successful American foreign policy of the last decade of the Cold War gave way to the clumsy naïveté of American foreign policy in the quarter century after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The level of competition displayed by the athletes in Beijing is nothing compared to the competition the free world faces from China. Although it has fared worse during the pandemic than even American teachers’ unions, China’s goal of eclipsing the United States as the world’s leading power is advancing rapidly. China’s alignment with Russia makes impossible the kind of sustained pressure that the United States imposed on the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Separation from the Beijing-Moscow axis should be the first priority of the United States. United.