NEW YORK – It sounded like an echo of Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s and 1960s when China’s new defense minister, Wei Fenghe, said at a meeting in Moscow this month, “The Chinese side has come to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia.”
A full-blown military alliance remains a long ways off, of course, and it is easy to dismiss Wei’s remarks as rhetorical posturing. But that would be a mistake, because Wei nonetheless captured an ominous feature of world politics today: the growing alignments between America’s various geopolitical rivals.
That alignment is not new, of course: Rogue states and American adversaries such as North Korea, Syria and Iran have cooperated on issues from arms sales to nuclear proliferation for years. What is changing now is that collaboration between America’s great-power competitors is increasing, as the threats to the U.S.-led international order also grow.
Start with Russia and China. As those countries have intensified efforts to reassert their geopolitical influence, they have made common cause on a number of fronts. China provided diplomatic cover for Russia in the U.N. Security Council after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, despite its traditional reluctance to support “separatist” movements for fear of emboldening such forces on Taiwan.
Moscow and Beijing have also worked together to block U.N. support for intervention against the Assad regime in Syria, and to oppose additional U.S. military deployments on the Korean Peninsula, while also pursuing closer bilateral ties with respect to arms sales, energy deals and development of military technology.
Most visibly, the two countries have conducted combined naval exercises in the South China and Baltic seas, and in the Sea of Japan, areas in which Chinese and Russian tensions with Washington are particularly sharp. Altogether, cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is more significant than at any time since the Mao-Khrushchev split more than half a century ago.
Nor is this the only pair of American antagonists currently cooperating. Russia and Iran have often been geopolitical rivals, but today they are working in tandem to undermine American influence in the Middle East.
Tehran and Moscow have formed a de facto military alliance to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power — and thus preserve or increase their own sway in the region — with the Russians providing the air power and the Iranians (or the proxy militias they control) providing the shock troops.
Coordination between Russian and Iranian officials has intensified not just on the battlefield but also at the top levels of government. “Our cooperation can isolate America,” Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei reportedly told Russian President Vladimir Putin in late 2017. And last month, Bloomberg reported that Iran’s Russian-provided SA-20C air defense system was now operational, giving Tehran what U.S. intelligence officials have called a “generational improvement in capabilities.”
These alliances are all the more noteworthy for the fact that America’s rivals are not, by any means, natural partners. Russia and China continue to compete for influence in Central Asia and elsewhere; the growth of Chinese power may ultimately pose as much of a threat to Russia — a country with which it shares a long land border — as it does to anyone else. One would also expect to see some inevitable tensions between Iran, which is bidding to become the dominant power within the Middle East, and Russia, which is increasingly throwing its weight around in the region.
Yet if the cooperation between U.S. rivals has rightly been described as more opportunistic than systematic, it is striking that these countries are finding more and more occasions when working together appears to be in their interests.
This is happening for two reasons, one geopolitical and one ideological. The geopolitical reason is that what Iran, Russia and China have in common is that they are all trying to weaken, in their own way and for their own motives, an international order that is built on the dominance of the U.S., its allies and its partners. Given the inherent dangers and difficulties of taking on the leading power and its formidable strategic coalition, they are naturally attracted to cooperating with states that share their hostility to the U.S.-led system and can help them nibble away at its edges.
It may well be true that, over the long term, Russia has more to fear from a rising, aggressive China than it does from a democratic, declining Europe. Yet for the foreseeable future, the revisionist powers all share a common strategic adversary.
The ideological reason is that these countries also share a commitment to illiberal rule in a relatively liberal age. Admittedly, we have not gone back to the 1950s, when the ideological conflict between Washington and Moscow took on global dimensions. Marxism-Leninism no longer provides the core of the relationship between Moscow and Beijing, as it did in the days of Stalin and Mao. But Russia, China and Iran are all autocratic regimes that see themselves fighting for influence and even survival in a world in which the leading power is a democracy and democratic values are still pre-eminent. Strategic and ideological resistance thus go hand in hand.
For the U.S., the implications of all this are not particularly good. Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria has had powerful effects on the battlefield and throughout the broader region, reversing the course of a war that had seemed to be tilting against Assad and effectively checkmating U.S. policy in the process. Observers from Libya to the Persian Gulf are surely noting that Iran and Russia seem to have gotten the better of Washington in the region’s defining conflict.
Similarly, should Russian-Chinese cooperation continue to mature in the coming years, the challenges of holding the line against either will become more severe. More broadly, there is never much geopolitical profit in having worse relations with the world’s two other leading military powers than they have with each other. And, unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this dilemma.
It may seem obvious that Washington should simply seek to divide its adversaries — the time-honored diplomatic maneuver for which U.S. President Richard Nixon and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rightly won great acclaim in the early 1970s. In 2017, the Trump administration reportedly did consider ways of splitting Iran and Russia in the Middle East; international relations scholars such as John Mearsheimer have suggested that Washington reconcile with Moscow to better gang up against Beijing. But because these countries are more hostile to America than they are to one another right now, the opportunities are scarce.
Theoretically, perhaps, the U.S. could try to forge a “grand bargain” that would involve acquiescing in Russian dominance of Ukraine, denuding the Baltic states of NATO defenses, acceding to a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and parts of Eastern Europe, and accepting Moscow as a geopolitical co-equal in the Middle East — all in hopes of giving Russian officials incentive to drop their hostility to the West and focus on the long-term threat from China. Yet the price of such a deal would be so high, and the benefits so uncertain, that as a practical matter it is probably a nonstarter.
Over time, there may emerge greater opportunities to pit U.S. rivals against one another. But for now, America faces the unenviable task of upholding an international system that is being challenged on multiple fronts at once — and by adversaries that are increasingly working together.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.”
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