There is a geopolitical love triangle currently playing out on the world stage, and while the sometimes-convoluted antics of the three principle players may be fodder for provocative news flashes and comic parody, the seriousness of the consequences from the final scene could have major repercussions for the entire global community.
The longstanding love-hate relationship between Moscow and Beijing places Washington smack dab in the middle of the three-sided dalliance, and depending on how President Donald J. Trump decides to play his dance cards, it could prove to be an opportunity for improved U.S.-Chinese relations or the ultimate consecration of the unholy Russian-Sino matrimony.
While openly playing footsie with Moscow, Trump started off being the tough guy with Beijing, provoking his would-be mistress by threatening to recognize her wayward province of Taiwan as a sovereign and independent nation and disregarding entirely his country’s time-honored One-China policy.
Had he followed through on that threat, it would have sent Beijing running back into the arms of her on-again-off-again Eurasian suitor Moscow.
And although Russia and China have not always seen eye-to-eye on geopolitics, and have at times even been adversaries, since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, the two communist powers have been courting a closer bilateral understanding.
In 1989, they normalized relations and formally established a strategic partnership seven years later, which has since led to, if not a marriage, at least a connubiality of mutual convenience.
Bilateral cooperation between Moscow and Beijing has registered a significant uptick since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, and the shrewdly charismatic Chinese leader is purported to have developed a close personal friendship with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Russia is now China’s main source of oil (the lifeblood of modern economies).
In the past, unreliable transportation infrastructure, plus acrimonious bilateral disputes over price and an anxious climate mutual suspicion had kept Chinese purchases of Russian energy at relatively low levels.
But all that changed in 2013, when the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the country’s largest integrated energy company, and Russian energy giant Gazprom, which controls Russia’s export gas pipelines, signed a 30-year, $400 billion deal that led to 38 billion cubic meters of Russian gas heading to China annually.
Gazprom also pumps China more than a fifth of its current gas demands, about 200 billion cubic meters a year.
That makes the Russian and Chinese economies codependent, since Moscow relies on oil and gas revenues to finance key domestic and foreign stakeholders, as well as public services, and Russia has felt the squeeze of economic sanctions on its Western borders due to its invasion into Ukraine.
China is taking up the slack for a drop in European demand for Russian hydrocarbon fuels.
Russia and China have also partnered up on military exercises, both in the Mediterranean and South China Sea, and have recently revitalized their previously languorous arms trade.
Two years ago, Beijing purchase both SU-35 fighter planes and a S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Moscow.
And Russia and China are working together on matters of cyberspace and communication technologies.
But perhaps the biggest unifying factor between Beijing and Moscow is their common goal to replace U.S. primacy with a multipolar zeitgeist, giving each of them their respective spheres of regional influence and putting both countries on a more even footing with Washington.
But the Sino-Russian love affair is not a bed of roses.
Just like the United States, Russia is unhappy with its ever-widening trade gap with China.
Not only does the disproportionate balance of trade favor China in terms of gross numbers, but also in the fact that the majority of Moscow’s exports to Beijing consist of raw materials and primary resources, while China’s sales to Russia are mostly of manufactured, value-added goods.
And the Kremlin is none too pleased with Beijing’s total disregard for Russia’s property rights for weapon designs.
Plus, there are still bruised feelings on both sides from the 1969 brinkmanship of tensions that nearly led to war, a war that very easily could have gone nuclear.
So before the Sino-Russian nuptials gets signed, sealed and delivered, there is yet time for Washington to court both ends against the middle and come out as the winner in the sorted trigonal liaison.
Such an approach would require enough diplomatic charm and seduction by Washington to keep both Beijing and Moscow on a string and to keep them out of each other’s political beds.
It would also demand a constant balancing act of multilateral statesmanship that could be difficult to maintain in the storm of mounting political competitiveness between the three protagonists.
But unless Washington can find a way to kiss and make up with both Moscow and Beijing, it risks becoming the odd man out in the titillating soap opera of geopolitics.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].