The USA-China-Russia strategic triangle has been an equation of unparalleled geopolitical importance in the last 70 years. Within that time, it is hard to pinpoint a major global event where at least one of these countries did not play a significant role. In fact, it is fair to claim that after the Second World War only these three countries have possessed the necessary political and economic clout essential for exerting a sizeable influence anywhere in the world. The present-day geopolitical scenario, which is riddled with stark polarization as a result of the onset of right-wing governments, is largely dependent on the dynamics created by this strategic triangle. Hence, it is important to understand the historical background of this triangle as well as the possible future scenarios that may be created by its evolving nature.

Before dwelling into the history of this triangle, it is important to define what a strategic triangle means. It basically means a situation where the relations between any two of the three countries influence and are influenced by the strategic interests of the third country.

The inception of the US-China-Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) triangle can be traced back to 1949 with the emergence of the People’s Republic of China. Even though China was a relatively weaker economic and military power then was not even recognized by the USA, it caught the world’s attention by successfully driving back the US forces behind the 38th parallel during the Korean War (1950-1953). Meanwhile, the Soviet Union saw the rise of Mao’s China as a lucrative opportunity to gain an advantage in its cold war against the USA. Their shared animosity for the USA as well as a common ideology brought the Soviet Union and China close. The Soviet Union also provided economic and military assistance to China for gaining its trust. The USA watched these developments closely and grew increasingly wary of the Sino-Soviet alliance. Quite clearly, this alliance had tilted the cold war in the Soviet Union’s favor. But the Sino-Soviet alliance wasn’t as stable as the communist brotherhood propaganda pamphlets suggested. After the death of Stalin in 1954, Nikita Khrushchev became Soviet Union’s premier and did not exhibit the same level of commitment towards China as his predecessor. The economic assistance dwindled and the problem was further compounded by a border dispute between the two countries. In fact, this border dispute also led to a brief war in 1969.

The USA exploited this opportunity to cause a split in the Sino-Soviet alliance by officially recognizing the People’s Republic of China. US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger undertook a historical journey to China to meet Mao. This US-Sino rapprochement meant that the Soviet Union was now the isolated power in the strategic triangle. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet premier was completely shocked by this move and had no option but to make concessions and sign arm control treaties with the USA. Soviet Union’s communist agenda took another blow in December 1978 when the Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping gave his assent to foreign trade with the USA by virtue of his ‘open door policy’. However, this US-Sino alliance only lasted until the end of the cold war. This was because, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the US-Sino alliance lost its earlier relevance of countering Soviet influence. On the other hand, China’s fast economic growth rates and the USA’s suspected ambitions of global dominance created an environment of mistrust between the two allies.

Hence, after the end of the cold war, the strategic triangle was ready to throw up another surprise. Soviet Union’s successor state was a much economically and politically marginalized Russia. Amidst the coronation of the USA as the only global superpower and China’s rapid economic ascension, Russia was now the weakest player in the triangle. But nevertheless, it had significant regional clout in the former Soviet republics by virtue of being the leader of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). And it was in the best interests of both China and Russia to minimize US influence in Asia. All of these factors led to yet another Sino-Russian rapprochement with Boris Yeltsin, the Russian prime minister, traveling to China in 1992.

However, their alliance was not really a viable counterweight to the might of the USA. Since the USA’s economic and military power was unmatched, no country wanted to necessarily antagonize it as it would lead to adverse consequences. For instance, both China and Russia did not veto the UNSC resolution which permitted a US-led coalition to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in 1991. Moreover, Capitalism, the US-backed mode of economic organization, gained credence all over the world as countries like India and the former Soviet republics embraced it. But this unbridled US dominance lasted only up until 2008. The recession of 2008 and the staggering growth rates of countries like China and India indicated that the world was quickly heading towards a multipolar international environment. Moreover, Russia had witnessed a phase of both economic and political consolidation under Vladimir Putin and was now an important arm and natural gas exporter. It quickly dawned on the Washington establishment that its days of global dominance were numbered.

In the modern context, the Sino-Russian alliance is clearly posing a major headache for the USA. Both China and Russia have been quite active in making economic investments in the Middle East as well as the North African region. This alliance is also ensuring the survival of the rogue state of North Korea by not complying with the UN sanctions. China’s assertive activities in the South China Sea and Russia’s military interventions in the Middle East are direct challenges to the US influence in these regions. Finally, Russia and China are also supporting Iran in its current diplomatic standoff with the USA. However, this alliance has its problems as well. China does not support Russia’s claim of sovereignty in Crimea and is not appreciative of Russia’s favoritism for India. On the other hand, the Russians are quite wary of China’s economic ascension in the region and fear that China will soon be able to exercise control over key infrastructure and supply lanes by virtue of its One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR). According to most of the Russian population, this presents a potential threat to Russian influence in the region.

However, both these countries are firm in their resolve of countering US influence in the world and are careful so as to avoid any splits like that of 1972. For this reason, they never let their disagreements come to the surface and are happy to present a picture of mutual trust and co-operation. Donald Trump cannot make any friendly overtures to China and Russia as it would crush his domestic political support in the USA especially in the wake of alleged Russian meddling in the USA’s elections and cheap imports from China. He has already alienated the USA from its traditional allies in Europe by insulting them diplomatically and by standing against them on crucial issues such as Iran. In such a context, if China and Russia can sustain and consolidate their alliance, the USA is bound to lose its sole superpower status in the next few decades.

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