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  • The Sino-Russian Partnership and Its Impact on U.S. Policy toward Russia
  • Angela Stent (bio)

During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump suggested that it was important for the United States to improve relations with Russia because closer ties might induce Moscow to join Washington in pressuring Beijing to change its policies. In 2015, he had said, “I think [Putin’s] dislike of President Obama is so intense, that it really has affected the whole relationship. We’ve driven them into the arms of China, so that now these two are together, which has always been the great sin. Don’t ever let Russia and China get together. We’ve driven them together.”1 The idea that there is a triangular relationship between the United States, Russia, and China and that the United States has both a Russia and a China card to play goes back to the days of the Sino-Soviet split in the Cold War. Indeed, the Nixon administration was able to play the China card and pressure the Soviet Union quite effectively in the 1970s. But those days are long gone, and today the United States faces a completely different situation. As a senior Chinese official has stated, “Relations among China, Russia and the United States currently resemble a scalene triangle in which the greatest distance between the three points lies between Moscow and Washington.”2 If any country has a card to play, it is China.

This essay examines the United States’ key policy objectives toward Russia and discusses the extent to which the Sino-Russian relationship can facilitate or hinder these objectives. It starts out from the premise that the key drivers of U.S. policy toward Russia and China differ considerably. The major driver behind U.S.-Russian relations is that the United States and Russia are the world’s two nuclear superpowers with the lion’s share of nuclear weapons. They are also on opposite sides of a number of international conflicts and have a limited economic relationship. A key [End Page 5] driver of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, by contrast, is the fact that the United States and China are the world’s two economic superpowers. Differences over security issues such as Taiwan or the South China Sea have also played an important role, but trade and investment questions loom much larger in this relationship than they do in U.S.-Russian relations. The stakes in the U.S.-Russian relationship are therefore of a very different order of magnitude than those involved in the U.S.-Chinese relationship.

Following a brief assessment of the current state of the Sino-Russian partnership, the essay examines U.S. policy objectives toward Russia on six key issues: Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, counterterrorism, cyberthreats, and sanctions. It then concludes by discussing policy options for the United States.

The Outlook for the Sino-Russian Partnership

Russia and China have over the past decade developed an increasingly robust, pragmatic partnership. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the launch of a war in southeastern Ukraine, the West’s imposition of sanctions against Russia and attempts to isolate it pushed Moscow more closely toward Beijing and increased Russia’s dependence on China. Although the Sino-Russian relationship is asymmetrical and by no means tension-free, the idea that Russia could be persuaded to loosen its links to China today is illusory. The deepening Sino-Russian partnership represents one of the most concrete and durable achievements of President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, and he is not about to jettison it.

Understanding the stakes involved for both sides is important for assessing how this partnership affects U.S. policy. It has played a significant part in elevating Russia’s role as an independent center of international power. The partnership has also enabled Moscow to raise its stature by associating with a rising China as relations with the United States have soured. China’s support for Russia in the UN Security Council and refusal to join the Ukraine-related sanctions—although some Chinese banks do in fact adhere to the financial sanctions out of concern for possible U.S. extraterritorial retaliation—have served to...


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