‘Dual containment’ on Moscow, Beijing likely to continue under Biden
Published: Nov 16, 2020 02:39 PM

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Let's face it - no US-China-Russia triangle exists now. Instead, for a couple of years we observed the US policy of "dual containment" with Washington applying more and more pressure on both Beijing and Moscow. This pressure has become an important factor cementing the Chinese-Russian strategic partnership. 

This situation is a clear strategic setback for Washington. Since at least early 20th century, one of the most important goals of the US foreign policy has always been to prevent any consolidated anti-American center of power in Eurasia. US policymakers have perceived a divided Eurasian landmass as an indispensable prerequisite for the global US strategic hegemony. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger understood the critical importance of keeping Eurasia divided better than anyone else did. He was more efficient than any US leader before him in exploiting the growing rifts between Beijing and Moscow back in early 1970s.

Can President-elect Joe Biden repeat Kissinger's success and resurrect the US-China-Russia triangle with the US at the top of it? Of course, almost 50 years have passed since the famous trip of Kissinger to Beijing in July of 1971. The world today is definitely very different from the world of the 20th century. The former bedrock theology of geopolitics may look old-fashioned and even antiquated. Still, let us consider the options that the US leadership has in trying to keep Eurasia divided. 

The first option would be to read Kissinger literally, that is to support the weaker US adversary against the stronger one. Today, it would mean that Washington should try to bring Moscow to the American side in its predestined confrontation with Beijing. After all, Russia is a communist country no more, and Russian leaders should be concerned about the growing asymmetry of power between their country and China. To play the weaker adversary against the stronger one was a stated goal of the Trump administration, which it failed to achieve. The US-Russian relations did not get any better under Trump. On the contrary, they fell to historic lows.

It is highly unlikely that Biden can be more successful in pursuing this goal than his predecessor was. The US simply has nothing to offer to President Putin to make him reconsider his current close friendship with President Xi Jinping - be it in economic, political or strategic domains. Even if Biden were considering a new reset with the Kremlin, he would be hardly in a position to go for such a reset: The anti-Russian consensus in Washington is too strong and shows no signs of crumbling. It seems that the US-Russian relationship will be locked in a confrontational mode for many years to come. 

The second option for Biden in trying to resurrect the US-China-Russia triangle would be to play on the opposite side of the stage, seeking an acceptable accommodation with the stronger Beijing and putting the squeeze on the weaker Moscow. Turning Kissinger's geopolitical scheme on its head is certain to find a host of supporters and advocates in Washington. For them, Russia makes a far more convenient opponent than China. America would have to pay an exorbitant price for a full-fledged confrontation with China: a drop in their bilateral trade, which is very important for the US, severance of established global technological chains, a rapid increase in military spending, etc. The US-Russia confrontation will cost much less, given that there is very little economic and technological mutual dependence between the two states and Moscow is far less prepared to engage in costly military competition with Washington.

However, is it realistic for Biden to count on a sweet deal with China? Such a bargain requires the White House to be willing to reconsider its fundamental ideas about the place the US holds in the system of international relations. The US will have to abandon its claim to global American hegemony similar to that of the times of Kissinger. Certainly, neither Biden nor his entourage is ready to do that. If a revolution in US' self-perception and its perception of the world ever starts, this is not likely to happen earlier than 2024 and, until that time, Washington-Beijing relations will remain complicated and tense. 

Even more importantly, just as Trump saw repeatedly throughout the four years of his presidency that it was impossible to tear Russia away from China, Biden will steadily see that China cannot be torn away from Russia. Beijing needs Moscow regardless of the current state of affairs and the prospects for China-US relations. China's leadership will be happy to act as an arbiter or "balancer" between Russia and America, but it will not actively support the US in its desire to corner Russia. In other words, if a US-China-Russia triangle could ever emerge, it would be a triangle with Beijing, not Washington on the top of it.

Thus, the Biden administration will not accomplish a lot if it attempts to resurrect the US-China-Russia triangle. Under the current circumstances, a version of a "dual containment" equation appears to be the most likely approach of this new US administration towards Beijing and Moscow with China being treated more as a peer competitor and Russia as a global rouge state. To cut the costs of dual containment, Biden will try to mobilize US Western allies in Europe and in East Asia. It will also try to keep Eurasia divided by forging stronger ties to China's adversaries in Asia - above all, to India. By doing so, Biden will inevitably push the world closer to a new geopolitical bipolarity, instead of a modernized version of the US-China-Russia triangle.

The author is director general of the Russian International Affairs Council. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn