It has finally happened. Eight years after the invasion of Crimea, Russia has officially sent troops to the Donbas region—specifically, to the two separatist breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in southeastern Ukraine. The Russian government has acknowledged the independence of these regions, yet sent in troops under the preposterous notion of “peacekeeping.” Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to justify these forceful violations of international law in a televised address: “Ukraine is not just a neighbor. It is an inherent part of our own history, culture and spiritual space”—a convoluted attempt to convince the world that somehow he had the moral high ground and that Russia had a right to Ukraine.
Such a thought inevitably draws comparisons to other international situations, namely Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vow to reunite with Taiwan: “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.”
Both countries are trying to take back nations they lost during their moment of weakness: for Russia, the dissolution of the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR), and for China, the Chinese Communist Party’s failure to suppress the democratic Republic of China, now relocated to Taiwan, in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War.
However, this is just the start of their imperial ambitions. Both states have expanding interests, with Russia aiming to expand influence over its fellow post-Soviet states and China advancing further in the Indo-Pacific region and the South China Sea. Their growing friendship is indeed concerning, as we may be at the beginning of a new combined autocratic sphere of influence.
During this past Winter Olympics, the two autocratic leaders seem to have formalized their relations on the international stage, with both meeting and taking aim at the United States and its allies. They both promised that they would “counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext”—warning the U.S. to refrain from interfering in Ukraine and Taiwan.
With a friendly relationship between Russia and China becoming more conspicuous, the U.S. and its allies must focus on preventing their catastrophic intentions. Diverting attention to just one would present a major fatal flaw in international affairs. After all, the U.S. has made this mistake before. Back when the USSR was at the height of its power, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong had a fallout, showing cracks in the relations between the two communist regimes. The U.S. sought to exploit that by coddling China so that China would provide a means to contain the USSR. Domestically, the U.S. granted China “most favored nation” status for years, allowing China to gain access to U.S markets, while globally, the U.S. permitted China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization. This allowed for Chinese businesses and products to expand rapidly via global markets. At the time, Chinese companies copied U.S. technology in areas including, but not limited to, aerospace and consumer electronics. However, the U.S. was more focused on the USSR, so it did not care to have barriers to its proprietary technology with China or to disrupt their relationship until it was too late.
One can argue that China would have found other ways to rise to its current status as a global economic superpower. But back then, the U.S. provided most of the world’s sophisticated technology—any sanctions could have slowed China’s economic growth. As a consequence of the U.S.’s failure to handle more than one threat at a time, China is now a serious contender with the U.S. in various sectors, such as military power and advanced technologies. If we do not learn from our past mistakes of focusing only on one threat, how are we supposed to redeem ourselves in the future?
Unfortunately, former President Obama’s main foreign policy initiative was to disregard Russia and to focus mainly on combating China through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and former President Trump furthered this through his use of tariffs and through his pro-Russia rhetoric. President Biden is not doing so well in foreign policy either. The withdrawal of U.S. forces and its European allies from Afghanistan last year left a power vacuum for Moscow and Beijing to exploit, allowing both to further expand their influence in the Middle East. Moreover, the fact that both Russia and China see the U.S. and its allies as threats means that Afghanistan emboldened both of these countries—they saw the U.S. withdrawal as a sign of weakness and of decline in the U.S.’s unipolarity in the world.
Economically, both happen to mutually complement each other, with Russia providing oil and gas to an energy-starved China and China providing advanced technology to an uninnovative Russia.
Their shared skepticism of the West’s future and their complementary economies will be the drive that pushes them to a coalition of powers that will oppose Washington. The utmost foreign policy priority of the U.S. and its allies should be to sever this increasingly close relationship. Otherwise, the consequences could be disastrous.