China-Russia-U.S. Trilateral Tensions: How will it play out?

Since the Barack Obama administration, tensions between Washington and Beijing have become more than just an elephant in the room. As China gradually accumulated power over the years, the United States began to define it as a major strategic rival. However, American methods used to influence China were typically restrained by the unique approach of the Obama administration, which preferred to address issues by diplomatic and economic means within the framework of international law. For instance, instead of imposing economic sanctions, the Obama administration worked to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership to curb «unfair Chinese trade methods». Undoubtedly, it was much more energy-consuming than sanctions imposing, still, it was made on a multilateral basis and within the framework of international law.

The desire to avoid a direct clash was also evident in the international process on the South China Sea in 2016. Although the U.S. supported an international tribunal against Beijing, American ships did not enter the South China Sea but stayed within the Philippine Sea to avoid escalation of the conflict.

When the Donald Trump administration came to power that all changed and the brewing tensions between the United States and China proceeded to an all-out competition. The most notorious hotspots being national minorities’ rights, Hong Kong security law, and disputes over intellectual property rights. The controversy reached a climax when Washington launched a full-court press of sanctions and diplomatic tools against the Middle Kingdom.

The bellicose rhetoric has quickly transformed into official policy with the release of the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China published earlier this year. The main idea of the document is that international relations are bound to return to the competition of the great powers. China's growing power threatens America’s democratic values, economy, security, and global leadership and therefore needs to be restrained. The main accusation in the economic sphere is the unfair competition on the part of the Chinese and its state protectionism which has given Beijing an advantage in competition with market economies.

The strategic approach also criticizes the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative (B&R). According to the document, B&R is more of a geopolitical project aimed at expanding Chinese influence. Included in that critique is that the project will lead to environmental pollution, corruption, and makes the countries involved in the project dependent on Beijing.

The Trump Administration has thus concluded that these perceived threats require immediate solutions, and proposes creating a block of countries deterring China in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as imposing international agreements.

Meanwhile, the deterioration of the American-Chinese relations has not entailed thawing in Russia-U.S. relations. Along with China, Russia was identified as one of the main global competitors in the Nuclear Posture Review 2018. If someone browses “the U.S. -Russian relations” they will inevitably see the headlines about NATO-Russia standoff,Moscow-Washington clashes over Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine, targeted sanctions, poisoning scandals, name and shame campaigns, controversies over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the denunciation of bilateral treaties.

Simultaneously it is significant to take into account that Sino-Russian relations, though outwardly friendly, are far from being without tension. There are at least four vulnerabilities in the Kremlin-Beijing bromance. Three of those weak spots concern Central Asia, where for the first time Russian and Chinese endeavors to expand economic and geopolitical influence seem on course for collision.

Through numerous infrastructure projects, Bejing has gained favor with several Central Asian governments all of which have been traditionally close to Moscow. B&R`s infrastructure network has enabled the PRC to exert increasing influence on the Central Asia gas and oil sector. Here we come to the second problem, which is Russo-Asian competition for the Chinese consumers market. Turkmen gas is a cut-throat competitor to the Russian eastern gas pipelines. Beyond that, Beijing is bound to increase the volume of Turkmen gas supplies by building gas processing plants and increasing pipeline capacity. Such a situation turns out to be problematic for Russia, taking into account the fact that to date, gas imports into China surpass domestic demand. In November 2019, the National Development and Reform Commission of the PRC adopted a transition from state tariffs to free-market regulation of gas prices. Given the inflated supply, this measure means the price of gas will most certainly take a plunge.

The third issue concerns the security mechanisms, more specifically, the Collective Security Treaty Organization under Moscow’s guidance and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization under Beijing’s direction. Duplicating functions, both organizations are competing in efforts to engage post-Soviet states into their agenda.

The last but not least weak spot in Chinese-Russian relations concerns Chinese investments. Because of the particular demands of Chinese investors and the risk for strategic and infrastructure facilities to be absorbed by the Middle Kingdom, the Kremlin receives Chinese investments quite reluctantly. The most vivid example is the B&R-sponsored Moscow-Kazan high-speed railway project which was postponed indefinitely by the Russian government earlier this year.

If not for the United States, we would inevitably witness a much broader clash between Russia and China over the next two decades. Instead, Washington`s current approach has provoked China and Russia into mitigating bilateral tensions.

Since 2015, both the Russian and Chinese sides have agreed to B&R and EAEU matching incentives and a China-EAEU trade agreement that has simplified a number of customs procedures and reduced non-tariff barriers. It was exactly in 2014 that Moscow and Beijing coerced Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation to launch the Power of Siberia pipeline.

Regarding investments, after the imposition of a fine for cooperation with Rosneft by the US Treasury on ExxonMobil and its subsequent withdrawal from joint works in the Chukchi, Kara, and Laptev seas, Russia became more inclined to Chinese investment. Now China National Petroleum Corporation and the Silk Road Fund have 20% and 9.9% shares in the Yamal - LNG project on the Ob Bay respectively.

In Summer 2019, China Southern Petroleum Exploration and Development Corporation (CNODC) and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) each purchased 10% shares in the Arctic LNG-2 project on the Gydan Peninsula. The first LNG deliveries from the Russian North to China began in 2017. China intends to invest in the construction of a deep-water port in Arkhangelsk and in the construction of the Belkomur railway, which will link Arkhangelsk, the Komi Republic, the Urals, and Siberia.

That said, how will the current tensions play out? Undoubtedly, the war of all against all is not a way out. The most possible scenario of the future development should be looked for based on the time-tested balance of power principle. Much time has passed since the pentarchy established by the Vienna Congress, and since then international relations have become strikingly more complex. Nowadays, an indicator of a state's strength is not only its military power but also its economic development. That is why at this stage there are two triangles of power in the world, i.e. economic triangle and the military one. The first includes the USA, China, and the European Union. The second triangle includes the USA, China, and Russia. In this case, a simple dichotomy in which the European Union will be a puppet of Washington, and Moscow will be a pawn of Beijing is inapplicable. Starting from the Cold War, the European Union has made it clear that it would not float in the bosom of the U.S. policy if the latter contradicted the interests of the EU. Russia, having refused to become a junior partner of the U.S. in the early 2000s, has likewise declined the role of China's younger brother (Chinese 弟弟). Being a part of only one of the two triangles, Russia and the European Union will try to balance between the two centers of power.

Despite serious contradictions, China and the European Union are already making efforts to find common ground for cooperation. Both sides are keen to cooperate over green energy, cyber technologies, economic prosperity, and assistance to poor countries. In February 2020, the parties completed negotiations on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment which opens new opportunities for the European companies on the Chinese market. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brussels and Beijing alternately sent each other humanitarian medical assistance.

The same pattern should also be present in Russian-American relations. There are at least three pillars of reconciliation between Moscow and Washington. First and foremost, it is necessary to leave one's ideological attitudes to the background. The United States must understand that its political culture and values will not necessarily benefit Russia and its neighbors. Second, the tactics of permanent sanctions should be left behind. Six years of sanctions pressure has made it clear that this method of influence is ineffective and unable to force Russia to act on U.S. instructions. The only effect of sanctions is to deepen mutual distrust between the two countries. Finally, it is necessary to seek common ground in the neutral areas, i.e. those that do not directly affect the national interests of either Moscow or Washington. Negotiations over non-proliferation treaties, strategic stability, and halting nuclear terrorism are to be optimal agendas to resuscitate high-level dialogue.