America may famously be pivoting to China, but so is everyone else: and not in the intended way. Vice President Kamala Harris’ invitation to Vietnam to join the US against China was coldly rejected by an unaligned Vietnam who wishes to enhance relations with China. And they’re not the only ones.
By the time Putin returned to power in Russia in 2012, he had given up trying to find a path of independent partnership with the US. That was the end of a long and hopeful project undertaken by both Gorbachev and Putin to create a new, cooperative post Cold War world. Russian expert and Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, Richard Sakwa, says that, at the close of the Cold War, Russia wanted to transcends the blocs and divisions, but America insisted on preserving them. Russia wanted to join a transformed international community freed of blocs and made up of equal partners who cooperated with each other; America offered Russia only an invitation to join an enlarged American led community as a defeated and subordinate member. Russia wanted to end the Cold War and transcend blocs; America wanted to maintain the Cold War and simply enlarge its bloc.
By the beginning of his fourth term in 2018, Sakwa says, the frustration had led Putin to resignation to being in conflict. This resignation led Putin to reorient Russian foreign policy toward a pivot to Eurasia, the Pacific region and China. That is the nightmare of three quarters of a century of American foreign policy.
US foreign policy has had the overarching goal of keeping Europe with NATO, not Russia, and Russia away from China. That is, keep Europe from Russia and Russia from China. Keeping Russia from aligning with China was the goal of "triangular diplomacy." Henry Kissinger explained triangular diplomacy as the necessity for America to achieve and maintain better relations with both China and Russia than either of them have with each other to prevent them from aligning with each other. But that is exactly the nightmare scenario that US hostility to Russia and China has forced them into: they have now turned to each other.
The American made Russian-Chinese relationship is now one of the most important political relationships in the world. The two eastern powers have partnered in joining the BRICS nations, an informal association of emerging states. The BRICS nations represent 43% of the world’s population and form a counter block to America’s unipolar ambitions.
Even more powerfully, Russia’s pivot to China has led to Russia and China partnering in the important, and not nearly enough discussed, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO is an organization that now includes India and Pakistan in addition to Russia and China. It incorporates 42% of the world’s population, two of its greatest powers and four of its nine nuclear powers. The nations of the SCO cooperate on finance and banking as well as the resolution of international problems.
Perhaps most telling in the new Russian-Chinese relationship is the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, in which the two nations commit not to enter into “any alliance or be party to any bloc . . . which compromises the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the other. . .. ” Dmitri Trenin, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center explains the relationship as one in which, though Russia and China “do not have to follow each other,” they “will never go against each other.”
A symbol of the shift in triangular diplomacy is that instead of holding their regular military drill to defend against China, in 2018, the Russian drill along their shared border was a joint exercise with China. China contributed 2,300 troops, 900 pieces of equipment and 30 aircraft. China explained they were participating in order “to further Russian-Chinese relations and strengthen the strategic partnership between the two states.”
And that "strategic partnership" has grown. In August, 2021, Russia and China carried out exercises that, for the first time, employed a joint command and control system. The Russian troops were fully integrated into larger Chinese formations and used Chinese armored assault vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles and other battle equipment. The two countries are giving each other levels of access that are unprecedented for either country.
This nightmare scenario is the end of triangular diplomacy. Instead of splitting China from Russia, America has now forged them together.
And it is not only Russia that is pivoting to China. After twenty years, as much as $2 trillion and, most importantly, more than 2,300 dead US soldiers, more than 64,100 dead Afghan soldiers and around 111,000 Afghans killed or injured, the US has purchased Afghanistan for China.
As the US left Afghanistan, the Taliban expressed hope of working with China and of "boosting [their] mutual relations." That hope was answered by China’s promise to help with the rebuilding of Afghanistan. That promise grew on September 2 when Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid identified China as Afghanistan’s "most important partner" and expressed Afghanistan’s desire to joint the New Silk Road: that is Afghanistan’s pivot to China.
Even Israel is, if not pivoting, glancing over at China. In their cold war view of the world, the US has always had a monogamous relationship with Israel. But Israel has not been quite so faithful to the US. Israel has always enjoyed warm relations with Russia. Sakwa has called Putin a "philo-Semite" who "has gone out of his way to forge a strong relationship with Israel. . .."
Israel has had relations with China too. And those relations are becoming intimate enough to be of concern to the US. In August, CIA director Bill Burns became the highest level US official to warn Israel about its welcoming of Chinese investment in Israel’s tech sector and infrastructure projects. Despite US warnings, Israel has made greater ties with China a priority. The US, in response, has told Israel that deeper Chinese ties could compromise Israel’s security relationship with the US.
The US has previously also pressured Israel to end economic relations with China since China has supported Iran.
Israel has also expressed concern about, if not a direct pivot to China, at least a pivot to the China-Iran sphere. Israeli officials have requested that the Biden administration tone down its human rights criticisms of Saudi Arabia lest those criticisms drive Saudi Arabia to China, Russia and Iran for support.
And Saudi Arabia is considering the Iran-China-Russia sphere. As early as January 2020, when Iranian general Qassem Suleimani was assassinated by the US while in Iraq, Saudi Arabia was considering changing its mind on Iran. Part of the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia coalition against Iran, Saudi Arabia had begun to despair of their ability to push America into war with Iran for them. So, they opened exploration of plan B: more friendly relations with Iran. That’s why Suleimani was in Iraq. Iraq was playing the intermediary between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia had just sent a de-escalation message to Iran; Suleimani was in Iraq to deliver Iran’s reply. Saudi Arabia was considering a pivot of their own.
Since then, the Saudis and Iranians have reportedly met several times. At the end of August, it was reported that Saudi-Iranian talks are set to resume with the new Iranian government. Iran has now confirmed publicly that they and Saudi Arabia are trying to resolve their issues. This, too, would be a significant pivot away from the American sphere.
From Russia to Vietnam and from Afghanistan to Israel and Saudi Arabia, American foreign policy is forcing countries to do their own pivot to the East.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.