Washington Insights, Vol. 6, No. 4

The pace of change amid the perplexity of the Trump administration is proving overwhelming to many in DC, as elsewhere. Alarm about how badly it is handling North Korea—widening the divide in how to deal with that country—and the shock of an ominously looming trade war with China are but two of the pressing issues in daily news coverage. Yet, stepping back from this frenzy leaves some contemplating the old standby of the Sino-Russian-US triangle and how it is being affected by such developments. In this summer 2018 edition of Washington Insights, we approach the “strategic triangle” from four angles: 1) the way grand designs for Asia, Eurasia, and the Indo-Pacific are beginning to take clear shape; 2) the search for combining security, economic, and national identity views of the triangle; 3) the rising centrality of the North Korean issue in assessing how this triangle is shifting; and 4) the struggle to find a strategy in Washington that deals well with both Beijing and Moscow. Confusion at the top of the US government leaves recent debate more detached than usual from the give-and-take of officials reviewing their options, audiences challenging their assumptions, and exchanges fruitful to all.

The bifurcation between business as usual in the security establishment and whatever strikes one’s fancy at the moment in Trump’s tweets continues. It creates a disconnect, including in the way relations with Russia and China should be handled. With the stripping of John Brennan, the former CIA director, of his clearance and Trump’s threats to strip many others of theirs despite the unprecedented pushback from scores of former top officials, the Russia question has now morphed from a rhetorical divide interfering with policy making to a challenge to informed debate and access to expert advice within government. This, however, has not stood in the way of intellectual exchanges in DC and elsewhere about various burning strategic issues.

Over the three decades since the Cold War was ending, there has been a tendency to separate analysis of China and Russia. US relations with the two great powers were put in different boxes as they appeared to be on distinct paths of democratization, to focus on separate geographical arenas, to have sharply different economic interests, and to be divided by presumed conflicting approaches to the US-led international order. There is little sign that the Trump administration is connecting the two bilateral relations, as Donald Trump glories in his successful summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki despite keeping the contents secret even from his top security staff and he doubles down on tariffs on China, ignoring resistance from many of his usual supporters. Yet, discussions in DC increasingly link China and Russia: whether looking at challenges to the international order, questioning the impact of “sharp power” and reinvigorated ideological thinking, asking how sanctions against North Korea are being undermined, or searching for a genuine foreign policy strategy that few now find emanating from the Trump administration.

Grand Designs for Asia, Eurasia, and the Indo-Pacific

The decade of the 2010s has witnessed a burgeoning competition to define an area centered in Asia viewed as the incubus of great power competition for the 21st century. In the 2000s, talk of Northeast Asia as that combustible arena intensified, as the Six-Party Talks gave rise to rhetoric about a regional security regime that would reflect both shared interests and a shifting balance of power. In the following decade, however, the scope of consideration widened as one country after another not only targeted a zone of opportunity (sometimes called a pivot to Asia or to the east) but sought to define its place in that zone. Typically, the targeted area grew over time. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was morphing into the “free and open Indo-Pacific region” even before Trump decided to acknowledge that term. Hu Jintao’s “going to the West” was replaced by Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” starting with the “Silk Road Economic Belt” through Central Asia and the “21st Century Maritime Belt” through Southeast Asia. Putin’s “Eurasian Economic Community” was jostled into linking up with SREB and then BRI before it expanded to “Greater Eurasia.” Abe was most consistent across two tenures as prime minister, approving an appeal for the “arc of freedom and prosperity” before pursuing the Quad with US-Australia-India ties that became the core of the “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Although the details of these designs remain mostly sketchy, comparisons can clarify some fundamental differences among them.

One question to be addressed is which country or countries is the focal point of the intended regional framework. Xi Jinping clearly is putting China at the center, reviving sinocentrism as all roads of the BRI lead to Beijing. While Obama was accused of acting in defense of US hegemonism, he was keen on a more shared agenda with a prominent role in TPP for Japan and a bolstering of alliances/defense partnerships. Putin appears to be striving to constrain sinocentrism while defining a large enough entity not only to stand as a real alternative to the West, which he has rejected, but also to give Russia equal billing with China as its leader. Just as Putin cannot point to any possible alignment without accepting China’s central role, Abe has no choice but to put the United States in a leading role, gradually acclimating to limits on Japan’s leadership but still pursuing some autonomy. Other countries struggle to combine regional configurations in a way that gives them some flexibility: ASEAN states welcoming Obama’s pivot or Japan’s TPP-11 even as they accept the BRI; South Korea sticking with the US alliance network while trying to limit the scope of its obligations to broad regionalism such as a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and urging China and Russia to pursue a more inclusive sort of multilateralism centered on Northeast Asia. The divergent designs of China and Russia versus the United States and Japan cannot be reconciled, although countries caught in the middle keep groping for some mixed framework that does so.

Another question commonly asked is what functionality does the new Asian regionalism imply. It could be economic regionalism without security or civilizational expectations, a narrow focus on security in one domain with limited geopolitical implications, or an all-encompassing, multi-functional and exclusive regionalism. China may at times feign narrower aspirations, but Xi’s call for a “community of common destiny” and the growing use of economic pressure to achieve political and security objectives indicate otherwise. US security demands have been in the forefront, but Obama’s TPP and Trump’s “trade wars” testify to awareness of economic goals, and civilizational ones, too, despite Trump’s twisting of them in a more populist manner. Putin has left no doubt of his priority on strategic and civilizational aspirations, emerging as the champion of anti-globalization and hostility to universal values, not just “color revolutions.” For Abe, earlier Japanese concentration on economic regionalism has given way to undisguised support for collective security, while his revisionist thinking about WWII affects such diplomacy as antagonism toward South Korean historical thinking and overtures toward non-critical India. The overall trend is for narrow economic regionalism to be superseded by comprehensive plans for regional groupings that compound the differences between two camps, as in the Cold War.

Given the competitive nature of proposals for Asian regionalism, questions arise about whether any clarity is on the horizon. In DC, doubts prevail on all fronts. Xi Jinping is facing a backlash as the BRI increasingly poses a debt trap that turns economic dependence into political subordination, and Trump’s tariff pressure comes at a particularly difficult time for consolidating plans for the sinocentric region he is seeking. Putin’s economic vulnerability is even greater with little hope for Russian leadership in any sort of regionalism—yet, there is no sign of a change of course. Trump gets no credit for strategic thinking even as his brash moves disrupt the existing order more than had been anticipated. Few think that he has a clue about what the Indo-Pacific region should be like apart from a string of bilateral “victories.” Abe is groping to adjust to bad news in ongoing diplomacy with North Korea and Japan-US relations without a new, larger strategic design in his Asian diplomacy that has reenergized bilateral diplomacy, especially with China. North Korea offers little hope of regional consensus. There is stalling over a code of conduct sought by the states of ASEAN with China despite a vague agreement. Regionalism seems to be out of reach. Washington, Beijing, and Moscow are too much at odds to allow even minimal consensus.

The overall direction appears unmistakable. Russia proceeds in China’s shadow. Japan moves in the US shadow. Trump may disrupt Obama’s plans, but he offers no real alternative to rally states toward a multilateral framework. ASEAN has little weight to counter the forces set in motion by the great powers. Moon Jae-in has tried the latest variant of a South Korean plan for multilateralism—this time with cooperation from North Korea—but he faces sharp divisions on how to proceed. Polarization into two rival frameworks may continue to be obscured as states resist fully committing to one or the other, but there is little prospect for an end to polarization. Yet, Russia keeps looking for openings to assert itself as a triangular force, bucking the trend. 

How to Combine Security, Economic, and National Identity Views of the Strategic Triangle?

In the Cold War, security was the focus of discussions of Sino-Russian-US triangularity. Border disputes, balances of military power, and spheres of influence drew the most attention. In the 1990s-2000s economic factors took center stage, as trade dependency, energy security, and financial pressure appeared to shape triangular ties. Yet, much could not be explained by the economic realities of the time. The national identity approach was gaining ground and, in the 2010s, has vied for primacy, even in DC where security normally has an oversized role. Chinese sources again are referring to three great powers as the ones that matter in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. Russia is prioritized over Japan as well as South Korea as a power consequential for diplomacy regarding security, which is showcased in analyses far more than economic cooperation involving more than a couple great powers. Moreover, it is not only the security concerns of Russia but its outlook on the architecture of one or another area of Asia that draws close attention. While there is general avoidance of talk of an ideological overlap between China and Russia, the indirect way that this is broached is to criticize the ideological thinking of the United States, driven by its national identity, to which a response is required.

One could set aside national identity and economics to narrow down to security. This occurred in Syria and has been the case with maneuvering over North Korea. The strategic triangle draws most attention in times of war or war scares. Russia’s economic weakness may be overlooked in such circumstances, but, ultimately, Syria must be rebuilt at enormous cost and North Korea is striving for an economic upsurge, dimming the short-term picture centered on security. As one looks deeper into struggles involving Russia, it is apparent that the goal is not defense of the country. It is reestablishment of a national identity that had faded in the 1990s. China’s partnership has proven the most expeditious way to achieve this end, along with renewal of the antagonistic rivalry with the United States, as if Moscow belongs in the same great power club by virtue of standing up to its former enemy. Not only does it have nuclear weapons second to no other country, Moscow confronts Washington the way no other great power has dared. This redounds to its own identity claims even if it exacts a price in economic terms—albeit not such a great one because, as an energy superpower, Russia has downplayed other economic needs. 

Russia’s economic weakness figures into some Chinese discussions, but it rarely enters into any expression of doubt about Russia’s great power influence in Asia. Similarly, Russian publications usually divorce concern about Russia’s economic shortcomings from confidence about its clout on strategic matters. Taken for granted is its identity as the heir to the Soviet Union, its pursuit of regional influence in a world where spheres of influence are natural and globalization cannot stretch beyond limited economic cooperation, and its inherent right to exert power in the face of malign US intentions. Those who see troublemaking in what Russia is doing have a need also to recognize the driving force in national identity and pursuit of a “strategic triangle” with China and the United States. Since Russia’s claim to power is heavily weighted to its military prowess, it follows that Russia finds more opportunity to intervene when the possibility of an armed confrontation is increased. Thus, the strategic triangle is best invoked in limited circumstances verging on conflict. An obvious case where it draws attention is the conflict over North Korea.  

The Rising Centrality of the North Korea Issue for the “Strategic Triangle”

In the 2000s, Russia was grouped with Japan as a meaningful part of the Six-Party Talks but a marginal force when the most critical decisions had to be made. Japan in 2018 is viewed as even more peripheral than a decade earlier. Russia, however, asserts itself as if it is pressing to become one of the few critical players. Having the closest relationship with North Korea is seen in Moscow as its ticket to influence in Northeast Asia. If Kim Jong-un were to decide to participate in the Eastern Economic Forum just across his border in Vladivostok, Putin could hope to turn it into “five-party talks,” excluding only the United States, as Moon Jae-in, Abe Shinzo, and even Xi Jinping are expected to attend. What a coup that would be, putting Russia at the center of diplomacy—parallel to its effort to host talks with the Afghan authorities and the Taliban in late 2018 and to become the center of diplomacy on Syria. Should Kim be preoccupied instead with the 70th anniversary ceremonies at home for the establishment of his country, Putin might still succeed in holding a summit in Russia with Kim this fall, proving that Russia is not just relying on China to deal with North Korea and even has the boldest ideas for altering the balance of forces dealing with the Korean Peninsula. Supposedly, capitalizing on North Korea’s threat potential, Russia would be taken more seriously by South Korea, which keeps promising cooperation but does little, and Japan, which has wooed Putin but held back on the commitments Putin seeks. Both US allies on a matter of vital interest might even discard US pressure to work more with Russia, Russians surmise, giving more substance to the notion of a “strategic triangle.” Although some have seen Russia’s pursuit of South Korea as aimed largely at economic objectives, the primary focus is security. Russians call this creating a peacekeeping system, but it is foremost a way to forge a trilateral security arrangement of great powers to deal with the peninsula and, at the same time, cement Russia’s top tier status as a great power and validate Putin’s oft-repeated claims to have turned Russia to the east and compensated for its loss of influence in the West.

As Sino-North Korean relations deteriorated, notably in 2016, Russia claimed to have the best relationship with Kim Jong-un, exaggerating limited ties when Kim was not meeting Russia’s leaders as well as any others. In 2017 Moscow joined with Beijing in insisting that their “dual freeze” plan offered the one blueprint for resolving the worsening crisis over North Korea. In the first eight months of 2018, despite the fact that Kim met with Xi three times, Moon twice, and Trump once with a second summit under discussion, the Russian side was upbeat about soon gaining a critical pivot in diplomacy over the North. Wishful as this claim was, it was also a reflection of strategic thinking about why this was desirable and should be actively pursued. North Korea stands at the crossroads of many images: renewal of the identity of the Soviet juggernaut, protector of the North and heir to the Soviet sphere of influence established by victory in WWII; defender of regimes under attack by expansionist “color revolutions,” in like manner to the Soviet protection of states during the Cold War; proof of Russia’s “turn to the east” as an autonomous power indispensable to resolving issues vital to peace and security; and leading member of a bloc with which the United States and its allies must reckon and negotiate if dangerous situations are to be overcome. The talks over North Korea are deemed the entry point for forging an overall security framework for East Asia—on par with the arrangements established after WWII that kept the peace in Europe and, less so, in Asia for four decades. Once security is stabilized, the assumption is that Russia will be a great beneficiary of the economic cooperation that follows, given its proximity to North Korea, which is a bridge to maritime Asia, especially South Korea and Japan. Moon on August 15 called for the creation of a Northeast Asia Railway Community, something enticing to Russians. Yet, those who are enthusiastic about Russia’s prospects are prone to skirt over its serious limitations.

Having found little leverage over China and that Trump is unable to deliver on his strong desire to cut a far-reaching deal with an ascendant Putin, Moscow views the Korean Peninsula as the gateway to “strategic triangle” aspirations. Washington appears unlikely to cooperate. Tokyo is little inclined. That leaves Seoul and Beijing as well as Pyongyang as partners that could be helpful in bringing this plan to fruition. Seoul worries about Beijing gaining the dominant role in the diplomatic process and the economic revival of North Korea; so it is wooing Moscow, apart from its concern that Moscow might play a spoiler role. Yet, Seoul is seen as too close to its ally in Washington to press very far unless an open split occurs between the two. Beijing is viewed as supportive to a degree, especially because Sino-US competition is likely to define the struggle over diplomacy. Moscow can piggy-back on this split, reinforcing Beijing while opening space to deal separately with Pyongyang. Most of all, its “strategic triangle” hopes rest on Kim Jong-un playing hardball with Washington and being wary of drawing too close to Seoul or Beijing. This logic has guided Moscow since Putin’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000 and endures in today’s flux. 

The Struggle to Find a Strategy in Washington that Deals with Both Beijing and Moscow

Some have been arguing that Moscow is more aggressive and more hostile to the international order than Beijing. It is the more immediate threat. Others have argued that too much focus is being put on Moscow when Beijing is the principal threat. How to weigh the two challenges is a subject of disagreement. Also in contention is the argument from one side or the other that, given the primary challenge, a softer approach should be taken to the other country. Such discussions in DC circles are not reinforced by references to State Department or National Security Council statements, as would be customary, since presentation of strategic thinking is missing in contacts with official representatives. Even so, the consensus has shifted toward the following: 1) both Moscow and Beijing pose threats of one sort or another, and one should not single out either of them as if it were the sole, serious challenge; 2) there is no prospect of splitting the two, which would draw them even closer and expect to realize even more carrots from this erroneous premise; and 3) the drift toward “strategic triangle” thinking in Moscow with echoes in Beijing requires attention to this recently overlooked paradigm in Washington, although not at the expense of building alliances and partnerships with countries reluctant to accept this thinking in an era where there are many more important actors than in the Cold War period, which expect to have some autonomy in dealing with great powers and welcome aspects of multipolarity.

The Trump administration exaggerates US unilateral power and dismisses the need for setting priorities. Some in Congress are also prone to the presumption that their country is powerful enough to set aside compromise choices and choices that impose a cost. Yet, the prevailing view is to prioritize China over the long run and not wait to deal with it, while doing enough to impose a cost on Russia likely to deter it. This is not a strategy to seek a fundamental realignment in the “strategic triangle,” in part because it only accepts, at most, a limited utility for this concept. The notion held by some that China was the “pivot” in the triangle after Russia’s aggression in Ukraine or that Russia was likely to become the “pivot” as bipolarity intensified, failed to gain much of a following since the US weight in the triangle—particularly when combined with its allies—is just too great to leave room for either of the two to become a realistic “pivot.”


Russia is eager to find a way to induce discussion of itself in the same breath as the United States and China. This appears to be the national identity Putin is craving. If Sino-US relations further decline, China may decide that it should cater to this desire. Nowhere is this more promising than in dealing with North Korea: a state bordering on the two; a past ally they fought for and aided over many decades and whose identity is entangled with their own; and a threat to the United States and its Northeast Asian allies, which have beseeched Beijing and Moscow to assist them. It is seen as opening the way to repositioning South Korea in the geopolitics of Asia and giving a big boost to a more favorable outlook on how Eurasian space is conceptualized. Three decades after the rollback of the communist bloc, reestablishment of a Sino-Russian-DPRK grouping has important strategic and identity implications. It would be seen as a serious blow to US power in Asia and the US identity as the guarantor and balancer of stability in the region. Pyongyang may decide, however, that it has much more to gain by avoiding this alignment. Beijing may calculate that an image of this sort would do tremendous damage to the narrative it has encouraged of being the champion of globalization. A “strategic triangle” emerging with North Korea in the forefront may seem far-fetched to many, who would dismiss the idea as an echo of Cold War thinking, and to those who find hope in the North-South diplomacy under way as well as the US-DPRK diplomacy in its wake. For the moment, at least, it can be left in the background as one of several possible outcomes of an unprecedented wave of diplomacy in a turbulent time period. In DC discussions there are a lot of uncertainties leading to more wide-ranging suggestions.