US Foreign Policy, the China-Russia Axis, and Revisiting Geopolitics of Spykman

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Executive Director SAFN

Geopolitical conceptualization of the world according to Heartland and Rimland doctrines

Photo Credit: Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

‘When the elephants dance, the grass gets beaten,’ the great power competition, rivalry, and conflict pose a significant threat to many nations.

With rigid policies, Washington has lost the flexibility and agility in its foreign policy due to its division of the world into black and white, democracies vs. autocracies.US foreign policy is undergoing a dangerous polarization and shift from the delicate balance it used to achieve by working with nations with different political systems simultaneously: China and Russia, Arab and Israel. The US shift is an apparent disruption to the geopolitical theater. While building coalitions against rising power is seen as the only way forward, it has left a powerful ‘brokering’ tool behind. For the almost two years I have stayed in Washington, I have captured this view as a Sri Lankan, where China’s fear is exaggerated. “There is a China invasion in Sri Lanka?” was what I heard in many Washington circles, far from reality. Leasing out a port by China for a future-forward military logistics operation in Sri Lanka does not necessarily mean an invasion, as captured in my recent book “Teardrop Diplomacy.” 

The US has made multiple foreign policy blunders. The Iraq invasion was one such miscalculation, remembered in its 20th anniversary in the present day. Due to Washington’s continuous foreign policy miscalculations, is there a new world order emerging? 

Dollar to Renminbi

Saudi Arabia has an idea of pricing its oil in renminbi, and India is settling most of its oil purchases from Russia in non-dollar currencies. Fareed Zakaria assesses, “The dollar is America’s last surviving superpower. It gives Washington unrivaled economic and political muscle. It can slap sanctions on countries unilaterally, which frees that country out of large parts of the world economy, and Washington can spend freely, certain that its debt will be bought up by the rest of the world.” China has become the lender of last resort to many lower-middle-income countries at a time of global economic weakness, where many find it difficult to pay their debt. China lent $40.5 billion to distressed countries in 2021 and a total of $900 billion to 151 nations for the Belt and Road(BRI) infrastructure projects. Beijing does not wish to bail out these countries; it facilitates emergency credit from its currency renminbi. Is there a shift away by many nations from dollar dominance due to geopolitical disruption in Ukraine and US-China tension?

Today US foreign policy challenge is laser-focused on China and Russia, and both were in the allied camp fighting Hitler in World War II along with the US. Usually, when looking at the past, the US is jolted out of complacency and pushed with the ugly realities of power in the international arena. In the present context, the US is directly placed in the Ukraine conflict. Back in World War II, the US rushed to the assistance of its allies and was pivotal in restoring balance in Europe and Asia. Many years have passed, and the US failed to understand its role, the balance it restored. While the US understood that defeating Germany and Japan was necessary, it did not necessarily imply it was directed at the destruction of the military power of Germany and Japan. The complete elimination of military force has multiple implications, especially for Asian powers such as China and Russia, which was clearly understood back in the day. Similarly, does the US wish to have a weak Russia when assessing China’s role in Asia in the present context? Similarly, does China wish to see a weaker Russia?

Xi in Moscow 

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin cemented a partnership for new global order in Moscow. The two authoritarian nations are building a new order to push back the US-led international order. President Xi said, “In the face of a turbulent and changing world, China is willing to continue to work with Russia to safeguard the international order firmly.” The “new impetus” where both leaders have decried “hegemony,” pushing back against the US-led world order, is a clear signal sent on achieving their strategic objective towards a “China-Russia axis.”

Initially, a no-limit partnership between Russia and China was declared days after the Ukraine invasion in February 2022. After a year of a bloody war with casualties of nearly 200,000 to each side, President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia to meet President Putin will be a significant turning point in the China-Russia axis in the global geopolitical theater. Both leaders have met 39 times in the past. What makes this time more different would be the geopolitical weight it can create through a more robust China-Russia axis. 

Xi’s visit is timely due to the scale of pressure building in China’s backyard closer to the South China Sea in the Philippines, where Marcos Junior has revisited and concluded US military base operation agreements to contain China. While containment from multiple US strategies, Indo-Pacific, Quad, and AUKUS, has raised Beijing’s dissatisfaction, Beijing’s alignment with Moscow was not an option but a reality. 

In the two theaters where Russia pushed the NATO-backed Ukraine out of Russia’s immediate buffer zone, in the Indo-Pacific theater, China pushed its direct containment out of Chinese historically claimed waters of the South / East China Sea. The pressure is building in the two theaters with midair collisions to maritime tension where many nations have already included the geopolitical variable in their foreign policy calculations. 

Ten days before Xi arrived in Moscow, he brokered an agreement for Iran and Saudi Arabia to normalize relations. Chinese wider reach towards energy markets depicts China as in several theaters working parallel for the new world order. Senior PLA Colonel Xu Bo explained, “With the reform and opening up, as Deng Xiaoping said, China was trying to get across the river by feeling the stones on the riverbed, but now China is entering the ocean.” a broader role, as a peace broker and negotiator in several geographies. 

Colonel Xu explained, “Russia cannot win this war, but Russia will not lose this war either. Because of Russia’s size, its strength including its largest nuclear arsenal in the world and because Russia cannot afford to withdraw.” Unfortunately, a completely diverse view of winning the war or a total victory against Russia is projected in the Washington circle. This author captured a view from a Ukrainian officer from the battlefield that “Ukraine will be a total foreign policy victory for the US.” This assessment is shallow and does not capture the broader geopolitical implications and humiliation that would bring towards an ancient civilizational state in Asia. Humiliating Russia will be an infested wound for geopolitical disruption to many nations. Due to its historical relationship with Russia, many neutral countries in Asia will find it difficult to accept this position. This factor is also a reason why China viscerally sides with Russia. According to Dr. Jagannath Panda from Sweden, “This kind of war will not have winners or losers; China is viewed differently by Europe, unlike the US, China is seen as a possible peace broker.” Due to these profoundly polarized views between Washington and the rest, more strategic implications would accumulate in the coming months. 

It was no coincidence that both world wars started in Europe. Could the next start at the same theater? How much sincerity is in the Chinese 12-point peace plan for the war in Ukraine? While the West has no solution for the war, will China fill this position as a credible global leader who could end the war in Ukraine?  

The global tilt for Russia and China differs from what’s captured in Washington, DC. This author traveled to Thailand months ago, where the former Thailand foreign minister Kasit Piromya speaking on behalf of Russia and seeing the NATO expansion as the cause of the crisis, was an example of a divergent view from East Asia. Many nations took a neutral posture in Asia, including India, the largest among the Asian triad RIC (Russia, India, China). While the defense interest was paramount to India with Russia, Washington struggled to bring India closer to its orbit to replace Russia with the US in arms trade and dependency. RIC’s engagement in multilateral structures such as SCO, AIIB, BRICS, and CICA are apparent, vital pull factors for the triad to work closely for an Asian order. While energy supplies with the Gulf have taken many new diplomatic turns with the Ukraine war, new avenues with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China are carved in the geopolitical chess board.

Today, Chinese companies are offering drone technology to Russia through Hong Kong and UAE companies. The Chinese peace broker who wishes to send a message to the global stage of the effort they will make in Russia for peace building has a hidden dimension revealing the sincerity of the peace deal.

Revisiting Spykman 

President Xi concluding his visit in Moscow, said to Putin, “Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together,” which is an apparent reference to a ‘China-Russia axis.’ Yale professor Nicholas J. Spykman stands out among his contemporaries on geopolitics due to the accuracy of the assessments projected eight decades ago. Spykman’s thinking brought the importance of the amphibious buffer zone ‘Rimland’ to the United States’ strategic attention (See Map). In studying two theater confrontations where the US had to fight in Europe and the Pacific, calculations were made along the Rimland and defending the Rimland. Spykman’s work, the Geography of Peace, published in 1944, highlights the significance of US engagement in an active role in defending the Rimland for global peace, leaving the earlier hemispheric defense posture and opening the foreign policy focus towards containment. 

Map. Rimland and its marginal seas (coloured Pink and Red). The US two-theater confrontation depicted. Map from Geography of Peace 1944

In his book ‘America’s strategy in world politics’ published in 1942, Spykman explains, ‘A modern, vitalized, and militarized China with its sizable population is going to be a threat not only to Japan but also to the position of the Western Powers in the Asiatic Mediterranean, the modern Indo-Pacific.’ He explains further, ‘China will be a continental power of a huge dimension in control of a large section of the littoral of the middle sea. Her geographic position will be similar to that of the United States regarding the American Mediterranean’ the immediate peripheral waters of the US. ‘When China becomes strong, her present economic penetration in that region will undoubtedly take on political overtones. It is quite possible to envisage when this body of water (Indo-Pacific surround) will be controlled not by British, American, or Japanese sea power but by Chinese air power. In the present day, Russia has aided China in focusing its full attention toward the maritime zone of Indo-Pacific while keeping the West busy in Ukraine. 

The expansionist agenda of China in the South China Sea, with a probable Taiwan invasion along with Russia’s war in Ukraine where territorial expansion on Europe’s Rimland, is a perfect storm to the US foreign policy. According to Kevin Rudd, Russia will provide rolling strategic distractions for the United States, taking the focus away from China, an advantage for China. 

The interest of the US is to throw its weight into the scales to prevent any such aggressive action from taking place to achieve the power balance in the Rimland. If allowed to occur, it will inevitably involve the US in a possible war confronting two theaters, Europe and Indo-Pacific. The outcome may not be favorable to the US like World War II in the two front confrontations due to China’s strong influence in many Asian countries, geo economically through its Belt and Road (BRI), and Russia’s defense links with many neutral countries in Asia. 

China and Russia are developing the power Axis that would destabilize the Rimland, creating a new world order. The US would require revisiting its balance to defuse the tension by simultaneously working with the different political systems, departing from building coalitions against China. The US should develop new strategic guardrails to reduce the risk of war by accident—Defusing China’s interest in crossing the line of providing military assistance to Russia. Revisiting balance will enable a managed strategic competition rather than an unmanaged competition. There should be a degree of acceptance and flexibility to revisit the delicate foreign policy balance.

The commentary was initially published by Global Strat View in Washington, DC.

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