A ‘Soft’ Balancing Ménage à Trois? China, Iran and Russia Strategic Triangle vis-à-vis US Hegemony

Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
A ‘Soft’ Balancing
Ménage à Trois? China,
Iran and Russia Strategic
Triangle vis-à-vis
US Hegemony
Maria (Mary) Papageorgiou1, Mohammad Eslami2
and Paulo Afonso B. Duarte3,4
The recent rapprochement among China, Iran and Russia reveals the emergence
of a new, unexpected, regional strategic triangle with the potential to balance the
United States’ dominant position. By focusing on the evolution of this strategic triangle
in the post-Cold War period, this article investigates the driving forces that bring
the three states together, namely the US power and unilateralism as materialised in
NATO’s eastward expansion, the sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea
and the war in Ukraine, the sanctions against Iran, the US trade war with China and
the hostile US posture during the coronavirus disease-2019 pandemic. Drawing on
soft balancing theory, this article provides an empirical assessment of China–Iran–
Russia strategies in countering the US power. Thus, this article aims to fill a gap in the
existing literature by investigating this triangular relationship and its balancing potential
under the analytic construct of a strategic triangle. Finally, the analysis demonstrates
that the three states have employed soft balancing mechanisms, primarily economic
strengthening and entangling diplomacy in international institutions. At the same time,
territorial denial was sought on various occasions due to the regional importance of
this triangular relationship. In conclusion, the article also offers insights into potential
hard-balancing behaviour in the long run.
China, Russia, Iran, soft balancing, strategic triangle, cooperation
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
10(1) 65–94, 2023
© The Author(s) 2023
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970231152008
1 Department of Political Science, University College London, London, England
2 Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal
3 Universidade Lusofona, Lisbon, Portugal
4 University of Minho, Braga, Portugal
Corresponding author:
Maria (Mary) Papageorgiou, Department of Political Science, University College London, London,
England, 29/31 Tavistock Square, London, WC1H 9QU, England.
E-mail: id7645@alunos.uminho.pt
66 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 10(1)
The post-Cold War period saw an increase in ambitious middle powers opposing
the US unilateralism.1 This opposition has been reflected in the formation of dif-
ferent types of alignment, such as partnerships, with the Sino-Russian strategic
partnership at the forefront (Papageorgiou & Vieira, 2021). However, while there
is broad academic literature on the Sino-Russian relationship and its potential
to express a balancing behaviour (Allison, 2018; Korolev, 2019; Lukin, 2021),
the addition of Iran to the calculations of an alignment front to challenge the US
unipolarity is still underdeveloped. Drawing on such a void, this study seeks to
provide added value by depicting and assessing the formation of a strategic trian-
gle between China, Iran and Russia and, consequently, accounting for its implica-
tions for the international balance of power.
The newly emerged China, Iran and Russia axis has signalled uneasiness in the
United States, which in its turn has characterised these three countries as adversaries
and strategic competitors (Tabatabai & Esfandiary, 2018; Zhu, 2020). Over the
years, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran have initiated and enhanced their cooperation
on various dimensions: economic, military and political. The relationship of the
three states with the West, and particularly the United States, ranges from tense to
conflictual, while all three, on many occasions, have expressed their shared world-
views for a multipolar world and their dissatisfaction with US unilateral actions.2
This tendency has been particularly evident after the US withdrawal from the Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 and the respective sanctions
against Iran (Eslami & Vieira, 2020, 2022; Eslami, 2021).
The strengthening of Beijing, Moscow and Tehran ties also has geopolitical
implications since it stretches from Northeast Asia to Central Asia and the Indo-
Pacific Region covering the so-called Heartland (Bassin & Aksenov, 2006). Thus,
the growing cooperation between China, Russia and Iran, alongside their shared
viewpoints and dissatisfaction with the US’s unilateral actions, has fuelled con-
siderations of revisionism (Izadi & Khodaee, 2017; Puri, 2017; Schmitt, 2018)
and a potential balancing behaviour.
Despite expectations of the realist theory on hard balancing in the form of arms
builds and military alliances, such behaviour was not evinced in the post-Cold
war period (Iqbal & Amin, 2016; Steff & Khoo, 2014). However, a new form of
state behaviour, ‘soft balancing’, gained prominence during the period for its
ability to frustrate the hegemon’s policies without the costs of direct confronta-
tion. Soft balancing utilises non-military tools such as international institutions,
economic statecraft, or diplomatic arrangements to delay, interfere with, or oppose
the interests of a hegemon state. As a result, it constitutes a ‘viable strategy for
second-ranked powers to solve the coordination problems they encounter in
coping with an expansionist unipolar leader’ (Pape, 2005, pp. 15–16). Given,
however, that it represents a risky endeavour, the close coordination and reliabil-
ity among those undertaking it require that the participating members share the
same driving forces and express the collective power to do so.
Expressions of soft balancing have been observed in individual strategies of all
three states. China’s foreign policy towards the United States has made use of

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