Power Interplay

In the future our relations with China and Russia will depend on how provocative each power decides to be. The stakes are high. Better choose wisely.

At a National Interest event on Thursday, Harry Harding, director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and TNI's editor, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, discussed the future of United States relations with China and Russia. The discussion built on TNI's "Great Powers in Wonderland" symposium. Both Harding and Gvosdev envision that Russia's and China's individual interests will continue to guide their action- and alliance-choices. But in order to avoid conflict, each power involved needs to think before acting.

Moderator at the event and executive editor of The National Interest, Justine Rosenthal, asked about the possibility of Russia and China forming a united front against the United States. Both panelists believe this scenario to be unlikely at least for the near future.

According to Harding, China will continue to grow and gain prominence on an international and region scale, but will not pose a great threat to the United States. Beijing has no interest in burning bridges it doesn't have to, and for now its relations with the United States are in Beijing's interest. He doesn't anticipate China taking steps to alter the current trajectory of the relationship anytime soon.

Large-scale events could alter the rules of the game, though. A complete domestic or international financial crisis could shake things up. China taking distinct steps to push unification or the U.S. administration vocalizing a strongly pro-independence stance when it comes to Taiwan could lead to a face-off. But Harding believes these events are also highly unlikely.

He does caution, though, that smaller-scale events can easily chip away at this balance. A continuation of the current global financial difficulties, increased Chinese product problems or human-rights clashes like those arising in the lead-up to the Olympics could weaken the U.S.-China relationship. This could mean that in the future, much smaller events may be needed to turn the two countries against each other.

For now, when it comes to China, engagement and integration go had in hand says Harding. States will of course continue to hedge against the rising power, as the United States as well as regional actors in organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are doing. But the United States should continue its efforts to make China a responsible stakeholder in the international arena. This is best achieved, according to Harding, by involving Beijing in international organizations and integrating them economically into the system.

And, as a questioner pointed out, as engagement and integration become more and more successful, the need to hedge will decrease significantly. For the near future, at least, even though Harding doubts that China desires the type of regional domination Germany set its sights on prior to World War I, all prongs of this strategy are necessary.

Gvosdev sees the road forward with Russia more pessimistically. The U.S. government should strap in for a bumpy ride, regardless of which candidate wins the election in November. Russia is a recovering power, but it could still stumble. It is not guaranteed that the state will regain the might it once enjoyed. But Moscow is certainly trying to return to great-power status.

And, according to Gvosdev, great-power status means four things for Russia. First, a great power enjoys freedom of action both domestically and internationally. In a similar vein, the second characteristic of a great power is that it is an agenda setter, not an agenda taker. No other country is able to dictate how said power conducts its affairs. Third, Moscow sees consolidation of a Russia-led Eurasia as indispensable, since even a great power has its sphere of influence.

Fourth, great powers are indispensable in the international arena. Specifically, Russia wants to make itself the "indispensable middleman" when it comes to oil and energy. It wants to supply Europe with gas and oil and play an integral role in facilitating European energy agreements with other countries, not only in Eurasia, but also elsewhere in the world. Part of the Russian strategy here is to form interlocking arrangements with European companies, giving them a stake in Russian success.

And Gvosdev anticipates that in the future U.S. and Russian views of the world will inevitably come into conflict. Moscow and Washington are bound to butt heads in some corner of the globe. Whether those disagreements erupt into drawn-out conflicts, however, depends on how each power conducts itself. To provoke or not provoke, the choice is in the hands of the actor.

Russia, China and the United States seem to be exercising cautious restraint. All countries are posturing, forming alliances or engaging in arms deals that could be potentially threatening to the others. For now, though, China and the United States, and to a lesser extent Russia, are content with maintaining the status quo in relations. But the status quo is a juggling act that could quickly fall apart.

What is important is that this is a two-way street. It isn't just what China or Russia does. Equally threatening is what the United States decides to do to provoke or in response to another's actions. Each party must weigh consequences and choose wisely to avoid conflict and ensure relationships are mutually beneficial. As the panelists noted, hopefully the next U.S. administration will realize that our time to make mistakes and unwise decisions, especially when it comes to these two rising powers, is quickly running out.


Rebecca N. White is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.