The Avoidable Russia-China Romance

Washington treats Beijing-Moscow cooperation as inevitable. It's not.

When it comes to East Asia, the Obama administration—building on the foundation laid by previous presidential teams—has demonstrated its ability to pursue a broadly realist foreign-policy course. In seeking to knit together a regional coalition of states that would be able to counterbalance a rising China and, it is hoped, keep the peace in the Asia-Pacific by providing clear disincentives for Beijing to act more forcefully in the region, Washington is prepared to look past Cold War legacies and "values gaps" to engage with regimes who don't see eye to eye with the United States on all things—especially when it comes to human rights—in order to maintain the balance of power.

Vietnam remains a one-party authoritarian state, which continues to celebrate its defeat of the United States as a seminal step in its emergence as a modern nation-state. Vietnam has never repudiated its own Cold War history or been asked to disavow its revolutionary leaders (and those who led the fight against America) as part of the price for closer relations with the United States. Yet none of this has prevented the United States from expanding economic and security ties in recent years. And while Vietnam is engaged in its own China-style reform process—allowing greater economic freedom but with clear limits on political expression—Hanoi has consistently defended its policies even when they clash with U.S. desires to see greater cultural and political rights extended to the populace.

Myanmar has certainly made progress on opening up its formerly closed political and economic systems and in releasing political prisoners. But, as David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, noted earlier this year, "there is still a long road ahead before Burma [Myanmar] is close to any sustainable democratic transition.” Yet the United States has accelerated its efforts to try and wean Naypyidaw from its longtime political and economic dependence on Beijing.

Human-rights advocates routinely raise concerns about U.S. engagement with these two countries (and others in Asia) and fret that U.S. economic and security engagement sends the wrong signals; Obama administration officials routinely reply that, while these concerns are valid, they must be embedded within a larger framework of promoting stability within the Asia-Pacific region and usually note that progress, however uneven, is being made towards achieving more open and free societies. Usually left unspoken is the China factor as the central organizing principle for U.S. relationships in East and South Asia.

But when it comes to Northwest Asia, a different logic seems to apply. Writing in these pages five years ago, Peter A. Wilson, Lowell Schwartz, and Howard J. Shatz sketched out the outlines of what they termed a "very less-than-desirable-scenario" for the United States: the "Eurasian entente"—a situation where China and Russia would work together to frustrate the U.S. goals around the world and in the process institutionalize their collaboration in a variety of fields, from business and energy to military cooperation. While not all of their predictions have come to pass (as of yet), Moscow and Beijing have moved to solidify their use of the "double veto" in the United Nations Security Council to block preferred U.S. outcomes, have continued to carry out joint military exercises, and signed billions of dollars in new deals. The U.S. reaction has been largely to see this as inevitable, as the formation of some sort of Axis of Autocracies.

Yet Russia hedges its collaboration with China—starting with its close cooperation with India, Beijing's historic rival. Moscow cannot afford bad relations with its largest neighbor and, like other Asian states—including those who are close allies of the United States—one of its major trading partners. Russia was never going to be drawn into any sort of overtly anti-Chinese alliance or serve as one of the pillars of a U.S. pivot to the region. Yet there have been plenty of signals that Russia wanted to have a much more balanced relationship between Beijing and Washington. The reformist factions around Dmitry Medvedev pushed the strongest for the "reset" in relations with Washington, driven in part by their assessment that the nadir in U.S.-Russian relations during the second term of the Bush administration would push Russia into a closer embrace with China. But even among the so-called "siloviki" in the Kremlin (the "power" factions), there is concern about an overdependence on Beijing. Igor Sechin, the CEO of the state oil company Rosneft, has taken steps in recent years to tie his company's future to the Chinese market. Yet, in proposed projects for the Russian Far East, he has also solicited Japanese and Western investment—to counterbalance Beijing's influence.