The recent declaration by President Joseph Biden that Russian president Vladimir Putin is “a killer” and the fallout from the U.S.-China meeting in Anchorage are undoubtedly an assertion of both American public decency and grievances against China and Russia. However, this stance is lost in an amoral geopolitical world and does not advance American national interests. In fact, this stance, largely reflecting institutional orthodoxy, risks underestimating the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership, whose primary driving force is challenging America’s global hegemony. In order for the United States to deter this partnership’s challenge, it has to pursue a viable multilateral foreign policy approach, preconditioned by revitalized alliances, and grounded in a binary policy of engagement and deterrence.
Robert Kaplan’s previous article in The National Interest, “Russia Is America’s Problem from Hell,” calls for deterring but also engaging Russia. He rightly discerns the unfeasibility of the West shaping Russia in its image. He also implicitly recognizes, with a slightly different understanding from than that of George F. Kennan and that of Stephen F. Cohen, that Western encroachment on Moscow’s Baltic doorstep was a strategic error that deepened Moscow’s insecurity. Whereas Moscow’s foreign policy has been moved by insecurity, China’s foreign policy has been moved by the specter of humiliation.
China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. But Chinese civilizations were impaired by internal divisions and foreign intervention. Chinese society developed Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism philosophies to restore order. Along the way, Buddhism found its way to the pantheon of Chinese philosophies to provide relief and comfort to Chinese people and the Chinese leaders built the Great Wall as a barrier against invaders. However, neither Chinese philosophies nor the Great Wall provided long term tranquility and peace. The Mongols shattered the Great Wall in the thirteenth-century. Then during the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, foreign powers shook Chinese society to the core. The Opium Wars, Sino-Japanese War, and Taiping and Boxer rebellions brought a proud nation to its knees. This era of mostly Western domination became infamously known as the Century of Humiliation.
Shrewd and cunning political strategist, President Xi Jinping believed if China under Mao Zedong became independent, and under Deng Xiaoping became prosperous, then under his “new era” China would undergo its great rejuvenation becoming a great power. The “new era” slogan dominated the Communist Party’s Congress in October 2017. His vision was early on reflected during his first public appearance at the National Museum of China in Beijing in November 2012. He stood before a prominent art display titled “The Road to Rejuvenation,” abutting another infamous display “The Century of Humiliation,” and underscored China’s great rejuvenation in contrast to its humiliating past.
It is against this background that China’s foreign policy needs to be understood. No longer would China be hostage to the threat of foreign intervention. President Xi set out building a strong economy and powerful military, along with cultivating advanced technology and robust alliances while promoting Chinese culture. He has striven to locate China at the intersection of the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. His Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reflected his vision, thriving to bind China’s economy with over seventy-five countries from Asia, Europe and Africa—in total home of over half the world’s population. China has calibrated its state’s official and non-official organs to work synchronously toward the goal of “great rejuvenation.”
According to the Office of Secretary of Defense annual report “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020” to U.S. Congress:
“The PRC pursues its MCF [Military-Civil Fusion] Development Strategy to ‘fuse’ its economic and social development strategies with its security strategies to build an integrated national strategic system and capabilities in support of China’s national rejuvenation goals.”
Meanwhile, Russia has been integral to China’s goal of great rejuvenation and by extension great power status. The first overseas visit President Xi made upon assuming office was to Moscow, signifying Russia’s unique role in China’s foreign strategy. In 2001, the two countries signed a landmark Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, sanctioning the philosophy of peace and co-existence of the two countries and peoples. On the tenth anniversary of the Treaty, the two countries elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination. Then in May 2014 President Xi welcomed his Russian counterpart Putin in Shanghai, where they signed the China-Russia Joint Statement on a New Stage of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination.
Gone are the days of tension between China and Russia. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China-Russia relations have gradually evolved and drastically improved following Western sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of Crimea-Ukraine crises. Moscow saw in Beijing a reliable partner to help bypass the sanctions, and Beijing saw the crises as an opportunity to deepen its energy cooperation with Moscow at favorable conditions. China has invested in several energy projects in Russia, including the Yamal LNG project in the Arctic, whose output capacity would be around 16.5 million metric tons per annum. China has supported Russia’s exploitation of the Arctic’s pristine natural resources made available by the Arctic’s sea ice melting. As the ice recedes, the Arctic has offered China a new shipping frontier through Northern Sea Route, which Russia has already militarized. China also looks at Russia as a provider of advanced military technology. Significantly, China and Russia have forged extensive defense ties encompassing reciprocal “no first use” nuclear weapons posture, joint military exercises and cooperation against separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism (Caucuses, Chechnya, Xinjiag). In 2018, they participated in the Vostok Military Drill, the largest military exercise in forty years.
Today both countries view the United States as the main threat to their national security interests. This threat, accentuated by both countries’ apprehension of Washington’s hegemonic global power, has been a determining factor in stabilizing their strategic partnership. The more Washington treats them as adversaries, the more their partnership finds succor in a geopolitical reality aligning their economic, diplomatic and security interests.
Meanwhile, China usurped the role of the U.S. as the dominant world exporter. Based on purchasing power parity, China’s GDP has overtaken America, thereby making China’s economy the biggest in the world. No doubt, China’s growing global trade has given Beijing a clout over Washington’s relationships with close allies such as the European Union and the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain). Notwithstanding the fact that the EU has surpassed the United States as China’s biggest trading partner, the EU and China concluded in principle the negotiations on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which grants EU investors a greater level of access to China’s market. Not only is China the biggest trading partner with the GCC, but the Chinese language has also become a curriculum requirement in most GCC countries.
Taking all this under consideration, Washington has to fathom the structural and relational changes the international system is undergoing. China’s growing global soft power and Russia’s ample resources, buttressed by their military prowess, have acted act as a vise contracting American international influence. Consequently, Washington should revitalize its alliances, particularly the Transatlantic Alliance, energize its soft power, reclaim its global leadership, and pursue a multilateral foreign policy approach grounded in realism. In this respect, supported by a U.S.-led global alliance, Washington is better off facing the individual or binary Russian and Chinese challenge, while at the same time engaging and deterring them without making them enemies. Joseph Nye Jr. perceptively said: “If you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy.” Otherwise, if Russia is America’s problem from hell, then China is America’s beast from hell.
Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of many commendable peer-reviewed books and articles. His views are his own. He can be reached @robertgrabil or www.robertrabil.com. Image: Reuters.