The Avoidable Russia-China Romance

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.

There are many irritants in the U.S.-Russian relationship, some serious, some less so. But the lack of a clear organizing principle for the relationship allows for wild gyrations as issues flare up and take center stage. There has been a school of thought that has tried to take the logic of the pivot to Asia and apply it here: finding ways to incentivize Moscow to balance its relations between Beijing and Washington (as Moscow already does between Beijing and New Delhi). It is a dynamic that was quite familiar to U.S. policy makers in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was China that was being courted by the United States to create more of a stable global balance—and based on a recognition that while China did not have to be a friend and ally to the United States, it benefited Washington not to have China as an active opponent.

The difference today is that there is a bipartisan consensus that not only is there no need to woo Moscow and that doing so (in a strategic sense) can only be seen as a reward to Russia (and to Vladimir Putin). Loose talk about imposing some sort of economic sanctions that would negatively impact an already low level of trade between the two countries (which would not really harm Russia but would increase China's share) or impact the ability of U.S. firms to invest in Russia might be emotionally satisfying but would reduce Washington's leverage and possible influence.

America has proven it can carry out a realist foreign policy that works to protect U.S. interests while not ignoring U.S. values in Asia. For some reason, however, that logic—so clear in the Pacific rim—becomes obscured once the focus shifts to the Eurasian steppes. A Eurasian entente between Russia and China is not historically determined—but more bricks are set to be laid on this foundation in the coming months.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.