Dangerous Liaisons

December 16, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: RussiaChinaSino-SovietGreat PowersUnited States

Dangerous Liaisons

Ignoring possible Sino-Russian cooperation against the United States, and the factors that can exacerbate it, could be very costly.

WASHINGTON’S CONVENTIONAL wisdom views a Chinese-Russian alliance as a remote prospect. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is generally both pragmatic and strategically-minded, sees “little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.” Yet a deeper look at their relations suggests that China and Russia may well build a united front to confront the United States and its allies. Even if such an alignment doesn’t last, it could have dangerous consequences.

With short exceptions at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early 1950s, China and Russia have never been close. On the contrary, they have a long history of mutual animosity. While Americans tend to see them as similar because of their authoritarian politics, the truth is that their cultures and values are quite distinct. Beijing, after long resenting Russian power, tends to look down at Moscow’s inferior economy, relatively small population, and inability to develop vast regions of Siberia bordering China. Chinese academics who study in Russia report personally experiencing xenophobic nationalism that their Western counterparts rarely encounter.

Nor is this all. Russia is a reluctant admirer of China’s recent successes, particularly its effective adoption of elements of the Western economic system without embracing a democratic model. Still, Russians show little affection for the Chinese way of life and, despite the growing pressure they face in United States and Europe, seem uninterested in purchasing property in Beijing, Shanghai or even Hong Kong.

In private, Chinese and Russian officials and experts express scant confidence that their two countries can build a lasting alliance. Russians who claim on domestic television that Moscow and Beijing have already established such a relationship in all but name will admit sotto voce that China’s investment in Russia has been disappointing, that Chinese banks fear exposing themselves to U.S. sanctions by working in Russia and that Russian officials are leery of a settlement of their country’s territorial dispute with Japan (over the Kuril Islands) because any cession of Russian-held lands could encourage new Chinese claims. Moscow’s foreign policy commentators similarly acknowledge that a U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty would allow Russia to strengthen its nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis China and—so long as the United States and Russia can develop new understandings and Washington avoids actions that threaten Russia—that it may be better off without INF limits.

Still, this hardly offers ground for American complacency. While the NATO alliance is built not only on a common threat but also on common values, most alliances throughout history have been based on mutual needs, not mutual love. The pre-World War I Triple Entente included democratic Britain and France alongside a repressive, authoritarian Russian Empire. Their shared fear of a rising Germany sufficed to bring them together.

CHINA AND Russia are different in many respects, but so were Britain and Russia in the early 1900s. Despite past animosities and cultural differences, today’s China and Russia share authoritarian rule (though China’s is notably stricter) and resentment of what they see as U.S. efforts at military containment, if not encirclement, and overt and covert political attacks on their systems of government. Each rejects arguments that U.S. support of their neighbors often follows from the neighbors’ uneasiness with these two powers and their regional conduct, such as Beijing’s recent efforts to dominate 2018’s ASEAN and APEC summits or Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships in the Azov Sea.

At the same time, Moscow’s discomfort with China and, for that matter, Russia’s generally Western cultural orientation, matter much less now than they might otherwise. If Russian officials do not see acceptable and feasible changes in their policies that could facilitate a better relationship with the United States and its allies, they may believe that they have few options other than closer relations with Beijing to protect Moscow’s security, sovereignty, political order and great power ambitions. What’s more, Russia-China trade has grown significantly. China is now Russia’s top trading partner, responsible for 15 percent of Russia’s foreign trade in 2017; Moscow expects bilateral trade to reach $100 billion in 2018. Though there are some weak areas in Russia-China economic relations—Chinese investment in Russia fell significantly from 2014 to 2016—the two are drawing closer together.

Of course, neither Moscow or Beijing are currently discussing formal mutual security obligations. But there is more and more talk of a political, economic and military partnership between the two nations. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said that China’s relations with Russia are “at the best level in history,” while Russian president Vladimir Putin has asserted that “China is our strategic partner and the level of relations between our countries is unprecedentedly high.” Well-connected, prominent Russian experts go even further; on a recent episode of The Great Game, a program on Russia’s Channel One, each of the four Russian politicians and specialists participating in the discussion spoke of a Chinese-Russian alliance as an emerging reality. While discounting prospects for a formal treaty, they saw a broad partnership unquestionably directed against the West and, first and foremost, the United States.

Should such an alignment come to pass, the dynamics of global geopolitics and economics would change profoundly to America’s and the West’s disadvantage. Since the Nixon administration directed America’s foreign affairs, it has been the policy of the United States to strive for better relations with China and Russia than the two powers have with one another. Yet America’s current policy seems to amount to a simultaneous frontal assault on both countries, at least as they see it.

Nevertheless, neither the administration nor Congress seem to have made a deliberate strategic choice to confront China and Russia concurrently. On the contrary, consequential geopolitical shifts may flow from what amounts to Washington’s failure to connect the dots between U.S. actions and statements in dealing with these two governments.

DURING THE 2016 campaign, Donald Trump depicted China as the paramount challenge to the United States and declared that changing the trade relationship with Beijing was among his top foreign policy priorities. Soon, combined inputs from the bureaucracy, Congress and Asian allies persuaded the president to strengthen military deterrence of China as well. Congress eventually made human rights an issue—for example, in its attention to Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur minority. Thus, Vice President Mike Pence recently pronounced that “authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific.”

As the Trump administration has indicated no interest in combating authoritarianism in the Persian Gulf, at least as far as American allies and partners like Saudi Arabia are concerned, China’s leaders may interpret U.S. aims more expansively than we intend. Notwithstanding public warmth at the 2018 G20 summit, America has sent a clear message to Beijing that correcting trade imbalances alone may be insufficient to maintain business as usual with Washington. This could have an even greater impact if the interaction between the media and members of Congress and government officials hostile toward Beijing were to follow patterns already established in discussions of Russia and U.S. policy toward Russia during the last two years. A repeating and escalating series of leaks and investigations of China’s conduct could have explosive political repercussions in the United States and in China.

Unlike in the case of China, President Trump came to office calling for improvement in America’s relationship with Russia. He seemed indifferent to Russia’s autocratic practices, heavy-handed treatment of neighboring countries or even allegations that Moscow sanctioned the murder of political opponents outside its borders. As candidate Trump put it in a 2017 interview, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” In 2015, he dismissed Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “Europe’s problem.”

Trump’s critics have accused Trump of being a Russian puppet, or at a minimum possessing a misplaced affinity for Putin based on shared autocratic instincts. Instead, Trump saw that Russia, a nation with a GDP roughly a tenth the size of America’s and with whom the United States produced only $24 billion in bilateral trade in 2017, does not pose a threat to American economic interests. Trump appears to see Russian territorial disputes with Ukraine and Georgia as more like local Eastern European squabbles than genuine dangers to the United States. Nor has Trump seemed particularly moved by concerns of NATO allies who he thought were grossly underperforming on their commitment to self-defense enshrined in Article Three of NATO’s founding treaty. He has viewed Putin more as a possible asset in challenging a rising China than as a true competitor to the United States.

Still, the combination of Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 presidential elections, the partisan exploitation of this interference by Congressional Democrats, and hostility from the bulk of the national security establishment to Trump’s worldview has prevented him from reshaping American policy towards Russia. Furthermore, Trump’s own inability to articulate a vision for U.S.-Russian relations and to recruit a critical mass of people who share his perspective to his administration has produced a continuation of Obama-era hostility towards Russia. Trump’s commitment to improving U.S. military capabilities and dismantling the U.S.-Russian arms control regime as we know it has intensified this, particularly when paired with Congressional efforts to punish Moscow and constrain Trump that often seem based on emotional reactions and domestic political calculations rather than thorough consideration and debate regarding U.S. national security priorities and the unintended consequences of American actions.