A Strategic Opportunity for the Trump Administration: Moscow versus Beijing


2016-11-24 By Richard Weitz

During the election campaign, some of Donald Trump’s advisers criticized the Obama administration and its predecessors for adopting policies that alienated Russia and helped drive Moscow toward Beijing, to China’s benefit.

They indicated that one reason they wanted to reconcile with Russia was to break this Sino-Russian alignment.

For example, George Papadopoulos, told the Russian media a couple weeks before the U.S. presidential elections that the U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine ”have done little more than to turn Russia towards China as a primary market for Russian goods, services and energy.

It is not in the interest of the West to align China and Russia in a geopolitical alliance that can have unpredictable consequences for U.S. interests in the South China Sea, Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. I believe both the U.S. and Russia should consider China as an emerging superpower threat that will have to be dealt with over the next fifty years.”

The Trump Administration will decide whether to remove sanctions on Russia, but they might well consider imposing new ones on China, to force Beijing to revise its foreign economic policies, coerce Pyongyang into ending its nuclear weapons program, and otherwise address ways to alter Chinese behavior.

Pursuing this strategy, though difficult to fully execute, would represent a long-due recognition in U.S. policy that a strong Sino-Russian partnership is not in the U.S. national interest and that Washington policy makers need to consider how U.S. policies shape Sino-Russian ties.

Since the end of the Cold War, “triangular diplomacy” has been out of fashion in the West.

Most U.S. policy analysts today rarely use the term today, while U.S. government initiatives normally address one or the other country—or try to envelop both countries in larger global order initiatives.

Neither seems to consider how U.S. approaches towards Moscow or Beijing will affect the Sino-Russia relationship let alone what tactics Washington could use to shape it.

At Valdai, Putin denied that Russia’s outreach to Asia was due to Moscow’s tensions with the West, insisting that they were a logical reflection of Russia’s location—much of the country’s land is in Asia—as well as the economic opportunities and strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region.

In public, Chinese officials also profess not to see their relations with either Russia or the United States as directed at the other, and Beijing has distanced itself from Russian policies aimed overtly at confronting Washington.

Sheng Shiliang, a research fellow the Global Issues Research Center, a think tank of the Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency, said that Putin had “many fans in China among almost all groups of the population” due to the fact that he “did a lot to increase Russia’s power and to improve China-Russia relations.”

In both cases, there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. Russian analysts often use the triangular framework in their analysis. Important Russian policies toward China are driven by tensions with the West and aim to influence the U.S. approach toward Moscow in ways that benefit Russia.

. China and Russia have a long and complicated relationship of allies, competitors, rivals and friends.
China and Russia have a long and complicated relationship of allies, competitors, rivals and friends.

At Valdai, John Mearsheimer, a well-known realist scholar in the United States, depicted Russia as a critical swing state in the growing Sino-U.S. competition for global preeminence. He faulted past U.S. policies for “violating Geopolitics 101” by challenging both countries concurrently, in the realm of both interests and ideology, thus driving them closer, instead of allowing Russia to pursue the logical course of aligning with the United States to balance Beijing’s growing power.

In their Foreign Affairs article this summer, Mearsheimer and co-author Steven Walt advocated reducing the U.S. military role in Europe, where they saw the remaining countries as able to balance Russia, and concentrating U.S. military strength in Asia, where they perceived even China’s most powerful countries as too weak and divided to balance Beijing’s growing power.

More recently, Mearsheimer argued that, since the United States is the more powerful than Russia, Washington rather than Moscow is the driving agent in the Sino-Russian partnership:

“The Americans pushed the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. I believe if Washington had a more positive attitude towards Moscow, then the end result would be that we had good relations between the U.S. and Russia and eventually the Russians would be part of the balancing coalition against China. It’s important to understand that over time, if China continues to rise, the U.S. is going to be deeply committed to containing China and it’s going to need all the help that it can get and it’s going to need the Russians.”

That both Russia and China have had strained relations with the United States has likely contributed to their having closer ties, but this improvement might have occurred, in some geographic and functional areas, in any case due to their ongoing ideological and geopolitical harmonization.

Both regimes are skilled at using nationalism and anti-Americanism to rally domestic support behind their policies. Russian and Chinese leaders both describe their countries as under threat of encirclement by the United States and its allies.

They are also both led by strong leaders who can control their countries’ foreign policies seem to get along with each other better than their predecessors did with each other. Xi Jinping is supposed to remain in his position until 2022, while Vladimir Putin’s presidency could continue until 2024 or beyond depending on how many times he is reelected.

For both Moscow and Beijing, their policies toward Central Asia are partly a projection of their domestic policies. Defensively, they both fear the spillover of transnational security threats from the region. They also seek to position their national companies to benefit from the economic opportunities in the region.

Moscow wants Chinese support to manage Eurasian security challenges and to secure a stable eastern frontier as Russia engages militarily in Europe and the Middle East. PRC leaders value not having to worry about Russia (or Central Asia, which is under Moscow’s security oversight) as they confront security challenges with the United States, Japan, India, and other countries in Asia.

The Ukraine crisis has catalyzed many recent trilateral developments. 

First, it has severely degraded relations between Russia and the West.

Second, the crisis has placed China in a more advantageous relationship with Moscow, whose leaders felt they needed better ties with Beijing in the face of the collapse of their relations with the West.

Third, it also helped China strategically by reducing the intensity of the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia, as Washington grappled with the Ukraine crisis, and by enhancing Beijing’s leverage vis-à-vis Washington.

Fourth, the collapse of the Russian economy, partly due to the post-Ukraine sanctions but amplified by the fall of world oil and gas prices and the collapse of the Russian ruble, has resulted in Russia’s gross domestic product becoming ten times smaller than that of China.

The growing Sino-Russian power gap could complicate their future relationship by amplifying Russian anxieties about “China passing”–Russia’s becoming a junior partner to Beijing in a primarily Sino-American world.

To address this challenge, both Russian and Chinese leaders have shared an interest in concealing Moscow’s weakening influence and status vis-à-vis Beijing.

Both Russia and China want to have their own spheres of influence where they can enforce their own rules and norms of international behavior, primarily through regional initiatives under their control—the Eurasian Economic Union, SCO, new Silk Road Economic belt– rather than more overt economic and military pressure.

They also aspire to enjoy the geopolitical freedom of action enjoyed by the United States—able to employ military and other tools of power to advance its narrow self-interest.

Yet, Moscow’s turn toward Beijing may limit its freedom of action in Central Asia, where Moscow has had to accept growing Chinese economic dominance, and East Asia, with Russia finding it ever more difficult to challenge Chinese objections to Russian arms sales and other ties with India, Vietnam, and possibly other states.

U.S. policies designed to improve relations with Russia—such as the possible repeal of some sanctions or other measures which might be considered by the Trump Administration–could delay Moscow’s continued economic and military decline, which would decrease possible Russian anxiety about falling behind China. But it could also serve to balance the rise of China’s power in Europe, Eurasia, the Arctic, and the Middle East.

In the Arctic, Russia has relaxed its objections to China’s claims to influence in the region—such as its membership in the Arctic Council—and has offered PRC companies’ energy access opportunities in order to obtain financial capital.

Although Russia’s Middle East presence is more visible, China is in a better long-term position since it has been better able to maintain strong ties with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia.

Whereas Moscow has had to accept the loss of influence in the Arab world due to its close ties with Tehran and Damascus.

Editor’s Note: On his farewell tour, President Obama warned his successor against pursuing “realpolitik.”

But it is clear, that with the rejection of TPP and a wish by Trump to get away from mushy multilateralism, accountability is a key objective. 

This can be achieved much more effectively in a bilateral approach than a multi-lateral one with very weak or virtually non-existant enforcement mechanisms.


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Trump’s Challenge: Dividing Moscow from Beijing