Daniel W. Drezner

Why is Russia freaking out more than China?

Why is Russia freaking out more than China?

Let’s consider and contrast American foreign policy towards Russia and China over the past few years.

With Russia, the Obama administration announced a much-ballyhooed "reset" with the goal of improving bilateral relations.  In an effort to advance that goal, the administration reworked missile defense system plans in eastern Europe, creating political headaches for governments in the region to make Moscow happy.  The administration took great pains to endorse a Russian proposal on Iran’s nuclear program.  The administration signed a fresh new arms control treaty and then expended a decent amount of political capital to get NewSTART ratified.  Washington conducted some serious behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get Russia into into the WTO.  Most recently, the administration appointed a chief architect of the "reset" policy as ambassador to Russia.   

With China, the Obama administration (after some idle G-2 talk) has been far more aggressive.  The administration has "pivoted" it’s foreign policy resources toward the Pacific Rim, with the not-so-subtle signal that China is the focus of this pivot.  Washington has poked its nose into the South China Sea dispute, and recently announced a decision to station troops in Australia.  It pushed forward a framework trade agreement that pointedly does not include China, while simultaneously calling on that country to let its currency appreciate.  The State Department has reached out to one of China’s longstanding allies in an effort to coax the nascent democratization in that country into something more long-lasting.  This is simply part of a larger theme in which Washington is seemingly bear-hugging any significant country that is concerned about Beijing.  The U.S. ambassador to China, when not becoming an online sensation among ordinary Chinese, is busy criticizing Beijing’s human rights record

So, to sum up:  the Obama administration has made it something of a priority to improve relations with Russia, while at the same time investing serious amounts of diplomatic capital into various frameworks and initiatives that hedge against a rising China. 

Now compare and contrast how Moscow and Beijing are thinking about Washington this week.  In Beijing

China and the United States should cooperate more closely to defuse international crises and ensure friction does not overwhelm shared interests, China’s likely next president, Xi Jinping, said on Monday, setting an upbeat tone for his impending visit to Washington.

"No matter what changes affect the international situation, our commitment to developing the Sino-U.S. cooperative partnership should never waver in the face of passing developments," Vice President Xi told a meeting in Beijing.

"In dealing with major and sensitive issues that concern each side’s core interests, we must certainly abide by a spirit of mutual respect and handle them prudently, and by no means can we let relations again suffer major interference and ructions."

Xi’s mood-setting speech did not unveil new policies or give the precise date for his U.S. visit. But he stressed Beijing’s desire for steady relations for his visit and his accession to running the world’s second biggest economy after America’s.

And now Moscow:

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, warned Wednesday that outside encouragement of antigovernment uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa could lead to “a very big war that will cause suffering not only to countries in the region, but also to states far beyond its boundaries.”

Mr. Lavrov’s annual news conference was largely devoted to a critique of Western policies in Iran and Syria, which he said could lead to a spiral of violence.

His remarks came on the heels of a report on state-controlled television that accused the American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who has been in Moscow for less than a week, of working to provoke a revolution here. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, at an impromptu meeting with prominent editors, also unleashed an attack on the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, which he said was serving American interests.

Now, it’s possible to find other news stories that suggest China might not be handling all aspects of the bilateral relationship with equal aplomb, and its possible that these Russian statements contain more bluster than bite.  Still, stepping back, the larger narrative does seem to be that Russia has adopted an angrier and more belligerent posture toward American foreign policy in recent months, while China has responded with more aplomb. 

Why?  I don’t know if there’s an easy and accurate explanation.  Some neoconservatives might proffer that authoritarians only respond positively to strength, and therefore Russia feels more emboldened than China.  I seriously doubt that this is about bandwagoning.  Similarly, it could be argued that Russia is more domestically insecure than China, what with the recent protests and all.  Again, I seriously doubt this, as it’s not like China hasn’t experienced some domestic hiccups as well this year.

There are two more compelling explanations, but I honestly don’t know if they work either.  The first is that Russia and China have different diplomatic styles.  Russian diplomats are far more comfortable with being blunt in their assessments of American intentions and actions, whereas Chinese diplomats are more comfortable laying low and not making as much of a public fuss.  Furthermore, China has moved down the learning curve, recognizing that its 2009-10 policy of "pissing off as many countries as possible" didn’t turn out so well.  It’s possible that the substance of both countries’ approaches toward the United States are not that different — they just go about it in ways that play very differently in the media. 

The second, more realpolitik explanation is that China and Russia are looking into the future, and Beijing is far more sanguine than Moscow.  Russia is suffering from institutional dysfunction and demographic decay.  It’s only great power assets are bountiful natural resources, a huge land mass, and nuclear weapons.  China will encounter difficulties in the future, but does not have nearly the same kind of structural stresses as Russia.  Beijing is therefore simply less anxious than Moscow about U.S. policy, because it has more hard and soft power resources. 

To be honest, I’m not thrilled with either of these explanations. So, dear readers, I put it to you: why is Russia acting more bellicose toward an accommodating policy from the United States, whereas China is reacting calmly toward a more aggressive United States? 

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