Is the new alignment between Russia and China a threat to the United States? Aimed at further hamstringing the U.S.-led neoliberal order, the emerging relationship appears to have factored into the current entropy in U.S. foreign policy — Moscow and Beijing have not been this close in half a century.
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s "New Model of Great Power Relations" there are two great powers: the United States and Russia. Chinese strategy documents indicate the intention is to "manage" the United States and "ally" with Russia. The two countries, after all, share significant interests. Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have a common opposition to colored revolutions (coordinated advice for authoritarian Eurasian regimes began in 2004 through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). They also both deploy an ethnic nationalist discourse, glorifying the Rossiya (the Russian people) and Han Chinese civilizational themes, respectively. In May at the Shanghai meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Xi Jinping made the most direct verbal assault on the U.S.-led San Francisco Treaty system in Asia since Gorbachev’s 1985 Vladivostok speech, echoing the same themes of peaceful coexistence, multilateralism, and opposition to alliances and blocs in Asia. Putin signed on to Xi’s theme of a new Eurasian-centered concept of security clearly aimed to counter the maritime alliances of the United States. The $400 billion Sino-Russian gas deal in May demonstrated China’s utility to Moscow as the West tries to isolate Russia over Ukraine.
The two leaders have promised to increase "coordination" on policy, and could do a number of things in concert that would complicate U.S. security policy. The operational tempo of Russian forces in the Far East has picked up recently, putting new pressure on U.S. and Japanese forces up North at a time when Japanese forces are being stretched around the Senkakus, responding to China’s layered coercion of fishing boats, coast guard ships, and over-the-horizon PLA Navy surface action groups. Russian arms sales to China — mostly naval but also including jet engines for fighters and bombers — have returned to the levels of the 1990s after a 15-year dip. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the Snowden affair was a joint operation between Russian and Chinese intelligence services — at least after the fact, since somebody (probably the Russians) knew how to direct Snowden, and somebody (certainly the Chinese) knew exactly what he was doing in Hong Kong and ensured he could get out. Given attribution challenges and the use of hacker militia by both countries, cyber also seems a possible area of unhelpful cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.
However, the new Sino-Russian alignment is unlikely to be so significant that the West needs to change its fundamental approach to both the Western Pacific and Ukraine. China is a rising power with revisionist aims in the Pacific, but continuing dependence on the U.S. economy and global economic institutions. Russia is a declining power with revisionist aims in Central Europe, and far less dependence on global economic institutions. While China has its own corruption abyss, Xi’s rule depends more fundamentally on meeting the Chinese peoples’ expectations of rising living standards, while Putin needs to keep a smaller corrupt kleptocracy satisfied. Thus while resisting the United States is the animating theme in Putinism, there is still enough Dengism in Xi’s worldview that a stable U.S.-China relationship matters. Meanwhile, China has little motivation to empower Russia in Asia, while Russia has much to fear from a natural resource hungry giant of 1.3 billion people alongside its 7 million — and declining — population in the Far East. A closer Sino-Russian alignment will always have less coherence than America’s treaty alliance system in the Pacific, unless we lose our own focus on allies.
Nevertheless, the Xi-Putin bromance should serve as a reminder to the White House that our Russia policy cannot just be trans-Atlantic. It is critical that as we deal with Putin we expand our definition of "the West" beyond Europe. This is what Reagan did at the 1983 G7 summit in Williamsburg, Va., when he made Yasuhiro Nakasone and Japan a full partner in the defense of liberty and containment of Soviet adventurism. In the end, the Cold War was not just won in Europe — it was won with the help of key powers in South Asia and the Pacific. In addition to Japan, India is the best stick in the Sino-Russia mud the United States could ask for — Russia sells three times more arms to India than China and the Sino-Indian strategic rivalry will crimp Moscow’s ability to work too closely with Beijing. Despite lackluster attention in Washington, the United States still has a better geostrategic relationship with Delhi than either Moscow or Beijing and the administration needs to redouble its investment in relations with the new Modi government to keep up that advantage.
The White House also has to remember that our response to Russian coercion against Ukraine and Article V treaty allies in the Baltic will be watched with an eagle eye by our Asian allies, who are already flustered by the administration’s weak hand and inconsistency on Syria. There is a deficit of global trust in American willpower these days that needs to inform U.S. thinking about the consequences of Putin’s strategy. At the same time, if the United States is seeking to avoid a new Cold War and to find off ramps from the current Ukraine crisis, it may well find that Asia is where it, Japan, and others can eventually work best with Russia as Chinese hard power begins to look a lot more important to Moscow than Putin’s ideological confrontation with the West. Finally, the Obama administration must reinforce the overall momentum of the neoliberal order by getting serious about the domestic U.S. politics of both the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade deals (TPP and TTIP). We can and must reinforce the pillars of the neoliberal order even as we respond to challenges at its frontier.
The new Sino-Russian alignment should not shake the United States from its basic opposition to Putin in Ukraine, but it might just help cure it of its myopia and force it to think globally as it acts locally.