The China Factor in Russian-American Relations

The China factor will increasingly shape US attitudes and policies towards Russia in the second decade of the 21st century. This may significantly amplify Russia’s role on the international arena in spite of its continuing demographic and economic decline. 

Barak Obama’s approach to China builds on that of George W. Bush, who tried to encourage Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, while hedging against its growing military power. US relations with India, Japan, Korea, and ASEAN countries have been progressively influenced by the character of Washington’s affairs with Beijing. However, the US approaches to China as just an element of the Asia-Pacific international system is rapidly becoming outdated and insufficient in view of Beijing’s amplifying global assertiveness. The best strategy for engagement with China may be for the US to invite a number of other international actors to the “negotiating tables” of world affairs. Balancing China’s global clout by fostering partnerships with existing and rising great powers will be one of the major challenges to United States foreign policy in the 21st century.

Some experts believe that China is gradually becoming a revolutionary power - a process boosted by Beijing’s increased self-confidence in the aftermath of the 2008 “global” financial crisis, which not only left China unscathed, but also increased Beijing’s relative strength. If China indeed strives to revise global norms and institutions, it will need partners in this endeavor. A rival take on the matter holds that China does not want to contest the basic rules of the liberal international order, but that it wishes to gain more influence and maybe eventual leadership within a general trend of continuity in global governance institutions. The argument is that China’s economic successes are tied to the liberal internationalist organization of world politics, and it has deep interest in modernizing this system cautiously and gradually. No matter what analytical lens is better suited to conceptualize China’s assertive international behavior, it is safe to predict that China will seek to engage other countries, including those that are not fully satisfied with the current international order.

The increased global competition between the United States and China allows Russia to assert its international posture in a manner that is disproportional to its demographic, economic, and political weight. Under certain circumstances, the Kremlin may try to position Russia as a “swing state” in relations between the US and China, a role that neither India nor any other great power, can effectively claim. Russia’s role in the US-Chinese conundrum plays out on three levels.

Firstly, Russia may either choose to expand common ground with the Unites States, or try to balance its global leadership by cooperating with China. This range of choices is important for the USA on many policy levels. On the one hand, Russia wants be reckoned with as a power that shares common economic and security spaces with the United States and Europe against an international backdrop of economic interdependence and new threats. There is renewed talk about Russia-NATO cooperation and a functional security community “from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” On the other hand, Russia and China share commitments to concepts of absolute state sovereignty, the idea of a multipolar world in which no single country dominates, and respect for the authority of the UN Security Council.

Russia is tied to the United States by arms control agreements and a pledge to non-proliferation. At the same time, nuclear weapons, including non-strategic ones, remain relevant to the immediate security of both Russia and China, both of whom are apprehensive about their conventional limitations and nuclear-armed neighbors.

The currencies of the BRICS countries have been used only inside their respective nations. However, BRICS leaders have periodically expressed support for conducting bilateral trade between themselves in their own national currencies to reduce dependence on the US dollar. This may eventually undermine its role of a global reserve currency or at least give the BRICS countries much more leverage in world finances.

Secondly, the United States and the West in general are no longer seen by the Russian elite as the only model for either the political system or for economic and social policies. What has been called "the rise of the rest" is not just about economic and political power, but also has to do with a global competition of ideas and models. Emerging-market states "are learning to combine market economics with traditional autocratic or semi-autocratic politics in a process that signals an intellectual rejection of the Western economic model" ( Stefan Halper, The Beijing Consensus: How China's Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-first Century. New York: Basic Books, 2010 ). China has the potential to reshape the world to the detriment of Western normative ideals – first and foremost, perceptions of democracy and human rights. This can already be seen on the African continent in a clash between European and Asian notions of development. The Kremlin has particularly marveled at China's remarkable ability to increase its economic clout during the crisis, a result of a tightly managed, top-down policymaking machine that could avoid the delays of a messy democratic process.

Thirdly, Russian-Chinese efforts to coordinate their stance on regional issues have been taken to a new level with regard to the developing situation in the Arab countries. This is bound to pose a challenge to the West in pursuing its agenda in the Middle East. Russian-Chinese collaboration, as well as latent competition, is already in full display in Central Asia where the two powers cooperate in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and seek to limit the role of other actors. Tighter Russian-Chinese coordination in case of the showdown between Washington and Tehran may also be a big challenge to the United States and Europe.

Most Russian experts understand that a U.S.-Russian alliance against China is as much of a nonstarter as a Russian-Chinese alliance against the United States. However, there are distinct foreign policy schools of thought regarding China and the West in Russia. Their respective influences on concrete policies varied throughout 1992-2011. Pro-Western liberals who dominated the scene immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union were dismissive of China, but quickly lost their ground to different strains of great power balancers. In 1998, then prime-minister Yevgeny Primakov floated the idea of a “strategic triangle Moscow-Beijing-Delhi” as a desirable counterweight to the Western dominance on the global arena. After a brief period of Putin’s own version of the early “reset” in Russian-US relations in 2001-2002, Russia’s policies sought to balance, or at least contain, US unipolar hegemony. Russian-Chinese cooperation was seen as a convenient tool in this game. Any hint of criticism regarding China was muted. This phase of great power balancers’ dominance in Russian foreign policy concluded in the second half of 2008 with the near concurrence of the Georgia war and the global financial crisis. The inclination of the part of the Russian elite to identify the United States as the primary global threat to Russian interests has eroded. Pro-Western liberal approach got a new momentum under President Medvedev. It remains to be seen if this trend changes after presidential elections in March 2012.

For at least a century and a half, the debate over Russian identity and its role in the world was focused primarily on Russia’s relation to and interaction with the West. The roots of this Western-focused discourse can be traced back to the nineteenth-century debates between Slavophiles and Westernizers. However, the debate started shifting the main focal point in late 2000s. Russian foreign policy dependency on the definitions of Russian identity is getting less evident. It has become more focused on the evolution of the international relations system. The discussion has become more nuanced in late 2000s, the “China factor” being the main driver of this change. The implications of the relative decline of US power in the world are viewed with more discernment, and there is more open discussion of the pros and cons of China’s rise. There is also more open acknowledgement about the importance of the West as a partner in Russia’s efforts to modernize its economy. In sum, there are a number of signs of more realistic and more contentious views of the United States and China, their roles in the world, and implications for Russian interests.

Until recently, Russian officials and analysts were confident about maintaining military superiority over China for at least the next decade. However, recent displays of growing Chinese defense capabilities, combined with a more confrontational style of Chinese diplomacy, appear to cause the same unease in Russia as in other countries. The Russian military has begun to refer to China’s growing military potential as a reason why Russia needs to acquire more warships and retain tactical nuclear weapons despite US pressure to negotiate their elimination in the next round of the arms control talks. For example, the Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy, Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky in his interview to ITAR-TASS cited Beijing’s interest in the Arctic as a reason to field a larger fleet.

Culturally and historically, Russia deems itself a part of Western civilization. China looks alien and lacking intellectual and emotional appeal to many Russians. Sergey Karaganov emphasized recently that “there is no Asian alternative to Russia’s cultural and political orientation towards Europe.” Economics, geography and the nature of the international relations system, however, can make Russia and China true strategic partners, in spite of the fact that “to the Russian public and most of the elite, China still represents more of a threat than an opportunity” . Finding the right balance between the Euro-Atlantic and Asian vectors will be the key challenge to Russian foreign policy in the years to come. The USA is watching China closely and cautiously; part of this caution will be keeping an eye on Chinese relations with the rest of the world. China is doing the same when it looks at the United States. Not losing sight of Russia will be both American and Chinese priorities. This situation creates many opportunities to Russia – if it plays the game right. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.