August 21, 2007
The Enemy of my Enemy
Russia's Relationship with China Depends on the United States
Comment by Aaron Sander and Matthew Duchinsky
Aaron Sander and Matthew Duchinsky are graduate students at Washington University, studying international affairs. Sander is currently conducting research in Moscow, Russia, while studying at MGIMO while Duchinsky is based at Nanjing University in China.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), sponsored by Moscow and Beijing, has been suggested as an Asian bloc that can rival the influence of U.S. power. Since it is U.S. penetration - actual or feared - into the SCO's sphere of influence that is at the heart of the relationship and not simply security-related concerns, the alliance's foundation is indeed resistance to U.S. capabilities and unilateralist position. However, the SCO is far from a strategic alliance and, while a Sino-Russian partnership does exist, close inspection indicates that nothing of much more significance is likely to be established.
Although there has been much opposition to U.S. policies over the past decade, a real opposition bloc has yet to form, and China and Russia do not always speak with a united voice in international debates. Additionally, the two have yet to provide anything of much value in their bilateral relationship: They have not reached significant agreements on energy security or expanded trade and generally still regard each other with a level of suspicion. The truth is that neither country is willing to offer considerable assistance to the other, particularly if it concerns risking a direct confrontation. Unless the West pushes both Russia and China into a security dilemma simultaneously, the mettle of this alliance is unlikely to stand any test of time; after all, instability and adversarial relations have colored much of the bilateral history. Furthermore, the occasional bickering between the United States and SCO member countries is not enough to cause either Russia or China to abandon reason, since both rely heavily on Western economic ties. The only way for Russia and China to strengthen the SCO and to establish a formidable opposition to the United States would be to move toward stronger trade relations and form an actual security agreement. This is unlikely to be realized in the short-to-medium term, although this is not to say the situation is not ripe for a partnership.
While SCO cooperation is beneficial, if or when Russia and China feel their combined efforts are not enough to counter the United States, each will maneuver for a closer relationship with the West, seeking to protect their own interests. A potential alliance could be based on the U.S.'s threat assessment, but this could also entail an SCO split. The United States could avoid a strategic alliance against it by balancing Russian and China individually or off each other as adversaries. While this kind of antagonization would not be the best course of action, it has historically been a common feature of international policy. Were the United States to choose this route, the difficulty would be determining which perceived threat to address first. Most likely, whichever country is considered the bigger provocateur would be isolated, while the country that offers the greater incentives would be partnered.
While U.S. defense analysts assess China as the next threat to U.S. supremacy, old perceptions are not easily forgotten, and the U.S.-Russian rivalry is bound to continue. Moreover, with issues such as Kosovo, Caucasus separatists, the U.S. missile defense system, Iran's nuclear program and Putin's speech in Munich on the table, the rhetoric is again heating up between Moscow and Washington.
There is no doubt that current U.S.-Russia relations have reached a new low. Both countries' reputations and interests remain at stake, and it is questionable whether either will compromise. Additionally, Russia's position between the United States and China is a delicate one. If it loses the ability to steadily balance relations with both East and West, then an arrangement to counter Russia's position may well be envisaged. Any partnership to contain Russia, however, could be formed without the immediate fear of a rising China.
To begin with, while China has made significant investments into its military, it is not likely to pose a formidable military threat in the region or abroad for the next couple of decades. The United States would likely retain its ability to leverage China, since the country holds a formidable position along China's energy supply routes. Additionally, while it has been argued that China holds a threatening position within the U.S. economy, it may well be that the United States rests in a more financially established, and therefore more geopolitically stable, position. Since China values its economic relations with the United States far more than its relations with Russia and appreciates the fact that the United States poses a far greater threat to China's stability than Russia, an arrangement between the two becomes opportune. Such a partnership could provide these major energy consumers the opportunity to open Central Asian energy to alternative export routes outside Moscow's influence.
However, a U.S.-China partnership would simply be an attempt to further limit Russia's international influence and such a move could breed a revanchism that could motivate Russia to hostilities.
Historically China and Russia have been adversaries and although the short-to-medium term may see closer Sino-Russian ties, relations colored by distrust will likely return in the long term. While it may seem at the moment that the two have made amends, it is a veiled relationship, and one maintained only in the presence of a more formidable adversary. In the absence of other external influences, or possibly in the midst of a multi-polar world, competition between China and Russia would see a vigorous renewal. The only question is at what point and under what conditions the split will precipitate a more direct confrontation.