Disputes between China and the United States have replaced those between Russia and the U.S. as the principal axis in the three-power relationship.
The shift actually began in 2009, when Barack Obama became president of the U.S. A meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow in July that year marked the start of a U.S.-led “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations — an important piece of America’s strategic preparation for its “pivot to Asia” or “rebalancing” strategy in the Asia Pacific that was formally launched in 2010.
The new round of gaming had already begun by the time the U.S. started identifying China as a major strategic competitor, and it went on moderately for most of Obama’s terms. On one hand, Obama’s China policy was in line with the diplomatic philosophy of the Democrats, with a strong flavor of liberalism, and sought to constrain China’s diplomatic and economic behavior within international rules and the multilateral framework.
For example, instead of using direct tariffs, the Obama administration devoted considerable energy to assembling a trans-Pacific partnership to curb China’s “unfair trade practices.”
In the summer of 2016, the U.S. backed an international arbitration to block China’s actions in the South China Sea. Those actions were to no avail. When the arbitral award was issued, the U.S. Pacific Fleet steered clear of the sensitive sea and moored in the Philippine Sea, with the Philippines in between, again suggesting the Obama administration’s desire to avoid a direct confrontation.
On the other hand, Obama identified himself with the liberal philosophy of international governance. Against the backdrop of a sluggish global economic recovery after the financial crisis, Obama attached great importance to multilateral cooperation, especially cooperation among major powers, and actively participated in the G20 Hangzhou summit. It is notable that the high-level China-U.S. strategic and economic dialogue went on for eight rounds throughout Obama’s time in office.
The resetting of the U.S.-Russia relationship did bring important dividends to Russia. The two sides soon agreed on a new nuclear disarmament treaty. Sixteen presidential committees were created to promote bilateral cooperation.
More important, the U.S. began to respect Russia’s special interests in the Commonwealth of Independent States region. It did not get involved in the 2010 presidential election in Ukraine, and the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych smoothly won. The U.S. also turned down two requests from Kyrgyzstan’s new government for peacekeepers. The government had been formed in the spring of 2010 amid social unrest.
However, Russia took Crimea in the Ukraine crisis, leading to an abrupt end of the recovery of relations with the U.S. and triggering unprecedented Western coordination to impose sanctions unseen since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The conflict between Russia and the U.S. generated by the crisis has drastically sharpened. It has not much constrained the intellectual and physical resources behind American policy toward China, but it has clearly diluted the whole international community’s understanding of and attention to the profound contradictions between China and the U.S.
Some other factors have further aggravated the sense of crisis between the U.S. government and its opponents, such as the Donald Trump administration’s realistic diplomacy, which focuses on strength over cooperation. Other factors include the America First logic, the rapid growth of deficits in the commodities trade with China ($273 billion in 2010, $375.2 billion in 2017 and $419.2 billion in 2018, according to U.S. sources), the growing international influence of the Belt and Road Initiative in recent years and the increasingly visible differences between China and the West in their political systems and ideology.
As a result, the Trump administration has implemented an all-out containment of China approach in the military, diplomatic, financial, technological, educational and ideological fields, starting with the trade war, which began in March 2018.
In a series of national strategic documents in the U.S., China was defined for the first time as America’s primary and most dangerous strategic competitor. There are already various indications that if Trump wins the election, the new administration will further adjust its containment policy toward China, with moves on both bilateral and multilateral fronts. It may propose to amend World Trade Organization rules to punish China’s supposedly “unfair” trade policies and engage the European Union and Japan in a technological decoupling from China. In short, China may face a more perilous international environment.
Today both China and Russia feel more than ever that they need to strengthen strategic coordination to deal with pressure from the United States. Although the two countries’ static inferiority against the U.S. in terms of physical power has significantly improved because of the China factor, their dynamic inferiority remains unchanged. In other words, neither China nor Russia can provide each other with strong enough support to mitigate American pressure in areas where it is most needed.
For example, Russia cannot provide China with a domestic market of billions of dollars, much less with advanced industrial technologies. And China cannot support Russia in the battlefields of Ukraine or Syria or provide it with sufficient development funding to counteract sanctions.
In short, from Obama to Trump, America’s China policy has completed the transition from containment with limited cooperation to Cold War-style all-around containment. The principal emphasis in the triangular China-U.S.-Russia relationship has shifted. It’s now primarily between China and the U.S., and three-way relations have been completely reshaped.