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Foreign Policy

An Attempt to Divide China, Russia

Jul 02, 2021
  • Cui Lei

    Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies

In the wake of the June 16 summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which both leaders promised to hold dialogues on strategic stability and cybersecurity, U.S.-Russia relations seemed to enter a sort of detente.   

The meeting was widely seen as a U.S. attempt to drive a wedge between China and Russia, and the strategic community in the U.S. has entertained the idea of rallying Russia against China. If the Cold War serves as a guide, since the United States could work with China to counter the Soviet Union, why could it not do the same with Russia against China?

It was said that Henry Kissinger proposed a similar approach to the administration of Donald Trump. The “Longer Telegram" authored by an anonymous U.S. official  suggested pursuing detente between the U.S. and Russia while driving a wedge between China and Russia. In the summit meeting Biden urged Putin not to confront the U.S. and said China’s rise would harm Russia’s interests, laying bare the goal of alienating China and Russia. It may end up as little more than wishful thinking on the part of the U.S..   

First of all, there are structural differences between the U.S. and Russia. Anti-Russian sentiment is running high in the U.S. Relations between the U.S. and Russia have been strained since Biden took office and had reached the lowest point in three decades. With Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, NATO is conducting large-scale exercises along the Russian border. Also, the U.S. has accused Russia of cracking down on domestic opposition and attributed cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure to Russia.

The irreconcilable differences between the United States and Russia stem from Russia’s desire to restore its great power status and occupy geopolitical space, which prompts misgivings in the U.S. and, consequentially, actions aimed to contain Russia. In addition, as a country based on “democratic politics,” the U.S. is unlikely to give up exporting its values or interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. Meanwhile, Russia has long given up its communist ideology and adheres to the supremacy of national sovereignty, thus opposing external interference.

Hence, ideological confrontation between the United States and Russia is inevitable. On the eve of the summit, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, former New START negotiator Rose Gottemoeller and others wrote about how to make progress in the relationship, all indicating it must be premised on keeping pressure on Russia.

Biden had to withdraw his initial nomination of Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert in the U.S. who advocates better relations, as director of Russia affairs on the National Security Council because of stiff opposition.

Second, relations between China, the U.S. and Russia have evolved over the years, and we should refrain from referencing history mechanically. During the Cold War, the normalization of relations between China and the U.S. was attributable to major differences between China and the Soviet Union — once even pushed to the brink of major armed conflict — so that the Nixon administration was able to seize the strategic opportunity and divide the two countries.

As we speak now, there are no obvious differences between China and Russia. Instead, there is a good chance that the two countries will close ranks, as both are being contained by the U.S.. Economically, U.S.-Russia trade volume is about $20 billion annually, while that between China and Russia has exceeded $100 billion. And China is the biggest buyer of Russian energy products. As a result, unless there is a major shift in the foreign strategy of either side, there is little chance that they will be alienated by the U.S. 

Finally, containment of China by the U.S. and European Union and better relations between the U.S. and Russia cannot be achieved at once. The U.S. has two options to contain China: One is to unite with Europe; the other is to alienate China and Russia. If EU-Russia relations are in good shape, the two options can proceed hand in hand. However, as EU-Russia relations are intensely strained at the moment, the two cannot work in unison.

In recent years, anti-Russia sentiment has gained momentum in Europe, spurred by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the poisoning of intelligence agents and the alleged suppression of domestic opposition. Anti-Russia sentiment has long run high in parts of Central and Eastern Europe for historical reasons, but now anti-Russia sentiment is rising even in Western Europe. The communique issued at the 2021 NATO Summit identified Russia as the biggest threat to European security. Russia was mentioned more than 60 times, signaling an unprecedented level of alarm.

To alienate Russia and China, the United States would have to make concessions to Russia on issues such as sanctions related to human rights and the annexation of Crimea, which may come at the cost of driving away Europe and eroding its confidence. The U.S. announcement of a waiver of sanctions on the Nord Stream II gas pipeline project before the summit was not so much a concession to Russia as a favor to Europe — a tacit acknowledgment of Europe’s energy dependence on Russia.

On balance, it makes more sense for the U.S. to be tough with Russia to meet European security concerns, rather than to make concessions to drive a wedge between China and Russia. In the strategic competition between China and the U.S., Europe enjoys advantages in technology, markets and soft power and can lend important support to the U.S..

Moreover, Biden wants to galvanize European allies against China at a time when there is a policy gap between Europe and the U.S. So the U.S. and Europe need to work out some tradeoff. Europe sees Russia as an imminent geopolitical threat, while China is only a systemic adversary and a threat in the long-term. Meanwhile, the U.S. regards China as its top geopolitical challenge and is more eager to contain it. To mobilize Europeans in containing China, the U.S. must first meet Europe’s short-term security need to contain Russia.

To sum up, detente between the United States and Russia will not alienate China and Russia. Of course, Russia will not fully pivot to China. Rather, its foreign policy will be more pragmatic: It hopes to walk a fine line between China and the U.S. to maximize its interests. What the U.S. can pull off is to co-opt Russia and prevent it from undermining its grand strategy of containing China. 

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