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Foreign Policy

The US Wants to Contain Russia But Cooperate With China

Sep 18 , 2014
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Format-wise, the Obama Administration’s policies in the Ukraine crisis appear to have troubles in two aspects: the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and containment of Russia.

First, national strength in the United States is falling short of its ambitions. While conducting the eastward shift of its strategic center of gravity, or rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, it is difficult for the Pentagon to balance the legislative decision to cut $1 trillion from military expenses in 10 years and the government perception that Chinese military capabilities are growing rapidly. When it comes to expanding investment and trade, U.S. economic gaming with China in the Asia-Pacific has also felt the constraints of the less-than-inspiring economy at home. Under such circumstances, the large-scale geopolitical rivalry with Russia in East Europe has dealt a blow to the eastward shift, and considerably eroded national strength.

Second, after the financial crisis, the U.S. government has considerably downgraded its evaluation of Russian national strength and international impacts. In an interview on July 24, 2009, during his visit to Ukraine, Vice President Joe Biden said that Russia’s population was shrinking, economy withering, and its banking and financial sectors wouldn’t survive another 15 years. After the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, at the nuclear security summit, President Barack Obama stated on March 25 that Russia is only a weak “regional power.” If so, Russia is no longer capable of challenging U.S. leadership and the U.S.-dominated global order. Therefore, why should the U.S. kick-start another round of sanctions, aimed at the large-scale geopolitical containment of Russia, and take advantage of its opposition to Ukraine’s joining the Euro-Asia economic alliance?

In fact, the U.S. abandonment of “restarting” its Russia policies and return to containment in the Ukraine crisis is absolutely not out of simple opportunism, but is based on its understanding of Russian diplomatic culture and the country’s international position. It is such in-depth factors involving nationality and identity that have determined the major differences between U.S. policies toward Russia and China.

To begin, the U.S. government believes that, as the inheritor of tsarist Russia and Soviet Union, Russia has expansionist and hegemonic traditions that China doesn’t have. Prior to its “restart” of bilateral relations in 2009, the United States had been preventing Russia from controlling Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries in tsarist or Soviet manner. After Putin put forward the roadmap for building a Euro-Asia alliance in October 2011, the U.S. government deemed it as a plan to restore the Soviet Union and expressed resolute resistance. This is one of the deeply rooted reasons why the U.S. instigated the Ukrainian parliament to dismiss its pro-Russia president on February 22, 2014, rooting out Ukraine’s possibility of joining the alliance. On September 21, 2005, then U.S. Under Secretary of State Robert Zoellick made a typical elaboration of the differing U.S. policies regarding Russia and China: “For fifty years, our policy was to fence in the Soviet Union while its own internal contradictions undermined it. For thirty years, our policy has been to draw out the People’s Republic of China.” Even when it started its eastward strategic pivot, the U.S. government didn’t take challenges from China as outcomes of expansionist ambitions or attempts to dominate neighboring countries. While enumerating Chinese actions that harm U.S. interests, the official document “National Intelligence Strategy 2009”, released in August 2009, pointed out: The United States shares many common interests with China. But the latter’s diplomacy pursuing more natural resources as well as military modernization are important factors that constitutes a series of global challenges. So the diplomatic confrontation between the U.S. and Russia is always fiercer than that between the U.S. and China, and carries a thicker color of containment.

Likewise, the U.S. government believes Russia always has policies that challenge and attempt to supplant the existing international order, while China doesn’t. In more circumstances, China sees itself as a beneficiary of the current international order. Despite the major ups and downs in U.S.-Russia ties as a result of the “restart” policy, the March 2007 “Foreign Policy Outline of the Russian Federation”, as well as the 2008 and 2013 editions of the “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation” share the intention to challenge and transform the existing international order, leaving the U.S. highly vigilant to Russian moves while shifting its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific. On the contrary, Zoellick’s 2005 remarks are still representative of U.S. policy-makers’ opinions on China in this regard: “… most importantly, China does not believe that its future depends on overturning the fundamental order of the international system. In fact, quite the reverse: Chinese leaders have decided that their success depends on being networked with the modern world.” Therefore, the United States government has tried to integrate China into the current international system in the belief that it is possible. Even at the time of the eastward strategic pivot, U.S. policies towards China still retain the willingness to cooperate besides factors of containment.

Finally, United States government estimations of the present state, prospects and potentials of Russian and Chinese economic development differ enormously. Similarly, its assessments of the respective significance of U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China economic and trade cooperation also diverge. The volume of U.S.-Russia trade was around $39 billion in 2012, and $38 billion in 2013; while that of U.S.-China trade was $536.2 billion and $521 billion respectively. So, especially as U.S.-Russia energy cooperation gradually withers, the United States is no longer concerned about inflicting harm to itself while imposing sanctions on Russia. However, it is an utterly different story when it comes to China. Therefore, the making and implementation of U.S. foreign policy towards China are more complicated than those of its policies towards Russia, and the Ukraine crisis has only further accentuated these differences.

Zheng Yu is a Professor at the Institute of Russian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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