During U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recent visit to China, he and his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, agreed to improve military-to-military ties, including stepping up joint-military exercises, a new army-to-army dialogue, and a new Asia-Pacific security dialogue between high-level defense officials of both countries.
These agreements were contrasted by Secretary Hagel’s re-emphasis that the United States intents to uphold her security obligations vis-à-vis her regional Asian allies, and General Wanquan’s blustering remarks that, “The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.” He also pointed out that China would “make no compromise, no concession, no treaty” in its dispute with Japan.
While Hagel’s visit did not resolve any of the outstanding issues between the People’s Republic and the United States (e.g., territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Taiwan, North Korea’s missile program, cyberespionage, etc.), it indicates that the United States is actively seeking détente with Beijing. The secretary of defense’s trip was a diplomatic counterweight to President Obama’s visit to Asia this month and meant to assuage China’s fear of encirclement by American allies.
The United States’ desire for a de-escalation of tensions has become recently more acute due to the unfolding deterioration of diplomatic relations with Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin over Ukraine. According to the New York Times, the Obama Administration has “written off Putin” and is devising, “a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.” The United States aims at doing so by forging, “an international consensus against Russia, including even China, its longtime supporter on the United Nations Security Council.” However, this appears to be unlikely.
With both Russia and the United States forced to adopt a more conciliatory tone towards Beijing, the real winner in the current U.S.-Russian standoff over Ukraine has been China. While China-U.S. ties have cooled, Beijing-Moscow relations have warmed. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, visited Beijing this month and met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and President Xi Jinping, the latter stating that Sino-Russian relations “are at their best” and, “have an irreplaceable role in maintaining world peace and stability.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry struck the same tenor by calling ties between the two nations a “major-country relationship that boasts the richest contents, the highest level and the greatest strategic significance.”
In addition, at a time when Vladimir Putin has in essence been ostracized from Western diplomatic circles, the Russian president will visit China in May and attend the “Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia,” an international forum which includes the United States only as an observer state. Over the years both China and Russia have actively promoted such regional organizations with the most prominent being the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which emphasizes military and economic cooperation among its member-states (The United States applied for observer status in 2006 but was rejected).
Recent press reports have also announced that Russia’s Gazprom and China are close to finally signing a gas supply contract in May 2014 (in all likelihood during Vladimir Putin’s visit to China,) which would also include the building of a pipeline to carry 38 billion cubic meters of gas a year into China. The timing of the signing of the contract would additionally carry the political symbolism that Russia cannot be unilaterally cut off from the world economy by E.U. and U.S. sanctions alone. According to Reuters, Moscow also plans to expand its East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline to 80 million tonnes (1.6 million barrels per day) by 2020, as part of plans to diversify away from Europe. All of this makes it harder for the United States to compete with Moscow for influence in Beijing.
Yet, despite the recent Sino-Russian rapprochement, tensions between the two powers remain – the exploitations of which certainly factored into Hagel’s recent visit to China. For example, China is actively replacing Russia in Central Asia as the principal trading partner of the region. In 2012, all Central Asian nations –with the exception of Uzbekistan- were trading more with China than Russia, a fact that painfully illustrates Russia’s relative decline vis-à-vis the new economic superpower. Russia has also – in direct opposition to Beijing- supported Vietnam regarding energy exploration in the South China Sea and stepped up military cooperation with the Southeast Asian state. Equally, Russia has been silent on other territorial disputes involving China in the South China Sea refusing to choose sides. Likewise, Vladimir Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union is meant to balance Chinese power as much as it is meant to balance NATO’s influence in Eastern Europe.
Nevertheless, what will continue to unite both countries in the foreseeable future is a shared belief in the innate hostility of the American-dominated international system towards their supposed rightful ambitions as great powers. Within this purported hostile international environment, the U.S. alliance systems in Europe and Asia are amplifying an inherent sense of insecurity in both Beijing and Moscow. While this is an abstract idea, this perception is a powerful force in both nations and should not be underestimated.
Consequently, U.S. Secretary Hagel’s China visit and President Obama’s trip to Asia illustrate the almost impossible balancing act of American Foreign Policy in the region of assuring the United States’ Asian allies that America will stand by them in a future conflict with China, while simultaneously mollifying Chinese fears of U.S. containment and preventing a deepening of Sino-Russian ties. Only time will tell how successful these two trips by senior U.S. officials were in terms of accomplishing these objectives.
Franz-Stefan Gady is a Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute.