Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

Russia-China-US Rivalry Evident at Valdai Conference

Nov 14 , 2016

The trilateral relationship between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington will be a critical, if not the most critical, driver shaping tomorrow’s world. Their trilateral ties featured prominently at the recent 13th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi.

A large number of Russian, Chinese, and U.S. scholars attended this year’s conference, which met from October 24-27 to address “The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow." The Chinese and Russian speakers generally held similar views regarding the prerequisites for future global progress, while the Americans struggled with the question of how, or even whether, respond to the growing Russia-China alignment against U.S. global values and interests.

Of the American speakers, only University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer addressed the Russia-China alignment issue directly. He argued that the last few years have seen these strong countries compete as rivals with the United States for global preeminence. This renewed “great power politics” contrasts with the bipolar contest of the Cold War or the U.S. unipolar world of the 1990s. Although the Valdai Discussion Club focused on Russian-U.S. rivalry, Mearsheimer was more concerned about inexorable Sino-U.S. strategic competition in East Asia.

Mearsheimer saw Russia as a critical swing state in this Sino-American competition since Moscow could align with either country or stay neutral. He faulted U.S. policy for “violating Geopolitics 101” by confronting both states simultaneously, thereby driving them together, rather than allowing geopolitical logic to take its course that would eventually lead Moscow to join Washington and its allies, such as India and Japan, in a coalition to balance China’s growing power.

In her presentation, Fu Ying, Chairperson of Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People`s Congress, was ambivalent about how Beijing would try to shape the future world order. She noted that China and the United States have strong economic ties but weak security connections, thus creating conflicting pressures for bilateral cooperation and conflict.

According to Fu, the Chinese have realized some gains from the world order established by the United States, but they disapprove of how the structure reflects exclusively American values and is buttressed “by a military alignment, which does not take into consideration the security interests of others.” From Beijing’s perspective, this would include the U.S. military alliances with Japan, South Korea, and other Asian states. Nonetheless, Fu insisted that “China does not have a ‘strategy’ to challenge the U.S.-led global structure” and was reluctant to bear the burden of constructing an alternative given the “mess” of the current one.

Given this ambivalence, the Chinese speakers unsurprisingly supported Russian criticisms of the existing international order as well as Moscow’s prescription for improving it. Fu quoted President Xi Jinping as saying China “firmly upholds the international order and system underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” but also wants to “make the international order more just and equitable” through incremental reforms to its outdated Cold War-era rules.

The specific reforms Fu listed included ending great-power intervention in other states’ internal affairs, showing more “mutual respect” by not trying “to impose its own value[s] on others,” and supporting “common security”-- what Russians often term “equal security”—by avoiding actions to advance one country’s security “at the expense of others.” Fu dismissed the idea that China and Russia would soon become geopolitical rivals. For example, she argued that Beijing and Moscow were harmoniously pursuing joint interests in Mongolia and in Eurasia.

Regarding the latter, Russian international relations expert Sergei Karaganov argued that a Sino-Russian led “community or partnership for development, cooperation and security in Greater Eurasia” would provide a superior substitute to a decaying U.S. unipolar order. He foresaw the states participating in this endeavor as those in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and those countries joining other Russian and Chinese regional integration projects.

Karaganov saw a fortified SCO--with more standing bodies, authorities, and resources--as the axis for this new grouping that would aim “to liberalize trade, coordinate technical standards, and economic, financial, and security policies, including the fight against terrorism and cybercrime, as well as migration control efforts.” In terms of principles, the participants would uphold “unconditional respect for political pluralism, the right of each nation to choose its own path for development and a way of life” without external interference, and a commitment to “peaceful cooperation of transnational problems and other UN principles.”

However, in an article that appeared the day of his Valdai presentation, Karaganov extended his conference remarks and applied the logic of great-power balancing to the Russia-China dyad. He called on Russians “to act as a friendly and constructive counterbalance to China to make sure it does not become ‘too strong’ or turn into a potential hegemon scaring its neighbors.”

Karaganov also warned of the need to diversify Russia’s economic ties “to avoid excessive dependence even on friendly China” since “such dependence will weaken Russia’s political positions and cards for economic bargaining.” Other Asian partners could provide capital and high technology goods, “but most importantly, the freedom of maneuver both in the East and in the West.”

C. Raja Mohan, Director of Carnegie India, appeared open to applying Karaganov’s approach directly to South Asia, reasoning that India invariably would strive to resist falling into China’s sphere of influence. As he stressed, even if the United States leaves East Asia, China would still have regional rivals. India would pursue other non-U.S. partners, such as Russia, which Mohan thought might compete with Beijing for control over Central Asia.

Kevin Rudd, President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, agreed with Mearsheimer that the United States was no longer the only great global power; Russia has, at least militarily, returned to that role, while China is becoming a leading world military and economic power.

Yet, Rudd challenged Mearsheimer’s structural determinism by arguing that effective leaders and international institutions could mitigate great power rivalries. Concerned that some existing institutions were too weak or unrepresentative, Rudd advocated focusing decision making within the G20 framework, which he saw as more representative of global multi-polarity than the Group of 7/8, and more effective in some cases than the United Nations. The latter has great legitimacy due to its large membership, but is paralyzed by great-power divisions manifested in the Security Council’s inertia regarding Syria.

In the concluding Valdai panel, Russian President Vladimir Putin also described the UN as “unparalleled in its representativeness and universality” and likewise affirmed support for coordinating the Moscow-led EEU with Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt project “to promote an extensive Eurasian partnership, which promises to evolve into one of the formative centers of a vast Eurasian integration area.”

Unlike some other Russian speakers, Putin took care not to publicly refer to any Sino-Russian rivalry, the need to balance China’s rising power, or other issues that might challenge the Kremlin’s official line of a harmonious Sino-Russian strategic partnership for mutual security and prosperity. This came as no surprise. For years, Putin and other Russian officials have eschewed remarks that might antagonize Beijing, which has become Russia’s most successful great-power partnership given Moscow’s poor relations with many Western states.

Putin did deny that Russia aimed to align with China against the United States and reaffirmed his willingness to work with whoever won the U.S. presidential elections. Even so, most attendees believed Russians preferred Donald Trump, who would be more cooperative with Moscow regarding Syria and European security.

Members of Trump’s foreign-policy team have proposed trying to realign relations with Russia to help balance China. Whatever the possibilities of achieving this goal, pursuing this strategy would represent a major revision to U.S. policy that for decades has presumed the perpetual impossibility of a robust Russia-China partnership against the United States.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s backers at Valdai tended to consider China a better partner for the United States. They believed China’s goals were less ambitious, and its tactics were more moderate than those of Putin’s Russia, which they see as more eager to challenge U.S. values and interests at whatever the costs to global order. 

You might also like
Back to Top