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Foreign Policy

The Dynamics for the Trilateral Relations Between China, the US and Russia

Mar 26 , 2012
  • Yang Cheng

    Deputy Director, East China Normal University

For all the doubts and suspicions raised by some Western powers, Putin smoothly managed a landslide win in his re-election as Russia’s new president to start his third term of presidency. Of the series of articles he had published before the election, the article ‘Russia and the Changing World’ carried in the Moscow News is of special significance. A close study of this article can reveal the outline of Moscow’s future diplomatic policies, and, in particular, the dynamics that may come from Putin’s return to the Kremlin to drive forward the trilateral relations between China, the US and Russia.  

Russia believes it will gradually become an ally to be eagerly sought by big powers, basing its belief on the ground that under a circumstance of the decline of Western powers and the rise of China, all big powers have come to contend ever more openly for its alignment due to three reasons: the rich resources in Russia, the strategic importance of Eurasia, and the ‘last-straw’ role Russia may play in balancing different forces. This is why all powers have been trying their utmost to bring Russia into their ranks. It seems Russia may play the role as China played in the strategic triangle formed between China, the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War period.
As a matter of fact, this has been a diplomatic tradition Russia has kept to all the time. A review of Russia’s diplomatic history over the recent hundreds of years will reveal that Russia is extremely good at securing a space for its own development through frequent and skillful execution of a power-balancing diplomatic policy, and a great master in exploitation of the contradictions and conflicts between big powers. From the Great Northern War fought by Peter the Great, the diplomacy conducted by Russia in the Holy Alliance, the diplomacy directed by Lenin and Stalin against the West during the years of the former Soviet Union, and the efforts devoted by Putin since 2000 to balance Easter and Western powers, we always get a clear glimpse of Russia’s clever adaption of itself to changes in the international pattern including transfer of power from one leading country to another. 
The complication of Sino-US relations over the past year has offered Russia a new scale to measure its strategic judgment. When China chose to join Russia in vetoing the UN Security Council resolution on Syria, it was widely believed that China chose to warm up to Russia mainly as an escape from the pressure coming from the US back-to-Asia strategy. All these seem to be a solid proof of the stand taken by Russia to duly distance itself from the new pattern of dynamic trilateral relations between the big three: China, the US and itself.  
In my opinion, however, neither the strategic judgment of the trilateral relationship between China, Russia and the US made by the Russian decision-makers nor the pattern they have designed for it claims much appreciation, for the following reasons:
First of all, Russia seems to have underestimated the strength of the United States and the Western world as a whole and their international influences. In history, the theory on US’ decline would revive every 10 to 15 years. What this theory has failed to realize is the fact that the US boasts the biggest superiority in its intellectual resources, innovative system, and self-regulating capacity in case of crises and challenges. Within two to three decades, no country or power can be expected to rise in Asia or in any other part of the world to confront the US, let alone replace it as a world leader.  
Secondly, Russia may have missed the core issue in the transfer of international rights, which is not the confrontation between China, the US and Russia that keeps aggravating and looks unavoidable. Rather than China’s rise, the unilateralism practiced by the US since the start of this century and its indifference to Asian affairs to some extent due to overconcentration on terrorism and nuclear proliferation are to blame, to a greater extent, for the fall of US influences in Asia. In other words, the rise of China’s influences in the Asia power grid has not resulted from any strategic actions it has knowingly taken. Neither does China long for such a result. Ill-advised action by the US is to blame. 
In the third place, Russia seems to have overestimated the contradictions between China and the United States. There exist some covert and overt confrontations between the two, for sure. But these confrontations have resulted from their different understanding of some structural issues that can not be solved in an instant but call for their adaption and self-regulation over a onsiderable long period of time. In many other areas, especially in the economic field, the two countries have come to be ever more dependent on each other and found lots of assembly points of common interests. They can try to dissolve their disputes and contradictions in a more rational, practical and sagacious manner and avert crises ignited by unexpected factors. China's rapid rise can be compared to the growth of an innocent kid first to a young man and then to a well-built adult. As for the US, it has now come to see China from a level altitude instead of looking down from a higher position as before. The current competition between China and the US may be the last wave of US attempt to contain China. With the constant growth of China's strength, the US may be more inclined to coexistence rather than contention with China in the future.   
Fourthly, Russia may have also misjudged China’s ability to learn in the diplomatic field. China’s growth and its influence on international systems and global governance patterns have been the most influential developments ever seen in the world since the conclusion of the Cold War. Even against such a general background, to choose the right diplomatic strategy will still be a major guarantee for China to sustain its development. The nucleus of Chinese diplomacy, fortunately, is nothing else but promotion of the constant growth of national strength and incessant cementation of harmonious and friendly relations with all countries. Such diplomatic orientation is based, first of all, on cooperation. Keeping modest and cautious, China is trying to improve its learning and innovating abilities while well coordinating its relations with neighbors and other big powers.  
Lastly, Russia may have overestimated its own strength and its role based thereon. The China-US-Soviet Union strategic triangle was the only trilateral relationship of global influences in the Cold War years, something never seen before and allowing no duplication in the future. Ever since the conclusion of the Cold War, there has never developed any triangular relationship of similar overall significance or with confrontation being a major feature. The progress of globalization and regional integration has totally averted the possibility of fierce contention and confrontation between big powers for the sake of more resources or greater geographical spaces. International relations and the regional pattern in Asia have kept flattening out, and some rising economies and non-state actors have seen continuous decentralization of their powers, a new feature signifying the transfer of power in the Asia-Pacific region and in the world as a whole. In this sense, the idea about the rule of the world by the G2 plus Russia is not of so much operability from the very beginning.   
With all this said, Putin’s return to the Kremlin, the change in China’s leadership, and the coming general election in the US will surely fill new vitality into the trilateral relationship between China, the US and Russia. What we should do, however, is to study this relationship from a comprehensive perspective, and handle it within the framework of the triangular relationships that have developed between big powers such as the China-US-Europe relationship and the China-Russia-Europe relationship and according to the principle of cooperation and benign competition so as to provide more public products for the governance of the international community rather than drive merely for the national interests of any individual power.
Yang Cheng is deputy director of the Russia Study Center of East China Normal University.
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