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Foreign Policy

The Russian Factor in China-U.S. Relations

May 17, 2021
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

Relations between the United States and Russia have been particularly tense recently, with sanctions and counter-sanctions spiraling up and mutual expulsion of diplomats becoming headlines.

Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev said in April that Russia-U.S. relations had in recent years essentially gone back to the Cold War era. An article in Spanish media described the relationship as being at its worst moment in the 41 years since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. President Joe Biden, however, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin twice at the recent Leaders Summit on Climate, and the two agreed to meet in June.

It seems natural for people wonder how the wrestling match between the two countries will enlighten or otherwise affect the tangled China-U.S. relationship.

There is indeed a Russian factor involved. The U.S. and China have a rather different mindset toward Russia. As a result, the Russian factor plays out differently on each side.

China and Russia want to be good neighbors and partners, since both concentrate on properly governing and revitalizing their countries and need a secure international environment. Therefore, since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the independence of Russia, the two sides have been making concerted efforts to increase cooperation.

Their landmark achievements include the announcement in April 1996 of a strategic partnership of coordination, based on equality and mutual trust and oriented toward the 21st century; the Shanghai Five mechanism, jointly launched in April 1996 and transformed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2001; and the signing of the Good-Neighborly Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in July 2001.

In addition, the two countries have coordinated their actions within the framework of the United Nations, the BRICS group, the G20 and other international organizations to advance the cause of world peace and development.

It is notable that China and Russia have transformed their historical frictions and confrontations from the 1960s to the 1980s into a spiritual wealth of equality, mutual trust, inclusiveness, mutual learning and cooperation for mutual benefit. The two countries have always adhered to the principles of non-alignment, non-confrontation and non-targeting of third countries. In other words, the development and consolidation of China-Russia relations does not propose to target the U.S.

The Russian factor has no special direct influence on China’s relationship with the U.S. In the face of rampant terrorism in the early 2000s, the U.S. and Russia were once close and moved towards one another. China found this conducive to world peace and development and was not concerned.

But then the U.S. and Russia increasingly moved away from each other and have now reached a virtual impasse. China does not see this as a good thing either the pair or for the world at large. The Donald Trump administration tried to contain China by courting Russia, but Russia did not fall for it.

The Biden administration seems to be tougher on Russia and helpless at the same time in the face of a strong and unyielding Putin. It sometimes had to offer some ambiguous platitudes to cool down the situation. The administration seems to be fine-tuning its China policy in some way, the evidence of which is not yet sufficient to prove that lessons have been learned from the Trump folly. Clearly, Biden is not dealing with China without taking Russia into account. Rather, the U.S. is thinking too highly of itself, far from a sober approach. The Biden administration, still wishes to distance itself from Trump’s Russia policy.

Attitudes on Russia differ. China has actively and positively leveraged Russia, while the U.S. has had to passively swallow Russia’s negatives.

Two thoughts on the Russia factor in China-U.S. relations are worth some discussion:

For some people, the hostility between the U.S. and Russia lasting for several years is risky. The conflicts are hard to resolve, and accidents may occur, even to the extent of nuclear war, which also drags China in.

Perhaps such views represent a wake-up call, but they are rather alarmist. It is well known that the U.S. and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons. What does it mean to have a nuclear war? Do human lives mean nothing? What’s the difference between destroying the other side and destroying oneself? 

Others argue that the American approach will push China and Russia toward an alliance. But it is not the alliance that deserves America’s attention but the consequences of the American attempt to fight on two fronts at the same time.

Today’s comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Russia is far more profound and significant than an alliance in the conventional sense. It will not be influenced by the U.S. At the annual meeting of the Valday International Debate Club on Oct. 22, Putin said that it was “quite possible to imagine” a military alliance with China, but the level of strategic mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries had reached such a high level that such an alliance is in principle not necessary for them. He told the truth.

Here are the author’s observations on the Russian factor in China-U.S. relations:

First, three different sets of relationships involving China, the United States and Russia have demonstrate different characteristics based not only on their varying national conditions but also on their policies, political will and level of mutual political trust. The U.S.-Russia relationship does not hinge on China, nor does the China-U.S. relationship hinge on Russia.

Second, China and Russia advocate and practice the “Shanghai spirit” of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for cultural diversity and pursuit of common development. This means that neither China nor Russia will stand in the way of the other in its effort to develop a relationship with the U.S.

Third, to properly handle major country relations, it is critical to be a better version of oneself in the first place. All major countries should find their proper positions and treat each other as equals. Neither the Cold War mentality nor the zero-sum philosophy is desirable today.

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