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Foreign Policy

Trump’s Plan to Turn Russia Against China

Aug 23 , 2018
  • Yin Chengde

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

1024px-Vladimir_Putin_&_Donald_Trump_in_Helsinki,_16_July_2018_(3).jpg

The relationship between the US, China, and Russia is the most important trilateral relationship in the world. Despite differences between these countries, their relations are relatively stable overall. The U.S.’ economic relationship with China is far more important than that with Russia, but strategically, the U.S. sees both China and Russia as major competitors as well as obstacles to achieving global dominance. Both China and Russia view the U.S. as the primary threat to their national security and core interests, so their strategies have become closely aligned, which has led them to strengthen and deepen their strategic coordination and cooperation. Although China and Russia have not formed an alliance, they have both sought to contain the U.S. This has helped achieve a state of equilibrium between the three strategic forces, and it is an important means of checking U.S. ambitions toward China, Russia and the rest of the world.

After Donald Trump took office, the relationship between the U.S. and China changed. He also shifted from being simply pro-Russia to being pro-Russia and anti-China in an attempt to alter the balance that existed between the three nations. As he settled into his presidency, his pro-Russia stance became increasingly apparent, and a formal one-on-one meeting finally took place between Trump and Vladimir Putin in mid-July this year. Trump commented afterwards that the meeting marked a breakthrough and the beginning of a new chapter in relations. He said that he hoped that they could achieve results and that security and diplomatic staff on both sides would implement the agreements reached by their heads of state. Trump and Putin also exchanged invitations to visit each other’s country.

Under political pressure at home and worried about the fallout from the Russia investigation, the Trump administration subsequently repeated concerns about Russian involvement in the poisoning in London and imposed a fresh round of sanctions. At the same time, however, Trump sent Putin a letter affirming his friendship with Russia. The U.S. Secretary of State also called the Russian Foreign Minister to express the U.S.’ willingness to improve relations with Russia. This was Trump’s way of making clear to Putin that he had been forced to impose these new sanctions. Inwardly, Trump is a friend of Russia and is hoping Putin will understand his predicament.

Trump’s treatment of China has been very different. During his first year in office, he pretended to be a friend of China in order to obtain considerable economic advantages. Nevertheless, having been given an inch he wished to take a mile and sought greater advantages. In his second year in office, his attitude changed, and he adopted a tough stance in an attempt to blackmail China. He then started a vicious trade war, which included imposing high tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports and proposing tariffs on a further $200 billion of Chinese goods. He has even shockingly threatened to impose tariffs on a total of $500 billion of Chinese imports, which would set China-U.S. relations back to the state they were in prior to establishing diplomatic relations. In terms of his security strategy toward China, Trump openly considers the One-China Policy to be mere political correctness and believes it should be challenged, and he has taken steps to improve relations with Taiwan through legislation and other actions. Both of these things have threatened to cross strategic red lines and shaken the political foundations of China-U.S. relations. In the areas of culture and education, Trump has gone so far as to accuse nearly all Chinese students in the U.S. of being spies. These actions and accusations have left China-U.S. relations at their lowest level since the two countries established diplomatic relations.

There is a reason for Trump’s pro-Russia, anti-China bias. Right-wing conservative forces with deep prejudices against China currently hold sway in U.S. politics. These forces do not want China to rejuvenate quickly. They see China as the foremost challenger to U.S. hegemony, so their focus is on prevention and containment. Amid this political climate, Trump, an ultra-conservative business magnate and populist who took office on the back of a promise to make America great again, adopted an ultra-tough stance toward China to make a name for himself and has proceeded to adopt extreme policies aimed at excluding and containing China.

Trump’s pro-Russia leaning is mainly due to personal gratitude towards Russia. People in political circles and the media in the U.S. believe that Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and support for Trump were instrumental in him winning the election. Trump is even more aware of Russia’s role and wishes to show his gratitude. Moreover, he needs Russia to stay quiet on links with his administration and hopes that Russia’s attitude remains consistent with his own; otherwise, he will find himself in difficulty. This may be the underlying reason for his pro-Russia stance.

In addition to his administration’s links with Russia, Trump’s pro-Russia stance is due to his wish to concentrate his energy on dealing with China. His pro-Russia, anti-China approach is also an attempt to make Russia more anti-China. Indeed, during his meeting with Putin, Trump raised the so-called “China problem,” which clearly revealed his intention to unite with Russia to contain China. The consensus of the international community is that China is a major positive player in contemporary international relations. China has never been a problem, but this has not stopped Trump from launching vicious attacks against China at various international events this year. He has supported the China threat theory, especially the demonization of China’s economic relations with other countries, which is aimed at discrediting China and creating a “China problem.” His discussion with Putin about the “China problem” was simply repeating these accusations in order to drive a wedge between Russia and China as well as persuade Russia to side with the U.S. against China. This removed the veil of friendship and revealed Trump’s true feelings of hostility toward China as well as the unscrupulous methods he is willing to employ to suppress it.

The wishful thinking behind the games Trump is playing is to change the dynamic between the three countries and replace the China-Russia strategy of containing the U.S. with U.S.-Russia cooperation aimed at checking and balancing China, thereby creating a double whammy of suppression. If Trump is unable to attain this objective, he will resort to Plan B, which is to ensure Russia remains neutral and does not meddle in China-U.S. relations. This will allow the U.S. to focus on containing China. But this is just Trump’s wishful thinking, and it is doomed to fail for the following reasons.  

First, Trump is genuinely pro-Russia and wants to improve U.S.-Russia relations, but his pro-Russia policies have been ruthlessly rejected by the US ruling elite. While Trump hailed the great achievements from his meeting with Putin, the US government announced fresh sanctions against Russia, dragging historically dismal U.S.-Russia relations down to a new low. In an instant, the so-called great achievements of the Trump-Putin summit were reduced to nothing and even pulled into negative territory. There is almost nothing Trump can do to improve relations with Russia, but he is still considering ways to unite with Russia to contain China.

Second, there is a fundamental contradiction between Russia and the U.S. There is an element of mutual admiration and personal friendship between Putin and Trump. Russia has been kind to Trump and Trump needs Russia’s help. Trump being president is also favorable to Russia. This, however, does not eliminate the fundamental contradiction that exists. The U.S. represents a mortal threat to Russia’s national security and big power status. Russia cannot afford to retreat; it has no choice but to adopt countermeasures. This strategic contradiction between the two sides is irreconcilable. It is impossible for them to join forces to deal with China.

Third, China has always been a sincere friend of Russia, China respects Russia’s core interests and status as a big power, and no fundamental contradictions or conflicts of interests exist between them. Since both countries signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation in 2011, they have become good friends, neighbors, and partners, and shall remain so for generations to come. Putin has described Russia and China as being very good friends and reliable partners. The two countries’ strategic relationship of cooperation is stronger and deeper than ever, and their friendship is better than it has ever been. The strategic relationship between China and Russia is not an alliance but depends on close cooperation for the sake of their fundamental interests. It is a relationship that cannot be separated or shaken by any force, no matter how great.

Trump’s attempts to damage China-Russia relations will fail. But China-U.S. relations will continue to deteriorate due to Trump’s irrational and mutually destructive policies toward China. Nevertheless, the common interests and cooperation that unite China and the U.S. still outweigh the contradictions and conflicts that beset them. It is still in the overall interests of both countries to maintain stable development in bilateral relations, and it is still the consensus among both political parties in the U.S. I believe that in the near future, with the joint efforts of both sides, it will be possible to overcome these temporary difficulties and put China-U.S. relations back on the track of stable development.

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