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Foreign Policy

Will Upgraded China-Russia Ties Upset the US?

Jun 18, 2019
  • He Weibao

    Assistant Fellow, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

On June 5, the visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a document together, formally upgrading the China-Russia partnership to an “all-round strategic coordination in a new era,” meaning that China-Russia strategic cooperation will take a step forward on its current basis. Under today’s extraordinary international circumstances, the move will undoubtedly attract broad attention worldwide, especially from the US.

The US National Security Strategy that the Trump administration released in December 2017 explicitly identified China and Russia as its main strategic rivals. Today, with the two main strategic rivals declaring an upgrade to their ties, showing that each is further embracing the other on the international stage, how could the US not worry?

In fact, the US has never stopped trying to sow discord between China and Russia in recent years, so as to make the triangular relationship tilt in its favor. After assuming power, the Trump administration has tried to contain China while joining hands with Russia. The idea reportedly came from former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, though the latter has denied it. But the Trump government has attempted to do just that. To this end, it has focused mainly on framing China as a troublemaker so as to “scare” Russia. For instance, on his October 2018 trip to Russia, US National Security Advisor John Bolton clearly played up a Chinese threat to Russia, claiming that the Chinese nuclear arsenal not only threatens the US, but also constitutes a danger to Russia. He also expressed hope that Washington and Moscow conduct strategic dialogue on China’s allegedly bellicose behavior. This constituted a naked move to alienate the two neighbors. After the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and arms control negotiation with Russia bogged down in impasse, the Trump administration again attempted to use China as a scapegoat, trying to persuade Russia to bring China into arms control negotiations. None of these attempts has worked.

Russia lacks the reason and motivation to join the US to contain China. This is the biggest obstacle facing the US as it tries to elicit Russian help towards this goal. There is no fundamental conflict in strategic interests between China and Russia at present. Territorial disputes used to be a big problem between the two countries, but with the two sides signing the Supplementary Agreement on the Eastern Section of the China-Russia Border in 2004, those disputes have been settled completely — a major potential trouble spot has thus been eliminated. Though China is growing in strength, it doesn’t have the tradition and intention to seek overseas expansion, while Russia boasts a nuclear arsenal comparable with that of the US. Therefore, Russia will not see a rising China as a threat to itself. Besides, China-Russia competition is relatively limited both in great power competition on the world stage and in Central Asian affairs.

More important, China and Russia have identical or similar world outlooks. Both support multi-polarization, advocate for countries’ rights to choose their own development paths according to their own national conditions, and oppose hegemony in international affairs as well as intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. Both have major contradictions and differences with the US in such areas. China and Russia are thus likeminded friends on the international stage, and it is no surprise that their relations have grown increasingly close.

The US should feel some relief that, despite their close cooperation, China and Russia have yet to form a military alliance, and any agreement on military mutual assistance, such as a common defense treaty, does not exist. Though the two countries have frequently held joint military exercises over the past few years, it does not mean they would necessarily use military force to help when the other faces a significant crisis. However, in the future, as international and regional conditions evolve, the possibility of China and Russia finally come into a formal military alliance cannot be excluded completely. Especially at the present moment, the US has simultaneously taken China and Russia as its main strategic rivals and brands them as revisionist states in international order, placing tremendous pressure on both. Therefore, China and Russia will develop increasingly closer bilateral cooperation in the face of the US — such a trend isn’t hard to foresee. It would surely be a nightmare for the US if China and Russia were to enter a certain form of military alliance, or even institutionalized military cooperation.

A pressing priority for the US may be conducting serious introspection over its own deeds and prevent this nightmare from materializing.

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