To Counter Russia, Strengthen China
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s July 30th decision to expel 755 U.S. diplomats is the logical result of another senseless sanctions bill. Yes, Putin's regime is authoritarian by Western standards. And yes, Moscow most likely interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections. But will sanctions "punish" Putin, or will they only edge our two countries closer to catastrophic war?
A better approach to countering Russian aggression lies in supporting Chinese ambitions in Eurasia, the continent encompassing Europe and Asia. At first, this may sound counterintuitive, but the case for this approach can be found in Graham Allison's recently published "Destined for War." Although he argues that China’s rapid rise makes war with America more likely, Allison's data suggests that something else may be around the corner: a Sino-Russian conflict.
Allison and his team studied the past five hundred years and noticed 16 cases where a rising power threatened a ruling power. 12 of the cases resulted in war. A close inspection reveals that in nine of the wars the ruling and rising powers shared the same landmass. Additionally, in three of the four cases where war has been averted, a body of water separated the ruling and rising powers. And in one case of war, the rising power (France in the late 18th to early 19th centuries) fought its territorial neighbors (Russia, Prussia, Austria, Spain) rather than the ruling power (the United Kingdom), separated by a relatively narrow body of water. Allison’s data, therefore, suggests that the rise of China is bound to create more pressures on its relationship with Russia, sharing a common border, than the United States, a Pacific Ocean away.
Russia views itself as the ruling power in Eurasia, and in many ways it is. It still maintains the world's largest nuclear arsenal, an experienced military, and close relations with many of the countries that China is pursuing. In recent years it has willed its way into Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, and elsewhere. Other countries in the region that never underwent democratic revolutions (Belarus and Kazakhstan) are essentially under Moscow's rule. Countries from India to Iran and Syria, from Central Asia to Western Europe, still rely on Moscow for energy, protection, or military aid. The Kremlin will do all it can to protect its primacy in Eurasia.
“Rising China” resides on the same Asian landmass, and poses the greatest immediate threat to Moscow. Beijing's "One Belt, One Road" policy, creating a “new Silk Road,” will bulldoze its way through countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Iran - all strategically aligned with Moscow. If down the line any of these countries shift their strategic orientation towards China, choosing a policy favorable to Beijing over Moscow to placate Chinese demands, will Russia simply stand on the sidelines?
As China’s ascent continues, it will be wise for Washington to selectively foster Beijing's continental ambitions. Potential areas for this abound. China’s access to the sea on its northeast (an area known as outer Manchuria) is currently blocked off by Russia. Moscow took this territory from China through the unequal Treaties of Aigun (1858) and Peking (1860). To this day Beijing does not formally accept the aforementioned treaties. Mongolia, a buffer state between Russia and China, is another area of contention. Between 1644 and 1912 Mongolia was ruled by the Qing dynasty. However, following the Mongolian Revolution of 1911 – which some Chinese historians believe was sparked by Russian manipulation – it declared its independence. For the next century, it existed as a buffer state supported by Russia. If China is bound to act as all rising powers do, then it makes strategic sense for Beijing to try to reclaim areas it had until recently ruled for centuries, such as Outer Manchuria and Outer Mongolia, and possibly expand to the resource-rich, sparsely populated Siberia.
Relative to Russia, China has shown itself more willing to abide by the international order. At least, it has not purposefully tried to upend it, as Moscow blinded with fury seems intent to do. To balance Russia, therefore, it will be wise for Washington to look at China's rise as a potential opportunity and to encourage its strategic expansion to areas it once held. Nothing will drain the Kremlin of its energy as fear over a stronger China on its border, not even sanctions.
Oleg Svet is a defense analyst. These views are his own.