Chinese-Russian Cooperation Should Not Sidetrack Trump
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touched down in Iceland to discuss concerns regarding Russia's and China's aggressive efforts to tap into the Arctic's vast oil, gas, and mineral reserves. His visits to Iceland and several other NATO allies come after President Trump's State of the Union remarks touting the success of his administration’s “America First” foreign policy in preventing China and Russia from taking advantage of the United States. Before a divided Congress, Trump struck a triumphant pose over his decision to withdraw the United States from its Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, insisting his administration was merely responding to Moscow’s arms control violations and escalatory nuclear de-escalation in Eastern Europe. Administration officials are on record supporting an updated treaty including China, which they claim is advantaged by the current treaty’s one-sided constraints on U.S. missile deployments in Asia. Though they aren’t wrong, the United States should take care when criticizing Russia and China in the same breath.
For the United States, a Chinese-Russian alliance could be a geopolitical game-changer. Their warming relationship—until recently dismissed as an ‘axis of convenience’—is already challenging the balance of power in Asia and Europe. Recently, distinguished analysts argued that the United States should drive a wedge in the Chinese-Russian entente, bringing Moscow over to Washington’s side in its emerging great-power conflict with Beijing.
But according to a recent study, it is shared apprehension about Washington that is bringing Beijing and Moscow together.
This is precisely why Chinese-Russian cooperation isn't worth getting too worked up over. If Trump attempts to marginalize both these former Cold War allies, the United States could inadvertently help cement their common cause, jeopardizing its global position.
Less time spent worrying over the Chinese-Russian entente would also give the United States greater bandwidth to invest in areas of long-term collective interest, like global trade, infrastructure development, energy sustainability, public health, nonproliferation, and stability in the Middle East.
Trump’s alienating doctrine has fed a climate of growing suspicion in the U.S. government, military, law enforcement, and intelligence communities, that Beijing and Moscow are waging parallel—sometimes related—campaigns to undermine U.S. influence in Asia and Europe. The first paragraphs of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)’s latest Worldwide Threat Assessment, which relays the collective sense of the intelligence community, describe an accelerating “race for technological and military superiority” with China and Russia.
However, international polling shows American allies, including Germany, France, and Japan, still favor a U.S.-led international order over an alternative Chinese-dominated system. The same polls also show a lack of confidence in Trump’s more transactional foreign policy to prevent the slow disintegration of the current order.
While the “America First” ideology may indeed reflect America’s deepening anxiety over its potential displacement as a global leader, claims of a Chinese-Russian alliance seizing control of the balance of power may be hasty given the historical differences and lopsided capabilities which still make this relationship an uneasy one.
Military cooperation, in particular, will need to overcome decades of underlying tension.
Russia’s Vostok military exercises last September—its largest since 1981—featured a small Chinese military detail. A NATO analysis describes the combined portion of Vostok 2018 as demonstrating “a significant incremental step in Russian-Chinese military cooperation with both political and military implications.” Still, Beijing and Moscow are far from treating each other with the mutual understanding necessary for approaching the levels of tactical military interoperability the United States has achieved with the likes of NATO in Europe and Japan, Korea, and Australia in the Pacific.
Russia does still sell plenty of arms to China, exceeding $10 billion in sales since 2011 and ruffling feathers in Taiwan. However, the Kremlin’s Su-35 fighter jet and S-400 missile system sales notwithstanding, China is overtaking Russia’s defense industry, displacing the need for weapons imports and gradually closing the financial spigots on that particular relationship facet.
In addition, Beijing has a clear upper hand over Moscow in this relationship. Though Russia remains a nuclear superpower with considerable gray zone military capabilities, it faces pressing domestic challenges—a high mortality rate and shrinking workforce—as well as unpredictable economic growth due to international sanctions. China, meanwhile, has been dealt the exact opposite hand, having to manage an exploding population while enjoying an unprecedented, if slowing, economic ascent.
For many in Russia, China is an attractive export market and a source of cheap credit, large-scale investment, and advanced technologies. Others fear China will dominate Russia politically and economically, beginning with its expanding border presence and investment in Siberia and other remote far eastern territories.
For all these reasons, Trump should avoid boxing Beijing and Moscow into the same corner.
China and Russia still have considerable hurdles to overcome in their relationship, and the United States should take care that its efforts to confront them don’t inadvertently help them do just that.
Elliot I. Silverberg is an international relations master’s candidate at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is an editor of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and has worked in strategy consulting, journalism, the legal field, and think tanks across Japan and the United States. His work has appeared in The National Interest, East Asia Forum, and RealClearDefense, among other publications.