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China-Russia: US Leadership in Global Geopolitics

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Trans-Pacific View

China-Russia: US Leadership in Global Geopolitics

Insights from Sharyl Cross.

China-Russia: US Leadership in Global Geopolitics
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Dr. Sharyl Cross – Director of the Kozmetsky Center at St. Edward’s University and Global Policy Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as well as author (with Paul J. Bolt) of the forthcoming book China, Russia, and Twenty First Century Global Geopolitics – is the 71st  in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Explain the global context of China and Russia’s growing geostrategic aggressiveness.

China and Russia, as the world’s two leading authoritarian nations, present a challenge to U.S. hegemony and the Western liberal order by seeking a multipolar global power configuration more suitable to their interests. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping enjoy a close association and both are strong nationalistic leaders determined to command respect on the world stage. Russia still maintains nuclear parity with the United States, and China rivals America as the world’s leading global economic power. China and Russia exercise considerable influence as permanent members of the UN Security Council, and share a coincidence of positions on several significant international issues in direct contradiction to the preferences and interests of Western democratic nations. Moscow confronted the United States and its allies in Georgia in 2008 and more recently over the annexation of Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has demonstrated the capacity to continue to project military force beyond its immediate neighborhood with the deployment in Syria, and has resisted Western pressure to comply in ousting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Xi Jinping has been increasingly bold in asserting China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beijing and Moscow understand that the Sino-Russian partnership holds the potential to serve as a counterweight to the United States on global and regional issues. So far, China and Russia describe their relationship as a comprehensive “strategic partnership,” but they are not “allies.”

How might the Trump administration revamp or replace the U.S. rebalance to Asia policy?

The United States has been a leading presence in Asia and the Pacific for decades, and one consequence of announcing initially the “pivot,” and then a “rebalance,” toward Asia was the heightening of concern in Beijing that Washington was determined to “contain” or thwart China’s rise. Given existing U.S. global interests and regional security challenges, it was unrealistic to suggest that the United States could divert significant attention and resources from the Middle East. The Arab Spring contagion, rise of Islamic State, and the prolonged conflict in Syria combined with Russia’s unexpected intervention in Ukraine prevented the intended shift of U.S. focus toward Asia. During the campaign, President-elect Trump made few references to Asia, suggesting only that existing trade agreements with China placed the United States at a considerable disadvantage, lamenting that American jobs had been lost to Asia, and arguing that the U.S. should place additional tariffs on Chinese goods. Donald Trump contributed to galvanizing domestic opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and contended that U.S. allies in Asia must be prepared to shoulder the costs for ensuring their own defense.

Despite the campaign statements, the Trump Administration should clearly communicate in words and actions that Asia will continue to be a top regional strategic and economic priority. There should be no suggestion that the United States might reduce its presence in Asia or would fail to maintain commitments to longstanding regional allies. At the same time, the United States has nothing to gain by announcing dramatic shifts in regional focus such as the Asia “pivot” or “rebalance.” There is no indication that the necessity for American engagement in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe will diminish or shift dramatically in the near or even long term.

Identify the top three strategic issues in U.S.-China relations that could bolster U.S. leadership in Asia.    

Given the high stakes for the United States in Asia and especially China, the Trump Administration would be well served to articulate a clear positive mutually advantageous strategic vision for Asia and the U.S.-China bilateral relationship underscoring American interests and commitment to engagement. The focus should be on sustaining and strengthening regional partnerships, suggesting areas for enhancing security and economic cooperation, and cultivating reliable regional mechanisms and personal relationships as means for managing complex challenges and conflicts.

President-elect Trump has placed a high priority on countering terrorism and defeating ISIS. Xi Jinping has undertaken a number of initiatives to enhance China’s capacity for countering terrorism, and there is no reason to prevent the United States and China from strengthening CT collaboration, particularly in the Middle East and Eurasia. Another top issue would be regional nuclear security and proliferation, and the Trump Administration would want to work with China toward safeguarding all aspects of nuclear security throughout Asia to include creating greater incentive for enlisting Beijing’s assistance to exercise leverage and influence in managing the North Korean threat. Cybersecurity will become an ever more urgent priority in the decades ahead. Although China might be a major cyber adversary for the United States, ensuring the continued momentum of efforts initiated during the Obama era to develop U.S.-China cooperation in cybersecurity should be a priority for the incoming Trump Administration.

Explain whether the Trump-Putin relationship will revolve around strongman personalities or realpolitik pragmatism.  

The answer to this question is probably both strongman personalities and realpolitik pragmatism, or the frequently referenced “machopolitik.” Donald Trump made the bold assertion during the campaign that “wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually get along with Russia?” This vision seems to have been reinforced with Trump’s selection of Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Flynn, a consistent proponent of promoting cooperation with Russia in countering terrorism, to serve as his national security advisor. The election of Donald Trump provides an opening for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to move toward normalization of the U.S. -Russian relationship.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, Trump has signaled that he might not be so interested in crafting policy to champion democratization or regime transformation around the world. Trump may in fact be willing to push for the lifting of Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia or not allow Putin’s annexation of Crimea to stand as an impediment to normalizing the relationship with Moscow. Trump will be working with a Republican Congress and government, many of whom remain highly suspicious of Putin’s intentions and vehemently criticized the Obama Administration for reluctance to confront Russia with lethal force in response to intervention in Ukraine.

It should be remembered that one of the first initiatives of the incoming Obama Administration was the “reset” aimed to restore the relationship with Russia following the escalation of tensions over the Russo-Georgian conflict. Both the Bush-Putin and Yeltsin-Clinton eras started with claims of “partnership” until the realities of clashing strategic interests led to much more sobering assessments of the potential for cooperation. The fact is that U.S.-Russia cooperation on a host of security issues (weapons proliferation, countering terrorism and extremism, and much more) is important for both countries and the world. If firm resolve exists on the part of these two “strongmen” presidents to achieve a sustained breakthrough in the U.S.-Russian relationship, it remains to be seen whether the desirable objective of returning to a more constructive course can be achieved because there is no doubt that the American and Russian leaders will encounter significant resistance, both at home and abroad.

How should U.S. President-elect Trump articulate and demonstrate U.S. foreign policy leadership in dealing with China and Russia in the first 100 days in office?

As a first priority, the Trump administration should reaffirm U.S. commitment to our allies in Asia and Europe, but also place a high priority on forging constructive partnerships with both China and Russia. Trump’s pragmatism and flexibility could provide some advantages in dealing with these two major authoritarian world powers.  A return to Henry Kissinger’s tripartite balancing approach, which proved quite effective for managing the United States’ relationship with China and the former Soviet Union in the past, might provide the optimal approach. It would be a huge mistake for the United States to drive China and Russia closer. Both the leadership in Moscow and Beijing place a high priority on relationships with the United States and recognize that American cooperation is necessary to advance their security and economic agendas.

The Trump Administration could take the lead during the first 100 days in broaching a new U.S.-China-Russia strategic engagement initiative signaling recognition of the importance of the three countries for world security, and enforcing the point that it would be so much better if the United States, China, and Russia were able to manage their differences to avoid misunderstanding or miscalculation, which could easily escalate into major power confrontation over issues in the South China Sea, Eastern Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere. Both the United States and China could benefit by seeking greater commitment on the part of Russia in addressing Asian security challenges. Sino-Russian cooperation in coordinating the “One Belt, One Road” and Eurasian Economic Union has accelerated, especially in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. The U.S. foreign policy community and private sector should be engaged along with China and Russia in shaping the future landscape in Eurasia, rather than being left on the sidelines of an exclusively Sino-Russian project that holds the potential to dramatically impact the long-term global geopolitical balance.