Washington’s ongoing debate on policy toward Russia continues to pit President Donald Trump and his soft line toward President Vladimir Putin against a much harder approach favored within the administration and the Congress. Meanwhile, the debate over China policy has intensified and hardened remarkably in 2018 with Congress strongly backing the administration’s most significant re-evaluation of American China policy since the start of normalization 50 years ago. New issues of China seeking dominance in high technology that jeopardizes U.S. national security and Beijing conducting clandestine information operations that undermine U.S. and Western democracy have joined intensifying disputes over strategic rivalry in Asia, massive trade war, Chinese territorial expansion, Taiwan, and human rights issues.
Missing from the discussion is the ever closer China-Russia relationship and what it means for American policy. Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met this month for the third time this year; the two leaders spend more time together than any other two world leaders and this pattern is likely to continue as neither one seems ready to leave office. Russia’s massive military exercises this month involving 300,000 troops — the largest since 1981 — are clearly designed to intimidate opponents, and they have impressed China, which sent a strong supporting contingent to the exercises.
What such cooperation means for the United States has been examined in a two-year effort involving 80 U.S. and 30 foreign specialists, including some from Russia and China, sponsored by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). The main findings — based on 50 commissioned papers, expert workshops and public events in the United States and abroad, and briefings with responsible officials in the U.S. administration and Congress — show adverse developments and a bleak outlook for U.S. policy.
China and Russia Against America
The Russia-China relationship continues to deepen and broaden with ever more negative implications for the United States. The drivers of Russian-Chinese cooperation overshadow the brakes on forward movement, at America’s expense. The momentum is based on three foundations: common objectives and values; perceived Russian and Chinese vulnerabilities in the face of U.S. and Western pressures; and perceived opportunities for the two powers to expand their influence at the expense of U.S. and allied powers seen in decline.
Today, Russia and China pose increasingly serious challenges to the U.S.-supported order in their respective priority spheres of concern — Russia in Europe and the Middle East, and China in Asia along China’s continental and maritime peripheries. Russia’s challenges involve military and paramilitary actions in Europe and the Middle East, along with cyber and political warfare undermining elections in the United States and Europe, European unity, and NATO solidarity. China undermines U.S. and allied resolve through covert and overt manipulation and influence peddling employing economic incentives and propaganda. Chinese cyberattacks have focused more on massive theft of information and intellectual property to accelerate China’s economic competitiveness to dominate world markets in key advanced technology at the expense of leading U.S. and other international companies. Coercion and intimidation of neighbors backed by an impressive buildup of Chinese military and civilian security forces expands Beijing’s regional control and influence.
Russia and China coordinate their moves and support one another in their respective challenges to the United States, along with its allies and partners in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. U.S. officials are anxious about what some see as the two-front dilemma facing America, leaving Washington forced to divide resources. These joint efforts also involve diplomatic, security, and economic measures in multilateral forums and bilateral relations involving U.S. opponents in Iran, Syria, and North Korea. The two powers also support one another in the face of U.S. and allied complaints about Russian and Chinese coercive expansion and other steps challenging regional order and global norms and institutions backed by the United States.
Meanwhile, the values and outlook of authoritarian leaders in Moscow and Beijing converge in opposition to U.S. interests and goals; those leaders are not likely to change for the foreseeable future.
There are no easy fixes. The U.S. ability to deal with these rising challenges is commonly seen as in decline. The U.S. position in the triangular relationship among the United States, Russia, and China has deteriorated, to the satisfaction of leaders in Moscow and Beijing seeking to advance their power and influence. Russia’s tension with the West and ever deepening dependence on China and continued active U.S. constructive interaction with China have given Beijing the advantageous “hinge” position in the triangular relationship that the United States used to occupy.
Options — U.S. Strengthening Plus
Looking forward, the participants in the NBR project not from Russia and China generally favor a multiyear and wide-ranging American domestic and international strengthening to better position the United States to deal with the negative implications of Russia-China cooperation. Participants differ on the appropriate amount of strengthening, along a range from some stressing sustaining American primacy without compromising while many more favor various mixes of strengthening and accommodation that require some significant compromise of American interests and values.
In determining the appropriate mix of strengthening and accommodation, the participants often disagree on how the United States should seek advantage in competition with China and Russia. In particular, for some Russia looms as the most immediate and disruptive danger, whereas China continues to show strong interest in working cooperatively with the United States. Thus, the option of working cooperatively with China in seeking to weaken Russia should be pursued. In contrast, others see China as a much more powerful and potentially existential threat and argue that the United States should seek common ground with Russia in our respective efforts to offset potential Chinese dominance. Several remain convinced that the closeness of Russian and Chinese interests and identity makes seeking U.S. advantage by exploiting Russian-Chinese differences unlikely to succeed. Russian and Chinese experts generally put the onus on the United States to compromise and substantially change existing policy in order to “meet half way” Russia and China.
Fortunately, China and Russia have deep historical differences that translate to serious elements of distrust in the current period. Areas of friction and differences between China and Russia can be exploited as the United States enhances its military, economic, and diplomatic capacity to deal with the powers from a stronger position. For example, Russia is an avowed opponent of the United States but China isn’t. China benefits much more from stable relations with the United States and the existing U.S.-led international order. As a result, China may be more inclined in the event of a confrontation with the United States to adhere to a moderate stance that would disadvantage its more truculent Russian partner.
The asymmetries in the China-Russia relationship are enormous and growing. The Chinese economy is 10 times larger than the Russian economy. Putin’s Russia has been compelled to curb its serious concerns about Chinese economic, political, and even military expansion in Russia’s near-abroad — Moscow’s top foreign policy concern. How much longer the Russian leader can sustain a cordial relationship with China based on an ever deepening deference to Beijing and Moscow’s growing image as the junior partner is a question that could be exploited by adroit U.S. policy.
Finally, China and Russia’s respective coercive strategies in pursuit of regional leadership come at the expense of neighboring powers. The Russian and Chinese goals are at odds with the core interests of most of their neighbors. Taken together, Moscow and Beijing favor fragmentation of NATO, the EU, the U.S. alliance structure in Asia, and regional groupings led by ASEAN and others that impinge on Chinese or Russian ambitions. The United States opposes coercive changes in the status quo and supports existing boundaries, stronger regional collective security, and the sovereignty and aspirations of all states in accord with international norms. A strong United States provides a welcome counterweight for Asian and European nations impacted by Russian and Chinese ambitions. This dynamic provides U.S. policymakers numerous opportunities going forward.
In sum, the situation is grim and the outlook troubled. What is needed today is careful attention by U.S. policymakers on what is at stake and what should be done. Ignoring this massive international development with adverse consequences for the United States is a path to failure with lasting major consequence for the United States and the prevailing international order.
Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University and the principal investigator of the project “Strategic Implications of China-Russia Relations” at the National Bureau of Asian Research.