A New Anti-American Axis?On his first foreign trip as president of China, Xi Jinping was welcomed to Russia by President Vladimir V. Putin in March.
By LESLIE H. GELB and DIMITRI K. SIMES
Published: July 6, 2013
THE flight of the leaker Edward J. Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow last month would not have been possible without the cooperation of Russia and China. The two countries’ behavior in the Snowden affair demonstrates their growing assertiveness and their willingness to take action at America’s expense.
Beyond their protection of Mr. Snowden, Chinese-Russian policies toward Syria have paralyzed the United Nations Security Council for two years, preventing joint international action. Chinese hacking of American companies and Russia’s cyberattacks against its neighbors have also caused concern in Washington. While Moscow and Beijing have generally supported international efforts to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program, they clearly were not prepared to go as far as Washington was, and any coordinated shift in their approach could instantly gut America’s policy on the issue and endanger its security and energy interests. To punctuate the new potential for cooperation, China is now carrying out its largest ever joint naval exercises — with Russia.
Russia and China appear to have decided that, to better advance their own interests, they need to knock Washington down a peg or two. Neither probably wants to kick off a new cold war, let alone hot conflicts, and their actions in the case of Mr. Snowden show it. China allowed him into Hong Kong, but gently nudged his departure, while Russia, after some provocative rhetoric, seems to have now softened its tone.
Still, both countries are seeking greater diplomatic clout that they apparently reckon they can acquire only by constraining the United States. And in world affairs, there’s no better way to flex one’s muscles than to visibly diminish the strongest power.
This new approach appears based in part on a sense of their growing strength relative to America and their increasing emphasis on differences over issues like Syria. Both Moscow and Beijing oppose the principle of international action to interfere in a country’s sovereign affairs, much less overthrow a government, as happened in Libya in 2011. After all, that principle could always backfire on them.
They also don’t like watching the West take action against leaders friendly to them, like President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. As this sense of common interests becomes entrenched, increasing Russian-Chinese cooperation could pose grave risks for America and the world.
Their conduct suggests that they see less cost in challenging the United States and fewer rewards for acting as a partner. These calculations stem from two dangerous perceptions.
First, they see American decline and decadence. In their view, the United States is on the wrong side of history, holding on to ties with Europe and parts of Asia, while losing economic leverage and moral authority in the rest of the world. American disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan without victory contributes to a related impression that America’s unquestioned military superiority isn’t worth much in terms of achieving policy objectives on the ground.
Second, many Russian and Chinese elites consider American foreign policy objectives fundamentally hostile to their vital interests. Neither group views American democracy promotion as reflecting any genuine commitment to freedom; instead, both perceive it as a selective crusade to undermine governments that are hostile to the United States or too powerful for its comfort.
Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese leaders make clear that Washington’s support for their neighbors in practically every dispute involving Beijing or Moscow is less a matter of respect for international law than a form of dual containment that seeks to curtail the regional and global influence of these two major powers.
American backing for Georgia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia bothers Russia. Likewise, China views American support for Vietnam and the Philippines in their maritime disputes with Beijing as a menace.
No wonder Xi Jinping of China made his first international trip as China’s president to Moscow, where he told his counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, that Beijing and Moscow should “resolutely support each other in efforts to protect national sovereignty, security and development interests” and promised to “closely coordinate” on regional and international issues. Mr. Putin reciprocated by saying that “the strategic partnership between us is of great importance on both a bilateral and global scale.” While the two leaders’ words may have generated more of an impression of collusion than was necessary, it’s safe to assume they knew exactly the message they were sending.
POLICY makers in Washington must carefully assess the growing chumminess between China and Russia and what it means for America. To ignore it would be foolish.
Yes, China and Russia continue to be divided by a history of mutual distrust as well as by conflicting economic interests and Chinese territorial ambitions. China’s concerns about North Korea exceed Russia’s, and Moscow’s stake in Syria is greater than Beijing’s. And in Central Asia, the two nations are outright competitors. Moreover, China is a rising superpower and Russia is fighting to stay in the big leagues, which gives them different perspectives on world affairs.
That said, both countries share a strong interest in maintaining partnerships with the United States and the European Union, their main trading partners and the custodians of the international financial system, in which each has a major stake. These are powerful reasons for staying on good working terms with Washington, but the United States should not assume that they will halt the new anti-American tack in Beijing and Moscow. That would be a dangerous misreading of history.
Before World War I, many assumed that mutual economic entanglement and the huge costs of war would prevent conflict among key European powers. On the eve of World War II, Communist Russia and Nazi Germany seemed the unlikeliest of allies, until the two-year-long nonaggression treaty known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact left Europe in ruins and many millions dead.
President Obama should see China and Russia as neither enemies nor friends, but as significant powers with their own interests, as the Snowden affair showed. Initially, Mr. Obama railed publicly and ineffectually at both, urging them to extradite Mr. Snowden. Only when he softened his public stance and hardened his private line did Beijing and Moscow begin to see the advantages of avoiding further confrontation.
Washington needs to understand that most security threats around the world — from Syria to Iran to North Korea — can’t be managed safely and successfully without Russia’s and China’s cooperation. With respect to Syria, this approach would mean appreciating Moscow’s historical connection to the country’s Alawite leaders as well as Russia’s concern over the fate of Syria’s Christians, especially Orthodox Christians. In dealing with Beijing, it would mean strongly protecting American trade interests while understanding that Chinese leaders face real obstacles in tackling their own domestic economic problems.
To gain the respect of Russia and China, the White House must first demonstrate that American leadership is essential to solving key world problems, including those vital to China and Russia. America can’t be seen as passive.
Relations with Russia and China deserve to be given priority, but the United States mustn’t be afraid to stand firm in some cases or, in others, to partner with these two authoritarian but ultimately pragmatic powers. To do otherwise would be a folly of historic proportions.