America Shouldn’t Try to Pry China and Russia Apart

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Xi Jinping of China toast during a banquet at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, November 12, 2014
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Xi Jinping of China toast during a banquet at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, November 12, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza)

If America misinterprets the nature of Sino-Russian relations, it could follow a policy that ends up strengthening rather than weakening its two rival powers.

Jacob Stokes and Alexander Sullivan, both fellows at the Center for a New American Security, recently argued in Foreign Affairs magazine there is a high risk the country will because American commentary tends to either underestimate or overestimate the threat of a alliance between China and Russia.

On the one hand, they point out, scholars like Joseph Nye claim that the relationship is fatally flawed and riven with mistrust. This school of thought holds that China and Russia only cooperate when it suits both their interests, not out of a sense of shared destiny or because they have any grand strategic designs.

On the other hand are those who believe there is a strategic design. Stokes and Sullivan call this the “mighty axis” school. It tends toward the view that China and Russia are building a lasting partnership to challenge American dominance.

The reality is somewhere in the middle.

The authors admit that some areas of Sino-Russian cooperation threaten American interests.

Beijing and Moscow have, for instance, joined forces to normalize “cyber sovereignty,” that is, to increase national governments’ power over digital activity within their borders and thereby further fracture the free and open Internet. Likewise, Russia’s sale of the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system to China has the potential to seriously complicate American military planning in Asia-Pacific.

But other types of cooperation either do not affect the United States or are actually beneficial. China and Russia were both parties to the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, for example, and they have a radical Islamist threat in common with the West.

If Sino-Russian cooperation is a “mixed bag,” the policies prescribed by those who are either sanguine or alarmist about it will fall short.

Those who see the relationship as fatally flawed will argue that the United States need only stand aside for China and Russia to inevitably fall out.

Those who see the relationship as an immediate danger to American power will advocate containment — which is more likely to push China and Russia closer together than pull them apart.

The Atlantic Sentinel has cautioned against such a policy, arguing that if the United States are unable to accommodate a rising China that naturally expects a greater influence in East Asia or — worse — if China gets the impression that America intends to block its ascendancy, it could decide that the benefits of an alliance with Russia outweigh the costs and risks after all.

The United States need a better approach, write Stokes and Sullivan, one that focuses on isolating China and Russia together rather than trying to pry them apart.

Unlike during the Cold War, when the United States could form a quasi-alliance with China against Russia, triangulation is not an option. At the time, China was the weaker power and resentful of Russia’s attempts to run it like a communist puppet state.

Today Russia is the weaker power, China does not attempt to run it and the [Vladimir] Putin regime gains strength from both its ideological stand against the West and its growing ties with China.

There is little the United States can offer China to make it give up or rein in Russia because the more headaches Russia causes in Eastern Europe, the more the United States’ focus is drawn away from Asia.

Similarly, since Russia annexed the Crimea and the West imposed economic sanctions, there is little hope of drawing Russia back closer to Europe and the United States.

What the United States can do is push back against bad Chinese and Russian behavior on its own merits.

Both powers say they want the world order to shift away from American domination and toward multipolarity. In reality, they want the freedom to throw their weight around, as Russia has done in Ukraine and China is doing in the South China Sea.

America — and by extension the West — needs to resist Chinese and Russian bullying wherever it occurs. It needs to call out their “anti-hegemonic” proposals for what they are: efforts to replace America’s soft hegemony with a more authoritarian variant of their own.

Some smaller nations may be attracted to a vision of a less Americentric world. They ought to be reminded that their prosperity and security are much safer under the liberal world order of the United States than anything China and Russia can offer.

Obama Needs India to Make His Asia “Pivot” a Success

Barack Obama Naredra Modi
American president Barack Obama and Prime Minister Modi of India attend a state dinner at the presidential palace in New Delhi, January 25 (White House/Pete Souza)

If Narendra Modi can convince India to break with its nonaligned past and ally with the Pacific’s democracies instead, American president Barack Obama may yet succeed in counterbalancing China’s rise.

Since it was announced in 2011, the American “pivot” to Asia appears to have done little to affect Chinese behavior. Rather, the military component of what was later renamed a “rebalancing” strategy exacerbated China’s fears of encirclement. By raising troop deployments in the Western Pacific, the United States inadvertently confirmed the Chinese in their worst fears: that America intended to block their reemergence as a great power.

China has since pressed its revisionist maritime border claims in the East and South China Seas and bullied its neighbors. Read more “Obama Needs India to Make His Asia “Pivot” a Success”

Obama Brings China In from the Cold

Barack Obama Xi Jinping
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Xi Jinping of China toast during a banquet at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, November 12 (White House/Pete Souza)

China and the United States announced a landmark agreement on curbing climate change on Wednesday. While significant in its own right, the biggest takeaway from the deal might be that the world’s two biggest economies are still able to get thing done in spite of the American “pivot” to Asia and Russia’s own burgeoning relationship with China.

The climate deal, which includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions and a commitment from China to stop pollution from rising after 2030, was announced by Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in Beijing where the leaders had gathered for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

The mere fact that China was willing to enter into the agreement is significant, argues the Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi. Read more “Obama Brings China In from the Cold”

American Bomber Overflights Challenge Chinese Air Control

A B-52 Stratofortress bomber leads a formation of American and Japanese fighter jets in a flight over Guam, February 21, 2011
A B-52 Stratofortress bomber leads a formation of American and Japanese fighter jets in a flight over Guam, February 21, 2011 (USAF/Angelita M. Lawrence)

America sent a strong signal on Tuesday of its position in a territorial dispute between China and Japan when it conducted bomber overflights of the Senkaku Islands. The island chain has been at the center of tensions in the Sino-Japanese relationship for some years and lies at the heart of an Air Defense Identification Zone that China declared just days ago.

Chinese authorities’ announcement of the ADIZ unilaterally requires all aircraft wishing to operate within a broad zone of the East China Sea to register their flight plans and other identifying information ahead of time. Failure to comply would, according to the government in Beijing, lead to proportionate responses from its armed forces. The implication being that this applies to the military and merchant aircraft that regularly service and patrol the Senkaku Islands which are administered by Japan and known in China as the Diaoyu Islands.

The Japanese and United States governments both rejected China’s move. Japan’s prime minister Shinzō Abe told parliament that China’s statements “have no validity whatsoever on Japan” and demanded that it “revoke any measures that could infringe upon the freedom of flight in international airspace.” Chuck Hagel, America’s defense secretary, paralleled Abe’s statements in a press release and emphasized that the the United States “view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region.”

The Pentagon, addressing questions as to the reasons behind Tuesday’s overflight of two B-52 bomber aircraft, said that the American air presence in the region was the result of a long planned training mission and not an attempt to challenge China’s effort to politically constrain Japan’s ability to defend its claim to the island chain. Nevertheless, American military officials did take care to point out that future operations would follow the standard operating procedures of not filing official flight plans.

Behind the veil of diplomatic discourse, China’s declaration of an ADIZ is part of a broader effort to establish greater control over the country’s offshore spaces and push back the intrinsic threat of American naval dominance in the Western Pacific. Indeed, the announcement mirrored other, less formalized steps that China had taken in recent months to try to regulate more effectively the passage of public and private vessels in areas it considers to be of strategic interest, from stretches of the country’s littoral waters to disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry quickly responded on Tuesday, saying “Japan has no right to make irresponsible remarks or wage deliberate offenses over China’s establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ.” It claimed Japan’s “groundless accusations” were the real potential source of “frictions” that could “undermine regional stability.”

But it is clear that the United States see the ADIZ as a step too far. A White House spokesman insisted that China’s attempts to regulate international airspace, particularly in a region where such actions carry significant external implications, is “unnecessarily inflammatory” and its commitment to this course of action could prove to be extremely “destabilizing.”

The appearance of the B-52 bombers is perhaps the surest sign to date that America, both a treaty partner of Japan’s and a country technically and decidedly neutral in terms of regional territorial disputes, is not prepared to allow an unreasonable escalation of tension.

China’s Xi, American Secretary Discuss Currency, Korea

China’s new paramount leader Xi Jinping met with American treasury secretary Jack Lew in Beijing on Tuesday in what was his first meeting with a foreign official since being formally named president last week.

According to American officials, the two men discussed the major issues between their countries: the state of the global economy, China’s currency, cyber hacking, intellectual property rights and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It was the highest level meeting between American and Chinese officials since Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Beijing in September.

Lew was reportedly “candid and direct” on North Korea. The United States want China to enforce tougher sanctions enacted by the United Nations Security Council after the country conducted a nuclear test in February. There is doubt about China’s commitment in following through. Because China is North Korea’s main ally, it has historically been reticent of pushing too hard on the regime for strategic reasons and a fear that should the government in Pyongyang collapse, a flow of refugees will seek shelter in China and destabilize the border region. Read more “China’s Xi, American Secretary Discuss Currency, Korea”

Obama Addresses Pressing Issues at East Asia Summit

President Barack Obama, flanked by Prime Ministers Yoshihiko Noda of Japan and Wen Jiabao of China, attends the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 20
President Barack Obama, flanked by Prime Ministers Yoshihiko Noda of Japan and Wen Jiabao of China, attends the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 20 (State Department/William Ng)

Recently reelected American president Barack Obama met this week with some of Asia’s top leaders at the seventh East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as part of a broader regional tour. The president used the opportunity to promote American economic interests and tackle vital regional issues.

Prior to the summit, Obama sought to address the ongoing maritime territorial disputes plaguing Asia, meeting with leaders from China and Japan. The focus of the talks concerned the conflict between the two countries over the uninhabited islands that the Japanese government purchased from a private owner. Known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, the islands have caused a rupture between the world’s second- and third largest economies, resulting in mounting political tension, massive anti-Japan protests and a slowdown in bilateral trade.

Japan has noted the grave security issue that the conflict poses, announcing an expansion of American-Japanese military operations. In a meeting with Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, Obama emphasized the longstanding alliance between the United States and Japan, labeling it a “cornerstone” of East Asian security. Ensuring to appeal to the other side however, he also stressed the importance of stable Sino-American political and economic relations. In a meeting with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, Obama stated that “as the two largest economies in the world, we have a special responsibility to lead the way in ensuring sustained and balanced growth.”

Nonetheless, Obama’s potential impact seems limited. China has insisted that this conflict, along with its other maritime disputes in the region, should not be discussed at the summit, stating that it would rather deal with these issues on a bilateral basis. Moreover, the Asian countries involved in these disputes have expressed an unwillingness to engage in heated discourse over disputes, given China’s powerful geopolitical position and their dependence on trade with the economic giant.

At the summit itself, President Obama promoted free economic exchange between Asian nations and the United States. This involved a discussion of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), an evolving free-trade agreement involving various countries in the region including Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. While the TPP would certainly be constructive in promoting exports and job growth in all nations involved, this is far from the main purpose of the agreement. Considering that the United States already has free-trade agreements with the more economically developed TPP countries, such as Singapore, and that the trade benefits received from the less developed countries would be relatively marginal, an ulterior motive is clearly visible.

The greatest benefit the United States would gain from the TPP is an invasion of China’s economic turf. If signed, the agreement could pose a great challenge to Chinese regional hegemony, forcing it to compete with an unprecedented level of American influence. Facing wavering levels of regional clout, China might be compelled to further open up its economy to foreign direct investment, allowing rapid expansion of the already massive Sino-American trade relationship.

Following the East Asia Summit, Obama will conclude his East Asia trip, which included a stop in Thailand, a longtime American ally, and a historic visit to the formerly isolated and newly developing nation of Burma. The impact of his visit is yet to be seen.

This article by Daniel Fleishman originally appeared at, November 21, 2012.

“Strategic Reassurance” Implies Chinese Dominance in Asia

Three years into the Obama Administration, the United States changed their China policy from what had been dubbed “strategic reassurance” to the now familiar “Asia pivot.” The latter may better reflect American security interests in East Asia but not necessarily improve its economic relationship with what is now the world’s second largest economy.

The policy of “strategic reassurance” was carried over from the Bush Administration which, through engagement, had tried to persuade China to act as a “responsible stakeholder” in the world system. Thomas Wright wrote at The Diplomat two years ago that it reflected Barack Obama’s multipolar views. The United States bothered less with criticisms of China’s economic protectionisms and human rights abuses in order to achieve a “concert of powers,” according to Wright, that was “based on the underlying assumption that the world’s major powers ultimately share the same threats and interests — tackling terrorism and pandemics, ensuring economic instability and preventing nuclear proliferation.” Read more ““Strategic Reassurance” Implies Chinese Dominance in Asia”

Obama, Romney Unfairly Berate “Unfair” Chinese Trade

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama makes a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 22, 2012 (Obama for America/Josh Burstein)

Earlier this month, the United States filed a broad trade case at the World Trade Organization against China for unfairly subsidizing its exports of cars and auto parts. Both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney have hailed such aggressive trade actions. Read more “Obama, Romney Unfairly Berate “Unfair” Chinese Trade”

Navy to Invite China to Pacific Rim Exercise

Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta announced on Thursday that the United States Navy will be inviting China to a series of Pacific naval exercises in 2014.

These exercises, which take place biannually, involve up to 22 nations. The announcement comes in the wake of joint counterpiracy operations conducted by the two nations last week in the Gulf of Aden. Proposals for joint peacekeeping operations were discussed as well.

Referring to the ongoing conflict between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu Islands in China, Panetta pleaded for international cooperation, specifically in areas of maritime disputes. Read more “Navy to Invite China to Pacific Rim Exercise”

China’s Shadow Looms Over Clinton’s Asian Trip

Hillary Clinton
American secretary of state Hillary Clinton delivers remarks at a summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 11 (State Department/William Ng)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in China on Tuesday for two days of meetings with top officials where she is expected to discuss a wide range of issues including the disputes between China and its neighbors over uninhabited islands in the South China Sea.

Clinton is on an eleven day, six nation trip to Asia that could be her last if she steps down at the end of the Obama Administration’s first term. Read more “China’s Shadow Looms Over Clinton’s Asian Trip”