The China Factor in Russia–US Equation

Dr. Atul Bhardwaj, Adjunct Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

Trump is no admirer of the post-war liberal international order. He is neither keen to invest to save NATO nor is he interested in subsidizing the United Nations. He wants to stop splurging and rely more on allies’ money and material to maintain American hegemony.

Besides saving precious dollars, Russia is the other crucial element in Trump’s strategy to halt the impressive march of China, its peer competitor. In his endeavour to get Russia back into the US camp, Trump has the full support of Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and national-security adviser under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Kissinger, a typical offensive realist is well- versed in the technique of balancing realism with restraint. He feels that in the best interest of realpolitik, America should be more restrained vis-a-vis Russia. Kissinger feels that Putin is not “a character like Hitler, He comes out of Dostoyevsky.”  Both Trump and Kissinger are opposed to the Democrats view that Europeans have to be supported to stop Russia from occupying Ukraine and Georgia. In a recent interview with Financial Times, Kissinger said,

The mistake NATO has made is to think that there is a sort of historic evolution that will march across Eurasia and not to understand that somewhere on that march it will encounter something very different to a Westphalian entity. And for Russia this is a challenge to its identity.

Despite fierce oppositions by Russophobes Trump openly courted Putin at the recently concluded Helsinki summit. Despite the liberals blaming him for treason, Trump appeased Putin by declaring in a press conference that Russia did not carry out any cyber-operations to influence the US electoral process. The obvious question is why is Russia being wooed by the US? Is it the Russian nukes under Putin’s command that perturbs the US establishment? Or is it consolidation of Sino-Russian ties that are causing consternations in Washington?

The United States has tremendous Cold War experience to handle both the Russian nukes and the Sino- Russian ties. The Russian nukes are not an immediate threat because Putin is well-versed in the doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’. However, what Putin is adamant upon strengthening is the Sino-Russian bonds, which the communist ideology had failed to glue together in a bi-polar world.

The post 2008 world is different, China, America’s peer competitor, challenges it more on economic than military front. The 2018 US National Defence Strategy, considers China as the top strategic competitor ahead of Russia, “using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features in the South China Sea”.  However, despite China’s growing industrial and financial clout Chinese nukes are not considered as menacing as the Russian ones and many in Washington believe that Beijing’s second strike capabilities can be managed effectively.

The problem becomes acute when the Chinese economic strength conjoins with Russian oil and nuclear weapons, across the Eurasian landmass to offer unprecedented challenge to the Anglo-American maritime order that has sustained the Western dominance of the world for centuries. It is for this reason that Americans are revisiting their Cold War strategy to once again cause the Sino-Russian split and heighten the Russo-German mistrust.

Paradoxically, Trump wants Germany to go slow in Ukraine but on the other hand it has publically criticized Berlin for signing the Baltic Sea gas pipeline deal with Moscow. He has even gone to the extent of saying that Berlin had become “a captive to Russia”. Germans can’t be allowed to strike independent deals with Russia. After all, Berlin is essential to keep Moscow under intense pressure while Trump cuddles Putin.  Basically, the American realists want to keep the three big land powers, China, Russia and Germany at loggerheads with each other, in order to keep the global land connectivity disrupted.

But the question is whether Putin will move as per the American strategy. He understands deterrence and MAD, and is also fully aware of the fact that letting China into the ‘first world’ in the 1960s War was a fatal mistake. Russia is not likely to ignore geography and abandon China. And Chinese cannot afford the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to splinter because they don’t intend to let go an opportunity to link Europe and Asia in a new type of relationship.

The big question that strategists are likely to pose is – will Kissinger win again? Will America’s slow-split strategy work in the twenty first century?  Will the continental powers and maritime powers reconcile to sharing power in a multipolar world order or will they once again resort to war?



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