In the last week, several news articles and opinion pieces have been written about events currently unfolding in China. A Chinese military official warned that war between the U.S. and China, at this point, was inevitable. Meanwhile, over at the National Interest, Lyle Goldstein wrote a piece that argued the ongoing Sino-Russian alliance was an unshakeable bond.
His argument rested on mostly economic reasons. But, given that America is the largest economy, one would think that either Russia or China would have greater desire for more positive relations with the U.S. than either one of them. Besides, such sterile economic arguments are reductionist in nature and ignore the qualitative human factors of history and culture–the two themes which have driven all of the global change we have experienced.
Indeed, the Trump Administration’s own Trade Representative, Dr. Peter Navarro, recently dubbed this military and economic alliance as “Chussia” (a play on Niall Ferguson’s “Chimerica”, which was the fusion of the Chinese and American economies from two decades ago). But, such calculations are wrong. They also miss the fact of how much credence other countries place in mainstream Western news media outlets. In the West, the Mainstream news media and several conventional policymakers have been bandying about notions of a Trump-Putin cordiale. China hears this. They likely believe it.
For example, last week, in response to the Trump Administration’s ongoing ratcheting up of tensions with China, the Chinese deployed their Dongfeng-41 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles along the Russian border.
That seems to be a strange move on the part of the Chinese, if they are so well invested in their alliance with Russia. Think about it: in response to perceived aggression from the United States, the Chinese have moved their most powerful nuclear missiles to…the Russian border? Talk about an unshakeable Sino-Russian alliance! The folks in Moscow must be scratching their heads on that one. Hey, maybe the next time that ISIS attacks America, the U.S. should target Canada with our ICBMs in response! Of course, both Lyle Goldstein and other Western observers maintain that Russia did not perceive the move as threatening.
However, I beg to differ.
The Sino-Russian alliance is nowhere near as unbreakable as the purported experts claim. Indeed, all one need do is simply look at history to see that the Sino-Russian relationship, since the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 onward, has been mostly hostile. This mostly hostile relationship is interspersed with bouts of friendlier contact (most recently during the Cold War). But, on average, these warmer relations are a rarity. This is a very good thing for America’s strategic interests.
Indeed, as I have outlined in other articles, the current Sino-Russian alliance is predicated on a Friendship Treaty signed between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China in 2001. There is little doubt that the Putin Regime favors closer ties with China. But, the question is: how much of this is a true desire for alliance, and how much of it is simple cost-benefit calculations?
Putin is invested in pivoting to the east, in order to shore up Russia’s expansive holdings there. However, the population density of Russia’s Far East is working against Russian development of the region. By 2020, there will likely be more non-Russians (mostly Chinese) living in the Russian Far East than Russians! Indeed, the Friendship Treaty that Putin touted in 2000 is actually quite limited (unlike other storied alliances, like those of NATO or the U.S.-UK alliance). While the treaty committed Russia’s Pacific Fleet to preventing a U.S. military defense of Taiwan (by blockading the waterways into Taiwan, should China attack the threatened island), that treaty is set to expire in four years.
Also, the treaty has never been invoked. It is likely that China wanted this treaty not because it viewed Russia as a strong partner, but because it looked upon Russia in the exact opposite way: as a declining power about to collapse whose resources and territory China wanted for itself. For the Chinese, it was a less costly endeavor to coordinate with Russia (i.e. “manage their decline”) rather than fight them. By 2020, when the treaty is set to expire, Russian population density will be in Russia’s disfavor. China will effectively have a freehand in the Russian Far East. They will also likely no longer need the Russian military, as it will have become a spent force–or so the Chinese negotiators for the 2001 Treaty of Friendship likely surmised (indeed, former Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, was the one who insisted upon the sunset clause ending the treaty by 2020).
If such an alliance were as unshakeable as that of “Chussia;” if the Chinese valued Russia so greatly, how is it that the Chinese embedded such a clause in this foundational treaty of the formal Sino-Russian alliance?
Could it be that China does not value Russia as greatly as many Western observers believe? Could it also be that the Sino-Russian alliance exists as it does because both the Russians and the Chinese believed that it was in their national interests–at the time? Given that, isn’t it also possible that such an alliance could be changed (or broken) by superior diplomatic gamesmanship on the part of the West?
China has just moved their most advanced ICBM forces to the Russian border…in response to what the U.S. president has said.
Why is this?
Rather than believing that Russia and China are BFF’s, maybe analysts should be skeptical that such an alliance can last. It didn’t last during the Cold War. Back then, the United States–when it was weakened by the Vietnam War–still managed to triangulate China away from their ideological partners in the Soviet Union (something that many experts at the time said was impossible). This triangulation policy that was begun under the Nixon Administration helped to set the table for the ultimate victory of the U.S. in the Cold War.
What is likely at play here is the fact that the Chinese have come to believe the lies coming out of the Western press. They are likely under the belief that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are allies. Feeling the squeeze by such a perceived alliance, I believe that the Chinese are deploying their missiles along the Russian border as a veiled threat at their supposed Russian ally. The Chinese may be questioning the Russian commitment to their alliance, because of all of the erroneous reporting coming from the Western media. They may be signaling to the Russians that they are not to be trifled with in the tensest hours they’ve had with the United States in decades.
The Sino-Russian alliance is weak. It is based on short-term national interests. In the long run, China and Russia are natural enemies. The divisions that history, culture, and geography have created over the centuries will become apparent again–no matter how deep their economic ties may be. This is especially so as the Russian focus on its Far East territory intensifies. It will also become apparent as the Russian population in the Far East continues its precipitous decline. What’s more, with the Chinese feeling the pressure of a rapidly contracting economy (with the added pressure of American hostility), tensions will only sour with Russia.
The Trump Administration must ignore the noise from conventional analysts. Yes, China and Russia are allies–on paper. Their alliance, unlike, say the U.S.-UK “Special Relationship,” is likely based entirely on short term interests. In the long term, China wants to take vast swathes of Russia’s Far East. They do not want the Putin Regime to shift its focus away from Europe and toward Asia. Their hope is that the ethnic Chinese population in Russia’s Far East will be so much greater than the ethnic Russian population there, that the Chinese will be able to lay claim to the Russian Far East beginning in 2020. Some ally, huh?
We are likely rapidly approaching the period of time when Russian interests in their Far East will only be secured by healthier relations with the United States (as tension with their current ally, China, increases). There is little doubt that the Sino-Russian alliance exists. But, Russia, I believe, is far more invested in the alliance than China. As time progresses, also, it seems that China will no longer view their alliance with Russia as being in their strategic interests.
The U.S. must be waiting in the wings to benefit from this development. We must repeat the triangulation of the Cold War, but in reverse: America must separate Russia away from China. Believe me, it will not be as difficult as many are claiming. America is the largest economy. We have the strongest military. These two things will only increase. For all of his talk about a Neo-Eurasian future for Russia, there is little doubt that Mr. Putin retains a natural affinity for the West, just as his Tsarist predecessors did. America should play to these affinities in future relations with the Russian strongman.
All in all, the Sino-Russian alliance is a passing phase in the greater Sino-Russian relationship. To take advantage of these fortuitous circumstances, America must complete its pivot to Asia. It must also shore up its economy and continue its hardline stance with China. Through consistent exhibitions of strength, the U.S. can ultimately woo Russia to its side, as the Russians realize that the Chinese are planning to betray them. Such strength will also cow the Chinese. This will likely avert a major war and it will reassert America’s primacy of global power (which, in turn, will create greater stability in the world).