What a US-Russia detente means for China

By Cui Heng Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/29 15:13:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Less than a month before US President-elect Donald Trump takes office, his foreign policy has attracted immense attention since it has much bearing on other countries. In Trump's new lineup of foreign policy advisers, pro-Russian members account for a majority and Rex Tillerson, an oil tycoon who has long been friendly toward Russia, was appointed as secretary of state. Usually, the change of US presidents opens a window for improving the country's relations with Russia. Given Trump's election manifesto and diplomacy team, the US-Russian relationship, which has dropped to its lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War, is very likely to see notable improvements after Trump is sworn in.

Under the current circumstances, many worry that the improvements will raise China's external pressure and break the joint efforts of China and Russia to counterbalance the West. But this is a false presumption since it's highly questionable whether Trump will indeed boost US-Russia relations.

There will be some improvements. After all, a standoff benefits neither the US nor Russia, and both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have the will to mend bilateral ties. But as noted by many observers, Trump's personal appreciation of Putin can hardly be translated into motivation for making significant diplomatic improvements.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, said that there may be more détente than notable improvement in US-Russia relations after Trump takes office. Trump relies heavily on the most conservative faction of Republicans that has little affection for Russia. For instance, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has made harsh comments against Russia and Putin.

The trajectory of US-Russia relations is shaped by three major issues: hotspot affairs in which the two have conflicting views, like Syria and Ukraine, the establishment of a post-Cold War security order in Europe and the understanding of the international order. 

Over international affairs, the confrontation between the US and Russia over Syria may be alleviated as Trump and Putin both want to combat the Islamic State, but they are unlikely to compromise when it comes to power distribution within Syria. The biggest obstacle regarding the Ukrainian crisis is the future status of Crimea, over which Trump can hardly make concessions.

In terms of European security, the US won't concede to Russia over the prominent issue of NATO's eastern expansion and anti-missile system deployment. In particular, Trump has derailed from his campaign promises and made clear that he won't reduce support for NATO. Besides, Trump will put national interests above abstract values. His political philosophy combines realism and pragmatism in the US political culture, but doesn't go as far as isolationism. He demanded US allies to pay their fair share of spending, but he won't give up the US role in stabilizing the world order.

Any change in the US-Russia relations will exert certain influences on China given their triangular relationship. China has been promoting independent bilateral relations with other countries, but undeniably its enhanced ties with Russia come as a result of mounting pressure from the outside. Hence, they came up with a slew of initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and the Silk Road Economic Belt connecting the Eurasia Economic Union to strive for a bigger say when the agenda-setting is dominated by Western countries.

As the gap between China and the US narrows in overall national strength, the two countries will see fiercer strategic confrontation and growing frictions. During the campaign, Trump didn't label Russia as the No.1 threat to the US, but repeatedly noted the necessity to counterbalance China's rise.

Under his presidency, China may need more strategic support from Russia and the strategic pressure that the US has put on Russia regarding Europe and Near East won't diminish. Against this backdrop, common strategic interests that prompt China and Russia to jointly fight against external pressure will drive the two countries' interactions with the US.

Whatever change takes place between the US and Russia, China has to maintain strategic focus and stick to its primary goals at this stage. Meanwhile, China needs to take the initiative in influencing or even leading the international agenda-setting, and present its conception of the international order.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Center for Russian Studies, East China Normal University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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