Following US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s successful visit to China, it has been confirmed that Xi Jinping, China’s President and paramount leader, will be travel to Washington in early April to meet with US President Donald Trump.
It is fair to say that before and immediately after the election most people expected a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to precede a meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. In fact much of the talk in the first days of the administration was of the Trump administration trying to wean Russia away from its alliance with China and its burgeoning alliance with Iran, with China and Iran replacing Russia as the US’s primary enemies de jour.
In the event, though hostility to Iran remains a Trump administration theme, as my colleague Adam Garrie has written, it is China – the US’s great geopolitical rival in the Pacific, and the US’s greatest trade rival and partner – that the Trump administration is reaching out to first.
There is nothing mysterious about the reasons for this. With President Trump being accused by his political enemies in Washington of being Vladimir Putin’s stooge, the Trump administration is simply in no position to reach out to Russia in any public way. Were it to attempt to do so it would simply add fuel to the flames of the ‘Russiagate’ scandal in Washington at precisely the moment when it is showing the first signs of burning itself out. For the sake of its own self-preservation the Trump administration has therefore been obliged to put relations with Russia on the back-burner as it sorts out its problems back home.
Here I am going to take a contrarian view and say that I think the leaders in both Beijing and Moscow are quietly pleased and relieved by this development.
The early weeks of the Trump administration suggested that a major confrontation between the US and China was on the cards over trade policy and the South China Sea. The Chinese media was even openly warning the US that its stance risked triggering a naval race in the Pacific, which it warned the US it would lose.
The truth is that though the Chinese would not balk from such a race if it were imposed on them, the whole pattern of Chinese political and economic policy since 1978 has been for China to focus on its internal development, and there is no reason to think that has changed. At a time when China is seeking to rebalance its economy away from its previous overriding focus on manufacturing and export more towards services and consumption, China would far prefer a cooperative relationship with the US than a confrontational one.
If Donald Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping can clear the air, with the Chinese leader reassuring Trump that the days of China stealing US manufacturing jobs and pouring cheap goods into the US market are almost over, and that China’s stance on the South China Sea is a purely defensive one (which it is), then it can only be a good thing, both for relations between the US and China, and for the world in general.
Far from wanting some sort of grandiose ‘grand bargain’ with the US – which previous experience from the early 1970s, the late 1980s, and in 2009 has taught the Russians means their making concessions to the US in return for promises the US never keeps – what the Russians basically want from the US is to be left alone. That way they can concentrate on what has always been their priority, which is their own internal development.
What that means in practice is that what the Russians principally want from the US is that it abandon further plans to expand NATO eastwards into the former Soviet space, and give up its attempts to carry out regime change in Moscow.
The paralysis in Washington means that that is essentially what the Russians now have, without being asked to give anything in return for it. Given the policy paralysis in Washington and Donald Trump’s own lack of enthusiasm for both NATO expansion in the Soviet space and for regime change in Moscow, neither for the moment is being pursued with any vigour or is likely to happen any time soon.
Adam Garrie has written of how the Trump administration’s policy has become one of ‘neglect‘. Nothing would please the Russians more than for that ‘neglect’ to continue indefinitely.
This is not to say that for the Russians this is the optimal relationship they would like with the US. On the contrary, they remain concerned about NATO deployments in eastern Europe and the Baltic States, and are extremely concerned by the deployment of anti-ballistic missile interceptors in eastern Europe. These of course are continuing and in the absence of dialogue with the Trump administration there is no sign of any cap being placed on them.
In addition, despite the quiet discussions that are now happening between the US and the Russian militaries, the Russians must be frustrated that even on such a seemingly straightforward issue as anti-terrorist cooperation no substantive progress is being made.
Having said this, the Russians are realistic enough to know that it would require a President with a far stronger political position in Washington than Donald Trump currently has to reverse the NATO deployments, and that Trump himself – like all Republicans – is deeply committed to the anti-ballistic missile deployments and will never reverse them.
Given that this is so, the situation that exists now is from the Russian point of view the best one that is realistically possible. Certainly it is one which is far better for them than a scenario where they have to refuse Donald Trump’s demands for nuclear weapons cuts and for abandonment of their relations with China and Iran, in return for a promise of an improvement in relations with the US, which they know would be short-lived.
In the meantime any move towards an easing of tensions between Beijing and Washington – which will ease international tensions generally and spare Russia from the need to take sides – is one which will be quietly welcomed in Moscow.