As talk continues of a possible rapprochement between a Donald Trump led US and Russia, there has been some speculation of where that will leave Russian-Chinese relations.
The big geopolitical development of the years of Obama’s Presidency is that the already emerging Russia-China alliance has now fully taken shape.
What was in 2008 still essentially a diplomatic arrangement whereby the Russians and the Chinese informed each other about their foreign policy positions so as to coordinate them better with each other in places like the UN Security Council, has now evolved into a fully fledged full spectrum alliance extending to intensive military cooperation, intelligence sharing, foreign policy co-operation, and increasingly a fully fledged economic partnership.
The recent unveiling by the two countries of their joint project to develop a fleet of wide bodied aircraft to compete with those made by Airbus and Boeing is just one example of the current closeness of their relations.
Though the two countries still tend to avoid – to an ever decreasing degree – calling each other ‘allies’, that is essentially what they have become.
There is no doubt that the policies of the Obama administration have acted as a strong catalyst for this process. Though the bad relations between the US and Russia during the final years of Obama’s Presidency are a universally acknowledged fact, the fact that the US has been trying to position itself in opposition to China in East Asia by building up a network of anti-Chinese alliances as part of ‘pivot to Asia’ has been at least as important in shaping the current state of international relations.
The result is that while it is in the interest of the US to keep Russia and China apart from each other, US policies during Obama’s Presidency of confronting Russia in Europe and the Middle East, and of confronting China in the South China Sea and in East Asia, have instead achieved the opposite – pushing the two countries closer together.
Though the future foreign policy of the Trump administration is still unclear, it seems that Trump is committed to a serious improvement in relations with Russia, but wants to take an even stronger line with China than Obama has done, with the emphasis less on military confrontation in the South China Sea and more on placing restrictions on Chinese trade with the US.
Inevitably this has raised the question of whether as it mends its fences with Russia, the US will now start to distance itself from China as US-China relations start to deteriorate.
The short answer is almost certainly no. The alliance between Russia and China has now evolved to such a high level – far surpassing in all respects that of their previous alliance of the 1950s – that it is inconceivable that an improvement in relations on the part of either country with the US, would cause the alliance between them to become affected. If nothing else, both countries have planned their economic futures to a great extent in reliance upon the other in ways that the US cannot now realistically change.
In Russia’s case there is the further factor that the Russians cannot be sure how far any rapprochement with a Trump led US would go, and how long it would last. Even if Trump is personally committed to a rapprochement with Russia, the Russians cannot be sure that Trump would be able to bring the whole US political establishment with him, or that such a rapprochement would survive his Presidency.
Recent history has provided the Russians with ample warnings of the dangers of counting too much on US moves towards a rapprochement. Such moves have happened before – in the early 1970s during the period known as the détente, in the late 1980s, and in Obama’s first term. Invariably, all have ended in disappointment.
For the Russians and for President Putin in particular, the experience of Obama’s ‘Reset’ in the first years of his Presidency must offer a particularly vivid lesson. A process that was supposed to result in an improvement in relations between the US and Russia ended by making them much worse.
What this means is that if Trump does entertain some hopes of drawing Russia away from China – as does apparently Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – these hopes are certain to be disappointed.
President Putin almost certainly has already made all this clear, and given private assurances to that effect to Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he has just met at the APEC summit in Peru. In addition, by accepting Xi Jinping’s invitation to visit China in May next year, Putin has acted to put Russia’s continued commitment to its alliance with China beyond doubt.
What this means in practice is that if Trump does indeed travel to Russia to meet with Putin shortly after his inauguration, Putin will be in a position to brief the Chinese about the details of whatever negotiations Russia has ongoing with the new US President when he visits Beijing shortly after.