WASHINGTON—The Obama administration is playing down an increasingly warm relationship between its main global rivals, China and Russia, that it may have inadvertently encouraged.
U.S. officials maintain there is nothing to fear from the growing alliance between Moscow and Beijing, even as each throws its weight around in neighbouring regions like Ukraine and the South China Sea and at international forums like the United Nations, where on Thursday they double-vetoed the latest in a series of Security Council resolutions on Syria.
Yet when coupled with growing co-operation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in other areas—notably, a new $400 billion natural gas deal and apparent agreement on the crisis in Ukraine—many believe Russia and China may now or may soon represent a powerful new alliance challenging not only the United States, but also the Western democratic tradition that the U.S. has championed globally.
To hear the Obama administration tell it, a burgeoning Russia-China friendship is a natural and expected occurrence and poses no particular risk beyond blunting the impact of U.S. and European sanctions imposed over Ukraine.
U.S. officials also reject the notion that they may have made China more willing to do business with Moscow with the Justice Department’s indictment of five Chinese military cyber-hackers on the eve of Putin’s trip to China this week to seal the gas deal.
“With respect to President Putin and China, we don’t see any relationship whatsoever to an agreement with respect to gas and an energy supply between Russia and China that they’ve been working on for 10 years,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday. “This isn’t new. This isn’t a sudden response to what’s been going on. And if the world benefits as a result of that, it’s fine. That’s not what’s at stake here.”
Nor does the administration appear particularly troubled by the possibility of a long-term strategic partnership between China and Russia, which split during the Cold War in a rift that Washington had hoped to revive and exploit in the early days of the Ukraine crisis.
“Our view is that there are global relationships that many countries have: Russia and China; the United States and Russia; the United States and China,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said this week. “And, you know, it is not a surprise to us that countries that are neighbours communicating about how to work together, whether that’s through an economic partnership or otherwise.”
Administration officials say both Russia and China share U.S. concerns about proliferation and terrorism and both have been co-operative in dealing with the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs and Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. But that co-operation is limited and its impact has yet to be determined as none of those three problems have been addressed conclusively.
And privately, some in the administration have expressed concerns similar to those raised publicly by more than a few former officials and experts.
Current officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about internal administration deliberations, acknowledge a certain amount of unease over the Moscow-Beijing rapprochement, but they note the relationship has always been punctuated by ups and downs.
Some experts and former officials, however, offer a starker view.
“We may well be getting a glimpse of the future of geopolitics—two autocracies in common cause against liberal principles,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former American diplomat now at Columbia University who served as the U.S. ambassador at-large to the nations that made up the Soviet Union during the Clinton administration.
“This may be self-defeating for both of them, but that doesn’t mean it’ll go away,” he said.
Some in Europe—particularly France, which often has chafed at American dominance since the collapse of the Soviet Union—seem to recognize the potential issues.
“We are now all confronted with what I call a zero-polar world. We need to address this situation with pragmatic solutions,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week at the Brookings Institution, in which he spoke of the need not to alienate the so-called BRICS group of nations, which includes Russia and China (as well as Brazil, India and South Africa).
“They consider that the international order is biased in favour of ‘the West’,” he said. “We might disagree but we have to take into account this perception.”
Nearly a year ago, well before the crisis in Ukraine boiled over, two respected diplomatic scholars predicted that a Russia-China convergence was not only possible, but likely and dangerous. They warned against dismissing the “possibility of a global realignment set in motion by China and Russia, which feel threatened by American and European policies and by having to function in the world’s Western-made system.”
“Today, Moscow and Beijing have room for manoeuvr and a foundation for mutual co-operation that could damage American interests,” wrote Leslie Gelb of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations and Dmitry Simes of the Center for the National Interest, which aligns itself with the “realism” school of foreign policy.
They argued in the summer of 2013 that Russian-Chinese ties were largely an “unintended consequence of American policies aimed at other objectives;” notably, “the pursuit of democratic and humanitarian triumphalism.”
And they pointed out that both countries face ethnic, religious and territorial challenges with neighbours, in which the United States has nearly always supported or appeared to back their opponents. For Russia, these include Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova; for China they include Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
What would happen, Gelb and Simes asked, if China and Russia offered Iran “security guarantees or promised to rebuild its nuclear infrastructure after a U.S. or Israeli attack?” What would happen, they asked, if China offered support for guerrillas in the Philippines or the Kremlin encouraged separatism among Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics?
“If U.S. relations with Russia and China sour,” they wrote, “these nightmares can’t be excluded.”
EDITOR’S NOTE—Matthew Lee has covered international affairs and U.S. foreign policy since 1999 and for The Associated Press since 2007.