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Part 4: Managing the US-China-Russia triangle
By Ted Galen Carpenter

  • Part 1: Another China: The awakened giant
  • Part 2: America's journey to holy war
  • Part 3: The false triangle

    Three powers stand out as the leading political and military players in the international system during the initial decades of the 21st century: the United States, Russia, and China. A revitalized Japan, a rising India and a cohesive European Union might also join those ranks, but that result is far from certain. For the moment, relations between Washington, Moscow and Beijing are of critical importance. How that "strategic triangle" is managed will go a long way toward determining whether the world avoids major war. At the present time, there is cause for cautious optimism, but there are also a few warning signals of potential trouble.

    A delicate US-China relationship
    The relationship between the United States and China has been turbulent in recent years. The US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war in May 1999 brought relations to a crisis point, as did the collision between a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter plane in April 2001. The increasingly important trade and investment relationship between the two countries weathered those incidents, but tensions were visible in other arenas.

    The initial characterization of China as a "strategic competitor" by officials in the new administration of President George W Bush also produced a wariness on both sides. The administration dropped that characterization after the April spy-plane incident, however, and relations seemed to improve steadily thereafter. Ties were strengthened further after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when China diplomatically supported the US war against terrorism and the United States came to regard China as an ally in that effort. By the time Bush visited China in February 2002, tensions between the two countries had eased considerably since the initial period of the Bush presidency.

    There were several signs of improved relations. Various commentators around the world had noted Beijing's surprisingly mild reaction in early 2002 to revelations that electronic listening devices had been planted on President Jiang Zemin's US-built airplane. Even though Chinese officials implied that the bugging was a US intelligence operation, there were no official charges of spying nor did the state-controlled media launch an anti-US propaganda campaign. Indeed, the media virtually ignored the incident.

    That reaction was in sharp contrast to the shrill statements from Chinese leaders and the massive propaganda offensive that followed the spy plane incident in April 2001. The reasons for that difference suggest a number of things about China's internal politics and foreign policy.

    Indeed, the April 2001 episode was the last time that Beijing adopted an openly confrontational policy toward Washington. Even before the bugging incident, Chinese leaders had responded with surprising restraint to several US actions that might have been expected to provoke harsh responses. When the Bush administration announced the most extensive arms sale package in years to Taiwan in the spring of 2001, Beijing expressed bland, perfunctory protests. The Chinese government actually worked with the United States to gain cooperation from Beijing's longtime ally, Pakistan, in the war against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban government in Afghanistan - despite the possibility of a long-term US military presence in Pakistan. And when the United States announced its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in late 2001, Beijing's protests were muted, even though a US missile defense system would erode the credibility of China's small nuclear deterrent.

    It is inherently difficult to speculate about the motives for policy initiatives in a secretive, authoritarian political system like that of China. Nevertheless, several factors appeared to account for Beijing's unusual restraint.

    First, the Chinese Communist Party elite wanted to avoid any international controversy before the upcoming party congress and the formal transfer of power from Jiang to heir apparent (and current vice president) Hu Jintao. It is reasonable to assume that members of the elite were preoccupied with maneuvering for advantage during the leadership transition.

    Second, China's leaders desperately needed to preserve and expand the economic relationship with the United States. The global economic slowdown, and especially the deepening recession in East Asia, has made the US market more crucial than ever. China felt that it could not let quarrels over other matters jeopardize access to that market. Without a continued expansion of trade with the United States, it would be difficult for Beijing to sustain economic growth rates in the high single digits. Yet if that growth rate declines, the already alarming number of unemployed Chinese in the major cities could burgeon rapidly and pose a danger to the regime.

    Finally, Chinese leaders were increasingly alarmed at the signs of a growing rapprochement between the United States and China's traditional rival, India. Beijing worries (with good reason) about the possible emergence of a US-Indian "strategic partnership" directed against China. The Chinese response to the warming relations between Washington and New Delhi has been to try to improve China's own relations with both capitals. At the height of the Cold War, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said that it always ought to be an objective of the United States to have closer relations with both Moscow and Beijing than they had with each other. China's leaders seem to have made it their goal to have closer relations with both the United States and India than those two countries have with each other.

    The trend toward improved US-Chinese relations seemed to experience an abrupt interruption last March, however. The Beijing government lodged a vigorous protest concerning a visit by Taiwan's defense minister, Tang Yiau-ming, to the United States. That in itself was nothing new. Beijing routinely objects to visits by current or former officials of the Taipei government and has always urged Washington to deny visas to such individuals. All of the previous protests were without merit, and the United States was right to reject them. This time, though, the People's Republic of China (PRC) had a valid point.

    Tang's visit was different in one crucial respect from the previous episodes. Those earlier trips involved either "transit stops" in the United States by Taiwanese officials who were on their way to other destinations or involved private activities by those officials. The stopovers by Taiwan's leader Chen Shui-bian in 2000 and 2001 were examples of the former. The visit by then president Lee Teng-hui to attend a reunion of his graduating class at Cornell University in 1995 was an example of the latter.

    On the surface, Tang's trip was also private. He was in Florida to attend a conference on East Asian security issues sponsored by a private organization. During the course of that gathering, however, he held discussions with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz was, by far, the highest-level US official to meet with a Taiwanese defense minister since the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. PRC leaders suspected - with some justification - that the Tang-Wolfowitz meeting was an example of rapidly increasing military cooperation between Taiwan and the United States.

    Beijing responded sharply to the US action and PRC officials were quick to show their displeasure. Barely a week after Tang's visit, the PRC denied a US naval vessel permission to pay a port call to Hong Kong. Chinese officials also began to hint darkly that Hu's scheduled visit to the United States might have to be postponed.

    The turbulent US relationship with Russia
    The relationship between Russia and the United States under the Bush administration got off to a very rocky start. Just weeks after Bush took office, the United States expelled more than 50 Russian diplomats on charges of espionage. Moscow responded by expelling an equal number of US diplomats. Tensions over such issues as the further expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty also fueled tensions.

    Gradually, though, the relationship seemed to improve. In marked contrast to some of his earlier rhetoric, Bush increasingly insisted that he wanted a new, cooperative relationship with Russia. The Cold War has been over for a decade, he emphasized, and the United States no longer regards Russia as an adversary. Those are noble words, but some of the Bush administration's actions in recent months belie such sentiments. As a result, the United States may be squandering a historic opportunity for an improvement in US-Russian relations. Moscow's reaction to the September 2001 terrorist attacks appeared to create such an opportunity. Not only did Russian President Vladimir Putin vehemently denounce the attacks, but he gave the United States substantive assistance in a variety of ways. Most crucially, Putin made it clear to the governments of the Central Asian republics that Russia did not object to a temporary US military presence in the region to wage the war in Afghanistan. Without Russia's approval, the United States would have found it far more difficult to gain the cooperation of those governments, since they would not have wished to incur Moscow's displeasure.

    In essence, Putin was countenancing US intrusion into a region that had been a long-standing Russian sphere of influence (indeed, had been part of both the czarist empire and the Soviet Union). And without the use of the former Soviet military bases in the Central Asian republics, the United States would have had a much more difficult time prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.

    Russia helped the United States in other ways. For example, Moscow resisted the urging of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut its oil output to revive sagging global oil prices. As the world's second-largest oil producer, Russia had a crucial role to play. Instead of responding favorably to OPEC's requests, Moscow maintained production at high levels - a position favored by the United States. Among other benefits, the Russian decision reduced the danger of an oil-price spike as the United States waged war in Afghanistan and hinted darkly of possible future operations against Iraq - developments that would normally have caused jitters in world oil markets.

    How did the Bush administration reward Russia for its cooperation? One of the administration's first initiatives was to announce America's withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which Moscow had long regarded as the centerpiece of its relationship with the United States on arms-control issues. The timing of that announcement could hardly have been worse, and the decision gave new ammunition to elements in Russia's political elite who argue that the United States seizes every opportunity to exploit and humiliate Russia in its weakened condition.

    As if the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty weren't enough, the administration took two other provocative actions in rapid succession. First, US officials let it be known that the United States intended to maintain a long-term military presence in the Central Asian republics. This was a classic double-cross, and Russian officials made it clear that they were none too happy about Washington's action. Second, the Bush administration played a duplicitous game with regard to agreed-upon reductions in offensive nuclear weapons. At their most recent summit meeting, Bush and Putin had agreed to cut the number of warheads gradually to a level between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads for each country. But US officials soon announced that most of the reduction would not come from actually destroying surplus warheads. Instead, the excess warheads would simply be put in storage. Russian leaders reacted angrily to this gambit, arguing that all cuts in offensive arsenals must be "irreversible", and that means destroying, not storing, warheads.

    Such insensitive US actions have revived Russian suspicions about Washington's global ambitions. The danger is not that Russia will launch a new offensive arms race or plunge relations between the two countries into a new cold war. Thus far, Moscow's response has been surprisingly restrained. Russia clearly prefers a close, cooperative relationship with the United States and is not willing to close the door on that possibility by resorting to intemperate outbursts or crude retaliatory measures.

    But if Washington continues to take unfair advantage, Russia can and probably will pursue other options. Serious long-term damage will occur if the Russian people begin to see the United States as a hostile power that always attempts to take advantage of their country. An unparalleled opportunity finally to heal the wounds of the Cold War will then have been missed.

    Indeed, the greatest danger may be that US officials are becoming too complacent regarding relations with both China and Russia. Those officials seem to forget that there is a third side to the strategic triangle: the relationship between Moscow and Beijing. Even as China and Russia have both sought to improve their ties with the United States, they have not neglected their own bilateral relationship. The reality is that the political and military ties between China and Russia have continued to grow in recent years, albeit in a relatively quiet fashion. Moreover, there are aspects to the Sino-Russian strategic relationship that ought to worry US leaders.

    The third side of the strategic triangle
    Cooperation between Russia and China has been building for several years. The bitter rivalry between Moscow and Beijing eased rapidly with the end of the Cold War, and by the mid-1990s China had become Russia's largest arms customer. By 1996, the leaders of the two countries were describing their relationship as a "strategic partnership", and it became routine for Russia and the PRC to issue joint statements criticizing US policy on such issues as NATO expansion, the US-led military intervention in the Balkans, and the development of ballistic-missile defenses.

    That cooperation has deepened on several levels. Politically, it is symbolized by the creation last year of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO, whose membership consists of Russia, China, and four Central Asian countries, has as its primary focus combating Islamic extremism. But an important secondary motive - as various SCO statements and communiques make clear - is to contain America's increasingly dominant position in Asia.

    Continuing Russian-Chinese cooperation is even more evident on the military front. China's air force has been acquiring Su-27 and Su-30 aircraft - some of the best planes in Russia's inventory - as well as S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Even more important, perhaps, is China's acquisition of advanced submarines and destroyers for its navy. The Sovremenny destroyers are equipped with sophisticated Sunburn anti-ship missiles. China had purchased two of those destroyers in the late 1990s. In early January 2002, just weeks after Bush announced the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported the sale of two more of the destroyers to China. That report indicated further that China might eventually buy as many as 11 of the ships.

    Those arms sales are significant for two reasons. First, they indicate that Russia does not fear a military threat to its own interests from China - at least in the near term. Second, the bulk of the arms sales has involved weapons that would not be terribly helpful to China in a Russo-Chinese war but would be highly relevant in any clash between China and the United States over Taiwan or some other issue. The Sovremenny destroyers, in particular, could pose a serious threat to America's vaunted aircraft carriers should the United States decide to intervene in a conflict between the PRC and Taiwan. At the very least, this development raises the risk level to the United States and complicates Washington's military calculations. Consequently, Russia's sales of advanced arms to China must be considered as something less than a friendly act from the standpoint of America's interests.

    Until recently, most US foreign-policy experts seemed oblivious to the growing political and military ties between Russia and China. Although those experts have paid more attention to the development in the past year or so, they still generally react with complacency. The conventional wisdom is that Russia's arms sales are motivated purely by financial considerations. The prospect of serious Russo-Chinese strategic cooperation is dismissed as improbable because the two countries would supposedly be too suspicious of each other given their long-standing border disputes and other quarrels.

    That reaction is entirely too sanguine. On the arms-sale issue, financial motives may theoretically explain why the Russians are selling, but they do not explain why the Chinese are buying. As for the supposedly insurmountable obstacles to strategic cooperation, history is replete with alliances between countries that had very little in common and even had a history of mutual enmity. Democratic France and reactionary czarist Russia had little in common during the early years of the 20th century. Yet a common fear of Germany's ambitions led them to create an alliance. Similarly, ancient adversaries Britain and France buried their disputes during the same era to cooperate against a rising Germany. If Russian and Chinese apprehension about US power and intentions reach a high enough level, a Russo-Chinese alliance to balance against the United States is not unthinkable. US policy-makers would be wise to remember that the strategic triangle of the early 21st century has a third side.

    Managing the strategic triangle
    Wise policies on Washington's part can lead to an era of good relations with both Moscow and Beijing. Russia and China clearly wish to avoid a confrontational relationship with the United States, if that is possible. Russia has been surprisingly accommodating, supporting most aspects of the US war against terrorism, responding mildly to US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, and even indicating that a second round of NATO expansion will not prove fatal to US-Russian relations. China, too, has sought to minimize frictions, even though it views some US policies with apprehension. The United States also enjoys extremely powerful leverage. Both Russia and China regard their economic links to the US-led West as vital, and they do not want to jeopardize them. If used subtly, that leverage can be highly beneficial to the United States.

    But Washington must learn to exploit its dominant global position with finesse. Showing more understanding for Russia's campaign against the radical Islamic separatists in Chechnya is a good start. But the United States would be wise to show greater sensitivity toward Russia on other issues as well. Moscow's position that surplus nuclear warheads should be destroyed, not merely put into storage, is perfectly reasonable, and Washington ought to give in on that point. The United States would also be wise to abandon its drive for additional NATO expansion. The US-Russian relationship will probably survive NATO's intrusion into the Baltic region, but it's almost certain to become a sore point in the coming years. And one cannot be confident that Vladimir Putin's successors will be as understanding as he has been about a NATO presence in Russia's geostrategic back yard. Most of all, US leaders need to go out of their way to show that they regard Russia as a great power in the international system and to treat Moscow with the respect that status deserves.

    Likewise, the United States must become more attuned to China's concerns. The Taiwan issue is a tremendously emotional subject for most Chinese, and it is caught up in the larger issue of national pride and dignity. Such actions as approving high-level meetings between US and Taiwanese officials are provocative and potentially very damaging to US-Chinese relations. US officials also need to be more aware of the unintended effects of withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Chinese leaders fret that a comprehensive US missile defense system could neutralize Beijing's small, antiquated strategic deterrent. The PRC's likely response will be both to modernize and significantly expand its nuclear arsenal. That outcome should have been given greater consideration when US leaders decided to withdraw from the treaty. Finally, China, like Russia, wants and expects to receive the respect due a great power. Washington needs to be careful to convey that respect in all its dealings with Beijing.

    The triangular relationship involving Russia, China and the United States is critically important. If the strategic triangle is managed properly, the danger of a great-power war in the coming decades will be virtually eliminated. If managed improperly, the 21st century could proceed down the same violent path as the 20th century. Much will depend on the wisdom of US policy.

    (© Heartland. This version has been edited by Asia Times Online.
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    Nov 14, 2002


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