Beyond Ignorance: The US Orientation toward China and Russia

By Akihiro Iwashita  


*The article was written at the end of July, 2008, and originally published in Spanish (translated from the English text) in Vanguardia Dossier, 29 Octubre/Diciembre 2008. After the conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia at the beginning of August, a kind of anti-Russian rhetoric has prevailed in Washington DC. No matter how noisy the emotive campaign is today, the basic interests of the policy community tends to focus exclusively on the places in which the US military is directly involved. Little has substantially changed toward Russia and China. Rather, if any lessons are to be learned from this matter, the US should learn the importance of going beyond its usual love-hate relations with Russia. The US is now paying a hefty price for its long time ignorance toward Russia. Simply calling Russia a “partner” without showing the proper respect was a mistake that US is now ruing.

You may think that the US is concerned about the emerging autocratic regimes of China and Russia and their collaboration in areas stretching from Northeast Asia toward Central Asia against the US. Reactions in Washington DC have been a bit odd, however. The true challenge for the US foreign policy community to overcome is its seemingly total lack of concern over Russia and China. This challenge seems to have taken a back seat to “international terrorism” and the Middle East. How to get the US foreign policy properly involved in China, Russia and the related region is an urgent task with global implications.


A Forgotten Area

"A little on China. No Russia." This is the reality I recognized from the current US foreign policy orientation during my recent ten-month stay in Washington, DC. Frankly speaking, Washington "forgets" their presence in the world. Clinging on to on-going "wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are more enthusiastic about reshaping the military, its support of Pakistan against the Taliban, deterring Iranian provocations on nuclear development, and building peace between Israel and Arab countries. It does make some sense for the US to focus on issues and areas in/around the Middle East and South Asia, two areas keen to be considered as the interests of the US nowadays.

The US seems to pay little attention to the relatively "peaceful" area of Northeast Asia, though it contains the nuclear ambitious North Korea. U.S. President George W. Bush’s and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill’s recent "new" approach toward North Korea has perplexed the Washington community, especially since it seems to mirror that of the Clinton administration's past diplomacy toward Pyongyang. Alas for China. Despite the strife in Tibet last May, Bush has declared his intentions to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Where have Bush's courageous remarks on "regime change" or "democratization" in the region gone?

In contrast, Bush's attitude toward Iran has been long tight and harsh, mostly passing some moderate recommendations on engaging Iran on the nuclear issue, though the recent visit to Teheran by undersecretary of state William Burns might be a beginning of a policy change. His policy toward Iraq shows no change. The Bush administration projects a tough image in/around the Middle East, while conducting a mild foreign policy approach toward Northeast Asia. The difference in attention given to the two regions is huge. The latter region appears to have dropped out of the minds of Washington policy makers.


Different Strokes

China is, nevertheless, the main topic to be discussed within the Northeast Asian policy community in Washington DC. One reason is that China has been thought of as an invisible competitor with the US in the region. Another one is that China's power both economically and militarily is developing rapidly, and presents a challenge to the global leadership of the US. All of them agree that China and other related matters are important, but no consensus has been reached on how it should be managed. Most Republicans prefer to hedge against China's upsurge through the US-Japan alliance while some Democrats want to collaborate directly with China to stabilize the region as a stakeholder or build a multi-lateral architecture with China and Japan. Japan's presence is not seen on the surface of the discussion even if they understand the alliance as a necessary tool to either compete or cooperate with China.

In turn, Russia has little presence in the debate within this community. Northeast Asian policy circles almost completely ignore its positive contribution and collaboration in the region though Russia works with the US and other colleagues on the North Korean nuclear issue within the Six-Party talks. The US conventionally works together with China to push North Korea to dismantle its nuclear facilities. Within the Six-Party talks, the interests of Japan and South Korea are considered, though not adequately. Unfortunately, Russia's voice is rarely heard. As matters concerning Russia are usually considered a Europe related issue, observers seldom think of Russia in a Northeast Asian framework. Second, matters concerning Russia are usually brought up during discussions about European expansion, Kosovo's recent declaration of independence, eastern enlargement of NATO toward the Ukraine and Georgia, CFE and the Missile Defense plan in Central Europe.

How does the US approach Russia? From my observation, Russia's arguments and interests are not seriously taken into consideration within European policy making circles. Few in the policy-making community fear Russian pressure, although former Russian President Vladimir Putin often criticizes and worries the US. They share the view that Russia's complaining and threats are of nominal concern. Of course, some lobbyists place an emphasis on a "new Cold War" discourse and urge the US to act more aggressively to impress upon Russia the importance of democracy and human rights under the current Putin/Medvedev regime. But their arguments have had limited appeal and are rarely taken seriously.


The US Coolness

Beside that, the US has not responded seriously to the Sino-Russian "strategic partnership," which has developed since 1996 onward and is often interpreted as a collaboration to counter against the US influence over the world. First, from Washington's point of view, differences in geopolitical interests between China and Russia are apparent. China does not share Russia's worry over NATO and, rather, does not necessarily support Russia's position in Europe if it brings about an unwanted reaction toward China in Asian affairs. Russia, in turn, does not hope for China to strengthen its state power too much in Northeast Asia. Instead, Russia would rather engage with Japan and the two Koreas to build a regional multilateral interaction to keep the Russian Far East, the weak flank of Russia vis-à-vis China, stable and safe. Russia also does not wish to be involved in accidental matters, which could provoke a fatal conflict between the US and China such as on the Taiwan issue. Indeed, the partnership occasionally works in areas in which the two powers have a shared interest such as their rejections of UN sanctions against Zimbabwe and Iran in the UNSC. But there are not many such cases. Contradictions always appear to coexist with cooperation in the partnership.

Second, Washington does not believe that the partnership is value-oriented. Even if China and Russia currently have autocratic regimes, it is difficult for them to work together on the basis of shared values as democratic countries do, particularly, in times of war. "Autocratic" cooperation has its limitations per se as they seem to be marriages of convenience. It goes along well only when they face a common "threat." Geopolitical differences often hinder collaboration since there is a lack of shared values within the partnership.

A point of contention between China and Russia is Central Asia. There may be some shared interests between them, namely, keeping the region free of disturbances. Both have deep concerns over a would-be trans-border force such as "terrorists," "separatists" and "extremists," on one hand, and toward the US, a superpower that could intervene in the affairs of Central Asia, on the other hand.

However, Central Asia is beyond the joint control of China and Russia. The two middle powers function in the region: Kazakhstan prudently keeps good ties with China and Russia but also shapes relations with the US, EU, Japan and other great powers under a multi-vectored and balanced foreign policy. Uzbekistan, often swinging between the US (such as after the September 11 attacks) and the Sino-Russian "camps" (such as after the Andijan Incident in May, 2005), sticks to play an independent role in the international field. Even Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, small powers in the region, bandwagon the Uzbek or Kazakh path to enjoy more freedom from their giant neighbors in/around the region. After 9/11, Kyrgyzstan succeeded in acquiring the status and financial support from the US in exchange for providing an airbase for US forces operating in the region. After resolving their territorial issue with China and supporting the US military operations against the Taliban both since 2002 onward, Tajikistan has gained much more substantial support from Russia, which wanted to offset the regional influence of both China and the US, while maintaining its military presence in the southern front of the Central Asian sphere next to Afghanistan.

Against the backdrop of diversity and the present dynamics of the Central Asian regional alignment, China and Russia compete to strengthen their political influence and economic rivalry over the region. The notion of a "Great Game" among Russia, China and the US as fashioned in the nineteenth century is an exaggeration because Central Asian countries considerably enjoy their own initiative and interests in the region. But to the eyes of the great powers, competition looks more severe because of the independence Central Asian countries.

Energy cooperation on oil and gas between China, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan often irritates Russia while Russia's political and strategic overplay in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Central Asian based security forum with India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Iran as observers, makes China uneasy about a future confrontation with the US and other Western countries.


Getting China and Russia Right for Peace and Stability in Eurasia

Back to Washington. First, most US policy makers show little concern over the Sino-Russian "strategic" cooperation, particularly, in the context of an anti-American orientation. Second, if they were asked which country could collaborate with the US, the majority of them identify Russia as a partner. Policy communities in the State Department, National Security Council and other experts belonging to various think tanks do not worry much about Russia but do share some concerns over the future of China. Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, mentioned that Russia is not considered a "revisionist" state and, rather, is viewed as a would-be partner to offset the influence of a revisionist power in the Pacific (undoubtedly, he means China). In a global sense, Russia shares strategic interests with the US on defense and nuclear issues. He also confirms that the US could manage every issue on the table such as Kosovo's independence and the missile defense program with Russia except anti-US feelings in the Russian public. In turn, regardless of Chinese feelings toward the US, they may think that it is not an easy task to handle problems related to China. Even some China experts in the Northeast Asian policy community, who are generally thought of as "pro-Chinese," express concerns about China and place an emphasis on the US-Japan alliance in candid conversation.

Some Central Asian experts are the exception. They may prefer collaborating with China to collaborating with Russia. However, firstly, most of them, coming from a Russian studies background and familiar with the thinking of Russia, do not fully understand what China was, is and will be. Secondly, they overly depend on China to offset Russia's dominance owing to the temporary fact that China's presence is still weaker in Central Asia than Russia's.  The idea that the Sino-Russia partnership is a threat to US interests, as Dr. Stephen Blank of the Army War College often proposes, is out of the mainstream of the Washington policy-making community. Foreign analysts do not need to pay much attention to this sort of discourse.

The problem with the US foreign policy toward China and Russia basically arises from an almost complete indifference and ignorance of Russia's interests, "fragmental" concerns toward China, and a lack of will to truly understand the nature of the Sino-Russian partnership. The Sino-Russian partnership was recently created during the long and complicated process of overcoming historical and geopolitical challenges, including border wars fought in the nineteenth century and 1960s. China and Russia, struggling with bilateral coordination, have little room to realize a partnership against the US and other targets. Rather, the contributions the partnership has made to Eurasian security and stability should be appreciated. Then, how the partnership should be engaged with US interests is a main area of concern.

However, the Bush administration did not accept a multi-national approach of foreign commitment toward any region. Even the recent "rapprochement" with North Korea is just a small sign of change from the past, since the Bush administration basically depends on direct talks between the US and North Korea. Unfortunately, only a slight show of concern for the other countries involved within the Six-Party talks is shown. The Bush administration officially keeps its faith in a bilateral oriented approach toward the region.

A US presidential candidate, whether Republican or Democrats, must realize the failure of Bush's approach toward the region and return to a multi-lateral foreign policy to some extent. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama's foreign policy team could push the orientation in a more substantial way. Undoubtedly, a new multilateral diplomacy of the US would be a welcome change to the international community. The Six-Party talks could develop in a multi-lateral architecture in Northeast Asia under his foreign policy team's initiatives. Considering Sino-Russian collaboration in Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization should be a target to work with, even if it serves still, however weakly, for regional security. Recently, even under the Bush administration, the US attitudes toward the SCO has changed from its previous position of passing over its existence and suggested the possibility of cooperation in the region. When the geopolitical positioning of the SCO, engaging Iran and contact with Afghanistan, is considered, cooperation could ease the burden that the US carries in its battles against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. How to rebuild a post-Bush foreign policy of the US toward China and Russia is one of the key tasks for strengthening global collaboration beyond either Northeast Asia or Europe. Eurasia is the area that has yet to be discovered by US foreign policy. The EU and Japan naturally have a proper clue as US allies to get the US right in reshaping the world together through a multi-lateral framework which includes China and Russia.

Akihiro Iwashita, Director and Professor of the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, Japan, was Visiting Fellow of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, US (2007-2008).

*The views expressed in the essay belong solely to the author and do not represent the official position of any organizations to which the author is permanently or was temporarily affiliated.


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