Two countries that have the capacity to cause serious headaches for the United States are Russia and China. Yet Washington is committing a cardinal sin in foreign policy: getting on bad terms simultaneously with those two major powers. As I discuss in a recent article at China-U.S. Focus, that approach is especially unfortunate because Beijing has boundary disputes and an array of historical grievances against Russia. In addition, China is now uneasy about the precedents being set by the Kremlin’s support of secessionists in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Those concerns and would normally cause Chinese officials to be wary about close cooperation with Russia. But because Washington’s own relations with China have become frosty, the Obama administration may be forfeiting an opportunity to keep Moscow and Beijing from developing a common policy directed against the United States.
Two high-priority Chinese foreign policy objectives are now in conflict. Beijing does not want to encourage the increasing popularity of secession in the international system. The breakup of the Soviet Union, the violent fragmentation of Yugoslavia, the emergence of South Sudan, and the increasing likelihood of an independent Kurdistan arising from the wreckage of Iraq and Syria, all confirm a powerful trend. Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008 (supporting the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and now in Ukraine have given that trend a major boost, much to Beijing’s dismay. Chinese leaders fret about separatist sentiments in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Taiwan’s continuing de facto independence. From Beijing’s perspective, Moscow’s embrace of secessionist movements in neighboring states is most unhelpfu
However, the Chinese government is reluctant to join the West’s campaign of coercion against Moscow. Not only is Russia an important partner of China’s in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the two countries have significant mutual economic and security interests throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. The multi-billion dollar energy deal that the two governments recently signed underscores yet another aspect of the growing bilateral ties.
China also is receptive to a cooperative relationship with Russia because of pressing security concerns in East Asia. The upgraded military alliance between the United States and Japan alarms Beijing, as does Washington’s vocal support for Vietnam, the Philippines, and other Chinese rivals regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea. The last thing Chinese leaders want to do is help the West weaken Russia at a time when Beijing may need Russian support (or at least benevolent neutrality) as the United States and a growing roster of U.S. security partners tighten an implicit containment policy against China.
Ideally, the Obama administration should follow Thomas Jefferson’s advice to seek “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations.” Washington would be wise to reconsider some of its actions and move to repair relations with both Russia and China. If U.S. leaders cannot bring themselves to do that, they should at least avoid antagonizing China at a time when tensions with Moscow are reaching alarming levels.