The expressions of cooperation on the issue of missile defense by George Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin at their recent summit meeting caught many international observers by surprise. But Bush's attempt to secure Moscow's approval of U.S. plans to build a defense against ballistic missiles is the merely the latest in a series of moves to improve U.S.- Russian relations.
That represents a dramatic change from the rhetoric of the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign and the early initiatives of the administration. Most experts believed that Bush would take a harder line toward Russia than did his predecessor, and the administration's initial actions seemed to confirm that expectation. Relations between Washington and Moscow reached their low point in February when the United States expelled more than 4 dozen Russian diplomats for alleged espionage and the Kremlin responded by expelling a comparable number of American diplomats.
In recent months, though, the administration has signaled a desire for friendlier ties with Russia. There are many reasons for that change, including the correct calculation that it will be far easier to persuade America's European and East Asian allies to endorse missile defenses if Moscow is not denouncing the proposal and threatening to reignite an offensive arms race.
But there is another important factor that has received less attention. The administration's retreat from its hardline policy toward Russia coincides with the growth of tensions in the relationship between the United States and China. Although U.S. officials do not want a confrontation with China, Beijing's shrill behavior in response to the surveillance plane incident and the recent arrests of Chinese-American scholars on dubious espionage charges are viewed as extremely worrisome developments.
Bush and his advisors were also troubled by the mounting evidence of strategic cooperation between Russia and China. The growth of the Russian-Chinese entente was a development that had inexplicably seemed to elude the Clinton administration. Yet the signs of growing cooperation were visible nearly everywhere. Russian and Chinese officials missed no opportunity to express their mutual commitment to a "multipolar" international system, to criticize efforts to bypass the UN Security Council, and to denounce attempts by any country to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. All of those statements were thinly veiled slaps at U.S. policy in the Balkans and other regions and code phrases for opposing alleged U.S. hegemony in international affairs.
More important than such statements and communiques was the tangible evidence of growing cooperation. Not only were Moscow and Beijing beginning to coordinate their response to issues as diverse as Kosovo, missile defenses, NATO expansion, and Taiwan, but ties between the Russian and Chinese militaries expanded steadily throughout the mid and late 1990s. China became Russia's largest arms customer, and sales included such sophisticated weapon systems as Su-27 aircraft and Sovremenny destroyers equipped with Sunburn anti-ship missiles.
The Clinton administration dismissed such developments as unimportant, arguing that territorial issues and other long-standing sources of tension between Russia and China would preclude the formation of an anti-U.S. alliance. Bush administration officials have been far less complacent. And recent developments--such as the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization involving Russia, China and 4 Central Asian countries in June and leaked press reports in July of a $2 billion deal to sell Russian Su-30 MKK ground attack fighters to China-- have intensified their worries.
There are indications that the Bush administration's unexpected "charm offensive" toward Russia is at least partly an attempt to disrupt the emerging Russian-Chinese entente. And missile defense appears to be the issue that Washington's has chosen to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing. On several occasions, Bush has assured Putin that a missile defense system is not directed against Russia and would not attempt to neutralize that country's strategic deterrent. Perhaps most revealing, the President has never attempted in his speeches on the issue to give comparable assurances to Beijing. That omission has been duly noted by Chinese officials.
As a potential wedge issue, missile defense is well chosen. Beijing will be most displeased if its Russian partner approves the U.S. scheme. Yet the temptation is great for Moscow. Russia is in no position economically to counter an American missile defense system by launching a new offensive arms race, and Russian leaders believe (correctly) that Washington will go ahead with the program with or without Russia's approval. Since the United States is offering to cut its own offensive arsenal as a concession to gain Moscow's acquiescence, Putin stands to gain something significant by being cooperative.
But Washington's charm offensive cannot end with the missile defense issue. There were other reasons why Russia drifted into strategic cooperation with China, and Washington will have to change its behavior on those issues as well to effectively disrupt the Russian-Chinese entente. Most notably, Moscow was angered by the decision to expand NATO eastward in 1998. Russian leaders will be even more upset if the Alliance expands again, especially if it takes in one or more of the Baltic republics on Russia's border. Yet Bush and other NATO leaders still talk of further expansion. If the United States is intent on permanently driving a wedge between Russia and China, that ill-advised scheme will have to be abandoned.