The Strategic Triangle: Dynamics between China, Russia, and the United States

Article excerpt

The strategic triangle that once dominated world politics during the heyday of the Cold War has lost much of its glamour since the collapse of Soviet power. Nonetheless, Washington continues to keep a watchful eye on what transpires between Russia and China to pick up on clues that may hold policy implications for US national interests. US strategic moves may likewise foreshadow the policy responses of Russia and China.

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An example of this interaction is found in a series of events that took place in 1993 and 1994. In September 1993, China lost its bid before the International Olympic Committee to host the 2000 Olympic Games, allegedly because of US opposition. The defeat by a mere two votes was devastating to Beijing. Two months later, perhaps by coincidence, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev visited China and signed an agreement with his Chinese counterpart to spur ministry-to-ministry defense cooperation. The impact of this development on Washington is hard to assess, but it came at a time when US President Bill Clinton was weighing the annual report to US Congress on whether to renew Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status for China. On May 25, 1994, far ahead of the deadline, Clinton announced that the United States was ready to renew China's MFN status. He made it known, in a clear break with tradition, that the MFN issue for China would henceforth be delinked from the human rights question. Clinton's policy shift anticipated the 1999 US Congressional legislation that awarded China Permanent Normal Trade Relations status, paving the way for Chinese accession to the World Trade Organization two years later.

The Sino-Russo Partnership

While Clinton favored engagement with both Russia and China, he seemed increasingly wary of Russia. Despite the domestic disarray that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia had inherited a powerful nuclear capability that could conceivably be a potent threat. This concern may have been responsible for the West's post-1993 push to enlarge NATO. The move apparently changed Russia's initial "Atlanticist" outlook, and by 1995 Moscow had turned both inward and eastward.

In its inward or nostalgic turn, Moscow embraced a "statist" policy to develop a strategic identity and seek regional power status. In Eurasia, Russia looked to a reintegration of the Commonwealth of Independent States, including Belarus and Ukraine. In East Central Europe, it opposed any Western enlargement that would exclude it. Russia aspired to fashion Eurasia under its influence and to create an East Central Europe that would remain a neutral zone.

In a bold eastward turn, Russia expanded its partnership with China to new heights since the 1989 normalization of the two countries' bilateral relations, ending a 32-year rift. On the heels of the 1993 Sino-Russo ministry-to-ministry defense cooperation, the two countries entered into a strategic partnership in 1996. Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to Moscow in April, his fourth summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin since 1992, sealed the agreement. Around the same time, representatives of the two countries met in Shanghai, along with delegates from three former Soviet republics in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, and Tajikistan). The Shanghai Forum they created foreshadowed the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June 2001, which Uzbekistan also joined. The next month, in Moscow, Jiang signed a Sino-Russo Good-Neighbor Treaty of Friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. An important feature of the treaty is the legal framework it provides, in theory at least, for enduring bilateral cooperation in a wide spectrum of areas, encompassing trade and economy, science and technology, energy, transportation, finance, space and aviation, information technology, and trans-border and inter-regional endeavors. A Russian source describes the treaty and the SCO as the two pillars of Sino-Russo strategic partnership in the new era. …