The Strategic Triangle: Dynamics between China, Russia, and the United States
Hsiung, James C., Harvard International Review
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.
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.
At home, Russians across the political spectrum see NATO expansion as a provocative act. Even after Moscow entered into a new deal to create a NATO-Russia council, which gives Russia an equal footing on security issues with the alliance's 19 other members, it took steps to make sure that its strategic partnership with China would not be jeopardized. In May 2003, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was in Beijing to meet with Jiang and other highlevel officials. Ivanov re-affirmed the value of the Sino-Russo military partnership, which he said not only benefited both countries but also helped "promote regional and world peace and stability." An important part of this military cooperation was the heavy arms sales to China, which beefed up China's air and naval capability while enriching Russia's coffers.
Almost immediately after he became China's president in 2003, Hu Jintao had a rendezvous with Putin in Moscow to renew their commitment to the Sino-Russo "strategic partnership." They presided over the signing of a number of agreements, including one between the China National Petroleum Corporation and Russia's Yukos Oil Company for the undertaking of a long-term contract to supply oil to China via a Sino-Russian oil pipeline.
On political issues, President Putin re-affirmed Russia's support for China's claims of sovereighty over Taiwan and Tibet, while the Chinese president reciprocated by supporting Russian suppression of the separatist movement in Chechnya. In a communique, both sides stressed their support for a multipolar world in which relations among nations are "democratized" and the United Nations plays a key role in the settlement of international disputes. The veiled criticism of unilateralism seemed to bespeak a mutual dissatisfaction with Washington. But the Sino-Russo partnership was a far cry from the kind of alliance that some realists predicted would be directed against NATO and the United States. Putin and Hu explicitly stressed that the partnership was not aimed at any third party.
The US-Russian Tangle: A Delicate Relationship
At the risk of oversimplification, one could argue that US relations with China were heavily driven by two factors: the vicissitudes in the Sino-Russo relationship and--the more important of the two--the Taiwan question. For 30 years after the People's Republic of China (PRC) came into being in 1949, the United States continued to recognize the rival Chinese regime (the Republic of China, or ROC) that had relocated to Taiwan after losing the civil war on the mainland. The road to eventual US normalization with the PRC in 1979 was paved by US President Richard Nixon, whose grand design was to build an alliance with China--which was then at odds with the Soviet Union--in an attempt to counter the mounting Soviet threat. But the United States still maintains unofficial relations with the ROC. Indeed, under the Taiwan Relations Act, a piece of domestic US legislation, Washington is under an obligation to protect Taiwan's security and thus continue arms sales to the island.
Washington's Taiwan connection has bedeviled its relations with the PRC ever since, even more so after 1988 when Taiwan's leaders showed growing inclinations toward a separatist course outside the One China scenario. During a brief confrontation between mainland China and Taiwan in early 1996, the United States dispatched two naval battle groups to the Taiwan Strait to show moral support for Taiwan (and perhaps to please President Clinton's congressional friends). An accidental war with China was barely averted only with the timely withdrawal of the US carrier Independence while the second carrier, the Nimitz, was still on its way from the Mediterranean Sea. The near-miss drove home Beijing's seriousness about Taiwan to the Clinton administration, forcing it to undertake a soul-searching review of Sino-US policy. The final decision for Clinton's all-out engagement policy toward the Chinese, which he pursued during his second presidential term, was to avoid ever being dragged into an inadvertent war with China for the sake of Taiwan.
What happened to Clinton is nothing strange. In what has become almost a set pattern, every US president since Ronald Reagan has started his presidency with a high-profile, sympathetic stance toward Taiwan to the bewilderment of China, only to subsequently relent. The same problem has haunted the administration of US President George W. Bush since 2001. Bush seems to conform to this pattern, though in his case the speedy turnaround was in part precipitated by anti-terrorist needs after September 11, 2001. During his 2000 campaign, Bush called China a "strategic competitor," and after taking office, he pledged that the United States would do anything within its power to protect Taiwan's security. Following the April 1, 2001, spy-plane incident, however, the president dropped the "strategic competitor" characterization. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Beijing promptly offered its support for the "war on terror" and the Bush Administration regarded China as an ally. By the time Bush visited China in February 2002, tensions between the two countries had visibly eased since the first months of his presidency.
US enthusiasm toward Taiwan cooled distinctly during 2003, in part because of the increasingly opaque separatist agenda of ROC President Chen Shui-bian. Washington felt uneasy about the Taiwanese leader's avowed plan to hold an insignificant plebiscite alongside the island's scheduled presidential election in spring 2004. To that, Chen added a call for the rewriting of the ROC Constitution. If Chen's plan was to use a plebiscite to affirm and legitimize the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's platform of a separatist Taiwan republic completely cut off from China, it would have provoked an almost certain armed invasion from Beijing. Sensing the potential catastrophe, the Bush administration cautiously distanced itself from Taiwan and warned its leaders that they alone would bear the responsibility for all consequences.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell succinctly summed up the corresponding change in attitude of the Bush administration toward China, commenting that Sino-US relations in 2003 were at their best since US President Nixon's opening gestures toward China in 1972. The reasons for the change went beyond Taiwan's loss of favor or even China's supportive role in the war against terrorism. Another reason was China's demonstrated diplomatic mellowness, shown in its initiative in brokering a negotiation to resolve the international crisis surrounding North Korean nuclear weapons.
The Bases for Cooperation--and Divergence
With necessary variations, three pillars seem to underpin both Russia and China's relations with the United States: the war on terrorism, aversion to the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and mutual economic interests. Differences in their respective views on these seemingly common concerns with the United States suggest that the road ahead will not be easy. For instance, the US anti-terrorist preoccupation with Al Qaeda is quite different from the Russian and Chinese concerns over domestic separatism. Bush's nonproliferation concern, centered on the "axis of evil" states of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, clashes with the Russian view, since Putin has never considered Iran a danger. Like France and Germany, Russia openly opposed the war in Iraq. The Chinese were more muted in their disagreement over the Iraq issue but concurred broadly with Bush that the North Korean nuclear problem had to be contained. The Taiwan question remains a perennial spoiler. As for economic interests, the Russians were more concerned with their entry into the WTO, and the Chinese were preoccupied with fighting Washington's pressure to reduce US trade deficits and to allow the Chinese renminbi to appreciate against the US dollar.
A complicating factor was the presence of US Air Force in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, first established in the Afghanistan campaign and then expanded during the most recent Iraq war. This prompted the rumored move by Russia and China to broach a trilateral "strategic partnership" with India. The unprecedented joint naval exercise staged by China and India in early November 2003 seemed to lend some credence to this rumored move. In September 2003, Russia, China, and three other Central Asian member states of the SCO signed an agreement in Beijing for the installation of a common Anti-Terrorist Center in Uzbekistan. The implications, if any, for Washington remain to be seen.
Critics of the Bush administration often allege that its policy has driven Russia and China (along with the Central Asian states) closer together. There have been contrary signs, however, that Russo-US relations have improved since the end of the Iraq war. At their meeting in June 2003, Bush and Putin not only signed the Treaty of Moscow, which limited each country's strategic nuclear arsenal, but also portrayed a common basis of mutual interests among the two countries. On the eve of his summit with Bush at Camp David in September 2003, Putin expressed his willingness to assist the United States in the reconstruction of Iraq. Nevertheless, he coupled the offer with a call to the world to rein in US military power.
A Chinese commentator described Russo-US relations as being characterized by "intermittent tensions and long feuds punctuated by short periods of rapport." Roughly the same may be said of China's relations with the United States since the end of the Cold War. While their similar plights may have pushed them together, Russia and China do not seem to be colluding to challenge US hegemony. The game being played now is qualitatively different from what prevailed during the Cold War, when the United States played the "China card" against the Soviet Union in a cut-throat competition and in a different alignment pattern. Today, Russia and China are on the same side in resisting a perceived threat from the sole surviving superpower that is the United States, but in a non-zero-sum game.
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US Public Opinion Concerning Taiwan 1995 Close Ally 14% Not Sure 8% Enemy 5% Not Friendly 22% Friendly 50% US Public Opinion Concerning Taiwan 2003 Close Ally 20% Not Sure 24% Enemy 5% Not Friendly 20% Friendly 32% Note: Table made from pie chart.
These two charts show how US public opinion concerning Taiwan has changed between 1995 and 2003. A growing sector of the US population is now unsure of how to view Taiwan in relation to the United States. The results indicate a growing uncertainty regarding Taiwan's role in the international arena, as well as a reduction in US public support for Taiwan. Recent events explain the reduction in favorable US perceptions toward Taiwan. Despite the Taiwan Relations Act, Chen's apparently separatist agenda has put the Taiwanese government at odds with a Washington wary of war with China. Additionally, China's transformation from "strategic competitor" to ally in Bush's "War on Terror" has reduced Sino-US tensions and, consequently, US support for Taiwan. Putin's proclamation of support for China in regard to Tibet and Taiwan has furthermore destabilized Taiwan's international status. As the War on Terror rises to prominence in a post-Cold War era, Taiwan's political support in the international community--and especially in the United States--has noticeably dwindled.
JAMES C. HSIUNG is Professor of Politics at New York University.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Strategic Triangle: Dynamics between China, Russia, and the United States. Contributors: Hsiung, James C. - Author. Journal title: Harvard International Review. Volume: 26. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2004. Page number: 14+. © 1999 Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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