The Scalene Triangle
No. 2 2015 April/June
Dmitriy Novikov

A research fellow, Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia.

Russia’s Goals and Capabilities with Regard to the Sino-U.S. Duo

One of the main results of the APEC summit in November 2014 was that it revealed increasingly controversial dynamics in Sino-U.S. relations in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing’s desire to overshadow Washington’s agenda with a more ambitious project to liberalize trade in the region reflected profound differences in the positions of the two countries. Setbacks in Chinese-U.S. relations give Russia hope for an accelerated revision of the rules of international politics imposed after the Cold War. However, the analysis of this practical possibility raises an important theoretical question: What are Moscow’s goals and means concerning the two leaders of the Asia-Pacific region and how can it fit into the intricate dynamics of relations between Beijing and Washington?


Chinese-U.S. relations are now in a fragile state where the leaders of the two countries do not want to sort out their relations in an open conflict, preferring instead to hush up their growing differences for the time being. The irritants are well known: more or less traditional economic issues (trade disputes, currency manipulation, reform of the regional and global financial systems): and disputes over human rights, which have long served as the general background for the partnership. New differences between Beijing and Washington that have transpired just recently reflect their diametrical views on how the international order in the Asia-Pacific region should be built. The new problems are of a completely different nature and draw well discernible dividing lines.

These lines embrace the following three issues.

The first one concerns political differences between China and U.S. allies, above all the territorial disputes along the Chinese border, which have become more pronounced lately. This knot of problems includes the dormant, yet sensitive, “Taiwan issue” which may erupt into an acute conflict. The aggravation of the territorial disputes was caused by Beijing’s strong desire to include coastal waters in the area of its inalienable interests, which is at odds with Chinese diplomatic tradition.

The second issue concerns the military-strategic differences, especially at sea, which have been exacerbated by the U.S. military buildup in the Asia-Pacific and China’s increased defense spending. This issue is closely linked with Beijing’s long-standing desire to gain more control over sea lanes by developing port infrastructure in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The third issue concerns the struggle over a future institutional organization in the Asia-Pacific which will deal with security issues and international trade and investment. This issue raises a more fundamental problem about the future economic order in the region.

The configuration of these differences suggests a historical analogy with Anglo-German relations which fell victim to an arms race at sea and various agendas concerning political and economic organization in Europe. Some analysts warn that the divide in U.S.-Chinese relations will grow wider and transform into a confrontation quite soon. However, for the time being their ties remain stable, despite big potential for conflict.

After China and the U.S. normalized their relations, the absence of objective threats to China’s vital interests from the United States was the key factor of stability, despite ideological and geopolitical differences between the two countries. In recent decades, Beijing viewed its interests through the prism of economy, giving priority in national security to the need to maintain high rates of social and economic development, which is largely a source of legitimacy for the present leadership. Geographically, the area of China’s vital interests was confined to its national borders, within which Beijing had the inalienable right to build its own economic and social model that differed significantly from the Western one. Physical and even verbal intervention in this sphere met with a severe rebuff from Beijing. In all other respects, China demonstrated remarkable flexibility, which was in line with Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy – “be good at maintaining a low profile” and “never claim leadership,” focusing instead on internal transformation.

Until recently, the United States did not exhibit any serious desire to intrude into the area of China’s vital interests. The financial and moral support for protesters in Hong Kong last fall could be viewed as a kind of litmus test for the Chinese leadership, which passed it and demonstrated the stability of the system. Washington hardly has enough capabilities now to threaten China as a country with an established political and territorial system. Moreover, if the Chinese economy stalls, the United States will suffer huge economic and even strategic losses. A clear understanding of this fact by both countries allows them to keep bilateral relations in stable condition, despite their differences that are similar to the Anglo-German confrontation of a century ago.

However, the fifth generation of Chinese leaders is already cautiously departing from the principles set forth in the 24 Character Strategy, rethinking the narrative of Chinese foreign policy to expand the area of China’s vital interests both geographically and conceptually. The 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which reshuffled the country’s leadership, reiterated adherence to the idea of a “harmonious and just society” and commitment to peaceful development. At the same time, the outgoing leader of the party and the state, Hu Jintao, in his report pointed to the need to build “strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing.” The tone of his speech differed significantly from what the previous leader, Jiang Zemin, had called for ten years earlier. Hu’s speech reflected Beijing’s increased interest in building up and modernizing the country’s defense capabilities, although this interest was intricately hidden behind traditional declarations about peaceful development.

Under Xi Jinping, these tenets began to be translated into life with surprising determination. In 2014, China’s defense budget increased by 12 percent, and its ambitious plans to strengthen the naval component, bringing the number of ships to 351 by 2020, to develop new aircraft carriers and basically renovate the submarine fleet make Washington suspect Beijing of trying to gain a strategic advantage not only in adjacent waters but also in the Pacific. The strengthening of the Navy is accompanied by more decisive moves in territorial disputes and an obvious desire to sideline the U.S. agenda concerning the liberalization of regional trade, which was especially evident at the latest APEC summit. These tendencies run counter to Deng’s maxim to “maintain a low profile” and “never claim leadership.” Regional leadership is becoming the core of Beijing’s foreign policy, and there is a spreading view among the Chinese elite that control over economic and political processes in the Asia-Pacific region is an essential condition for maintaining high development rates.

The new narrative is still in a nascent state, gradually acquiring a distinct shape in the Chinese academic and expert communities and rarely seen in official documents which mainly use moderate pacifist rhetoric. However, Chinese society’s demand for great-power status suggests that, if required, the country’s leadership can quickly formulate and indoctrinate a more confrontational approach to international reality.

Nevertheless, the fifth generation of Chinese leaders prefers an evolutionary tactic in revising foreign-policy priorities. Most of the threats posed by the United States are still subjective, while the basic logic in the analysis of China’s vital interests through the prism of economy remains in effect. China continues to be export-oriented and greatly depends on access to foreign markets, the possibility to attract investment and therefore on relations with the West. A reorientation of the Chinese economy towards domestic demand and a more balanced growth – one of the main goals proclaimed by Xi Jinping – will make it more self-sufficient and, in the long term, will stimulate a departure of Chinese diplomacy from the old principles which were relevant in the initial period of China’s integration into the world economy.

Revising principles and expanding the boundaries of national interests does not mean changing goals. Internal development, as in the times of Deng, still remains a strategic priority and forms the logic of China’s foreign policy.

So, the claim to regional leadership is not so much a reflection of subjective nationalist sentiment within the Chinese elite and society as an objective consequence of the country’s development in recent decades. The Chinese economy will apparently retain its export orientation and dependence on foreign capital and technologies. Yet it will acquire features typical of developed economies – a growing percentage of domestic consumption in the GDP mainly due to the middle class that emerged in the fat years, the institutional and technological development of the social sphere, the export of capital, and the transfer of production to countries where labor is already cheaper than in China. Maintaining high growth rates in these conditions is a more difficult task – hence the increased need to use political instruments to gear the regional economy towards the Chinese market. The good political climate in relations with Washington corresponds to the first trend, while the strengthening of China’s position in the region is in line with the second one. Therefore, by viewing internal transformations as an imperative, the Chinese leadership does not depart from the goal-setting logic of Deng’s times but is changing instruments and boundaries of national priorities to meet the increasingly complicated challenges and requirements facing the country.

This means that in the near future Beijing’s interests will focus mainly on the Asia-Pacific region, while its strategic presence on the global level will serve to accomplish key tasks in the region in much the same way Bismarck’s Germany increased its global presence to get additional trump cards in European politics. China will hardly repeat the mistake made in the 19th century by Wilhelm II who got involved in the colonial race and squandered resources on the useless efforts to increase Germany’s global presence to the detriment of its regional priorities. The main fundamental difference between the current situation and the Anglo-German relations is the low threshold of the price that China is ready to pay in the struggle for regional leadership.

So, the key to Sino-U.S. relations is in Washington – the future depends on how the United States responds to the above-described changes in China’s foreign policy. The U.S. habit to view regional and even local challenges in a global context can play a cruel joke on America as it makes the maintenance of U.S. global leadership an end in itself and expands the area of U.S. vital interests to the whole world. This approach has already demonstrated its pernicious nature, having transformed an internal political crisis in Ukraine into a confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers.

Interpreting China’s actions as an attempt to achieve a geo-strategic advantage over the United States and launch a mechanism of containment would make a conflict inevitable. For the time being, the U.S. expert community is largely intent on continuing to smooth over negative effects the Chinese growth has had on the balance of power in the region. This attitude is in stark contrast to the realities of a century ago. However, the U.S. demand for a much tougher response to virtually all threats, both objective and subjective, to U.S. global leadership may cause Washington to choose a more confrontational model of relations and thus damage the strategic partnership. The moderate Obama administration already now has to demonstrate uncharacteristic harshness in reacting even to insignificant attempts by China to revise its regional status. So, it is the U.S. reaction that creates the biggest risks for strategic relations between Beijing and Washington.


Moscow’s role in Sino-U.S. relations was relatively clear until recently: Russia fit in perfectly as a “balancer” both geographically as a bridge between the East and the West, and strategically as one of the few countries that are self-sufficient in terms of defense, capable of conducting an independent foreign policy and therefore having enough room for maneuver. Russia’s strategic advantage against the cobweb of Sino-U.S. relations was akin to the position held by Mao’s China with regard to the Soviet-American confrontation. While the dragon and the eagle were preparing for the fight of the century, the wise bear watched them from the woods and gained benefits.

The “new Cold War” seems to be closing this window of opportunity, reducing options for the development of relations with Washington to just one, and pushing Russia into the tight and sometimes stifling embrace of its eastern neighbor. This factor makes some analysts say that Moscow has driven itself into strategic zugzwang where the only alternative to capitulation to the West would be Russia’s gradual transformation into a junior partner of China or even its supplier of raw materials. But it is not quite so.

In fact, Russia has never fit into Mao’s well-known parable about a wise monkey watching two tigers fighting and gaining strategic advantages from that. Russia has a strong position on the global stage, which causes tensions with the U.S., but its position in the Asia-Pacific region is rather negligible. In contrast, China’s huge weight in the Asia-Pacific, where its political interests are concentrated, does not correlate at all with its modest strategic position on the global level, and the latter is at odds with China’s growing role in the world economy. These imbalances render untenable the logic of passive observation and benefiting – who can Moscow maneuver between on the global stage and what means does it have for maneuver on the regional level in the Asia-Pacific?

The current strategic situation to some extent stems from these imbalances and has an unshakable logic. Even before the confrontation with the United States, Moscow’s policy options with regard to Sino-U.S. relations were limited: it had little room for maneuver and could not even side with either party (presumably the weaker one) as a balancer. Russia and China have different types of power and different weights and interests, depending on an issue or region in focus. The complementarity and synergy of their strategic capabilities is rather wishful thinking than reality. For this to happen, Sino-U.S. relations must either be flung into a prewar state, where the logic of attracting allies at any cost prevails over all other considerations, or the aforementioned imbalances must be resolved for Sino-U.S. relations to move from a predominantly regional level to the global one and from a largely economic sphere into a strategic domain, and for Russia to play a greater role in the Asia-Pacific, which will likely become a key region in the 21st century.

Correcting imbalances is rather inevitable due to natural historical processes. China’s growing role in the global economy sooner or later will take it to a qualitatively new level of strategic presence in the world. For Russia, its turn towards Asia and the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East are vital priorities if it wants to preserve its international status and sovereignty.

However, a favorable scenario in which a basically new image of Chinese-U.S. relations will be a source of strategic advantages for Russia may not occur. This is why Moscow cannot just wait until things settle by themselves – the traditionally active Russian diplomacy seeks to make history, not submit to its processes. A passive approach towards the key strategic actors in the Asia-Pacific may cost Russia dearly and provoke a less favorable scenario. At the same time, using the discrepancy between China’s economic weight and its mismatching political role not only on the global level but even in the Asia-Pacific region would provide an objective basis for changing the international order in Moscow’s favor. Therefore, Russia needs effective instruments to influence the pace of relations between Washington and Beijing. With limited resources, Moscow can only play on their differences.

The analysis of China’s international ambitions evokes skepticism about the possibility of its active involvement in the reconstruction of the global order, which was actually started by Moscow in the spring of 2014. Although the Chinese government declares its commitment to the goal of changing the world order, together with Russia (codifying this in bilateral declarations, above all, the 1997 Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order), in reality changing the international order is not an end in itself for Beijing. Its greatest interest lies in reforming the financial system and trade, where Moscow is of little help now.

Russia does not have direct instruments to ensure China’s strategic participation in the global geopolitical reconstruction (U.S. attempts to place part of the responsibility for the world order on China have proved futile). The only way Russia can influence Sino-U.S. relations is by increasing its own potential in the Asia-Pacific region and engaging Beijing in non-regional matters that are firmly linked with Chinese national priorities (in other words, social and economic transformation of society).

Any of Moscow’s strategy with regard to Sino-U.S. relationship will fail without the dynamic development of Siberia and the Russian Far East. The inclusion of this vast macro-region in the regional economy will make Russia a major player in the Asia-Pacific and will boost its role in the global economy.

Russia’s two main allies in the Asia-Pacific region are energy resources and the Navy. These means, coupled with skilful diplomacy, can bring Sino-U.S. relations out of the deadlocked balance and contribute to their qualitative restructuring.

Moscow is already actively using the first instrument, forcedly to a large extent because of the political confrontation with the European Union, which is the main consumer of Russian energy resources. China is the largest oil importer and can considerably increase the use of oil and gas whose share in China’s energy consumption is relatively smaller than in developed countries and falls far behind coal (about two-thirds of all energy resources consumed by China). In the future, demand for oil and, especially, gas, which is already replacing coal as fuel for electricity production, will be a major reason for the Chinese economy’s dependence on a favorable environment.

Increased hydrocarbon supplies from Russia will be an important factor in ensuring China’s energy security. Russia can play in China the same game Washington is playing with Russia in Europe, namely, claiming the role of guarantor of China’s energy security. Moscow has more capability to do so than the United States has in the EU, and rising China has a far greater objective need to diversify its energy imports than Europe does. In this respect, the partnership between Russia and China is mutually beneficial – Moscow not only helps Beijing diversify energy supplies but also hedges its own risks.

The build-up of Russia’s military presence in the region is also part of its “turn towards Asia.” The Pacific Fleet is being qualitatively renovated to meet the new challenges and threats. The fleet is already actively cooperating with China by holding joint naval exercises. This cooperation can be expanded by simplifying procedures for Chinese and Russian warships to call at each other’s ports. For the Chinese Navy, even a symbolic demonstration of the flag in Vladivostok or Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky would be a notable geostrategic advantage over the Japanese Navy, whereas for Russia this may be a kind of return to Dalian and Port Arthur after decades of absence – not as a colonial power but as an equal partner in ensuring regional security. This cooperation meets the desire of both countries to achieve naval parity with the United States and its allies, at least in the Far East and eventually in the Pacific.

The development of China’s dual-purpose port infrastructure along sea routes used for energy supplies may become an additional sphere of integration. Russia’s naval presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, backed by the right to use this infrastructure, would free China from the feeling of strategic loneliness and would strengthen Russia’s role as an important guarantor of China’s energy security – not only as a supplier but also as a partner in patrolling sea lanes, even though on a limited scale.

Russia’s increased military presence and obvious activity on Beijing’s home turf can be misinterpreted by other regional players, especially those locked in territorial disputes with China. To avoid that, Moscow should demonstrate diplomacy skills in multilateral cooperation formats, which lack a systemic approach now. There is a paradoxical difference in the level of Russia’s representation in the APEC (traditionally attended by the president) and at the East Asia Summit (this year the Russian delegation was led by the prime minister, but was previously headed by the foreign minister).

It is in the field of security that Moscow can play an active role, balance the development of ties with China through multilateral formats and take part in the construction of a regional security architecture, whose efficiency, just like in Europe, is decreasing because of the Cold War-era system of U.S. alliances. The promotion of this agenda can evoke serious interest not only in Beijing but also in other countries that objectively need relaxation of tensions to prevent the emergence of new “Ukraines” – this time in the Asia-Pacific region. From this point of view, Moscow should support China’s initiative to liberalize regional trade, which runs counter to the U.S. Trans-Pacific Partnership project, if for no other reason than simply because Russia’s participation in U.S.-patronized projects is impossible under the current circumstances.

Working together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia and China can broaden their interaction in building regional security in Central Asia, which is an important source of energy resources for Beijing. China’s growing concern over terrorist activities of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and threats to stability across Central Asia requires it to play a bigger role in addressing the region’s problems. Russia happens to be a destined partner here as the only country that has an effective military-political instrument for ensuring regional security – the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

China’s reliance on Russia in addressing energy security issues and the expansion of its military-political presence in adjacent regions will undoubtedly invite countermeasures from Washington. The next American president, regardless of his party affiliation, will be under enormous pressure as the U.S. strategic positions in the world are objectively weakening and the new administration will need to “show determination” in contrast to Barack Obama’s “indecisive” policy. This factor may provoke Washington to pursue a more active policy to contain Beijing, forcing the latter to react and upsetting the fragile balance of Sino-U.S. relations. These developments will lead to a realignment of the balance of power in the region and ultimately help create a healthier international environment.

But if Washington displays a sensible and pragmatic approach vis-à-vis China and assumes a policy of respecting its interests and strengthening strategic ties with it in order to maintain the balance between containment and engagement, it will pave the way for an evolutionary transformation of Sino-U.S. relations and all politics in the region.

The U.S. is already developing an academic network in China to project its own system of views on the theory and practice of global and regional politics. These efforts meet the high demand in the Chinese expert community for knowledge concerning the history and theory of international relations. Russia has great potential in this regard, but makes little use of it even though this is a long-term investment, the returns of which are not always palpable but which nevertheless is very important. “University diplomacy,” based on existing and newly established academic ties, has the potential that is barely tapped, and Moscow simply cannot ignore it, given the limited set of political and diplomatic instruments at its disposal. The Russian factor can play a greater role in Sino-U.S. relations and, ultimately, in the Asia-Pacific region if Moscow uses the differences between Washington and Beijing and if these differences become transformed from subjective into objective. The latter circumstance does not mean an inevitable escalation of confrontation and the destruction of the Asia-Pacific security system. On the contrary, the realization by both parties of the objectivity of bilateral differences can give a boost to the efforts to build a stable regional, and eventually global, security system, with due account taken of the national interests of all the players involved, including Russia.