At the end of last week, Japan gave up trying to get the United Nations Security Council to pass a binding resolution sanctioning North Korea for its April 5 missile launch. Instead, Tokyo accepted a watered-down statement from the Security Council’s president. Last-minute wavering from the Obama administration did not help Japanese efforts, but the main obstacle to firm U.N. action was concerted opposition from veto-wielding Beijing and Moscow.
China and Russia have been busy lately. Last Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese and Russians hackers have been penetrating the computer networks that operate the American power grid, with the apparent intention of attacking that grid at later dates. During the G-20 summit earlier this month, the two nations were working in close coordination to undermine the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, as they have been doing since at least last October, when Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Meanwhile, China and Russia have been cooperating on Iran, Sudan, and Central Asia. Add it all up, and you have the makings of a real partnership, if not an informal alliance, with the purpose of opposing American leadership.
The Dragon and the Bear are not natural allies. Even as fraternal Communists they traded barbs and sometimes gunfire. Today, each country has good reason to avoid a full relationship. Both, for instance, value their links to the West. Moreover, the Chinese and Russian governments are increasingly arrogant, assertive, and self centered, and the things that make them such difficult partners for America and Europe also ensure that each will be an uncertain friend for the other. They compete for influence in many parts of the world, such as Central Asia and the Middle East, while at the same time cooperating against the United States in those same areas.
Despite their competition and various squabbles, China and Russia have drawn closer to each other over the past decade. In recent years, the two autocracies have signaled the end of the Sino-Soviet split by announcing a strategic partnership arrangement and, more substantively, signing a comprehensive “friendship and cooperation” treaty in 2001. Though the State Department dismissed this pact as a mere expression of friendship — what else could American diplomats say under the circumstances? — it had all the markings of the beginning of a long-term alliance.
As bilateral ties improved, the two nations began to proclaim friendship for one another. In 2006, the Chinese celebrated the “Year of Russia” in China. In 2007, the Russians returned the favor with their “Year of China” in Russia. As they exchanged such gestures, the world’s two largest authoritarian states were also establishing closer military ties, reinvigorating trade, and settling border disputes.
They were also waiting for their opportunity to pounce. For a long time, both Beijing and Moscow were reluctant to join together in directly challenging “the world’s sole superpower.” In recent years, their attitudes changed. In 2005, for instance, they steered the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a grouping of Central Asian nations they dominate, to call for the removal of the United States from its Central Asian military installations. Soon afterward, Uzbekistan, a SCO member, forced America to leave the important Karshi-Khanabad airbase. In that drama, China and Russia took advantage of Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s desire to rid himself of Washington and its human-rights criticisms.
These days, Beijing and Moscow never miss an opportunity to take on Washington directly. For instance, Russia openly provided substantial financial incentives to Kyrgyzstan, another SCO member, in order to help drive the United States out of the crucial Manas air base. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev made the announcement of America’s eviction in February while in Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart. For their part, the Chinese, in order to enforce their incredible claims to virtually all of the South China Sea, have adopted increasingly hostile tactics to push the U.S. Navy from that crucial body of water, as we saw in the Impeccable incident early last month.
During the 1990s, in the aftermath of Tiananmen and the Soviet Union’s collapse, China and Russia depended on trade and diplomatic links with America and Europe. These days, the two countries view the world in a starkly different manner. For one thing, they evidently think the West is more dependent on trade with them than the other way around, especially now that they have accumulated large reserves of foreign currency. As a result of their economic achievements, they see themselves as rising powers capable of being more assertive. Both feel they can reorder the international system — and they are openly identifying the same adversary.
That adversary’s enlightened response has been to try to deputize them. The underlying assumption of this approach — generally labeled “engagement” — is that America, based on its overwhelming attractiveness and strength, will ultimately be able to integrate the two large newcomers into the global system and even enlist them in solving problems. The best way to do that, according to this concept, is to give Beijing and Moscow a role in shaping and maintaining the existing international order, which will encourage them to be “responsible stakeholders” (to borrow the State Department’s hopeful formulation). The problem is that neither China nor Russia is ready to act like a responsible power, and no amount of engagement will alter the way each calculates its interests at this moment.
Optimists — in reality, apologists — correctly point out that the Chinese and the Russians no longer promote Communist revolution and are now merely seeking their own advancement. The trouble, however, is that the peril they pose is magnified because they are undermining the international system at the same time that others – namely rogue regimes and Islamic terrorists — are attacking it. The result could be sudden and dramatic geopolitical change. At a time of increasing global stress, the consequences of concerted Chinese and Russian action cannot be good.
– Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. He lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for almost two decades.