‘Today China is our key strategic partner,” President Vladimir Putin said May 8, in Moscow. In 2015, China and Russia share much in common. Both nations are ruled by confident authoritarians. Both rulers embrace territorial expansionism through the barrel of a gun. Neither has much interest in compromise. And bound by these physical and philosophical similarities, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are becoming good friends.
This past weekend, attending Russia’s World War II memorial in Moscow, President Jinping got cozy with President Putin. In addition to lending about $25 billion to cash-strapped Russian companies, China will support a major Russian rail-infrastructure project and increase its imports of Russian natural gas. In return, Russia will expand exports of advanced military equipment to China. And as a further sign of warmed relations, the two nations will conduct joint exercises in the Mediterranean Sea this week.
Both China and Russia now believe that President Obama’s will is malleable.
The enmity that defined Sino–Russian relations during much of the Cold War has long faded. In its place, an evolving China–Russian alliance is rising against American and international security. This alliance has a profound security component. While only two Chinese warships are joining the Mediterranean exercises, their deployment reflects China’s desire to help Russia counter American power. This emboldened statement of power is very deliberate. After all, with EU states (including the U.K.) gutting their defense capabilities, the U.S. military alone has the capacity to deter Chinese and Russian military power.
Even then, both China and Russia now believe that President Obama’s will is malleable. And neither Jinping nor Putin has any interest in traditional notions of international law and order. As long as it serves their interests, financial or otherwise, these leaders will accept any offense, however grotesque, against international order — Assad’s repeated gassing of his people, for example. While the world waffles, Jinping and Putin are supporting each other. China has accepted Putin’s theft of Ukraine, and, in return, Russia is acquiescing to China’s territorial thievery in the South China Sea.
President Obama must do two things to confront this challenge. First, he needs to get serious about America’s defense posture. At present, using the U.S. military as a political bargaining chip, President Obama is neglecting the profound capability deficits created by the sequester cuts. This has not gone unnoticed in Beijing and Moscow. Shaped by perceptions of power, aggression, and authority, the Russian bear and Chinese dragon understand only one thing: what can compel them. And while restored American military dominance will take time, Obama can take symbolic steps immediately. For starters, he can disinvite China from RIMPAC 2016 (American-organized navy exercises in the Pacific).
But America’s improved military capability alone won’t be enough. President Obama also needs to reassess his overall strategy. He must accept China’s leaders for who they are: Whatever their smiles might suggest, Jinping and his minions are interested only in raw power. Like Putin, Jinping perceives Obama’s hand of friendship as weakness rather than a gift of friendship. Take the China–U.S. climate accord in November 2014. In return for major American concessions, China promised only “to intend to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030.” Of course these intentions will be subject to the whims of a Communist kleptocracy. President Obama’s climate “victory” was nothing more than a conversation prop for progressives’ dinner parties (and comedy material for the Politburo Standing Committee).
The stakes are profound. If China and Russia believe that their new alliance in aggression can overwhelm U.S. interests uncontested, they’ll simply double down on that aggression. Their strategy is restrained only by what they believe they cannot get away with. And only America can deter them.
—Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., writes for National Review Online. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and holds the Tony Blankley chair at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets.