The US can play China against Russia

The US can play China against Russia
© VALERIY SHARIFULIN/AFP/Getty Images

Both Russia and China are expansionist powers that threaten American and Western interests around the globe. However, there is no genuine or lasting alliance between them but an evolving partnership to diminish U.S. influence. A strategically astute American policy would encourage competition and conflict between Moscow and Beijing from which the West would benefit.

Although Russia remains the West’s main near-term adversary, China is developing into a longer-term threat. Russia is a revisionist aggressor trying to subvert the trans-Atlantic world. But its capabilities are declining, and it will be preoccupied with internal turmoil and a succession crisis in the coming decade.

China is a steadily advancing global competitor with a growing economy and a durable strategy to surpass Europe and America. China’s GDP is more than seven times larger than Russia’s and its population ten times greater. Militarily, China is surpassing Russia, which faces major budget cuts as the economy stagnates.

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In the worst-case scenario, a grand alliance between Russia and China would prolong Russia’s threatening posture, enable China to expand its economic influence operations in Europe, extend both Russian and Chinese military deployments and disperse American capabilities. In an alternative positive scenario, Washington would encourage disputes between its two key adversaries and weaken their partnership against the West as they divert their resources against each other.

There are three regions where Washington can pursue a strategy of division: Russia’s Far East, Central Asia and the Arctic. China should be supported to expand its influences into Russia’s Siberian and Far Eastern provinces, where it surrendered vast tracts of territory in the 19th Century at a time when China was weak and the Russian empire was comparatively strong. The roles are now reversing and are driven by demography and economic ambition. Attempts to regain those territories for China would be both symbolically and strategically important.

Demographically, the Russian population is dwindling in Siberia and the Pacific coast regions while the neighboring Chinese population is rising. Along their common border, approximately 4.3 million Russians face over 109 million Chinese, many of whom will be seeking land, work and resources. The steady influx of Chinese workers into Russia indicates that Beijing increasingly views its northern neighbor not only as a raw materials supplier but also as a future provider of land for its swelling and dynamic population.

A growing Chinese population in Russia will enable China to become more politically intrusive by claiming to protect them, just as Moscow asserts it is defending Russian speakers to pursue its expansionist agenda in Europe. In using Russia’s subversive tactics against itself, Beijing can claim territory and resources that border China and which it could more effectively develop economically. In the next generation, much of Russia east of the Urals could become a Chinese protectorate.

Increasing Chinese penetration will generate friction with Moscow and propel a military buildup along their common border. The diversion of Russian military assets to the eastern theater would take substantial pressure off Europe and diminish the threats Moscow poses to NATO members and partners. This can also curtail Chinese expansionism and divert Beijing’s resources to protecting its northern and western borders, thus strengthening America’s position in defending Japan and South Korea and deterring Beijing’s aggression in the Far East.

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Central Asia can also become a beneficial battleground between Russia and China. China’s Belt and Road initiative is designed to suborn countries along route to its economic and political agenda. This includes diminishing Moscow’s influence and undercutting its regional alliances. Washington needs to be more active both in supporting the independence of all five Central Asian states and in ensuring a competitive stalemate between Beijing and Moscow. In this strategic chess game involving energy supplies, economic investment and military cooperation, Washington can help local leaders to resist Russian and Chinese imperial pressures and to leverage the two predators against each other.

In the Arctic arena, Moscow calculated that it could dominate the Northern Sea Route and monopolize access to polar mineral wealth. But a warming climate, the decline of Russia’s shipbuilding industry and the growing presence of other powers, including China, has challenged Kremlin ambitions. The U.S. should strengthen its position in countering Russia’s attempts to control Arctic sea routes while also containing China’s capabilities. This would require bolder diplomatic, economic and military involvement while rejecting economic exclusion zones along the Arctic seabed.

Russia is becoming China’s “younger brother,” a reversal of their roles under both Tsarism and Communism. The threat of more intense Western sanctions on Russia, including its fossil fuel exports, if it conducts further military incursion against its neighbors, will result in even greater economic dependence on China. This will lead to growing resentment in Moscow and escalating political frictions with Beijing, which the U.S. can exploit to its strategic advantage.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington DC. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is "Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks."