In a new cold war with China, America may need to befriend Russia

Disruptive events such as the coronavirus pandemic can radically shift international relations. The public health crisis seems to have inexorably put China and the United States on a path toward a new cold war.

This confrontation has been building for some time through disputes over trade, intellectual property and the South China Sea. When China’s conduct became a matter of life and death for Americans, as with coronavirus, support for pushing back hard became broad and bipartisan.

A new cold war would not be like the original. The Soviet Union, unlike China, never was a “near-peer” economic competitor. China has robust technological capabilities and a well-funded military, making it a complex adversary. 

America’s resolve, creativity and willingness to work with others will be strongly tested. The United States has more than 40 treaty allies. China has North Korea.

Yet, these alliances have become badly frayed. Europe, for example, has strong reservations about a rising China, but also no longer fully trusts the United States. Rebuilding these ties will be imperative in a cold war with China. 

The United States also may need to get strategically bolder. 

For decades, the United States, Russia and China have had a distinct triangular relationship. In keeping with the classic theories of international relations, two of the parties tend to align because of a quest for advantage or fears about the third.

After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China aligned itself with the Soviet Union until their dramatic split a decade later. In 1972, President Nixon pursued a bold opening with China. This rapprochement forced a strategic recalculation by the Soviet Union.

When Vladimir Putin became president of Russia in 2000, he sought to rebuild its international position. This included steadily aligning with China to counter U.S. influence from Asia to Europe. 

As China has grown stronger, however, Russia has grown more nervous. Russia is especially worried about its Far Eastern Federal District, which has a population of 6.2 million, compared to 100 million in China’s border provinces. The two countries came close to a border war in 1969 and mistrust persists. 

China’s growing wealth — now almost 10 times that of Russia — has made Moscow increasingly worried about Beijing’s embrace. This growing imbalance suggests that Russia may be open to new friends in a changed geopolitical context. 

For the United States, Russia is a highly imperfect partner. Its military actions in the Middle East, ongoing cyberattacks, and efforts to sow discord in America are but a few areas of concern. The U.S. must strongly defend its interests and the integrity of its institutional processes against Russian malfeasance.

Nevertheless, Russia is the swing player in international relations, meaning that it will see an interest in either moving closer to China or America in a new cold war. The United States does not necessarily want to contend with another great power rivalry as it seeks to focus on China.

It should, therefore, explore the possibility of a new modus vivendi with Russia that would allow for enhanced cooperation in countering a rising China while checking Russia’s attempts to undermine U.S. interests. A necessary prerequisite would be to clean up the existing framework of U.S.-Russia relations, including fixing or jettisoning a number of ill-targeted bills in Congress. 

A good example is the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKA), co-sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) last December. The core of the bill targets Russian financial institutions and certain Russian sovereign debt instruments, including its OFZ treasury bonds.

While DASKA’s passage would anger Moscow, it would bring few real consequences because Russia borrows little and maintains large foreign exchange reserves. Ironically, U.S. investors, who hold an estimated $23 billion in OFZ bonds, would be the big losers.

It is hard to predict how the intensification of the rivalry with China will play out. What is clear is that America’s chances for success in whatever is to come will be enhanced if it is able to draw on the support of a range of partners.

While Russia is unlikely to become a U.S. ally, both countries have a growing interest in countering China. Operationalizing this alignment of interests has the potential to be enormously advantageous to the United States. Let’s see what is possible.

Eric Miller is president of Rideau Potomac Strategy Group and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Tags Bob Menendez China-US relations geopolitical risks Lindsey Graham new Cold War Russia Vladimir Putin

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