U.S. puts Russia-China entente to litmus test

There is no need to second guess the identity of the third party present in the room in Sochi on Tuesday when the U.S. secretary of state John Kerry met the Russian leaders. Most certainly, if a strong stimulus is to be accounted for as working on the U.S. president Barack Obama’s cerebral mind prompting him to break the ice in the relations with Russia, it is the Sino-Russian entente that has emerged in global politics. See my blog Obama’s overture to Putin has paid off.)

Washington is easing the pressure on Russia and gently disengaging itself from its Middle Eastern allies (who are desperately clinging on to it), while it is moving on to the crucial Asian theatre where China is rising. Kerry is traveling to Beijing in the weekend soon after his visit to Russia and immediately after the U.S.’ summit with the GCC leaders.

The U.S. officials have let it be known through the media that the secretary proposes to to take a “tough approach” in his talks in Beijing regarding China’s recent land reclamation work in the contested waters in the South China Sea. Alongside, Pentagon is threatening to depute military aircraft and ships to challenge the Chinese military’s activities in that region.

This is coercive diplomacy at its best – openly challenging China’s growing international profile and its assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific and compelling it to react. And, call it by any other name you like, it is nothing but a replay, quintessentially, of the U.S. and NATO’s aggressive deployment on Russia’s borders in the recent months.

The diplomatic ploy will be to constructively engage Russia while stepping up pressure on China. In the process, the U.S. will also be testing the resilience of the Sino-Russian entente. (Read an analysis, here, by a RAND Corporation expert and a former U.S. ambassador entitled “How durable is the China-Russia ‘friendship’?”)

Of late, China had shed its ambivalent stance on the Ukraine crisis and begun acknowledging Russia’s legitimate concerns. The Chinese media have been explicitly critical of the U.S. for precipitating the Ukraine crisis. The Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to participate in the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9 was both substantial in content as well as heavily laden with political symbolism, being a gesture of solidarity with Russia. (Beijing Review).

Indeed, the highlight of Xi’s Moscow visit was the joint statement signed by him and President Vladimir Putin aligning China’s Belt and Road Initiatives with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union project, stating the long-term intention to establish a free trade zone stretching across China and the EEU territories and declaring a shared commitment to ensure the stability of the Eurasian landmass. (See my blog The Sino-Russian Entente in Eurasia.)

Suffice it to say, Russia has helped China to: a) provide a land route to access the European market; b) neutralize the U.S.’ “pivot” strategy in Asia; and, c) make the “Belt and Road Initiatives” viable and practical in immediate terms. In sum, Moscow is helping Beijing to gain “strategic depth” on a global scale that couldn’t have been imagined even one year ago.

Of course, Beijing expressed deep concern over the threat from Washington to challenge China militarily in the South China Sea and demanded that “the U.S. side must make clarification on this”. The foreign ministry spokesperson said,

  • The Chinese side advocates the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, yet the freedom definitely does not mean that foreign military vessels and aircrafts can enter one country’s territorial waters and airspace at will. China will stay firm in safeguarding territorial sovereignty. We urge parties concerned to be discreet in words and actions, avoid taking any risky and provocative actions and safeguard regional peace and stability.

Meanwhile, the influential Global Times affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party has warned in an editorial today,

  • If Washington takes this dangerous step, it will be nothing but a blatant infringement of China’s sovereignty, and the U.S. can expect potent countermeasures. If it gets worse, the South China Sea will see a showdown between China and the U.S. … Washington will be too naive to think that China will exercise forbearance and self-restraint in that scenario. It should keep in mind that China is a major power with nuclear weapons, and there is no way that U.S. forces can take reckless actions in the South China Sea. Considering China’s proximity to this area and determination to defend its sovereignty, the U.S., although equipped with the strongest military forces, will stand no chance of overwhelming China.

Much depends on how the U.S.-China tensions pan out in the coming weeks and months. A period of intense U.S.-China engagement lies ahead. (The U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue is scheduled to be held in Washington in June and Xi has accepted Obama’s invitation to visit the U.S. in September.) Nonetheless, the salient point is that the tensions are unfolding against the backdrop of a potential thaw in the U.S.-Russia relations.

Thus, Kerry’s warning to the leadership in Kiev (within a day of his talks in Sochi) against making any attempts to regain control over the strategic Donetsk airport in the Donbass region cannot but be seen as a subtle signal to the Kremlin (which Russian diplomats have promptly noted) that Washington will not precipitate matters any further in Ukraine to corner Russia.

For Russia, needless to say, Ukraine is a core issue and any conciliatory move by the Obama administration would merit a reciprocal response. The Russian-American relationship has a glorious history of trade-offs. Without doubt, the growing military ties between Russia and China (here and here) will be a cause of worry to the Pentagon.

Again, the reports from the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Turkey on Thursday (after the Sochi talks) suggest that the alliance is toning down the stridency of its rhetoric against Russia. The alliance is already taking one eye off Russia by turning toward Libya and the Islamic State as pressing preoccupations.

Above all, do not be surprised if Washington were to propose talks with Russia regarding the contentious issue of the U.S.’ ABM system.

Thus, across the board, the Obama administration is proposing to the Russian leadership a constructive engagement over core issues affecting Russian interests — and, possibly, a détente in the relationship.

Washington counts on an influential lobby within the Russian elites, which has always argued for the role of a “balancer” for Moscow in the Asia-Pacific apropos the accelerating rivalries between the U.S. and China. This lobby of “Westernists” had been somewhat marginalized as tensions began mounting in Russia’s relations with the West and a deep chill descended on the Russian-American relationship.

Beijing will be anxiously watching the drift of things in the latest U.S.-Russia dalliance. The angst in the Chinese mind is evident from an editorial in the Global Times on Tuesday underscoring the criticality of Moscow’s commitment to the partnership with China. The following excerpts merit particular attention:

  • The China-Russia partnership has brought in strategic benefits to both sides. Not only has it advanced their bilateral cooperation in economic affairs, but it has made both feel more secure, and the balance of power can be better sustained. Meanwhile, both sides know the restraints in their partnership. No side is willing to give up the rest of the world for the other side … Unless both sides face the same life-or-death threats, the chance that China and Russia will become allies is remote. History keeps reminding China and Russia that an alliance is not in the best interest of both sides.
  • Critical voices about the partnership can be heard in both China and Russia. Russian politics has re-adopted Western democracy, and Chinese society has been more diversified since its reform and opening-up. Some people in both countries persist in saying that the partnership needs more prudence.
  • It must be noted that enhancing the strategic partnership is expected by mainstream society in both countries. The partnership cannot be destabilized simply by historical discord or the opposition of the Western world, and it has broken away from the limits of leaderships’ preference.

The signs so far are that Putin will remain guarded about the U.S.’ intentions. In fact, just before receiving Kerry on Tuesday in Sochi, Putin took an important meeting of the Defence Ministry where he urged Russia’s strategic nuclear forces and aerospace defense forces to be ready to act on immediate orders at any time. Putin disclosed that the Russian Army would receive two sets of Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile systems before the end of this year (Kremlin website). Once bitten, twice shy – after all.

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Categories: Asia Times News & Features, M.K. Bhadrakumar

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