China and Russia: A Worrisome Affair on the Rebound

Robert A. Manning, a former State Department official (1989-93) and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, is the author of "Asian Policy: The New Soviet Challenge in the Pacific (Unwin Hyman)

Hopefully, it caught the attention of incoming Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. Otherwise, the mid-December visit to Moscow by Chinese Premier Li Peng went all but unnoticed in the United States. The disclosure that one result of the visit was the Russian sale of advanced Sovremenny missile-carrying destroyers to China should get somebody’s attention. In any case, the exchange is a sign of discomfiting geopolitical trends that underscore the administration’s failure to integrate policies that run on separate bureaucratic tracks--NATO expansion, U.S.-Japan re- lations, missile defenses--into a coherent foreign-policy framework.

The newfound Sino-Russian amity, including Moscow’s willingness to help Beijing accelerate its military modernization, reflects strategies by both countries that could, if present trends continue, create severe headaches for the United States. It was no mere coincidence that just weeks before Li became the first foreign leader to meet Boris N. Yeltsin after his surgery, NATO had agreed to take up the issue of expansion in July. Similarly, China’s recent diplomacy, including new, friendly overtures to India, is a response to the revitalization of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Certainly, there are other pressures driving Russia and China toward a new marriage of convenience or, more accurately, an affair on the rebound. For Beijing, ensuring peace along its nearly 4,000-mile border with Russia and former Soviet republics is a high priority. So is obtaining a relatively cheap military technology for its modernization efforts, and diversifying its trading partners. Meanwhile, Russia is desperate to sell what competitive industrial goods it can. Military hardware and a nuclear power plant earn hard currency. Firming up stability along its borders with China is also important to Moscow.

Yet, it would be a mistake to inflate these developments and proclaim a new “strategic partnership,” as Moscow and Beijing have done. If there were any doubts about lingering Russian suspicions of China, Russian Defense Minister Igor N. Rodionov erased them in a speech he made on the day of Li’s arrival. China, he declared, is among those countries posing a military threat to Moscow. Still, Li and Yeltsin did not pass up an opportunity to blast the United States for acting as if it were the only superpower. They called for a more multipolar world “not divided into leaders and those who are led.”


For the United States and its allies, the Sino-Russian entente, such as it is, should be an early-warning signal. U.S. officials too glibly dismiss Russian protests against expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Yes, Moscow can’t veto the expansion, and, yes, it is seeking the best deal it can for a charter on NATO-Russian relations. But enlarging NATO now risks adversely affecting the psychological and political dynamics of Russian foreign policy. In light of the demise of the Warsaw Pact and German unification, and the successes of sweeping arms reductions, such as the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces pact, Moscow may be forgiven for wondering what the rush is to move NATO closer to it.

The logic of NATO expansion is to incorporate former adversaries into the West, as was done in the case of Germany and Japan after World War II. But the same logic requires a parallel process to integrate Russia into the Western system. Renewing ties to China is thus one aspect of Russia’s response to what is, in effect, rubbing Moscow’s nose in failure, though that is not Washington’s intention.

China and Russia are also wary of U.S. plans for ballistic-missile defenses. Neither has a legitimate beef against such tactical U.S. missile defenses as the Patriot or PAC-3 systems. But Soviet and Chinese anxieties over strategically capable systems currently under development by the United States, such as THAAD and the Navy’s Upper Tier, should not be lightly dismissed.

If Chinese or Russian strategists believe that the United States is considering deployment of a system capable of nullifying their nuclear deterrents, they may urge their leaders to respond with a nuclear buildup. Beijing is more likely to take this path since its nuclear forces are still modest. China is upgrading its missile capabilities and building smaller, more accurate warheads; it may even arm its missiles with multiple warheads. But there is no evidence, so far, that it plans to increase its total number of warheads. All this would probably change if China thought the United States was seeking an overwhelming strategic advantage through missile defenses.


The irony in all this is the circular logic of what appears to be the new strategic competition. For the United States and Japan, expanding NATO and reaffirming the U.S.-Japan alliance are both hedging strategies against Russia’s democratic experiment going awry and the uncertainty of what China is up to. There is nothing imprudent about this. The problem is that China, Russia and the United States are all pursuing reactive, defensive foreign policies. History, unfortunately, is littered with the consequences of such responses to unfamiliar realities.

The challenge to the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, is to begin to connect the dots of seemingly disparate, independently managed polices--NATO, the U.S.-Japan alliance, missile defenses--before the law of unintended consequences turns defensive-minded powers into adversaries. What sort of vision does Washington have for a global system in a multipolar world of great powers, where neither allies nor adversaries follow the “black hat, white hat” scripts written over the past half century?