By Michael McShane
As President Obama concluded his tour of Israel last week, “reaffirming the bonds”between the United States and its closest ally in the Middle East, Xi Jinping was preparing for his first state visit as China’s new President; and to the surprise of some, the Chinese leader chose Russia as his inaugural destination abroad.
Historically, Russia and China have maintained different relations—often acrimonious—than that of the U.S. and Israel. However, the Russians and Chinese have three important things in common: 1) as neighbors in Asia, a vast border; 2) Communist ties dating back to the founding of the Soviet Union; 3) and as regional powers, strong suspicions and fears of U.S. intentions in the Eurasia Theater.
NATO’s post-Cold War expansion (specifically the development of Western missile defense systems) into Eastern Europe and the recent U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific have shaped Russian and Chinese perceptions of U.S. projections of power in the 21st century. In this context, Mr. Xi’s visit to Russia potentially signals a China/Russia balancing in response to a renewed U.S. presence in Asia and, at the very least, a reinforcing of a bilateral relationship which has recently seen the two powers find common ground in the Security Council (e.g., Syria and Iran).
“The belief that states form alliances in order to prevent strong powers from dominating them […] to protect themselves from states or coalitions whose superior resources could pose a threat.”
Dr. Walt also contends:
“A realist approach to the preservation of world order…rests upon the formation of countervailing alliances, based on the recognition that effective international institutions inevitably reflect the underlying distribution of power. If the United States fails to maintain an imbalance of power in its favor (based on both its own capabilities and those of its allies), its ability to preserve the current institutional structure of world politics will gradually evaporate.”
While in Russia, Mr. Xi discussed further strengthening Beijing’s ties with Moscow with his counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Among the proposed agreements,energy deals, arms sales and military cooperation featured prominently. Such bilateral arrangements implicitly suggest an ever-growing alliance, perhaps countering (U.S.) “superior resources” that “pose a threat” to both Russia and China.
To Dr. Walt’s point concerning international institutions reflecting the “underlying distribution of power,” it’s worth noting a multilateral deal struck this week in Los Cabos, Mexico. The BRICS, a coalition of emerging powers including Russia and China, purportedly agreed to establish a new development bank – a potential rival to Western-dominated institutions, i.e. the IMF and World Bank.
Are Russia and China (and perhaps others) actively balancing against the U.S. and its dominant position in the international system? For those less inclined to apply international relations theory to explain global events, China’s state-run media may have already answered the question.
Michael McShane is an intern for the EastWest Institute’s Strategic Trust-building Initiative.
For a different take on the Russia-China relationship, see the EWI report on the Clingendael Institute’s new paper ”Russian-Chinese Security Relations: Moscow’s Threat from the East?”