One American’s View of US-China-Russia Relations

One American’s View of US-China-Russia Relations
Remarks to an Academic Seminar on US-China-Russia Relations
The China Institute for International Strategic Studies
The School of International and Public Affairs of Jiaotong University

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Shanghai, China, April 27, 2012

I am honored to join such distinguished company in a discussion of Chinese, Russian, and American perspectives on the interactions between our three great countries.  My sincere thanks to you, General Xiong, to CIISS, and to Jiaotong University for convening this colloquium.  Like others here, I will miss the thoughtful presence of Ambassador Igor Rogachev.  As he would have done, I speak only for myself.

Ambassador Rogachev would, I think, be pleased by the current state of the Sino-Russian relationship.  Relations between the two countries seem to be settling into a pattern of amicable partnership.  This partnership is characterized by peaceful borders, growing trade and investment, regular summit meetings, high-level visits, and military exchanges and exercises, as well as frequent consultation in bilateral and multilateral settings.  In short, relations between China and Russia appear to be progressing smoothly in ways that satisfy the interests of  both sides.

The same cannot be said for Russo-American or Sino-American relations.  Both are tinged with elements of suspicion and strategic rivalry.  Neither is now advancing; both are – at best – “on hold” pending the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections this November.  The complicated process of generational change in leadership now underway in China also inhibits initiatives to halt the drift in Sino-American relations.

Before I turn to the United States and China, let me say just a few words about the state of U.S-Russian  relations.

Russia has supported the NATO effort in Afghanistan by providing an alternative to exclusive reliance on Pakistan for logistical support.  This is a positive element in Russo-American interaction that few would have thought possible not so many years ago.  Given America’s falling out with Pakistan, Russian cooperation has become essential to the continuation of the American effort in Afghanistan.  Still, the two countries have not found much else on which to cooperate.  And NATO and Russia have yet to work out a satisfactory relationship, as dramatized by Russia’s reluctance to take part in the May 20 – 21 NATO summit at Chicago, where the future of Afghanistan will be a major topic of discussion.

Americans are in the process of installing a complex system of radars and missiles designed to defend Israel as well as Western Europe from potential Iranian ballistic missile attack.  Not surprisingly, given its history, Russia sees the forward deployment of the U.S. military to Poland and the Czech Republic as threatening.  Russians also fear that the ballistic missile defense systems the United States is developing and deploying will undermine the effectiveness of Russia’s nuclear deterrent, destabilize Russia’s strategic balance with America, and reignite a Russian-American nuclear arms race.  The United States has not been able to allay Russian concerns.  Russo-American relations thus remain in a state of sometimes tense uncertainty.

In this and perhaps other contexts, Russia seems to see China as an important strategic counterweight to America.  By contrast, I think, China regards Russia as a natural bilateral partner and a vital component of the emerging multipolar world order, not as a strategic counterweight to the United States.

For their part, Sino-American relations continue to develop unevenly and in somewhat contradictory ways.  China and the United States are increasingly interdependent economically.  Both countries recognize that they must work together on a lengthening list of global and regional problems if these are to have any prospect of resolution.  Although both countries’ policies toward Korea have consistently failed, China and the United States continue to cooperate on many of the issues there.

On the other hand, political tensions are now intensifying between China and America on issues of global governance and order.  The two countries object to each other’s interpretations of the United Nations Charter and various aspects of international law.  They differ in their views of the inviolability of sovereignty and of the extent to which the international community is entitled to intervene in the internal affairs of countries in which governments are behaving atrociously toward their own people.

Perhaps most unfortunately, Sino-American military relations are characterized by sullen non-communication, suspicion, and mounting perceptions of mutual hostility.  Three feet of ice didn’t form in a day, but the ice separating the U.S. military from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has visibly thickened in recent months.  This time the immediate source of tension is, for once, not Taiwan.  It is a combination of mutual perceptions of misbehavior in the South and East China Seas, interactions by both sides with third countries unnerved by China’s growing military prowess and ever more active patrols of its near seas, and Chinese reactions to the U.S. reactions to these developments.

The U.S. concept of “air-sea battle” and the stated intention of the United States to “pivot” militarily to focus on the Asia-Pacific have had a particularly negative impact on China’s view of  America.  No doubt the Chinese response to these U.S. moves will stimulate an equal and opposite American reaction.  Meanwhile, not for the first time, each side foolishly takes its concern about the capabilities and intentions of the other as an excuse to avoid talking rather than as a reason to pursue an honest dialogue.  There is little ground for hope that the two sides will be able to reengage during this year of American electoral uncertainty and Chinese leadership transition.  So the ice dividing China’s PLA from America’s armed forces will continue to accumulate for some time to come and the chill in bilateral relations will not go away.

This is too bad.  A lot of things are happening that are of interest and concern to China, Russia, and America and these things can only be managed effectively if the three countries are able to cooperate with each other.   Some fall under the rubric of geopolitics and national security policy.  Others do not.  Let me cite a few examples.

First, China, Russia, and America share important interests in Central and West Asia.  All three have an interest in denying terrorists sanctuary in Afghanistan after NATO withdraws.  China and Russia would be directly affected were NATO’s departure to be followed by the destabilization of Central Asia.  Despite differences about how best to accomplish this, all three countries seek the restoration of domestic tranquility in Syria and Libya.  All have a stake in Iraq’s recovery from the effects of the Saddam regime, the American occupation, and the catastrophic sectarian and ethnic violence these two factors combined to catalyze.  None wishes to alienate the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.   All wish to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons and are especially nervous about Iran in that regard.  None wishes to see a war between Israel and Iran.  All would suffer from the devastating effects such a war would have on the fragile global economy.  There is ample basis for much better policy coordination between China, Russia, and America if the three countries can muster the will to conduct it.

Second, two years ago, the Stuxnet computer virus showed the world that operations in cyberspace can inflict very real damage in the physical world.  Iran and others are almost certainly cloning the Stuxnet virus and redirecting it at new targets.  Meanwhile, anger about cyber intrusions and their impact on national and corporate security is building anger and generating demands for retaliation in every country subjected to cyber attack – which is to say almost every country.  This is fast becoming a very emotional and divisive issue.  Given their capabilities as well as their vulnerabilities, China, Russia, and America have a special responsibility both to craft a way to exercise mutual restraint in this domain.  They also share an interest in containing and countering the threat both state and non-state actors with mastery of it can pose to complex modern societies.

Third, there are an expanding array of global challenges that demand joint or parallel responses from Chinese, Russians, and Americans.  These include, of course, the familiar but largely unaddressed questions of how to cope with global warming, pollution, and rising demands for natural resources and food supplies.  Beyond this, however, the economies of all three countries are now about to be fundamentally affected by the release of huge new supplies of oil and gas from shale.  Today’s energy importers may well become exporters.  It is in the interest of all – as energy producers and consumers – to manage an orderly transition to the new world energy order technological breakthroughs are creating.  This is, however, far from the only system-level change underway in the world.  To cite another example, the monopoly position of the U.S. dollar in international trade and finance is coming to an end.  China and America can ill afford to ignore Russian interests as a new world monetary order based on multiple currencies emerges.

This third and last set of global issues — the issues I’ve just mentioned — essentially has to do with global order-setting.  With change comes both the chance to reshape the world to one’s advantage and the danger that, in the absence of concerted action, circumstances may evolve to one’s detriment.   The task of adjusting aspects of the world order marks the arena in which China, Russia, and America most need to exercise strategic imagination and seek common ground.  New technologies, new circumstances, and new opportunities require new rules of engagement and new rules of the road.

All three countries have a huge stake in cooperating to craft and implement rules that can protect our common interests.  In the new world that is upon us, no country can act effectively without partners, no nation is an island, and no people can afford to be indifferent to the interests of others.  I close with the hope that Americans, Chinese, and Russians will muster the will to work together to the common good.