The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Russia, China Launch Naval War Games in Yellow Sea

The Russian and Chinese navies have started their first ever series of joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, China’s Xinhua news agency has announced. Referring to the maneuvers as ‘war games’, the Chinese agency said that the fleets will work on anti-submarine, anti-piracy and anti-terrorism cooperation.

Joint naval exercises represent a step forward in China-Russia relations, but it is likely that neither side really expects all that much from the relationship. Russians speaking candidly will say that China’s rise is one of Russia’s greatest geopolitical worries, and Russian cooperation in China’s efforts to dominate its region are highly unlikely. China knows this, has little respect for Russian governance or technology, and places little faith that a military alliance with Russia could change the basically unfavorable balance of power in maritime Asia.

Both countries do, however, share an interest in checking US influence globally and, to a lesser extent, regionally. Brandishing the possibility of closer Sino-Russian cooperation is one of the diplomatic weapons the two countries have, and it’s probably best to see these naval exercises in that light. Russia and China are signaling that they cannot be pressed too far, and that the US should tread lightly where their interests are concerned.

This is bark, not bite, but the United States should not ignore it completely. To the extent that we can, we should deepen our relations with both countries, identify issues of mutual interest and work together on them, and, again, within the bounds of what is reasonable and appropriate, we should beware of treading unnecessarily on their toes.

Both Russia and China have been badly shaken by the economic crisis, and governments in both countries are more fragile than they would like the world to think. Both governments are worried about their domestic legitimacy, and both view the international system with alarm. While both countries are promoting the “US in decline” meme around the world (and besides intel services and nuclear weapons, global propaganda may be the most important capacity that modern Russia inherited from the Soviet Union and the Putin government pushes this for all it is worth), the policy makers in both capitals appear, if anything, obsessed with worries about rising US strength.

Fear rather than hope rules the roost in both countries today and American policy makers need to take that into account as we plan our own moves.

And the rising tension in maritime Asia — where Filipino and Chinese computer hackers are caught up in a cyberwar sparked by their ongoing sprat in the Spratlys — is something that Washington cannot ignore.

Published on April 22, 2012 2:00 pm
  • Kenny

    Time for some more real politics.

    Both China and Russia could be politically destabilized with a concerted effort by Washington.

    That his has not been done is testament not to its impossibility but that it has not yet been in U.S. interest to do so.

    So let the Chicoms and Ruskies float around in the Yellow Sea and play their little war games. Hopefully they won’t hurt each other.

    It should be fun to watch.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “To the extent that we can, we should deepen our relations with both countries, identify issues of mutual interest and work together on them, and, again, within the bounds of what is reasonable and appropriate, we should beware of treading unnecessarily on their toes.”

    I totally disagree, they are clearly feeling the heat if they are reduced to playing nice with each other even for appearances. Why shouldn’t we step on their toes? They never hesitate to step on our toes; in fact they both look for and manufacture opportunities to step on our toes all the time. Now is the time to seek concessions from them by turning up the heat even more.

    We should threaten to pay off all their holdings of US Treasuries, so that their decades of currency manipulation to gain a price advantage for their exporting businesses are instantly reversed in favor of our exporting businesses. They would be reduced to begging us not too, and we could force cultural concessions like greater protections for intellectual property, free and fair multi-party elections at least at the local levels, freedom for political prisoners, greater communications freedom, etc… and still retain the threat of paying them off in the future. It’s the Energizer Bunny of threat’s that will keep on giving and giving. In any case if they don’t give us what we want, we pay them off and get an export driven recovery, either way we win.

    “Put a boot on their neck and negotiate from a position of strength” George S. Patton

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    “Both countries do, however, share an interest in checking US influence globally . . .

    Not necessarily true. Russia made need us as an ally some day.

  • thibaud

    Aside from a mutual interest in restraining and rolling back the US hegemon, plus a natural synergy between Russia’s resource exports and China’s voracious need for resources, Russia and China have no common interests. They are enemies, in fact, in the Russian Far East, which, due to extreme misrule and depopulation is now a vacuum attracting Chinese immigrants to such an extent that Russian businessmen along the Amur need to learn Chinese in order to survive.

    There is every likelihood that this region, roughly one third of Russia’s territory and in possession of extraordinary natural resource wealth (including not just oil and gas but gold and diamonds), will become a de facto Chinese satellite, as Finland was a Russian satellite, in our lifetimes. Certainly, when the population ratio is verging toward 20:1 Chinese:Russian, it’s clear that Russia is losing control of what Catherine and her descendants won centuries ago.

    Would a smaller Russia be a more democratic, better governed Russia? Probably. But the loss to Moscow of the Far East would be a catastrophe on a par with the loss of the Soviets’ internal empire in 1991-92.

    Bottom line, there is no way that Russia and China will ever be friends. Allies of convenience, mutually pledged to annoy and harass the hated hegemon, but not friends as the US and its democratic allies are.

    A pity that our political elite isn’t more imaginative and strategically inclined. Clever diplomacy could tip Russia closer to our camp, and yield all kinds of benefits along the arc running from Berlin through Ankara and Tehran to Beijing.

  • rkka

    “Why shouldn’t we step on their toes?”

    Oh, I don’t know… maybe because tens to thousands of US troops, and tens of thousands more US contractors rely on Russian railroads and Russian airspace for their supplies?

    “Now is the time to seek concessions from them by turning up the heat even more.”

    They both know that making concessions to the US results only in increased pressure for more concessions.

    “Not necessarily true. Russia made need us as an ally some day.”

    The Russians know from their experience of the 1990s that we would rather just let them die, which is what they did in the 1990s.

    “A pity that our political elite isn’t more imaginative and strategically inclined. Clever diplomacy could tip Russia closer to our camp, and yield all kinds of benefits along the arc running from Berlin through Ankara and Tehran to Beijing.”

    The first one here who is talking sense.

    Unfortunately, the Anglosphere foreign policy elite and punditocracy are too addicted to meddling in Russia’s internal arrangements to pull off anything of the sort.

  • IcePilot

    “Not necessarily true. Russia made need us as an ally some day.”

    The Russians know from their experience of the 1990s that we would rather just let them die, which is what they did in the 1990s.

    No, we let the Soviets die. The Russians lost prestige and territory, but gained a chance at freedom. Their ties w/Europe and even the United States (space, sports, etc) will pull them West, even as a fear of continued Chinese economic growth and northward migration foments discord.

  • rkka

    “No, we let the Soviets die.”

    No, we let Russians die. Between 1991 and 1999, the Russian death rate rose by about 30%, and the Russian birth rate dropped by almost a third.

    And it isn’t just Russians.

    In 1992, there were 52 million people in Ukraine. There are now 45.5 million, and deaths there still exceed births by ~200k/year.

    There were 2.7 million people in Latvia. There are now 2 million, and deaths there exceed births by 1.6 to 1.

    I had it right the first time.

    And while the Latvian elite cares not whether there are Latvians, and thus continues the Westernization that is *killing their country*, the Russian elite cares to ensure that there will continue to be Russians.