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Be Wary When the Bear Sides With a Dragon

September 18, 2000|PAULA J. DOBRIANSKY | Paula J. Dobriansky is vice president and Washington director of the Council on Foreign Relations

The Sino-Russian summit this summer drew scant attention. To the extent it was covered at all, most commentators dismissed the meeting's anti-American declarations as mere rhetoric. Even the more analytical accounts portrayed the Beijing-Moscow rapprochement as simply a marriage of convenience, with the two sides espousing divergent views on many key international issues. These benign assessments are flawed. A real Beijing-Moscow strategic alliance has emerged, with major adverse consequences for international stability. Moreover, the establishment of this alliance was neither inevitable nor accidental.

Significantly, Russia's cooperation with China is not a new phenomenon. It dates back to Yevgeny M. Primakov's tenure as Russia's foreign minister in the mid- to late-1990s, when he championed the position that joint Sino-Russian efforts are needed to create a more multipolar world.

The fact that Moscow and Beijing do not see eye to eye on all issues is no reason for American complacency. While Russia and China do not espouse a common culture and have some territorial disputes dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, they nevertheless share several key strategic concerns. They both resent U.S. global dominance and are displeased with what they see as a growing U.S.-led international consensus in favor of humanitarian interventions.

Additionally, China and Russia are strongly opposed to U.S. ballistic missile defense efforts, believing that any defense deployment would buttress Washington's international prowess and make it an even more formidable, hegemonic power. China also views Russia as perhaps the only reliable and relatively low-cost arms supplier. The fact that Russia is willing to arm its erstwhile rival is further proof that it views the alliance with Beijing as a net long-term strategic asset. Essentially, the two countries have enough common interests to produce a genuine, albeit limited, strategic partnership.

Surprisingly, even those who would admit that a Sino-Russian international partnership has emerged seem to question its significance. While Russia and China cannot match U.S. power, there is no doubt that, working together, they can cause much global mischief. Sino-Russian efforts can complicate our nonproliferation efforts, exacerbate regional problems in Europe and Asia and make the U.N. Security Council less willing to support U.S. initiatives. More fundamentally, this alliance provides impetus to other countries to oppose U.S. policies.

This bear-dragon entente was not inevitable. Previously, China's concerns about Soviet global expansionism, ideological tensions and border clashes all contributed to Beijing's anti-Soviet alignment. The end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as the world's only superpower were certain to change strategic circumstances. Yet a Moscow-Beijing alliance could have been avoided. It was adroit American diplomacy of the 1970s and '80s that resulted in Washington having better relations with both China and Russia than either of those countries had with each other. Today, U.S. foreign policy is still instrumental in shaping the triangular relationship.

Unfortunately, over the last eight years, U.S. policies toward both Russia and China have been ambiguous and confusing. Mixed messages generated strains in our relations with both Moscow and Beijing and provided little incentive for either to work at the geopolitical level with--or at least fear challenging--the United States. Moreover, we missed opportunities to exploit real differences between Russia and China. For example, during President Clinton's visit to Moscow in June, President Vladimir V. Putin unveiled a vague theater missile defense proposal as a means of persuading the U.S. to abandon the national missile defense program. (President Clinton has since deferred any decision on the program to the next administratioin.) We could have seized upon Putin's proposal and publicly described it as Moscow's embrace of regional ballistic missile defense architecture that Beijing finds so repugnant. While Putin would have undoubtedly argued that his proposal was not designed to harm China, we nevertheless could have successfully portrayed the episode as an example of Moscow's indifference to China's strategic concerns.

While some impetus for the Sino-Russian rapprochement was fostered by objective shifts in the balance of power, the U.S. has done little to shape or influence these developments. We have neither sought to convince Moscow or Beijing that their anti-U.S. inspired strategic partnership was unnecessary, nor have we tried to make them pay a price for it. Consequently, for the first time since the Sino-Soviet military clashes of the late 1960s, two of Eurasia's major military powers stand united in opposition to the United States, ready to counter most of Washington's international endeavors.

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