Several commentators, among them Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute and Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have suggested that U.S. President Donald Trump should take any efforts to warm relations with Russia one step further and try to enlist Moscow’s help in balancing a rising China. Trump views China and Islamist extremism as the two principal challenges to U.S. security, and he sees Russia as a potential partner in combating both. The thinking goes, then, that Trump should run a version of the diplomatic play that former U.S. President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger followed in the early 1970s when they thawed relations with Beijing to counter the Soviet Union. This time, however, Trump would partner with Russia to balance China.
The proposal entices with visions of ambitious strategic gambits across Eurasia, in Trumpian vernacular the “big league” of geopolitics. Nixon going to China was one of the most consequential diplomatic deals in U.S. history. What better way for the dealmaker in chief—especially one who regularly consults with Kissinger—to burnish his credentials than carrying out a version of it for himself? In theory, the move would adhere to traditional maxims of geopolitics: namely, the imperative to maintain the balance of power on the Eurasian continent. U.S. strategists have relied on this principle to varying degrees since at least World War II. Further, a strategy that engages with Russia to counter China might lend a degree of coherence to the Trump administration’s otherwise disjointed foreign policy.
The problem for Trump is that Sino-Russian ties have been improving more or less steadily since the waning years of the Cold War. The thaw between the two communist powers began in the early 1980s and was followed by normalized relations in May 1989. Beijing and Moscow established a “strategic partnership” in 1996 and signed a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001. Chinese and Russian leaders now refer comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination,” a convoluted term for a not-quite alliance. Last September, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi proclaimed that “the depth and scope of coordination between both countries are unprecedented.” Robust cooperation has accelerated since Xi Jinping became China’s top leader in 2012; he reportedly has a warm personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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