On China and Russia: Strategy for the New Administration

The United States is currently bearing witness to the full dichotomy of foreign policy and strategy recommendations vis-à-vis relations with Russia and China. The spectrum includes experts who assert that the United States should not cozy up to Russia with fear of Putin cheating the system and see Russia as the penultimate threat to Western society. Contrariwise, Edward Luttwak—military strategist and political scientist—believes that the United States should “forge a coherent, and effective, grand strategy” that includes balancing with Russia against China. In reaffirming that sentiment, the United States should move to improve both diplomatic and military relations with Russia to counter the rising China—a policy stance that President Trump is positioned well to execute, albeit dubiously.

China’s Minister of National Defense at the Pentagon. Image courtesy of, © 2012.

Henry Kissinger, national security advisor to President Nixon, marked the redefinition of American foreign policy as essential to our national security, and claimed that an “improved relationship with China would gradually isolate the Soviet Union or impel it to seek better relations with the United States.” “Ping-pong diplomacy,” as it became to be known, was the diplomatic engagement during the Nixon administration that followed Kissinger’s secret visit, resulting in improved relations between the United States and China, along with Chinese entry into the United Nations and Beijing’s seat on the National Security Council. As Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute notes, “Washington effectively neutralized one potential security threat and prevented the recreation of a Sino-Soviet collation against the United States.” The Trump administration is gathering steam at the right time to take a similar balancing approach (coined reverse Nixon strategy in Foreign Affairs), although it should be in partnering with Russia to counteract China, a much larger threat to U.S. national security and interest.

China possesses the second-largest economy and the second-largest military budget in the world. Its assertiveness, Susan Shirk claims, stems from its growing power, evident in resisting U.S. demands to put more pressure on North Korea and its aggressively established hegemony in the South China Sea through the creation of artificial islands. Regarding these islands, Thomas Shugart, Senior Military Fellow at CNAS, asserts that China’s island-building “call[s] for serious consideration of the faux island’s potential impact to the U.S. diplomacy and contingency planning, as well as the need to take all measures to prevent their full militarization.” Furthermore, China has developed a “carrier-killer” that threatens America’s power projection in the sea; a military service dedicated exclusively to precision-strike missiles known as the PLA Rocket Force to counter U.S. deterrence; and is currently undergoing a modernization for next-generation intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The Obama administration sought to constrain the rise of China through strengthened alliances and increased troop developments in East Asia—hardly a move unforeseen as part of the president’s strategic pivot from the Middle East to East Asia. Alternatively, the Trump administration has added a sphere of unpredictability yet unnecessarily perilous stance on China. Initially, by taking a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan (the first U.S. presidential contact with Taiwan since 1979), and later by delivering threats of punitive tariffs on Chinese imports and a subsequent threat trade war between the two largest global markets.

In conceptualizing the proposed Trumpian policy towards balancing with Russia against China, is it important to consider fair arguments against a reverse Nixon strategy. In Foreign Affairs, Jacob Stokes popularly argues against the thawing of relations with Russia, in large part because of the strengthening Sino-Russian ties since the Cold War. Furthermore, he claims that “Robust cooperation has accelerated since Xi Jinping became China’s top leader in 2012.” In positing this argument, Stokes surreptitiously amasses the need for American interjection. Would it not behoove the United States to intervene before there is an established military pact—if one ever arises—between the two powers? The reverse Nixon strategy is fitting and necessary for the predicament that the Trump administration faces today, and there are broad areas in which the United States should focus on in improving relations with Russia and countering China.

First, the administration should shift the focus from Eastern Europe to East Asia. While it would be erroneous to withdraw troops or change the security landscape in the Baltics, however, appeasing Putin by opening a U.S.–NATO–Russian dialogue to avoid further possible conflict would be welcomed. Additionally, the United States should support Ukraine but acknowledge the annexation of Crimea—a forgone conclusion nonetheless. In return for acknowledge the annexation, Russia would be required to end all hostile action in Eastern Ukraine. Easing Russia’s watchful eye in Eastern Europe would allow it to focus more on its Far East problems: depopulation, untapped resources, and territorial losses to China.

Second, the United States should work to improve relations between Russia and countries adverse to China such as Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam, at least on the economic front. As an example, just last year, Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Abe agreed to joint economic activity on the Kuril Islands, a significant step forward from a 70-year territorial dispute. The easing of tensions between Russia and Far East countries would result in a profound network that would certainly be of concern to China. As a favored consequence, this would position the U.S. to bring China to the table on major areas of disagreement, along with dictating reciprocity in the economic realm.

Finally, overall improvement in relations between the United States and Russia would throw caution to the wind for Chinese dissent on their assertive actions and failure to placate North Korea tensions. China has reacted with anger after the United States and South Korea agreed to deploy the THAAD missile system in response to the North Korean missile threat. Their reaction to the missile-defense deployment is confounding and misplaced, particularly after North Korea’s recent four ballistic missile launches. As a supplementive, overall improved relations could encourage China to reconsider its aforementioned South China Sea aggression.

All the while, the Trump administration should remain skeptical of Russia. Thomas Wright correctly points to how Putin could benefit from Trump’s foreign policy, but there are a few measures that have the potential to counteract Russia gains at the United States’ detriment. Reaffirming Article 5 of NATO would go a long way to remedy common-known qualms. It is important to note, in conclusion, that Russian gains are not necessarily zero-sum with that of U.S. interest. If measures, as recommended here are brought to fruition, the United States stands the most to gain, as balancing with Russia is essential to maintaining the current world order and decaying the rise of China.

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