Why new ‘quiet rivalry’ between U.S. and China is in Moscow’s interests

New model for relations between Beijing and Washington suits Kremlin. Source: Reuters

New model for relations between Beijing and Washington suits Kremlin. Source: Reuters

Beijing and Washington have developed a mechanism through which one side is to inform the other of any large-scale military actions. They have also agreed on a set of rules of behavior in the event their military units collide at sea or in the air. How will the superpowers' decision influence the situation in the region?

During the course of the recent APEC Summit in Beijing, the U.S. and China signed a series of agreements in the military sphere that will help the two countries reduce the risk of a military confrontation in Eastern Asia.

The agreements establish a framework for cooperation in the event that either side takes any large-scale military actions, requiring the parties to inform each other in advance of any such steps. The document also sets out a code of conduct to be followed if U.S. or Chinese military air or naval units come into contact with each other.

The countries decided to sign the agreement because lately there has been an increase in incidents (in particular, China's inclusion of the East China Sea territory in its air defense zone) that are capable of placing Beijing and Washington on the verge of a conflict that would be disadvantageous for both sides.

"Theoretically, neither China nor the U.S. needs the confrontation," says Alexander Gabuyev, expert on China and member of the Russian Council of Foreign and Defense Policy. "China would lose the military conflict, while America would suffer many loses. That is why both sides are interested in stabilization."

Some political analysts are inclined to think that the current agreements are the beginning of the genuine construction of a new format of American-Chinese interactivity. "The administrations of Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, especially after their important meeting in California in June 2013, are searching for "a new model of relations," in which issues of military security and "the technologies" for preventing conflict are crucial," says chief scientific collaborator at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ U.S. and Canada Institute Sergei Trush. "The agreements signed at the APEC summit can be considered one of the first results of this process."

Will the tension persist?

The significance of this "new model" should not be exaggerated, since it will not force China to reject the pursuit of its own policies in the region. "Both elites have an understanding of the "negotiating red line" and the key security criteria, and they will follow them," says Trush.

Gabuyev shares Trush's viewpoint, but points out that an element of risk remains in the scenario. "China will continue pressuring Southeast Asia, which is not acceptable for the U.S.," he says. "This preserves the possibilities of incidents."

However, according to Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, the advantage of the "new model" is that it transforms the American-Chinese conflict into a state of "mature rivalry." "The countries understand that they are rivals and the main opponents in the military sphere, yet they are trying to make this rivalry and competition manageable, to prevent an escalation, which neither side needs," says Suslov. "Something similar occurred in Soviet-American relations when in the 60s the countries were negotiating how to control the armament process."

This model does have a weakness, however. Pacific Rim countries may misunderstand the model and interpret it as a victory for the isolationist standpoint in the U.S. "In the U.S. there are various opinions on how to react to the territorial conflicts between China and its neighbors," Trush affirms. "A part of the American political-academic elite believes that Washington should not intervene in the conflicts ‘directly’, stimulating, in particular, multilateral negotiations with China with the participation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and so on. Such a position obviously creates great concern for American allies in the region, first and foremost Japan." 

What does the Kremlin want?

In Russia the consequences of American-Chinese normalization have various interpretations, depending on the political philosophy of the expert.

"If you look at the situation from the viewpoint of a zero-sum game, then it is clear that a reduction in the confrontation between Beijing and Washington limits Moscow's potential, depriving it of space for maneuvering," continues Trush. "Yet, if we look at it from the perspective of geo-economy and the resulting reduction of confrontation for the entire region, then Moscow certainly wins. Moscow receives a more positive context for finding its niche in the Pacific Rim economy, especially as far as attracting investment for modernizing its Far East territories is concerned."

Furthermore, Moscow is interested not only in the reduction of tension between the U.S. and China, but also in a de-escalation of the situation in the East China and South China Seas to an acceptable level. "If Russia intends to increase its oil and gas supplies to the Pacific Rim, it is interested in safe marine routes," says Alexander Gabuyev.

Dmitry Suslov remarks that in the event of a sharp deterioration in American-Chinese relations, "Russia will be obliged to support China, which means that it would become China's younger partner and the attempts to establish strategic relations with other eastern and southeastern Asian nations would collapse, since many of those countries are U.S. allies and partners and in the event of an American-Chinese escalation would back Washington."

On the other hand, Russia does not need Eastern Asia to be dominated by either America or China. In the first scenario the U.S. would have an opportunity to pressure Russia not only from the west but also from the east. And if Eastern Asia fell under Chinese control, then Moscow would either have to work only with China or work with the other Pacific Rim countries through China.

"Russia is extremely interested in specifically the multilateral participation of Pacific Rim countries in its plans, in the creation of a so-called "organization of interests," rather than orienting towards a single monopolistic investor," explains Sergei Trush. That is why Russia needs precisely the system that will evolve within the framework of "the new model" - the preservation of the American-Chinese conflict in the region, but a sluggish conflict, one with a certain set of "rules of behavior," which will not permit it to enter an open, critical phase. In this case, according to Dmitry Suslov, "Russia will have a chance of becoming the third independent power in the Pacific Rim (after the U.S. and China).

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