US-Russia-China triangle in flux, again
M. K. Bhadrakumar
Jul. 23, 2018
In a conversation with the Financial Times last week, Henry Kissinger made a highly significant remark about President Donald Trump’s attempt to improve the United States’ relations with Russia. The conversation took place in the backdrop of the Helsinki summit on July 16. Kissinger said: “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”
Kissinger did not elaborate, but the drift of his thought is consistent with opinions he has voiced in the past – the US’ steady loss of influence on global arena, rise of China and resurgence of Russia necessitating a new global balance.
As far back as 1972 in a discussion with Richard Nixon on his upcoming trip to China, signifying the historic opening to Beijing, Kissinger could visualize such a rebalancing becoming necessary in future. He expressed the view that compared with the Soviets (Russians), the Chinese were “just as dangerous. In fact, they’re more dangerous over a historical period.” Kissinger added, “in 20 years your (Nixon’s) successor, if he’s as wise as you, will wind up leaning towards the Russians against the Chinese.”
Kissinger argued that the United States, which sought to profit from the enmity between Moscow and Beijing in the Cold War era, would therefore need “to play this balance-of-power game totally unemotionally. Right now, we need the Chinese to correct the Russians and to discipline the Russians.” But in the future, it would be the other way around.
Of course, Kissinger is not the pioneer of US-Russia-China ‘triangular diplomacy’. It is no secret that in the 1950s, the US did all it could to drive a wedge between Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev. The accent was on isolating “communist China”. Khrushchev’s passion for ‘peaceful co-existence’ following his summit with Dwight Eisenhower in 1959 at Camp David became a defining moment in Sino-Soviet schism.
But even as Sino-Soviet schism deepened (culminating in the bloody conflict in Ussuri River in 1969), Nixon reversed the policy of Eisenhower and opened the line to Beijing, prioritizing the US’ global competition with the Soviet Union. The de-classified Cold-War archival materials show that Washington seriously pondered over the possibility of a wider Sino-Soviet war. One particular memorandum of the US State Department recounts an incredible moment in Cold War history – a KGB officer querying about American reaction to a hypothetical Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear weapons facilities.
Then there is a memo written for Kissinger’s attention by then influential China watcher Allen S. Whiting warning of the danger of a Soviet attack on China. Clearly, 1969 was a pivotal year when the US calculus was reset based on estimation that Sino-Soviet tensions provided a basis for Sino-American rapprochement. It led to the dramatic overture by Nixon and Kissinger to open secret communications with China through Pakistan and Romania.
Now, this recapitulation is useful today, because Trump’s moves so far are indicative of an agenda to revert to the Eisenhower era – containment of China by forging an alliance with Russia.
Will Putin fall for Trump’s bait? Well, it depends. To my mind, there is no question Putin will see a great opening here for Russia. But it will depend on what’s on offer from the US. Putin’s fulsome praise for Trump on North Korean issue and the latter’s warm response was a meaningful exchange at Helsinki, has been a good beginning to underscore Moscow’s keenness to play a broader role in the Asia-Pacific.
Beijing must be watching the ‘thaw’ at Helsinki with some unease. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson welcomed the Helsinki summit. But the mainstream assessment by Chinese analysts is that nothing much is going to happen since the contradictions in the US-Russia relations are fundamental and Russophobia is all too pervasive within the US establishment.
The government-owned China Daily carried an editorial – Has the meeting in Helsinki reset US-Russia relations? – where it estimates that at best,“Helsinki summit represents a good beginning for better relations between the US and Russia.” Notably, however, the editorial is pessimistic about any real US-Russia breakthrough, including on Syria, the topic that Putin singled out as a test case of the efficacy of Russian-American cooperation.
On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times featured an editorial giving a stunning analysis of what has prompted Trump to pay such attention (“respect”) to Russia — China can learn from Trump’s respect for Russia. It concludes that the only conceivable reason could be that although Russia is not an economic power, it has retained influence on the global stage due to military power:
- Trump has repeatedly stressed that Russia and the US are the two biggest nuclear powers in the world, with their combined nuclear arsenal accounting for 90 percent of world’s total, and thus the US must live in peace with Russia. On US-Russia relations, Trump is clearheaded.
On the contrary, if the US is piling pressure on China today, it is because China, although an economic giant, is still a weak military power. Therefore:
- China’s nuclear weapons have to not only secure a second strike but also play the role of cornerstone in forming a strong deterrence so that outside powers dare not intimidate China militarily… Part of the US’ strategic arrogance may come from its absolute nuclear advantage… China must speed up its process of developing strategic nuclear power… Not only should we possess a strong nuclear arsenal, but we must also let the outside world know that China is determined to defend its core national interests with nuclear power.
Indeed, if the crunch time comes, China will be on its own within the Kissingerian triangle. And China needs to prepare for such an eventuality. On the other hand, China’s surge to create a vast nuclear arsenal could make a mockery of the grand notions in Moscow and Washington that they are the only adults in the room in keeping the global strategic balance.