With the United States distracted by the Gaza situation, opportunities are abound for Russia to continue its mischief along the Ukrainian border and for China to flex its muscle in the South China Sea. Facing crises on separate continents, the US must find a way to respond effectively, especially when it is trying to follow through with its rebalancing strategy.
The competitive and oftentimes adversarial relationship between the US and China and US and Russia need not be explained in great detail. Given the shared obstacle that is the US, it is perhaps not surprising that China and Russia have at times walked the same path.
In May, Moscow and Beijing signed a staggering US$400 billion energy deal that will have Russia selling 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China. With Chinese demand for energy rising and fears that Europe will turn away from Russian energy as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, a partnership of sorts has begun to form.
Dividing America’s attention east and west, to say nothing of the mess in the Gaza Strip, might not have been planned somewhere along the road between Moscow and Beijing, but it has certainly worked to their advantage. An America distracted is far easier to manage than one that is attentive.
However, the US can take some comfort in the knowledge that a Russia–China partnership is a marriage of convenience. Barring drastic changes to the politics and economics of this partnership, a Russia–China alliance is unlikely to threaten the US in the near future.
Although Moscow and Beijing bond over their desire to challenging Washington’s leadership in the world, mutual distrust prevents any potential alliance from taking root. Evidence of this distrust can be seen in the declining sales of Russian armaments to China.
Over the past decade, India has overtaken China as the primary customer of Russian armaments. Reasons are several, of which two are China’s rising defense industry and Russian concern at selling the latest weapons technology to China, fearing that such technology would simply be copied and sold elsewhere.
Additionally, and no less importantly, policymakers in Moscow are acutely aware that Russia, too, must contend with a rising China. Despite their shared opposition to the US-dominated status quo, Russia and China remain competitors on the global stage.
Nevertheless, while an alliance is unlikely to form between Russia and China, the US cannot hope to face tomorrow’s challenges by itself. Where NATO stands at the ready to some degree in Europe, the US is without such an alliance in Asia-Pacific.
Defense treaties between the US and countries such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines will not suffice. These bilateral agreements are simply inadequate to address the shifting dynamics of Asia-Pacific in which China is increasingly becoming the dominant player.
Despite efforts to convince the international community otherwise, China’s rise has not been peaceful. Maritime disputes throughout Asia-Pacific, in particular the South China Sea, have raised tensions between China and its neighbors. The recent spat between Vietnam and China over the latter’s placement of an oil rig in contested waters off Vietnam’s coast is merely another chapter in an ongoing affair.
For the US, as it proceeds with its strategic rebalance to Asia-Pacific, the challenge will be in managing China’s ambitions. Beijing will not take well to any demands to restrain its activities in the region. Yet, while China may feel free to flex its growing military might against smaller and weaker neighbors, such tactics are unlikely to intimidate the US.
Militarily, the US is prepared to face any relevant challenge, if necessary. However, the fight for influence in Asia-Pacific, at least in the near future, will unlikely be settled by armies but by economic and political maneuverings. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, of which the US is a part but China is not, is an example of such maneuverings.
Of course, it will take more than trade agreements, and at least where trade is concerned, China will never truly be out of the picture. In Asia-Pacific, China is a giant with enough money to spread around and curry favors. In asserting itself, however, China has unnecessarily made adversaries out of some of its neighbors.
This opening has allowed the US to step in as a counterbalancing force, but Washington must take care to ensure its presence in the region is not simply tolerated as a matter of convenience. Where the relationship between Russia and China is one of pragmatism, the US should strive to be seen as something more than an alternative to China in Asia-Pacific.
There is an opportunity for the US to establish a lasting and productive presence in the region. Just as NATO helped unite Western Europe after the devastation of the Second World War, a similar alliance under the guidance of the US could help bring together the disparate nations of Asia-Pacific.
Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.