China, Russia and the United States contest a new world order

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By Dmitri Trenin

The United States has recently entered a period of
great-power rivalry with China and confrontation with Russia. The China Russia
rapprochement has simultaneously acquired the quality of an entente: a basic
proximity of world views and close coordination of policies short of a formal
alliance. This realignment is due to the inability to construct an inclusive
world order that accommodates all major players after the Cold War.

It also demonstrates the limits of single-power
dominance  the Pax Americana  that could only last as long as the United
States remained willing to carry the burden and other main actors acquiesced to
its hegemony. The historical norm of competition among great powers is back. US
China and US Russia rivalries will probably grow in intensity until a new
balance is established.

Both the rivalries and the entente are highly asymmetrical.
The United States, China, and Russia have vastly different capabilities and
resources. They belong in the same category in one sense only  they are the world’s three most powerful
military and geopolitical players whose interactions massively impact the
global strategic order. Each country has its own agenda, objectives, strategies
and tactics. This is a new pattern of relations, different both from the Cold
War era and the European rivalries of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The United States seeks to retain its global pre-eminence now
that dominance is no longer sustainable. Washington sees Beijing as its prime
rival, capable of overtaking it economically and potentially technologically,
while it regards Moscow as essentially a spoiler with outsized ambitions. But
the United States is just beginning an internal debate on its future world role
and foreign policy goals. At this point one thing appears clear: to stay
competitive, the United States will have to pay more attention to its domestic
base, and will demand more from its allies.

China works to continue its global ascent, even as its prime
focus continues to be on domestic development and, above all, maintaining
political and social order. China’s global presence and influence is expanding,
though Beijing is still restrained by insufficient experience in many regions,
plus the fact that its armed forces are not battle-tested.

China’s strategy probably aims at steadily enhancing
Beijing’s weight in the international system, gradually displacing the United
States from its leading positions. Relations with Russia serve China to assure
it a stable geopolitical rear and a flow of resources, from energy to military
technology.

Russia tries to consolidate its newly restored status as a
great power, though on a much smaller scale compared to the Soviet and imperial
periods. Moscow is not competing for global primacy with Washington, nor for
continental predominance with Beijing. Rather, Russia seeks to maintain its
geopolitical and security sovereignty vis-à-vis both the United States and
China. For the foreseeable future, Moscow regards Washington as its principal
adversary, and Beijing as its main partner. But it is careful not to become
overly dependent on the latter.

The Trump Administration is following a highly unorthodox
course of pressuring both China and Russia as the United States’ two major
power rivals. This stance is unusual  in
the past Washington avoided pushing Beijing and Moscow too close to each other.
The departure from traditional practices can be explained by general US disdain
regarding Russia; a belief that China secretly shares that disdain; and by
American calculus that China Russia differences are too serious and deep to
allow a solid anti-US bloc.

In the end, the theory goes, Russia would abandon China
either because most opportunities for its development lie in the west, or
because over time an emboldened China will start treating Russia as a tributary
state, which the Russians will resent. This calculus is partly borne out by
recent developments.

After 2014, China balked at an opportunity to massively
support Russia which found itself under US-led sanctions. Beijing was clearly
mindful of its much bigger stake in economic relations with the United States,
and probably also unsure of whether it would be able to successfully manage too
close a relationship with Russia.

Bilateral ties grew stronger, with China extending credits to
Russian energy companies in exchange for access to Russia’s energy deposits.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army also gained access to more advanced
Russian military technology, and there is more joint military training and
diplomatic coordination between the two countries. But the former Moscow
Beijing bloc has not been revived.

Yet Russia’s overall geopolitical posture has changed
fundamentally over recent years. Russia’s attempted integration with the West
is history. As part of the global non-West, Russia will not join China, but
will not help the United States deal with China’s rise either. Moscow would
probably benefit from Beijing continuing to chip away at Washington’s positions
in various fields. Russia will continue to collaborate with China in
constructing a continental order in Greater Eurasia that pointedly excludes the
United States. Of course, China and Russia have ample reason to cooperate even
without the US factor, but Washington’s pressure brings them even closer
together.

Moscow and Beijing will continue to have their differences,
and they are not entirely free from reciprocal phobias, but the chances of a
China Russia collision over those differences are being minimised by the US
policy of dual containment. This policy, ironically, also relieves both
countries’ elites of lingering suspicions that the United States might build a
bond with either China or Russia at the expense of the other.

Dr. Dmitri Trenin is Director at the Carnegie Moscow Center
of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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