Spurning China and courting Russia: Trump’s dangerous game


The president-elect's obeisance toward Putin and hostility to China will end badly for America.

The surreal spectacle of Trump’s obeisance to Vladimir Putin is appalling for many reasons. It shows the president-elect’s cavalier disregard for intelligence. It highlights his fondness for strongmen and his own authoritarian impulses. And it hints at some nefarious relationship between Trump and Moscow that may yet be awaiting discovery in his still-unreleased tax returns or on an encrypted Russian server. Coupled with this bizarre coziness with the Kremlin has been a deliberate, escalating hostility toward China. While his posture toward Russia and China may seem unrelated, the fact is that in apologizing for Moscow’s perfidy while recklessly antagonizing Beijing, Trump is turning his back on American values, threatening to damage America’s economic health — and playing right into Putin’s hand.

A game of triangles

There’s a simple concept in international relations called the “strategic triangle,” which first gained currency in the 1970s to explain Nixon’s opening to China, and has been used since to describe the dynamic of the relationship among the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union/Russia. In a three-way relationship where relations between any two players are either positive or negative, a player can occupy one of four positions. (We’re going to leave out free-for-all mode, where each player is hostile to the other two, as well as kumbaya mode, where friendship prevails among all three.) A rational player will seek to improve his position. From worst to best, those positions are:

  • Pariah: You’re the odd man out, with the other two allied against you.
  • Wing: You’re one of two mutually hostile players, both courting the third.
  • Ally: You’re one of the two powers in league against a third, pariah power.
  • Pivot: You maintain good relations with two mutually hostile players, exacting concessions from both.

From the time of the Nixon opening essentially to the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the pariah state, while the U.S. and China were in de facto alliance — teaming up against the Soviets in Angola and cooperating to arm the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, for instance.

In the tumultuous years that ended both the Cold War and the U.S.S.R. itself, the strategic triangle lost its relevance. Russian power and the Russian economy contracted, and Moscow didn’t figure into the vicissitudes of the Sino-American relationship. Instead, as the American and Chinese economies wove themselves together ever more tightly in ways both clearly beneficial and deeply problematic, pundits began to speak of “Chimerica” and of “G2.”

But Russia was only down, not out. And with Putin’s Russia resurgent and pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda, the strategic triangle is relevant once again. But how could Russia hope to move from pariah to pivot? The general strategy suggested by the logic of the triangle is straightforward: Pursue improved ties with both the U.S. and China, and drive a wedge between Washington and Beijing.

Russia: What is to be done?

Improving ties with the U.S. was never going to be easy. Despite the “reset” proffered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Russia in March 2009, relations during the Obama presidency declined precipitously, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the 2014 Crimean anschluss. They reached a nadir at the close of 2016, with Obama’s announcement that 35 alleged Russian intelligence operatives using diplomatic legends would be expelled, two Russian facilities in the U.S. would be closed, and new sanctions would be imposed on the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence agency) and the FSB, the successor to the KGB.

Ties with China were an easier matter. Russia and China, with their veto-wielding permanent seats on the UN Security Council, have rarely parted company in crucial votes, and the Sino-Soviet Split had officially ended by Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in May 1989. But what could Moscow do to really sour ties between Beijing and Washington? During most of Putin’s first and second presidential terms, from 2000 to 2008, that might have proved challenging: After September 11, tensions between China and the U.S. over the previous six years — the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, the downing of an American EP-3 spy plane and detention of its crew on Hainan Island in April 2001 — all melted away as George W. Bush sought to enroll Beijing in his “Global War on Terror.”

By Putin’s third presidency, which began in 2012, U.S.-China relations were, to be sure,  unambiguously strained. All he needed on that front was to ensure that things stayed that way — a likely outcome irrespective of who was in the Oval Office. Putin needed only to find a way to an American rapprochement. And so one can imagine how fortunate he must have felt to see an American presidential candidate so susceptible to flattery, so quick to ingratiate himself personally with the Russian president (“Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow — if so, will he become my new best friend?” Trump mused in June 2014), so willing to overlook Russian wrongdoing — and so eager to lay the blame for the white working class’s woes at China’s feet and slap punitive tariffs on Chinese imports.

Through the lens of the strategic triangle, Putin couldn’t have asked for a better partner in the game than Donald J. Trump.

What, meanwhile, would have been the right move for the U.S.? Arguably, America during the Obama administration occupied the unenviable “pariah” slot, with bad relationships with both Beijing and Moscow. A rapprochement with either would be an improvement in ranking. But if the U.S. is to choose one, which one? How about the one that isn’t bombing civilians in Syria, annexing territory from a sovereign state, and fighting on one side of a civil war in that state?

China is bad; Russia is much, much worse

China’s relationship with the U.S. during the Obama years has been fraught. What I’ve been calling the “New Truculence” — a conspicuous bristliness emanating from Beijing about many aspects of the relationship, from commerce to security to human rights — has regrettably defined the last eight years of bilateral relations. But compare this with the Russo-American relationship across this same period and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could think that Donald Trump has his foreign policy priorities straight.

China has laid claim to reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, and has constructed artificial islands on some of them equipped with substantial bases, harbors, runways, radar facilities, and allegedly even anti-aircraft missile systems. Yet no shipping has been interdicted, and not one person has died as a result of conflict in the South China Sea. Compare this with the many thousands who have died in Eastern Ukraine — and in the pitiable Syrian cities like Aleppo subjected to Russian bombing.

China has declared an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) over a huge swath of the East China Sea, but has not fired on any aircraft, civilian or military, while a pro-Russian militia in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine, armed with a Buk missile supplied by Russia, downed a Malaysian passenger airline, MH17, killing nearly 600 people. Russia then vetoed a UN Security Council resolution tabled by Malaysia calling for an international tribunal to investigate the downing.

China has not renounced the use of force in bringing Taiwan under its control. But in the last eight years, the recent downturn in cross-straits relations notwithstanding, enormous progress has been made as literally millions of mainlanders — over four million in 2015 — have taken advantage of relaxed travel restrictions and direct flights to visit Taiwan. Trade, cross-straits investment, official exchange, and even military-to-military ties have all seen substantial improvement since 2008. Russia has, of course, pursued its own irredentism less peacefully. But what has Donald Trump’s reaction been? He said in July that he “would be looking at” lifting sanctions related to Russia’s annexation of Crimea; meanwhile, with just a phone call and a couple of Twitter posts, Trump has threatened to undo meaningful progress in cross-straits ties — with Taiwan a mere bargaining chip in his callous, transactional approach to diplomacy.

Beijing has imprisoned rights activists (most notably Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo and moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti), and has even detained harmless critics like the Five Feminists. It has stepped up internet censorship, brought the media to heel, and cracked down on academic freedoms. All this is lamentable. But Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti are, at least, still alive. That is not the case with Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB spy who became a fierce critic of the Kremlin and was poisoned with highly radioactive polonium in London in 2006, almost certainly by Putin operatives, or Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison under mysterious circumstances in November 2009. Other prominent critics have met similar ends: Anna Politkovskaya, who had criticized the Chechen war and spoke out vocally against Putin, was murdered in the elevator of a Moscow apartment in 2006, and Boris Nemtsov, a prominent liberal Putin critic, was shot four times in the back in February 2015 near the Kremlin. In fact, the Committee to Protect Journalists lists 10 journalists who have been killed in Russia just in the last 10 years for reasons it strongly believes are related to their reporting.

And let’s not forget the freshest outrage: Seventeen intelligence agencies agreed in October that Russia was behind the hack of the DNC that provided emails to WikiLeaks; they were then unanimous in concluding that the intent of the hack was to help Donald Trump to win the election. China has certainly engaged in cyber espionage, and has cost the U.S. dearly through theft of intellectual property. It may be too early to declare victory, but all signs point to a significant reduction of Chinese cyber espionage activity since September 2015, when China agreed to curb industrial spying. How, though, can we expect Russia to “cut it out” when the next occupant of the White House either doesn’t believe it happened, or insists that we should just “move on”?

The United States will struggle to find ways to deal with China, and none of it will be easy. But there is no surer way of exacerbating the problem, of encouraging still more truculence, than by striking a combative posture. Fundamental differences in value lie at the heart of many of our problems with China, and if we surrender our values — if we surrender the high ground — we lose critical leverage. Our president-elect choosing to smile at Putin’s perfidy is just that kind of contemptible surrender.