The strategic imperative behind US President Joe Biden’s recent summit in Europe was to forge a united Western response to China. In the three weeks since those meetings, it has become clear that he succeeded. The United States, France, and Germany are now essentially on the same page. Each recognizes that broad international agreement is necessary to convince China to curtail its aggressive behavior. The Chinese attitude was laid bare in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remarks this month commemorating the centennial of the Communist Party of China. Any attempt to interfere with his country’s ascent, he warned, will lead to “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel.”
In Asia, the Biden administration’s strategic imperative has led it to place greater emphasis on the “Quad” of Asia-Pacific democracies: Australia, India, Japan, and the US. Late last month, the US and Japan staged joint naval maneuvers to prepare for any Chinese aggression toward Taiwan. And in Europe, both NATO and the European Union have elevated China to the top of the policy agenda after previously trying to avoid “out-of-region” commitments. Although Biden has made tangible progress in forging a broad consensus on China, he has only just begun to tackle the hardest element of this policy: convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country has a national-security interest in distancing itself from China. Nonetheless, getting Putin on board is now clearly a high priority. Since their summits with Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both called for a reset of EU relations with Russia.
To be sure, the suggestion that the EU might patch up relations with Russia has been met with near-hysterical protests in the Netherlands, the Baltic states, and Poland. Responding to these histrionics, Merkel hastened to make clear “that such talks with the Russian president aren’t a kind of reward.” If Merkel was dismissive, that is because the howls of protest were entirely predictable. Abrupt strategic policy shifts are rarely understood at their outset. When US President Richard Nixon inaugurated relations with communist China 50 years ago, he set off a firestorm among America’s allies, with Japan objecting even more strongly than the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles are now.
Today, Nixon’s diplomatic initiative is remembered as one of the great strategic breakthroughs of the post-war era. The “opening of China” arose from the fact that both Nixon and Mao Zedong had come to view the Soviet Union as the greatest threat to each of their countries. By establishing diplomatic relations, they could force the Soviets (who had recently invaded Czechoslovakia and then waged a short but brutal border war with China) to reconsider their aggressive policies. It worked. In the years that followed, the Soviets sharply reduced troop deployments along the border with China and entered into major nuclear-arms treaties with the US.
Fast-forward to today. Putin, a man of bloodless realpolitik if ever there was one, has several reasons to play ball with Biden – many of which are just as compelling as those that motivated Mao and Zhou Enlai to welcome Nixon’s overture. For starters, because Russia is more isolated now than the Soviet Union ever was, it has become dangerously dependent on China. But the main beneficiary of Putin’s anti-Western antagonism over the past decade has not been Russia but China. By bringing Russia in from the cold in which the West has placed his economy, Putin could reverse its descent into economic sclerosis and stagnation. In fact, like many in Russia’s security establishment, Putin recognizes that his country has received scant benefits from its relationship with Xi’s China. Although China has been investing massively in firms and infrastructure around the world (much of it through Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative), only a miniscule amount of Chinese money has made it to Russia, where it has been desperately needed to offset the effects of Western sanctions.
Moreover, while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai. When Russia held celebrations for the city’s 160th anniversary last year, hyper-nationalist Chinese internet users exploded in indignation. There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay).
Just as Nixon’s brokering of relations with Mao was never intended to transform China into a bastion of human rights and democracy, nor is the Biden/Macron/Merkel strategy meant to turn Putin’s Russia into a free society overnight. Western leaders are not harboring any illusions. Despite everything he has to gain from better relations with the West, Putin will not shift away from China if doing so poses any threat to his power or personal safety. The Putin regime is far too brittle and reliant on outright authoritarianism to take any serious risks. If the West wants Russia to distance itself from China, it will have to accept Putin as he is – warts and all. Though he won’t improve his record on human rights, he could at least be convinced to recognize internationally agreed norms in cyberspace, and to stop openly threatening his neighbors. That sort of bargain is more than possible, and it just might be enough to alert a stubborn Xi to the strategic dangers of his own regional and international bullying.