The US, Russia and China need to talk. They’re not, and that’s dangerous.
Special to the Chicago Tribune September 1, 2022
The world, we are often told, is now defined by great power competition, where states like China and Russia are either seeking to overthrow the so-called rules-based international order or stealthily working within the system to change it to their benefit.
The Biden administration’s foreign policy strategy is prefaced in large measure on the great power paradigm, and senior U.S. officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken frequently invoke the theme during their remarks.
Part of maintaining healthy great power relations, however, is ensuring states like the U.S., China and Russia communicate with one another. The diverging policies, conflicting world views and multiple grievances may not be resolved, but the tension and misunderstandings can at least be mitigated.
Unfortunately, this communication is breaking down — and what’s worse, the parties don’t seem especially concerned about it. The U.S., China and Russia are all contributing to the complications in their own way.
Take the U.S.-China relationship, arguably the most important on the planet. With both countries comprising approximately more than 40% of the world’s wealth and over half of its total military expenditure, a hypothetical conflict between these two powers would cause catastrophic material and economic damage in terms of lost lives. It’s a primary reason why President Joe Biden has been so insistent in establishing what he calls “guardrails” in the bilateral relationship, a goal he reiterated in his November 2021 virtual summit with President Xi Jinping as well as in their hourslong phone call last month.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shares the same objective. The former general used a session with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue this June, in part, to build a personal rapport.
Yet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan (followed shortly by another U.S. congressional delegation to the island) seems to have spoiled U.S.-China dialogue on multiple issues of mutual concern, at least for the time being.
As expected, the Chinese Communist Party reacted to Pelosi’s trip, the first from a U.S. speaker in a quarter-century, with anger and intensity. In addition to the multiday exercises in six separate locations around the self-ruled island, Beijing canceled or suspended eight separate working groups with Washington on subjects ranging from counternarcotics to defense cooperation.
U.S. officials couldn’t get their Chinese counterparts on the phone during the drills either. While the White House called China’s aggressive actions after Pelosi’s visit a “manufactured crisis,” Beijing clearly believed such maneuvers were necessary to both register disapproval and remind Washington that the People’s Liberation Army can squeeze Taiwan at any time.
Bilateral contact between the U.S. and Russia has been just as fraught, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February.
Once again, Biden began his tenure with the right goal in mind: forging a “stable and predictable relationship” with Moscow. While Russia is far weaker compared with its Soviet predecessor, it is still the world’s largest nuclear weapons power, with more than 6,200 nuclear warheads in its stockpile. Russia is also a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which means that any initiative Washington wants to achieve through the council would need Russian support.
Events have gotten in the way. The brutal war in Ukraine has made the stable and predictable ties Biden once aimed for practically impossible. It’s now highly unlikely the U.S. and Russia will ever get back to a businesslike relationship as long as Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil — and judging by Russia’s preparations for an apparent annexation of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, the prospect of a U.S.-Russia detente gets more far-fetched by the day.
Communication between U.S. and Russian officials is sparse. Biden’s last call with Russian President Vladimir Putin was in early February, before the invasion. Blinken conversed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in late July for the first time in nearly six months. When Blinken and Lavrov were in the same room during the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Cambodia last week, both avoided one another and the two left without speaking.
Even strategic stability, the one major issue Washington and Moscow sought to silo from other disputes, is hanging on by a thread. The White House suspended arms control talks with Russia shortly after Russian forces bombarded Ukraine, and the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Aug. 8 that it will no longer permit U.S. weapons inspectors to visit Russian facilities as specified in the New START accord, the last bilateral U.S.-Russia strategic arms accord in existence.
There are hawkish elements in Washington, Beijing and Moscow who aren’t especially worried about these developments. Many on Capitol Hill, for instance, believe U.S. policy on both China and Russia should be tougher than it currently is, whether it includes implementing secondary sanctions on the Russian energy sector or granting Taiwan non-NATO ally status.
However, it would be highly irresponsible if the potential risks of reduced diplomatic contact were ignored or glossed over. As Biden said during his November phone call with Xi, competition should not lead to conflict. But it’s hard to envision the world’s major powers averting it without pragmatic communication.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.