A new poll released in the last week of 2000 by the Russian subsidiary of the American polling organization Gallup revealed that a majority of Russian politicians, business leaders and journalists view China as a more reliable partner than the US.
These poll results are noteworthy. Just four months ago, General Leonid Ivashov, head of the Russian Defense Ministry's international cooperation department, called China Russia's "ideological ally," citing common goals in rejecting "military diktat in international relations," as well as US missile defense plans. The growing partnership is, of course, in many ways a marriage of convenience. China and Russia so far remain "strategic partners" in name alone.
Perhaps the most important strategic underpinning of the increasingly close Chinese-Russian view of international affairs is that both countries share a deepening conviction that a principled stand against certain core American strategic concepts will give them the high ground.
It is telling that as US foreign policy has discarded the notion that state sovereignty is inviolable, with interventions in Panama, Haiti, and Kosovo, both Chinese and Russian diplomacy has responded in similar terms, opposing NATO efforts to formulate a strategy that is not exclusively defensive, among other creeping US challenges to the inviolability of state sovereignty.
China continues to cling to long and often repeated principles of nonintervention and territorial self-defense, even as the post-Cold War Pax Americana has rewritten these rules by promoting new rationales for the use of force. Taiwan, however, remains China's great exception. Indeed, an unprovoked Chinese use of force against Taiwan, that many Americans, Asians, Europeans and even some Russians would view as aggressive, would be justified by Beijing as a strictly defensive action involving territorial integrity -- the one interest that Chinese diplomacy claims as "vital."
The more encompassing US definition of vital interests, by contrast, ranges beyond the mere defense of homeland. Many Chinese argue that US statements of its national interest tend to enshrine a law of the jungle in international politics that violates norms of law and is conceptually distinct from peacekeeping.
In this, China and Russia have some important common goals, rejecting the use of military measures as a principled response in some key external contingencies. Such trends are hardly new, and strands of US strategic analysis have wrestled in recent years with the prospect of a renewed China-Russia "alliance" relationship.
Such a notion is ironic indeed, not least because both countries have increasingly rejected the very notion of alliances on grounds of principle. Four months ago, General Ivashov said that "military alliances have no future." His view jibes neatly with a Chinese view of the world that increasingly sees alliance structures as a threat to peace and intrinsically aggressive in nature.
NATO strategy in Kosovo reinforced Chinese and Russian perceptions that US alliances in Europe and Asia have evolved away from original concepts of cooperative defense toward more expansive definitions of alliance roles and missions. Above all, it was Kosovo that demonstrated to Chinese, Russian, and other strategists that the US and its allies were prepared to circumvent the UN and the norms of international law that China, in particular, views in inflexible terms. All of this supplements the shared concern about US missile defense plans.
China may yet discover that its Russian partner will abandon its shared principled stance in favor of a closer working relationship with Washington, particularly on anti-ballistic missile norms. But Beijing will continue to reject the NATO notion that defense is always benign in nature, a form of deterrence plus. Shared Chinese and Russian perspectives on world affairs, therefore, suggest the possibility of greater coordination. Yet whatever principles the two countries may share derive from very different concerns. For China, all such issues almost entirely derive from the Taiwan problem. Beijing worries that the US-Japan alliance may take on new roles and missions in the Taiwan Strait. Its opposition to missile defenses, especially theater systems, reflects a broadly political concern that the US is reviving its former military alliance with Taiwan. What is required is an approach by American and European states that seeks to delink the big questions of international politics, such as intervention and alliances, from a view of the world that sees many such questions through the prism of national problems and pride. This is especially true of China, whose foreign policy on nearly every strategic issue is now inseparable from the Taiwan question. Without such an effort, Chinese and Russian perspectives will move closer together.
Evan Feigenbaum is executive director of the Asia-Pacific Security Initiative at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. This comment first appeared in the International Herald Tribune.
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