At their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, last week, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to once again exchange ambassadors, continue arms reductions and avoid nuclear war, but they continue to wrangle over cyberattacks and human rights issues.
Since Biden took office, he has had only one unofficial telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), but he hurried to hold a summit meeting with Putin just after the G7 meeting.
Biden’s reasons for these decisions invite speculation. Russia used to be a member of the G8 industrialized countries, but its membership was revoked after it instigated a referendum on Crimean independence in 2014. Biden choosing this moment for a summit seems to be a message to Putin that the West might be ready to allow Russia back into the G8.
During his US presidential campaign last year, Biden wrote an article outlining his ideas on foreign policy. He viewed Russia as a military threat, and as an “archrival” or “opponent” of the US, while he viewed China as a threat in terms of trade and values, seeing it as a “competitor” of the US.
As military conquest is a zero-sum game, a trade war can be a non-zero-sum game, and a contest of values can end in mutual respect, it is generally accepted that Biden sees Russia as the bigger problem strategically.
Biden’s desire to reconcile with Russia might stem from China being the first country to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. China has continued its economic and military expansionism, which has resulted in rising anti-China sentiment in the US and the international community.
Although the Indo-Pacific strategy was former US president Donald Trump’s attempt to contain China, the results wished for have been difficult to achieve because of India’s insistence on a non-alliance policy. Although Biden advocated for an alliance of democratic nations before he took office, he had to turn his attention to Russia, as not every country was interested in opposing China.
In the short term, the US is likely to have difficulty achieving the diplomatic goal of working with Russia to counterbalance China.
In the 1970s, the US employed a strategy of working with China to contain the Soviet Union. The US had the opportunity to intervene after China and the Soviet Union clashed over Zhenbao Island (珍寶島), known as Damansky Island in Russia, in March 1969. However, there is presently no obvious conflict between Russia and China.
The US is also likely to have difficulty because for some NATO members in eastern Europe, neighboring Russia is the main threat, while distant China is a potential partner. Hungary, for example, holds this view.
However, in the long run, Russia — which has always placed Europe over Asia in terms of its national development — is unlikely to miss this opportunity to play both sides against the middle.
Even if Russia does not begin to treat China as an enemy, it is likely to reduce the mutual dependence they have had over the past few years, and that is certain to have an effect on Xi’s diplomatic plans.
Yang Chung-hsin is a civil servant.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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