June 9, 2014
The Honorable Kevin Rudd, 26th Prime Minister of Australia
Ambassador Stapleton Roy, Founding Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, The Wilson Center
Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Counselor and Trustee, CSIS
At the close of the 20th century, there was little debate about Russia being considered one of two global superpowers steering international policy. Its strategic, political, and economic heft was entrenched throughout Asia and around the globe. However, according to Dr. Brzezinski, a former US national security advisor under Jimmy Carter, since the U.S.S.R’s collapse in 1991, Russia’s power has ceded, leaving it as a “regional power” at best. Although it still maintains an edge over China in terms of military strength – buoyed in large part by its atomic arsenal – China is now the superior economic, technological, and political force in the region and around the world. In this new power structure, Russia is China’s junior partner – where in the past they negotiated as equals– and although the two powers still largely vote in step with one another in the UN Security Council, Dr. Brzezinski sees Chinese interests becoming increasingly less tied to Russian success and support. As China continues to grow and expand its ties with the West, its partnership with Russia has turned into one increasingly dictated by convenience rather than necessity.
This new relationship has been evident over the past two months, as China stands silently by while Russia receives international condemnation, and faces international sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and subsequent meddling in Eastern Ukraine. Although Ambassador Roy acknowledged that Russia and China stand firmly united in their opposition to a sole global superpower policing the world – and that the U.S./NATO response to Ukraine has further united the two countries around this principle – he noted that China has only offered assistance in ways that are advantageous to it. This is clearly evidenced by the recent natural gas deal signed by Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. With the EU now looking to diversify its energy supplies following Russia’s attempt to use its energy supply as a tool to put pressure on Ukraine, the deal will provide Russia with a new and reliable source of income. However, despite these benefits, he also noted that it is a deal that Russia has long avoided, not wanting to overly commit its resources to fueling further Chinese growth and development and in turn reducing Russia’s own regional and global influence
Mr. Rudd further echoed this sentiment, citing China’s longstanding principle to not engage in alliances or conflicts with third parties, but rather to simply maintain partnerships that are advantageous to the country. In many senses he sees Russia as a key Chinese ally, both in terms of its resources and also its unwillingness to criticize China’s social and political framework. However, despite these benefits, he also noted that there is brooding competition between the two countries, as both look to assert control over developing markets in Central Asia. With both countries seeing the region as part of their natural sphere of influence, tensions are bound to rise. He noted that already, the two countries strategic relationship is changing. Where in the past, China routinely looked to Russia to supply it with military equipment, there is now a growing drive towards self-sufficiency in China, while officials are also discussing opportunities to further cooperate with the U.S.
As Ambassador Roy pointed out, it is with the U.S. and not Russia that President Xi Jinping has discussed “a new type of major power relationship.” Across the board, in a strategic, economic, and political context, all the speakers believe China is looking to the U.S. as its primary partner in the future. However, should the U.S. want to maximize the potential in this potential relationship, it needs to change its rhetoric. Dr. Brzezinski criticized President Obama’s pivot to Asia speech as having an overly military focus. Both this speech, as well as his recent speech at West Point, have drawn sharp criticism in China, and been widely interpreted as an allusion to containing Chinese growth. If either country wants to maximize their newly emerging power relationship, a new, more moderate and transparent tone is needed.