As opposed to former US President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Donald Trump has consistently spoken favorably about Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. Perceiving China as a threat to American workers and American projection of power, Trump wants to “work together with Russia to solve many pressing issues facing the world.”
Some media outlets have thus made historical analogies by predicting that the Trump administration’s policy towards China could be a reversal of the Nixon administration’s approach in 1972. In other words, instead of playing the “Chinese card” against the former USSR, Trump would potentially try to pull Russia out of China’s list of strategic partners through enhancing US-Russian relations, so that Washington would not have to confront Moscow and Beijing simultaneously. Meanwhile, Moscow could even potentially help Washington to counter-balance Beijing, should it no longer consider Beijing a valuable trading and strategic partner.
Although it is appealing to make comparisons between Trump’s affinity with Putin and animosity towards the rising China with Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik in approaching Beijing, the economic ties and military capabilities of the three countries today show a different story. The economic interdependence between the US and China far outpaces that of Russia and the US. In terms of military capabilities, the Russian military can threaten American political interests much more than the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can in a potential conflict, as demonstrated by the Russian military’s occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and interference in the 2016 US presidential election through a cyber misinformation campaign.
Finally, it is important to note that due to the Sino-Soviet split, along with the subsequent territorial, geopolitical, and ideological rifts, the former USSR and China were on the brink of an all-out nuclear war in 1969, so Nixon and Kissinger effectively took advantage of the split. There are neither unresolved territorial nor ideological conflicts between Moscow and Beijing today.
As a result, while one could label Trump a realist if he tries to play the “Russian card” against China like how Nixon played the “Chinese card” against Moscow in 1972, this paper argues that the triangular relationship between the US, Russia, and China is not necessarily comparable to the one in the 1970s.
According to Yaacov Y. I. Vertzberger, “reference [by policymakers] to history is a vital component of policy formulation and serves as a mean of persuading both self and others. This form of argument is essential in clarifying the causal structure of the situation [at present] and the inherent logic of cause/effect or means/end sequence.”1 Therefore, referring to historical examples allows one to simplify a present political situation, make a connection with perceived similar situations in the past, and formulate strategies that have been successful in the past.
In addition, the famous realists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue that since neither the Middle East nor a declining Russia constitute direct threats to the US in terms of relative power, it would only be in the Asia-Pacific where the US “may indeed be the indispensable nation” which would assist other nations — like Japan, South Korea and Vietnam — to contain the rising China, since these smaller regional powers are incapable of balancing against China on their own.2
Given that Trump has made far more positive comments about Russia than China, he would most likely try to enhance US-Russian relations in order to prevent Moscow and Beijing from forming an anti-US bloc. According to Ivan Eland, director of the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace and Liberty, Trump’s advisors may see Russia as a “valuable counterweight to a rising China,” and an effective ally against Islamic extremism. Such a position would share certain similarities with how Kissinger and the Nixon administration perceived China’s value in counter-balancing the USSR.
Also, since the Nixon administration’s re-establishment of diplomatic contact with Beijing was widely thought to have effectively broken the entire Communist Bloc — despite the fact that the Sino-Soviet split happened much earlier in 1960 — it is also appealing draw the conclusion that there is a potential “common effort” between the US and Russia to contain China.
Therefore, based on Vertzberger’s argument, Trump and his foreign policy team may have utilized Nixon and Kissinger’s approach to China as a reference point to draw simplified parallels with the complex triangular relationship between Washington, Beijing and Moscow today, allowing them to make sense of the current international political environment and potentially formulate policies.
Using History Alone is Limiting
Vertzberger has warned that policymakers’ rationality based on history and past experiences could also lead to biases and incomplete cognition of current events, leading to potentially dangerous policy decisions.3 We have to recognize that the economic ties and military capabilities of the US, China, and Russia today paint a different picture from the past.
In terms of economics, the US has exported more than USD 100 billion worth of goods to China every year since 2011, and has imported USD 400–480 billion worth of goods from China per year during the same period. In addition, investments and services by American businesses in China amount to more than USD 85 billion in 2015. According to the US-China Business Council, trade with China supports roughly 2.6 million jobs in the US. In comparison, the US has exported no more than USD 11.14 billion worth of goods to Russia every year during the same period. Therefore, if Trump and his foreign policy team disregard the fact that China is a much more important trading partner to the US than Russia, they would be injecting a sense of fake reality in which may go beyond its actual reality, as Vertzberger would argue.4
In terms of military power, the US currently has the most formidable military force in the world and Russia is the only country that maintains parity with the US in terms of the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons. China, in contrast, maintains a small — but arguably credible — nuclear deterrence. For example, while China possesses only 260 nuclear warheads and a handful of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of hitting the continental US, Russia has around 1,790 operational nuclear warheads and hundreds of ICBMs. In fact, the former USSR and the US each had much more than 15,000 operational nuclear warheads in 1972, while China’s nuclear capability back then was limited at best.
The fact that Moscow is still delivering state-of-the-art fighter planes, surface-to-air missiles and advanced turbofan engines to China mean that Beijing is not yet the Kremlin’s top geopolitical rival.
Therefore, while the PLA’s capability to threaten American allies and military bases in Asia has increased in recent decades, Russia still remains the only country capable of decimating the entire continental US, just like what the former USSR was capable of in 1972. Therefore, instead of China possessing the former USSR’s capability to threaten the US directly, Russia still remains the only “existential threat” to the US, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford has pointed out. Contemporary China is not comparable to the former USSR in terms of strategic nuclear capabilities.
In fact, it is the Russian military that has asserted itself as a credible threat to the post-Cold War US-led world order. In 2014, following the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine that ousted its pro-Moscow president, the Russian military seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and subsequently annexed the Peninsula through a referendum widely perceived to be rigged. Moscow also covertly invaded Eastern Ukraine and created a frozen conflict as a pressure point against the newly established pro-West government in Kiev. Such an invasion was the first time a great power has annexed the territory of another sovereign state without the consent of the latter since the end of the Cold War. Although Beijing has built several large military bases in the South China Sea since 2014, it has yet to demonstrate similar capabilities like those of Russia.
Furthermore, the Russian military appears to be much more successful in waging cyber misinformation campaigns — or the compromising of information — against the US. While Beijing had been successful in stealing US industrial secrets like the details of the F-35 fighter jet, Chinese hackers were often caught. Evidence has shown that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, had hacked into both the Democratic and Republican Party headquarters and simultaneously released both real and false edited information to confuse American voters, compromising the real news available to voters in last year’s US presidential election.
Although there is no clear evidence that the Kremlin helped Trump to win the election, the GRU’s disinformation campaign did help swing American public opinion away from the Democratic candidate Clinton, who was known to have spoken harshly against Putin. In this sense, Russia has successfully used its cyber warfare capabilities to disrupt and divide US politics, and hence possesses more capabilities and will in waging informational warfare than China does.
According to Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, when compared to Russia, the former USSR, and the US, China has so far failed to fully translate its economic growth into military capabilities. This is due to China’s relative technological backwardness when compared to the industrialized nations. For example, the US spent USD 79 billion in military R&D in 2012, more than 13 times what China spent in the same year. While the US holds more than 14,000 patents in the development of new technologies, China has around 2,000. The ineffective protection of intellectual property and misallocation of capital — including human capital such as skills, education, and health — continue to hamper Beijing’s ability to catch up with the West, Russia, and Japan in technological development.5
Beijing needs to formulate long-term policies to translate its GDP growth into appropriate human capital and technological innovations. Such innovations would then help modernize China’s military, which still relies on foreign suppliers like Russia for key components like state-of-the-art turbofan engines for its top-tier fighter planes, such as the J-10 series fighter and the fifth-generation J-20 fighter plane. Ultimately, military power is one of the most important components in power projection, and both Russia and the US remain well ahead of China in this aspect of hard power. Although China has the potential to eventually overcome its technological weakness and fully translate its economic gains into military capabilities, such transformations will require time. Hence, the Russian military will remain as the second most powerful military force in the short term and the only state with the means to effectively put an end to the US-led world order through violence.
Meanwhile, contemporary Sino-Russian relations are much more productive now. Since the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, Beijing and Moscow had been geopolitical and ideological rivals until the late 1980s. During this period, the PLA and the Soviet military conducted small military incursions across each other’s borders and threatened each other with nuclear strikes. Starting from the 1990s, however, Russia and China resolved their border disputes. They also established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the early 2000s to deal with the rise of radical Islam and other forces that challenge regional stability in Central Asia. The two countries also stand in opposition to the expansion of liberal democratic ideas and intervention in sovereign states’ domestic affairs in the name of “democracy promotion.” In this sense, the ideological rivalry that characterized Sino-Soviet relations in 1972 is no longer the case today.
Regarding geopolitical rivalry, the fact that Moscow is still delivering state-of-the-art fighter planes, surface-to-air missiles, and advanced turbofan engines to China means that Beijing is not yet the Kremlin’s top geopolitical rival. Thus, even if Trump could bypass Congressional opposition and successfully enhance US-Russian relations, Putin would not necessarily have to suddenly treat Beijing as Russia’s top geopolitical rival.
Based on this analysis, it is clear that contemporary US-China-Russia relations are different from those in 1972. The current US-China economic interaction far outpaces that between Russia and the US. In fact, even Trump himself has admitted that the US is China’s “best customer.” On the other hand, Russia possesses much greater military capabilities than China to potentially upend the US-led world order. As Russia continues to sell gas and state-of-the-art military hardware to China, contemporary Sino-Russian relations are a far cry from the geopolitical and ideological rivalry between the two in 1972. Therefore, the historical example of Nixon and Kissinger playing the “China card” against the former USSR is not necessarily comparable to today’s triangular relationship between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington.
1. Vertzberger, Y. Y. I. (June 1986). Foreign policy decision makers as practical-intuitive historians: Applied history and its shortcomings. International Studies Quarterly, 30(2), 229.
2. Mearsheimer, J. J. and Walt, S. M. (July/August 2016). The case for offshore balancing: A superior U.S. grand strategy. Foreign Affairs, 95(5), 81.
3. Vertzberger, Y. Y. I. (June 1986). Foreign policy decision makers as practical-intuitive historians: Applied history and its shortcomings. International Studies Quarterly, 30(2), 234.
4. Vertzberger, Y. Y. I. (June 1986). Foreign policy decision makers as practical-intuitive historians: Applied history and its shortcomings. International Studies Quarterly, 30(2), 243.
5. Brooks, S. G. and Wohlforth, W. C. (May/June 2016). The once and future superpower: Why China won’t overtake the United States. Foreign Affairs, 95(3), 91-95.