Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A New Moscow-Beijing Axis?

The Globe and Mail is reporting that the Chinese and Russian armies are conducting large-scale joint military exercises this week along their Manchurian-Siberian frontier in a sign of the growing rapprochement between the two traditionally hostile neighbours.

The exercises are being sold as a anti-terrorism drill, although the presence of heavy weaponry at the exercises seems to suggest that it's more of an opportunity to practice warfighting technique than it is to try out the latest in counter-insurgency techniques.

I'm sure that most security analysts in Washington are probably wetting their pants at this latest indication that China and Russia are building a countervailing alliance against the United States in an attempt to usher in a new multipolar world order, but the worry warts and the chicken hawks would be well advised to take a valium and relax for at least 3 reasons.

First, when it comes to conventional warfighting capability, China and Russia have a long way to go before they're any match for the United States, which despite the humiliation its army is currently experiencing in Iraq, is still unsurpassed in its ability to fight and win a major war. Indeed, the entire reason the Iraqi campaign is going so poorly is that it's precisely the kind of war that the American army is ill-equipped to fight, whereas a major confrontation with another state actor has always been an American speciality.

Second, the timeless logic of international politics suggests that Russia and China are never likely to be more than uneasy allies given that they both pose each other's greatest security threat. The Sino-Soviet alliance against the West struck shortly after the Communists won the Chinese civil war lasted less than 20 years before Chinese and Soviet soldiers were taking pot shots at each other over the Amur Darya river that demarcates the frontier between Siberia and Manchuria. In the absence of an "existential threat," to use Krauthammer's phrase, of a superior power to keep the lid on their security competition (as the U.S. did in Europe by holding France and Germany together in NATO), or of major ideational change, any Sino-Russian rapprochement is likely to be only tentative and half-hearted.

Third, neither China nor Russia have any major interest in banding together to face down the United States or engineering a major change in the configuration of the current world order because of their mutual interest in ensuring the economic health of the United States for their own domestic reasons. Without the United States to sop Russian oil and Chinese manufactured goods, both neighbours would experience sharp economic downturns that they would rather avoid, plus they wouldn't be able to cash in on the huge U.S. dollar reserves they've been accumulating as the Americans run up a massive trade deficit. If they ever want to be paid back, they'd better play nicely.

Should I turn out to be wrong about all of this, however, and should the Chinese and the Russians somehow manage to turn their dalliance into a stable alliance that slowly becomes a contender for superpower status, I would still argue that the United States has nothing to fear from a situation from renewed multipolarity. Frankly, unipolarity has been more trouble than it's been worth for the Americans, who as the only country with any claim to superpowerdom has had to shoulder the "hegemon's burden" of maintaining order in every corner of the world. Plus they haven't exactly done a good job of it either, alienating all manner of potential allies and destroying rather than creating new institutions that will preserve their preferences well into the future after the inevitable rise of geopolitical competitors. As with anything else, competition forces people to do better and think smarter, and American foreign policy today is in desperate need of those very attributes.

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