Since his earliest days on the campaign trail, Donald Trump has made no secret of his distaste for China.
Now, Trump’s case against China is spreading. More than just an economic adversary, Beijing is cast by the president-elect as a pre-eminent foreign policy problem. While Mitt Romney warned that Russia was America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe, Trump clearly rejects that idea. What’s new is Trump’s strong signaling that the Chinese are our top geopolitical enemy.
Perhaps that shows some deep fondness for Moscow. More likely, Trump’s logic is that, of the two big non-allies on the Asian continent, China is the more powerful, expansionist and misaligned with us in its interests, so cutting deals with Putin makes more sense than trying to appease the Chinese. In fact, it’s better to affront them. (Think of Trump’s disregard for the “One China” policy in speaking with Taiwan’s president.)
It’s strongly tempting to find historical precedent for such a “realist” counterbalancing move. Richard Nixon’s deal with Mao Tse-Tung disrupted the Communist bloc, laying the groundwork for the eventual defeat of the Soviets. Especially when many analysts worry American power is overextended, underfunded and constrained by popular opinion, concentrating geopolitical energy on building partnerships at the expense of our biggest competitor seems plausibly smart.
And, as bad as Putin’s Russia may be, it’s true that China’s leadership has set a breakneck course for something dismayingly reminiscent of out-and-out fascism. The Communist Party has embraced the corporatism, cult of personality, ethnic purification and nationalistic militarism that has defined fascist rule from the beginning. Russia’s ways are familiar to us; the China we’ll now face will be a new one, posing new risks despite the familiarity of its fascistic trappings.
Nevertheless, Russia analogizes poorly to the China of Mao’s day. The Russians are not a nation of poor peasants. Rather than one of the last places to be transformed by economic and technological Westernization, they were one of the first. The buffeting forces of 1991 led to a Putin regime with a very different slate of interests and expectations than the Mao regime — and much less to gain from the United States, without major concessions. China’s objective was to catch up to the West on the domestic front, not compete at the grand geopolitical game. Today, both China and Russia are bent on that kind of direct competition. Making nice with Russia won’t change that, except at a significant cost.
Even from the standpoint of realpolitik, counterbalancing against China by building warmer relations with Russia is a risky proposition. The trust gap with Putin’s regime is simply massive, and the regime doesn’t care. No country has done as much to undermine the sovereignty of countries friendly to the United States. And that’s to say nothing of Russia’s meddling in America’s domestic affairs. Yet, Moscow is too weak and too smart to overextend itself in a traditional military sense.
The best case for gambling on a Russian counterweight to China is, in some ways, the most pessimistic. If both Washington and Moscow are too weak to get their ways individually, it may take more of a partnership than either desires to prevent China from dominating both.
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