Webinar Recap – Ideological Dilemma: How to Keep Russia and China Accountable

On Thursday, April 1st at 1:45pm the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs (NYCFPA) held a webinar via Zoom on US foreign policy entitled, “Ideological Dilemma: How to Keep Russia and China Accountable.”  The panel was moderated by Principal Director, Justin Russell.  Expert panelists included: Dakota Wood, Senior Research Fellow for Defense Programs at the Heritage Foundation, Yun Sun, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, and Professor Michael Kimmage, Author and Professor of History at the Catholic University of America. 

The format of the panel was an online discussion in which panelists were asked some of the following questions (paraphrased for brevity):  

Justin Russell: There is a lot of pressure on both President Biden and Secretary Blinken who just had, what some are calling a very tense discussion with Chinese leadership up in Alaska.  Do you have any insight into the current relationship between the Beijing and Washington? 

Yun Sun: There are some fundamental facts that people do share.  First, a bipartisan consensus is that China represents a long-term strategic threat to US national interest and national security.  This is not just because China has developed the capacity to bully its neighbors or to use coercions all over the world, but also because of the nature of the Chinese threat.  China is different from Russia in fundamental ways. China has an economic interdependence with the United States and the rest of the world and has been exploiting that opportunity or vulnerability to achieve their goals (i.e. technologies, commercial espionage, etc.) That is something that we don’t see from Russia.  So, there is a certain level of consensus that we need to treat China as the strategic threat that it is if we are going to protect our national security.  China is presenting itself as a viable alternative to the Western option. The view of the Biden administration that China is a threat is widely shared. The question is, how are we going to deal with that threat? 

Justin: Same question to you, Mike, on the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Where does this currently sit, and how strained is the relationship between the two? 

Michael Kimmage: I think the relationship is quite strained. In some ways you can begin by looking at contradictions in both administrations – Trump and Biden. In the Trump Administration there was a level of rhetoric of cooperation, a certain tone of admiration that President Trump had for President Vladimir Putin, on one hand, “Wouldn’t it good to have decent relations with Russia,” but the policy reality of sharper policy than President Obama (two nations were entered into NATO, for example).  With the Biden administration, there is no warm rhetoric for the Kremlin or Putin. The rhetoric is sharp.  Now, with the Biden administration, the rhetoric is sharp, but one of the Biden Administration’s first acts was to renew the START Agreement.  But, there has been a pretty sharp down tick in the relationship between the United States and Russia.   

Justin: Is there an expectation from our allies both in and out of NATO that the rhetoric and that the old school style is better or worse for our foreign policy versus the wild west approach of the Trump Administration? 

Dakota Wood: We hear what people say from foreign policy teams, and they can be saying lots of good things or very bating and threatening sorts of things.  But then there is the reality on the ground.  That pertains both to competitors and allies. So, you have to compare what are the statements being said versus what is unfolding.  Even as we’ve been discussing China: is it a competitor, is it a threat, challenger, adversary? And that same thing can be applied to Russia. The interconnectedness between economies – is much different with China and the US and much of the western world than it is with Russia. For example, China is Germany’s largest trading partner.  It is the single largest trading partner for the European Union.  Germany is quickly becoming critically dependent on Russia for energy. So, when the Nordstream II pipeline for natural gas is completed it’s going to make it even more difficult for Germany to take a very tough stance against Moscow. You see the reality on the ground of China and how they are rapidly growing their naval fleet and how that naval fleet is pushing much, much further from China’s coastline into the South China Sea, Indian ocean and forays of the Mediterranean. So, if people are angling for some sort of fractious contest why are they investing so heavily in long range missiles, precision strike architecture, naval power, and constantly flying and sailing into the air space and sea space of some NATO countries.  So when looking at this diplomatic effort of Washington, what one says on the campaign trail comes into stark reality of what your competitors and partners are even doing.  The reason I say NATO is because they are a big deal, but when you look at the ability of their expenditures and what they’re actually able to do on the ground, it is quite different. And the Biden Administration is going to have to deal with that. 

Justin Russell:  Is China truly a competimate (friends on one side, but competitors on the other)? There doesn’t seem to be the coalescing kind of antagonism with Beijing that there is with Moscow.  Is that accurate? 

Yun Sun: There is a level of accuracy in that.  While we can currently call them a competimate, we must bear in mind that China’s desired endgame is not to be a competimate, but displacement of the United States as the sole superpower in the world. You could say that China is fundamentally different than Russia.  Russia’s style is more direct, whereas China more likely uses indirect coercion to get what it wants. Also, you could say that China has global presence and global strategy.  Though that may be Russia’s ambition, its capability has been significantly mitigated because of its economy and international relations.  

Justin: Michael, do you agree?  Today, we still see that direct adversarial relationship.  Is that type of military based, sword wielding dialogue sustainable in this intertwined world? 

Michael: I frankly don’t know what the Russia endgame is – they like to improvise. Rather, the United States doesn’t have the dependence on Russia that it does on China.  In that sense, the US has more freedom to view Russia as an enemy. Russia’s conduct in the world is different.  For example, their meddling in the last two presidential elections, and then of course, Crimea, (Moldova, Georgia). You sort of have more of an acute threat in that respect and that builds animosity between the two countries. There are some areas where the two countries need each other.  In the Middle East, I don’t think there is too much progress the US can do with the Iran Deal without Russia, if that is a goal of the Biden Administration.  Afghanistan, Syria, Libya are other areas where there is some interdependence.  Another topic is energy. So, there’s not much interdependence, but it’s there. 

Justin: Dakota, we hear a lot from the international arena about a Cold War 2.0. – for example, the Navalny situation, or positioning in the Arctic.  Do you think that we’re on the brink of a Cold War 2.0 with Russia or a natural cycle?   

Dakota: What is the adage? History doesn’t repeat itself; it rhymes. In that sense, yes.  There are grave differences in political models, how government relates to its population, certainly national and strategic interests and wanting to be on top. In the case of China, China represents a 1.4-billion-person market. And so, if the US is host to many transnational companies, profit comes with market share and it’s very enticing to do things to try to get entry into the Chinese market, and all the problems that Yun has already pointed out. You don’t have this same kind of issue with Russia.  To the extent of a Cold War analogy, and to the extent that US, China, and Russia all have very different models with competing interests in who influences global events and gains access to markets and pushes forward their agenda.  Do you want the Chinese model of an authoritarian/surveillance state, Putin and the oligarchs with some free markets, but don’t get crosswise with the government in Moscow, or do you want the American western model that can be chaotic, but that’s a consequence of having freedom and individual choice and personal liberties?  So, these competing models and considering the interconnectedness of a globalized world – we cannot dismiss them.  For the United States, we have to be very aware of who we are and what we can and cannot compromise.  So, if we send billions of dollars to China, then we are enabling their goals.  There’s no easy answer to that, but it’s important to find areas where we have common dialogue. 

The full discussion is available on the organization’s Facebook page. The next webinar will be on Thursday, April 15th at 1:00pm on the topic of the unrest in Burma (Myanmar). 

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