John Pomfret is the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”
On Feb. 14, 1972, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger met to discuss Nixon’s upcoming trip to China. Kissinger, who had already taken his secret trip to China to begin Nixon’s historic opening to Beijing, expressed the view that compared with the Russians, the Chinese were “just as dangerous. In fact, they’re more dangerous over a historical period.”
Kissinger then observed that “in 20 years your successor, if he’s as wise as you, will wind up leaning towards the Russians against the Chinese.” He argued that the United States, as it sought to profit from the enmity between Moscow and Beijing, needed “to play this balance-of-power game totally unemotionally. Right now, we need the Chinese to correct the Russians and to discipline the Russians.” But in the future, it would be the other way around.
Could it be that, almost 45 years after Nixon’s breakthrough with China, the United States’ 45th president will be taking Kissinger’s advice? President Obama tried to make a “pivot” to Asia the capstone of his foreign policy. Will Donald Trump make a “pivot” toward Moscow, and away from Beijing, a capstone of his?
With a series of tweets, phone calls, interviews and statements by surrogates, President-elect Trump has signaled a new, tough policy against China. Breaking with decades of precedent, he spoke directly with the president of Taiwan, who called on Dec. 2 to congratulate him on his victory. Two days later, in an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Trump raised questions about the one-China policy, under which Washington, Beijing and Taipei have kept the peace in Asia since the Nixon trip. He accused China of manipulating its currency, cheating the United States on trade and failing to help the United States deal with the North Korean nuclear program. Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina, who is reportedly under consideration to be Trump’s director of national intelligence, met with the president-elect Monday and emerged from the conversation announcing that the pair had discussed China as “probably our most important adversary and a rising adversary.”
On the Russian front, Trump had kind words for Russian President Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail. On Monday, he announced that Rex Tillerson, who has had a long relationship with Putin, will be his nominee for secretary of state. Trump’s pick for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, is also believed to have ties to Russia and has argued for closer coordination between Moscow and Washington in the fight against the Islamic State. And on Sunday, Trump labeled as “ridiculous” accusations from the Central Intelligence Agency that the Russian government, by hacking into computers used by officials from the campaign of Hillary Clinton, endeavored to help him win last month’s election.
The triangle between Washington, Moscow and Beijing figured mightily during the Cold War. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration treated the Russians significantly better than the Chinese in an effort to wedge itself between China’s leader Mao Zedong and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev. The U.S. trade embargo on China was far tighter than it was against the U.S.S.R.; Americans could travel to the Soviet Union but were banned from going to Beijing. And Washington trained Tibetan rebels to rise up against Chinese rule.
That policy bore some fruit and contributed to the Sino-Soviet split. Indeed, Mao believed that Khrushchev’s embrace of “peaceful coexistence” with the West proved that United States had weakened the U.S.S.R.’s revolutionary resolve. In October 1959, Khrushchev, fresh from meeting Eisenhower at Camp David, arrived in Beijing with the news that because the U.S.S.R. had improved relations with the United States, he would have to scrap Moscow’s agreement to help China build an atomic bomb. Khrushchev also relayed a U.S. request to release five Americans in custody. Mao was livid that the Soviets were trying to make nice with the United States.
Ten years later, Nixon reversed the policy of Eisenhower, whom he had served as vice president, and engaged Beijing in the United States’ global competition with the Soviet Union. Several years later, President Jimmy Carter doubled down. As a means to block the spread of Soviet influence in Southeast Asia, Carter administration officials approved of the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, which occurred shortly after Deng Xiaoping concluded the first trip of a Chinese leader to the United States in January 1979. Subsequent U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, cooperated with China in proxy wars against the U.S.S.R. in Angola, Afghanistan and Cambodia that significantly eroded Soviet power and helped speed the Soviet collapse.
The question now is, will Trump’s pivot work in a world that has changed vastly since the days of the Cold War? What, other than bedeviling Beijing, are its goals? And what will the United States have to give Russia to pry it from Beijing’s embrace?
China’s relations with Russia are businesslike. The two routinely back each other on the U.N. Security Council. China has purchased more than $30 billion in weapons from Russia over the last several decades and in September the pair conducted a joint military exercise in the South China Sea, which China claims.
But Russia has also chafed under the impression that it is now the junior partner in its relations with Beijing. China’s economy was once a fraction of the Soviet economy; now it’s about five times larger. In the 1950s, during the heyday of Sino-Soviet relations, Chinese called Russia “big brother.” Now they jokingly call it “big sister.”
Putin is clearly interested in playing a broader role in the Asia Pacific. He is scheduled to travel to Japan this week at the invitation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Russia has sold Kilo-class submarines to Vietnam, which it will use to counter Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
China is no longer the poor backwater it was in 1972. It responded to Trump’s call with Taiwan by flying a bomber over the South China Sea. And Russia is led by a man who is dedicated to restoring Russia’s influence to the days when the Soviet Union struck fear in countries around the world. Trump’s willingness to play Kissinger’s “balance-of-power game” promises a new era of unpredictability in a world where American power is no longer unparalleled and unchallenged.