Russia and China Coddle U.S.

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Both the Chinese and Russian leaders have reached the same conclusion and have adopted similar policies toward Washington. "If you can't beat them, join them," says it simply. American foreign policy enjoys strong support in many areas from these two former enemies and reduced opposition in others. Their acquiescence to a tough UN Security Council resolution on Iraq -- albeit softened by the French -- is only the latest show of accommodation with the United States.

This support and reduced opposition are not because China and Russia approve of all American policies -- they even support U.S. policies they disapprove of -- but a reflection of their own national interests. Both have strong interests in getting Washington not to make big trouble for them as they tend to their more important issues.

China and Russia are in the midst of major domestic restructuring and, in the case of China, a change of leadership. Both President Vladimir Putin and President Jiang Zemin believe that their countries are not yet powerful enough to play assertive, independent world roles. To become powerful, they need a block of time to focus attention on transforming their emerging market economies, building modern infrastructures, solidifying the rule of law, consolidating political reforms, and resolving severe ethnic and territorial problems. Russia and China face problems on collecting taxes, rooting out corruption, and integrating wayward territories, such as Chechnya for Russia and Xingjiang for China, where both must deal with terrorism. China must re-integrate its "renegade province" of Taiwan. The problem of structural unemployment must be handled. In short, domestic affairs trump foreign affairs.

China and Russia know that an overwhelmingly powerful and assertive United States under George W. Bush can make big trouble for them. The United States can restrict access to its huge market, give aid and comfort to dissidents and Taiwanese, halt cooperative programs in educational exchanges, nonproliferation, and dismantling weapons, pull back in foreign direct investments, and proceed with an enlarged, threatening ballistic missile defense program. Perhaps the greatest potential threat from Washington consists of blocking Russian and Chinese participation in international organizations. Putin has decided to integrate with Europe, and that means maintaining good relations with NATO and the EU. He seeks WTO membership, something China recently attained and in which it seeks to play a positive and rewarding role. Washington, if angered, could severely restrict their access to "the international community."

In addition, China and Russia really have no pressing motive to challenge U.S. leadership. Their officials believe that as long as they do not make trouble for Washington, Washington will not make trouble for them. The Bush administration has backed off on human rights complaints, the war in Chechnya, the status of Tibet and supporting Taiwan. There is substantial cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts and in nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Most recently, all three governments are working cooperatively to end North Korea's nuclear program.

Strangely, some sources in China and Russia use the same time frame and suggest that it might take 20 years to make their countries strong enough to assert themselves in international affairs. In the meantime, they have downplayed their disapproval of American policies that would have sent them ballistic during the Cold War. Russia fumes over the failure to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment (a humiliating immigration test for favorable trade); tolerates U.S. troops in Georgia and in Central Asia; keeps quiet about NATO expansion; and remains suspicious about U.S. missile defense. China, when probed, expresses strong feelings that the United States is encouraging Taiwan's independence by selling Taipei advanced weaponry. Both China and Russia see major problems for themselves if Bush attacks Iraq, such as lost oil concessions and debt repayments, dislocated trade and the likelihood of a wider war involving Israel.

But, as one Chinese official told me, "we must make the U.S. happy."

It is crucial that the Bush administration understand that it is not friendship or the emergence of complementary long-term interests that motivate China and Russia. Quite the contrary, their policies are relatively short-term. China and Russia are gearing up, if not to challenge the United States, then to be in a position to advance their interests without severe constraints. Taking Moscow's and Beijing's support for granted would be a monumental mistake. Doing so could launch Bush on a foreign policy adventure, such as a non-UN-authorized preventive attack on Iraq, on the assumption that both countries would acquiesce and not take advantage of the situation by moving into profitable relations with an anti-American Arab and Islamic world. There are limits on Russian and Chinese quiescence.

On the positive side, the current posture of China and Russia creates a golden opportunity for Bush to make their relatively short-term policies decidedly long-term. He can consciously do more than just "consult" with Beijing and Moscow -- both countries see consultation as little more than Bush telling them what he is going to do. Bush can manifestly seek out their fundamental national interests and facilitate them. In this way, when China and Russia get their acts together and become strong, Washington will not have to face two hostile powers.

Nicholas Berry, director of ForeignPolicyForum.com in Washington, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.