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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Chance To Replay the China Card

The United States and Japan are locked in the opening skirmishes of a trade war. President Clinton's threat of $6 billion in punitive tariffs against Japanese car exports risks retaliation against U.S. food exports and the kind of mutual escalation which used to be nightmare of the nuclear age.

But wait a minute. If Japan and the United States are at loggerheads over trade, why are they suddenly coordinating their policies towards China?

China, unleashing a new crackdown on dissidents at home in advance of next month's sixth anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, is suddenly facing foreign setbacks on two fronts. On the same day this week, Japan announced cuts in aid to protest China's nuclear test, and President Clinton reversed a 16-year policy of barring Taiwanese officials from visits to the United States.

These two largely symbolic warning shots, coming amid China's internal power struggle for the succession to Deng Xiaoping, reflect mounting international nervousness at China's military rearmament, its sabre-rattling in the South China sea, and the Beijing regime's renewed domestic repression.

China was appalled by the news that Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui is to be granted a U.S. visa. A leading figure in Taiwan's democratization process, which will see free elections this year, Lee is to attend a reunion of his Cornell college classmates in New York next month.

Japan, announcing that it was "shocked" by last week's nuclear test by China just hours after the international agreement was signed to extend the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, said its $92 million in aid to China would be trimmed. The effect is more symbolic than punitive. Japan's far greater program of soft loans to China, which have totalled over $18 billion since 1979, with another $7 billion on the point of being granted, will not be affected.

The U.S. decision to grant a visa to Lee is also symbolic, and of far less practical effect that former President George Bush's decision in 1992 to sell advanced F-16 fighters to Taiwan.

The conclusion seems to be that geopolitical life is getting back to normal. Remember the way that former president Richard Nixon decided to "play the China card" in 1971, starting diplomatic negotiations with Beijing as part of a strategy to lever the Soviet Union into an era of detente.

That was the era of the Sino-Soviet split, which gave Nixon the opportunity to play off the other two members of the triangle against each other. The triangle this time is not Moscow-Beijing-Washington, but Washington-Tokyo-Beijing.

Which leaves the intriguing question of the role of Moscow. Sino-Russian relations are very affable. Trade is booming and China is becoming Russia's biggest arms market. By contrast, Russian relations with Japan are cool and much less warm than they were with the Clinton administration.

So could we be seeing a new rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing? They have a lot in common: two countries still struggling with the grim legacy of centralized planning and communist rule. Russia and China are both wrecked by corruption and by rumblings for regional autonomy. And Russia and China are each entitled to some resentment at the grudging behavior of rich countries like the United States and Japan.

That is the point about geopolitics. The United States and Japan have a strategy to contain China. But strategy invites counterstrategy, and Russia might soon be able to play its own China card.