By Dr Subhash Kapila*
Strategic dilemmas face Russia in 2017 in terms of recalibrating its foreign policies with United States and China in response to new US President’s policy shifts recently indicated.
US President-elect Trump has minced no words in enunciating likely hard line policies against China and the United States desire to recast existing American policies for more cooperative relations with Russia.
What is at stake for Russia in 2017 is whether it would like to regain its strategic equivalence with the United States in an engagement mode or continue with its existing tag of being the junior partner in the Russia-China Strategic Nexus viewed as confrontationist to the United States and also not viewed favourably by the existing Major Powers nor by Emerging Powers like India and Japan?
Foreign policies do not take long to change but basing precisely on incoming US President Trump’s assertions so far, it seems that the United States after January 20 2017 can be expected to launch foreign policy initiatives of ‘constructive engagement’ with Russia and a comparatively forceful ‘competitive stances’ towards China both strategically and economically.
In terms of Russia-United States new foreign policy approaches enough commentaries exist that suggest that President Trump is inclined to tilt favourably towards Russia, so much so that he has been dismissive of charges in US media that Russia hacked the presidential elections. In response to outgoing US President Obama expelling 35 Russian from USA on hacking charges, the Russian President stopped his Foreign Ministry from retaliatory expelling of US diplomats from Moscow.
So at this stage there is a matching complementarity between the US President and the Russian President in moving towards policies of mutual constructive engagement. It seems likely that the Russian President’s positive approaches towards a new United States outreach would be independent of concerns for Chinese sensitivities.
In terms of US-China relations after January 20 2017, President-elect Trump has in the run-up castigated China as a currency manipulator against US trade interests, causing strategic and military turbulence in the South China Sea and to top it all questioned United States established policy of sticking to the ‘One China Policy’ vociferously demanded by China from all nations wanting to have diplomatic relations with China.
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No American President has ever questioned the ‘One China’ precept so far. Some argue that it is only a bargaining tool against China. Whatever it may be but the fact that it has been publicly articulated unprecedently by an incoming US President and has raised China’s hackles and world capitals are painstakingly deciphering its impact on the Asia Pacific security environment.
Ten days before President Trump’s inauguration, the foreign policy landscape augurs well for Russia-United States relations and a possible down-slide of US-China relations. Chinese official organs commentaries have indulged in stinging name-calling of President Trump, which cannot be counted as a good sign of traditional Chinese patience when faced with complexities.
With the above contextual background one can now refocus on the main theme under discussion and that is what directions Russia will adopt and how will it recast Russian foreign policies in 2017 to meet the contradictory pulls of a very much desirable constructive engagement with a United States willing to reach-out to Russia and retaining the decade and a half old Russia-China Strategic Nexus, which in essence was intended to be a counterfoil to United States predominance?
Logically, for Russia, a cooperative engagement relationship with United States would be globally welcomed as contributively to global stability and security. It would be a return to a more predictable global security and stability template as existent during the latter half of the Cold War.
Repeatedly emphasised in my past writings is the fact that while a US-Russia G2 combination for global security management would be welcome in world capitals a US-China G2 combination is not welcome.
Russia persisting with its cosy Russia-China Strategic Nexus has not witnessed any tangible strategic gains for Russia; only economic gains have followed. But the real danger for Russia would be as to how can it detach itself from the US-China Cold War already underway and which could intensify with President Trump dispensing with traditional ‘strategic restraint’ of hithertofore.
Would it be desirable for Russia now at this stage to respond unreservedly to a new American political reach-out while changing the nuances of its proximity to China to be one of economic preponderance relationship? Would Russia opt for restoring its relationship with the United States as one of established global heavyweights or would Russia persist in siding with a ‘revisionist power’ like China bent on overturning the established stability status-quo?
Complex questions which some are likely to dismiss as speculative but that is the reality which Russia’s foreign policy directions have to cope with in 2017. Hopefully, some imaginative American diplomacy could ease Russia’s predicaments in making the right foreign policy moves of loosening if not full detachment from its China linkages.
In conclusion, what can be said is that the answers to the above questions rest with the Russian President and his foreign policy establishment as they ponder the policy choices that confront Russia at the strategic crossroads in 2017. A stark foreign policy choice awaits Russia whether it wishes to be on the right side of history or against it.
*Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at [email protected]