RD Interview: Russia Direct sat down with Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, to understand whether the Moscow-Beijing partnership presents a challenge for American foreign policy makers, as well as how it might impact the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) seen here at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing at a reception to mark the 70the anniversary of the Chinese people's victory in the war against Japan and the end of WWII. Photo: RIA Novosti

The debate over the U.S.-China-Russia triangle and its impact on the world order is commonplace among foreign policy experts in the United States. And this discussion of Russia’s growing relationship with China has only been fueled by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China in early September to attend the military parade dedicated to the 70th anniversary of World War II

However, the warnings about a stronger Russia-China relationship came from Western foreign policy experts even before Putin’s visit to China. Foreign Affairs assessed the risks of a Sino-Russian alliance for the United States, while The National Interest was more outspoken. “America's Worst Nightmare: Russia and China Are Getting Closer,” reads the headline of one of its recent articles. In 2014, The Economist called Moscow and Beijing “best frenemies.”  

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Amidst the ongoing debates on the impact of the Russia-China relationship and the recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Beijing, Russia Direct sat down with the head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Fyodor Lukyanov, to understand if Washington should perceive the Moscow-Beijing rapprochement as a threat to American national interests.        

Russia Direct: There are a lot views that the Russia-China alliance might pose a threat to the U.S. and is going to be a nightmare for Washington. Is that really the case?

Fyodor Lukyanov: The notion of an alliance as it is normally understood is simply not applicable to the relations between Russia and China. There is no goal and no interest on either the Chinese or Russian side to get involved into binding alliances, especially ones with military commitments, for one simple reason: Russia and China are two countries which view freedom of action and full sovereignty of behavior as the most important value in foreign policy.

And even for friendly countries, as Russia and China are to each other, they are not ready to limit or restrict their actions by self-imposed binding agreements. To put it briefly, neither Russia nor China are interested in a relationship which may be called an alliance. This, of course, doesn’t exclude a very intimate and very close political, economic and cultural relationship and a certain degree of cooperation in the field of security. It is very normal for two countries that share such a long border, with views that largely coincide on international relations.

What is strange to me is the U.S. policy: We see now a new round of talks in Washington about sanctions that will be imposed on China and Russia, especially on China, for cybercrimes, or for what they believe are hostile activities from the Chinese side. In the Russian case, we see new sanctions all the time.

The core of strategic behavior for any country is not to push your hypothetical opponents towards each other by putting pressure on both of them. This is what the biggest minds in U.S. foreign policy like Mr. Kissinger or President Nixon understood very well, when they tried to separate China from the Soviet Union 40-45 years ago.

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And they understood that was a very important precondition for successful U.S. policy. What the American administration today does is exactly the opposite: They push Russia and China together [although there is] no willingness [from Russia and China] to form an alliance; however, the U.S. policy seems to be at least provoking them to be closer to each other.

I don’t think it is a very wise policy on the U.S. side. And it will not generate a Russian-Chinese alliance, but it will strengthen the political will to work closer between those two countries.

RD: But Russia and China are usually described as “best frenemies.” To what extent could their differences hamper their cooperation and political will?

F.L.: The problem in China-Russia relations is obvious: They are very asymmetric, but they are asymmetric in very different ways. In certain areas China dominates. Of course, economically China is much stronger than Russia. Meanwhile, politically in terms of experience with “big diplomacy,” Russia has a lot of advantages that China doesn’t have.

The nature of Russian-Chinese relations remains to be seen. I don’t believe we have any chance of increasing hostility, so that relations would become worse or even unfriendly. But limits of cooperation are there. We don’t know where we are. But what we can read in the Western press is to me an attempt to influence this trend rather than a description of the real situation.      

RD: Although it is too early to tell about the results of the U.S. presidential campaign, there could be some trends that are gaining ground among U.S. presidential candidates in their approaches to China and Russia. In this regard, what are the possible impacts of the U.S. presidential elections on Washington’s relations with Moscow and Beijing?

F.L.:  The election campaign in the United States is not the best time to judge what kind policy will be conducted because during the election campaign candidates have completely different tasks: they need to engage with people, they need to electrify the audience and they need to address the most vital and most popular topics.

Usually, after the campaign, when the contender becomes president, he or she needs to re-evaluate election rhetoric toward a more moderate and more balanced position.

So, we don’t have enough of a basis to analyze future policies [with respect to Russia and China] of any potential candidates. But, in general, looking at trends in U.S. political development, I don’t think that we can expect much in the way of positive changes vis-à-vis Russia and China. The next administration can correct some of the dimensions of the current approach, but not change the overall line.