China, Russia and Obama’s second coming


Barack Obama’s four-year second term in office as the president of the United States will be setting the tone of the final countdown on China’s emergence as a superpower. The power dynamic in Asia-Pacific becomes a crucial template in this historic process.While the US can count on Japan and Australia as time-tested allies, its cogitations with China and Russia are evolving and how they shape up will decisively impact the power dynamic in Asia-Pacific.

The customary messages of greetings and the early reactions from Beijing and Moscow give some clues as to the level of expectations in the two capitals regarding Obama’s second term. Neither capital showed any inkling in the run up to November 6 as

to what result to expect and wore an air of studied aloofness, but both scrambled to react as soon as Obama’s victory sailed into view.

China remains cautiously optimistic that friction in the relations with the US is manageable and need not necessarily degenerate into confrontations. It draws comfort that there isn’t going to be any “unknown unknown” in the overall relationship insofar as Beijing can anticipate what to expect out of Obama’s presidency.

Of course, China’s trump card is that there is great interdependency in the relations between the two countries today, and Beijing is confident that it can play a helpful role in the recovery of the US economy.

The Russian reaction, in comparison, has been somewhat cagey and conditional, rather despondent about what to expect but unsure how to get a new deal either. Meanwhile, Moscow is bracing for some turbulence in the air in the short term.

Absolutely straightforward 
Beijing felicitated Obama at the level of the president and prime minister, underscoring the closeness of the ties going beyond the call of protocol. Interestingly, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping also sent a message of congratulations to Vice-President Joe Biden. Biden had hosted Xi during the latter’s highly successful tour of the United Sates in February during which they reportedly clocked several hours of intense one-on-one conversation.

Biden later recounted that he and Xi forged a close personal relationship despite the differences between the two countries on issues of trade or foreign policy. “He has been absolutely straight forward. He is open. He is, like me, trying to understand the other man’s position. You can’t ask for much more than that… He wants to know the details. I get a clear sense he’s trying to understand what our interests are and what our concerns are” – this was Biden’s recap.

Beijing is evidently giving an early start to Xi’s elevation as the head of state in March by invoking the personal rapport that apparently developed between him and Biden.

Curiously, though, Moscow let a similar wonderful opportunity pass with the Kremlin choosing not to play the “Dmitry Medvedev card”, although the Russian prime minister too apparently enjoyed some chemistry with Obama during his term as president till May.
Thus, it was left to Medvedev to react publicly while on a visit to Vietnam and, in the event, he amply made up for the carefully worded message from President Vladimir Putin, which was restrained while cordial but shorn of any manifest enthusiasm or personal warmth. Medvedev, in comparison, was visibly effusive:

“I’m glad that the biggest and powerful state in the world will be governed by a person who doesn’t consider Russia geopolitical enemy number one. I believe that he [Obama] is a successful president… He is a predictable partner for Russia.

“I don’t conceal that much depends in our country on the US economic situation. Whether we like it or not, whether we are kind to Americans or not, any Russian family depends on how the dollar is valued… We [he and Obama] started ‘resetting’ relations. It succeeded a little… [We] managed to achieve good results. I hope that we will have normal relations with Obama. It is also important for the situation around the world.”

Moscow has apparently spoken in two voices, whether out of design or genuine discord. In fact, when a third voice appeared alongside – that of foreign minister Sergey Lavrov – it easily merged with Putin’s message.

Lavrov said something broadly akin to what Barkis once conveyed through David Copperfield to Clara Pegotty in Charles Dickens’s famous classic novel – namely, Russia is willing to move forward in ties with the US and is ready to do something, provided Washington is interested.

Putin, by the way, has invited Obama to visit Russia and a visit is entirely conceivable in June when the G-20 summit takes place in St Petersburg. Lavrov summed up: “It is natural that we will continue to work with this administration. We are ready to do our best on the basis of equality, mutual benefit and mutual respect as far as the new US administration is prepared for this.”

Equality, mutual trust and benefit 
The Chinese and Russian reactions regarding Obama’s second term in the White House bring out the two countries’ varying priorities and concerns. Moscow’s predicament is acute. Obama has opted for a selective engagement of Russia, while otherwise ignoring it and not paying heed to Russia’s interests. Beijing, on the other hand, is getting a little too much attention from Obama.

Russia seeks parity (“equality”) in terms of shouldering the heavy burden of the global strategic balance, which it sees as lying at the core of the post-cold war world order, and is unhappy that Washington no more thinks on these lines since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

China on the contrary feels self-assured that the interdependency between it and the US almost makes them joined at the hips and that the two countries have a real need to swim together.

A Xinhua commentary on Obama’s victory boasted on Wednesday, “No US president can avoid relations with China in the next four years, as bilateral trade is likely to top 500 billion US dollars this year and nearly 10,000 people travel between the two countries each day.”

While Moscow assesses that Obama’s “reset” of US-Russia ties has become all but moribund, Beijing draws satisfaction that despite the frictions emanating out of the US’ “rebalancing” in Asia, the Sino-American partnership showed “steady progress” during the past four-year period. Xinhua noted:

Through their common understanding on building a cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit, the two countries have defined each other’s role and their relationship in a clearer and more positive way. Dialogues between the two countries are smoother and more effective.

The angst in the Russian tone is missing in the Chinese estimation of the future trajectory of ties with the US. Again, there is certain realism borne out of China’s own priorities in the evolving situation. Xinhua adds,

However, disputes between the world’s largest developed and developing countries are apparent and there is always a risk of confrontation… It [China] wants to build a new type of relationship – one defined by mutual benefit and cooperation… If the United States does not change its traditionally hegemonic ways of thinking, there will be more and more conflicts as China continues to develop and protect its own interests.

China has many urgent domestic problems that need tended to… It [China] cannot bear the costs of full confrontation with the outside world. The US needs China as well, not just in terms of economic development but also in other spheres. The global financial crisis revealed how globalization has made countries so interdependent… China and the US have to work together for the sake of future world stability.”

Woods are lovely, dark and deep
Put differently, China is weighing in the woods – how dark and deep (and yet lovely) the woods could be – while Russia is instead doggedly counting the trees. Moscow is bogged down in the thought that the US House of Representatives may be about to enact the so-called Magnitsky List, which its sees as a backdoor replacement of the cold-war era Jackson-Vanick Amendment that restricted US-Russia economic ties.

In the assessment of Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for US and Canada Studies in Moscow, clouds are gathering for an imminent storm in US-Russia ties, but, “after a while, the Obama Administration may put forward a new agenda for relations with Russia”.

He thinks Obama will have to seek out Russia for cooperation on Afghanistan and on disarmament issues; and some “very serious discussions” may even take place on the vexed question of the missile defense program. But, according to Rogov, the best that can be said is that, “generally speaking, I don’t think the Obama Administration will bring the US-Russian relations to a serious crisis of any kind.” In sum, Moscow can expect more of that same old admixture of selective engagement and benign neglect out of Obama’s second term.

Both Beijing and Moscow are eagerly speculating on Obama’s choice of the next US secretary of state. Both visualize the strong likelihood of Obama’s choice narrowing down to Senator John Kerry.

Of course, Kerry will be new to China ties, while he is a familiar face to Moscow and one that may evoke ambivalent feelings (although it could be much worse if Obama’s choice turns out to be Susan Rice, who has made many an undiplomatic remark about Russian policies.) To be sure, China will lament the departure of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.