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U.S. Must Engage China and Russia with Equality and Respect

A little understanding of their histories and cultures probably wouldn't hurt either

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An emerging Russian-Chinese entente

The emerging entente between Beijing and Moscow is more significant and durable than is typically recognized in the West. Russia and China regularly join forces in the UN SecurityCouncil to veto actions against human rights abusers, and Vladimir Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s growing friendship - envinced by their attendance at each other’s World War II commemorations - increases the popularity of both men in both countries. They benefit not only from their images as strongmen, but from championing such principles as opposition to U.S. hegemony, and building institutions such as the BRICS Bank that offer alternatives to Western institutions.

Historical affinities: Greatness and suffering

The signs of a Eurasian entente are often dismissed by Western scholars and policymakers who emphasize the historical enmity and disparate interests between China and Russia and conclude that Sino-Russian partnership must be illusory. Such dismissals overlook cultural commonalities that draw proud Russians and Chinese closer together, particularly in the face of dismissive attitudes from Washington. Both nations are continental powers with ancient and deeply mythologized histories. Both pride themselves on "unique” national virtues, which the Chinese call their te-se("special characteristics”) and Russians identify with the Orthodox Church and the Russkiy Mir ("Russian world”). Beijing and Moscow both seek legitimacy in the claim that they defend these virtues from foreign powers that have humiliated them in the past and seek to undermine them now. Both pride themselves on resilient suffering (the ability to chi ku, or "eat bitterness” in Chinese; to endure lisheniye, "privation,” in Russian).

"Beijing and Moscow both seek legitimacy in the claim that they defend these virtues from foreign powers that have humiliated them in the past and seek to undermine them now.”

The American experience carries echoes of Chinese and Russian apprehensions that should lead Americans to grasp the emotional power of Chinese and Russian history. To appreciate Russia’s sense of vulnerability, Americans need only reflect on their own perennial fear of decline and consider that Russians lived through a real and catastrophic collapse in power and prosperity only two decades ago. To fathom China’s present anger over defeats and insults suffered during and since the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s, Americans need only think of the passions still elicited in the southern United States by discussion of the Civil War. To understand the mindset of people in a state of continual crises, real or imagined, Americans should recall their own surge of patriotism and fear and the rush to war following 9/11.

U.S. attitudes

Nonetheless, U.S. officials have often discredited Russia’s actions as widely out of step. Even at the height of the "Reset” in 2009, President Obama referred to Putin as having "one foot in the old ways.” In March 2013, Obama declared that Russia, in annexing Crimea, was "on the wrong side of history.” Speaking of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Secretary of State John Kerry said, "You just don’t in the 21st century behave in a 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” The White House, further, has stretched its depiction of Putin to cover Russia as a whole, as when Obama said in an August 2014 interview with the Economist, "President Putin represents a deep strain in Russia that is probably harmful.”

The United States has criticized China similarly. Regarding the Chinese role in the international system, President Obama said in 2014 that they "have been free riders for the last 30 years.” When China tries to build institutions or provide public goods, it is told that its standards fall short of America’s, as in Obama’s defense of the Trans-Pacific Partnership: "China wants to write the rules for commerce in Asia. If it succeeds, our competitors would be free to ignore basic environmental and labor standards, giving them an unfair advantage over American workers. We can’t let that happen. We should write the rules.” In Washington’s comparable misgivings about the China-proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which would offer an alternative to the World Bank and other established international financial institutions, China sees the same denigrating tendency.

Offense taken

Because the Chinese and Russian people are long-sensitized to America’s sense of superiority, these countries regard the slightest tincture of American contempt as an assaulton national dignity. This helps Xi and Putin mobilize domestic opposition to American values and policies. Chinese on the Internet and in public conferences responded to Obama’s "free rider” comment as if they had been attacked as a people. Many Chinese think that the remark proves Beijing’s assertion that America seeks to contain China’s rise. Putin evoked similar Russian sentiments in a 2014 address to the Federal Assembly, when he touched on the long history of the Western policy of containment: "Whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into use.”

To manage relations with this China-Russia entente, the United States must understand their motives and present U.S. policies and values with specificity and without cultural veneer:

•U.S. analysis should integrate cultural and historical factors into policymaking and should strive to understand China and Russia on their own terms, even if those terms seem offensive or wrong. To build analytic capacity, the United States should encourage more American university students to take up Russia and China studies and should invest in exchanges at all levels.

•When Washington needs to deliver tough messages to Beijing and Moscow, it should employ quiet, sustained diplomacy and focus on technical rather than civilizational issues. When international norms are violated, the United States should identify and counter specific threats and forego principled exhortations.

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