After Donald Trump assumed office on the 20th of January, 2017, the three most dominant geopolitical powers, namely China, Russia and the US, are now all led by a strongman of clear characters. This has been particularly rare since the concluding years of the Cold War, and thus the interaction between the three powers – or rather, the three presidents – would be of great interest for international observers. And indeed, it turns out that this diplomatic saga has been as dramatic as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese historical novel about the interplay between three major powers.
Before his formal inauguration, Trump broke tradition by taking the call from the Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, which was widely regarded as a sharp deviation from the US-China diplomatic norms and an intolerable offence from Xi Jinping’s point of view. Trump claimed afterwards that Taiwan’s undetermined political status should be used as a bargaining chip to force the Chinese into making concessions in US-China bilateral trade. This was yet another insult to Beijing, as it has regarded its stance on Taiwan as non-negotiable. Although the US-China relations have never been purely friendly since 1990s, this degree of sharp confrontation was almost unprecedented within the same time frame. And many observers anticipated that tensions would continue to grow between the two major great powers, even if the phone call between Trump and Xi in early February somewhat eased the worry.
Then came the surprising turning point on the 6th of April, when Trump and Xi had their first face-to-face contact. Contrary to the pessimistic predictions from the media around the world, the two strong men – both physically and mentally – had a “tremendous” conversation, according to Trump’s Twitter post. This was obviously a relief for many: Trump once had a particularly grumpy talk with Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian Prime Minister; it was not unreasonable to anticipate a déjà vu, as China was, after all, one major target of Trump’s hostile rhetoric. In the following weeks, as events unfolded, it seemed that Trump and Xi reached an agreement on various important issues, including the value of the Chinese Yuan and the North Korean nuclear programme. Furthermore, in the latest UN Security Council vote on Syria, despite its long-standing alignment with Russia in vetoing any resolution that was harsh on Bashar al-Assad, China stayed abstinent. These acts all suggested a détente between Trump and Xi that is somewhat comparable to that between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev at the height of the Cold War.
While the anticipated US-China confrontation evolved effectively into a détente, the widely-expected US-Russia détente turned sour at the same time. Long before his victory in the general election, Trump had been regarded as a man with significant Russophilic tendencies. He publicly expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin and his desire to forge a US-Russia partnership (principally on counter-terrorism) at least several times during his presidential campaign, and formed a cabinet that included a number of key figures with strong Russian connections, notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and (former) National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
But as the pressure from the Democrats and the Republican establishment intensified and finally culminated when Flynn was forced to resign, Trump took a U-turn on his Russian policy. Instead of working to build a stronger US-Russia bond, he accused Obama for the latter’s “soft” reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. To make matters worse, during the banquet with Xi, the US military launched a cruise missile strike on the airfields under the joint control of Assad’s forces and the Russian Air Force. Reciprocally, Putin also stopped any public praise for this supposedly “new” US President. Essentially, Russia now stands where China was in Trump’s diplomatic spectrum, while China gained a significant promotion in rating.
There may be a number of reasons behind this diplomatic reversal. The internal political saga obviously played a role, as the US political establishment fears Russia more than China. For the seasoned politicians in Washington, although China is a geopolitical competitor with greater potential, the economic connection between the two countries has grown so strong that an all-out US-China confrontation will severely damage the players on both sides of the Pacific; Russia, on the other hand, tends to pose a direct military threat. New to the political field, Trump, already discredited by the Russian puppet suspicion, could not afford to aggravate the old-school Republicans in the Capitol any more.
Another reason may be the transition of the US into an oil-exporting country. While frictions exist between the US and China in trade, there is no significant overlap between the two countries in terms of their major exporting products, which has been frequently ignored by the trade-specific Sinophobic characters including Peter Navarro. The trade imbalance is partly due to the US embargo on technologically-sensitive exports to China, and will be further mitigated as the US begins to export more oil to China. By contrast, almost all of Russia’s main exports are now simultaneously US’ main exports, and Russia could not provide the US with an exporting market of decent capacity. If Trump needed help to build a “Great-Again” America, his partner would more likely be Xi, instead of Putin.
There might be, however, a further explanation for this shift. As a freshman in international politics, Trump is yet to form a coherent diplomatic strategy of his own character. He might have had some agenda before he took charge, but these may change as he becomes more and more familiar with this stage. A swing of his favour between Xi and Putin is, therefore, obviously reasonable. We may even further contend that the US political sphere as a whole has yet to form a clear strategy regarding this China-Russia-US triangle in this rapidly changing era. Unlike the Cold War game where Washington had a clear, ideologically-defined archenemy in Moscow, now neither of its counterparts can be clearly defined as a friend or a foe. It is thus understandable that the White House and the Congress may continue to swing in their approaches to China and Russia, before an explicit conflict of core interests emerges between US and either one of the other two great powers.
On the other hand, both Xi and Putin are well aware of their respective positions. Both of them, ironically, hope to impose an impression on the US leadership that the third player, instead of themselves, is the real enemy of Washington, so that they could remain relatively neutral and enjoy a favourable bargaining position in this triangular relationship. Simultaneously, both of them hope to maintain a close tie with each other as an insurance policy against a hostile US government. This has been true even before Trump’s presidency. During the concluding years of Obama’s term, as the American pressure grew, Xi and Putin maintained a friendly relationship to secure their rear. But neither of them was fully committed to an alliance: China abstained in the Crimea vote (although this was partly related to the Taiwan issue), and Russia did not actively support Beijing’s position on the South China Sea dispute.
None of the bilateral relations in the China-Russia-US triangle could be regarded as “long-term friendship”. So for any of the three players, it is important to ensure that the weakest edge is not in his own hand. This dynamic relationship will be a particularly crucial challenge for Trump, Xi and Putin, and we have yet to see who, with his superior manoeuvre, will become the ultimate winner of this game.