VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Pronouncements on world affairs by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, always attract attention. This is especially the case with Russia. Somewhat paradoxically, even though he is sometimes denounced as “Russophobic,” Brzezinski remains one of the most popular geopolitical thinkers among Russians; his books, especially The Grand Chessboard, are bestsellers and are taught at universities.
Russophobic or not, Brzezinski has never been particularly fond of the Soviet Union or Russia and was known as a leading proponent of tough, containment-style policies toward Moscow. Thus, it is all the more remarkable that his recent comments, especially his op-ed in The WorldPost, appear to recognize that Russia should play a crucial role in managing the world. He argues that Russia, along with the United States and China, must collaborate for the sake of global peace and stability. In essence, he argues for a triumvirate of the three most powerful geopolitical players to deal with rising global insecurity.
Of course, such a triumvirate can only be possible if “the three principal shareholders of global power” are able to prioritize cooperation above rivalry. As Brzezinski himself acknowledges, we are very far from this happy state of affairs. Especially worrying to him is the growing rift between the U.S. and the emerging Sino-Russian axis. He warns, correctly, that a Russia-China strategic alliance is possible and would be very dangerous for America. However, his preferred way to prevent a Russia-China alliance is less than convincing. Brzezinski is advancing a theory that China poses a grave geopolitical threat to Russia. The not-so-subtle implication is that Moscow cannot trust Beijing and, instead, should rely on the West for its long-term security.
Western assertions of a Chinese demographic threat to Russia’s borders are seen as an attempt to pit Moscow against Beijing.
Brzezinski repeats the well-worn notion that Beijing has nefarious designs in Russia’s Far Eastern territories. It is an open secret that many in China consider the 19th-century border treaties with Russia unfair and unequal. But that doesn’t mean that China is likely to claim back these territories. In fact, that’s just about as likely as it is that Mexico would attempt to retake Texas and other areas that the U.S. forced it to cede.
Brzezinski also claims that Russia’s eastern provinces are “being overwhelmed by a steady influx” of Chinese. As someone who lives in the Far East, I can say this is far from reality. According to research I and my colleagues have done, there are no more than around 40,000 Chinese settled in the vast region, from Chita and Vladivostok to the Chukotka Peninsula, and this number has not increased in recent years. The only influx we have seen so far is that of Chinese tourists who are flocking across the border in growing numbers for shopping and entertainment. There is, of course, a possibility that China will geo-economically overtake the Russian Far East and turn the region into a neocolonial periphery. However, Japan is still far ahead of China in terms of foreign direct investment stock in eastern Russia.
Brzezinski’s reference to China’s expansion into Central Asia at the expense of Russia is another common thread in the Western narrative on Sino-Russian relations. In fact, Russia and China seem to have found a modus vivendi, with Moscow retaining primacy in political and security affairs of the region while recognizing China’s role as the main investor in economic development. Ultimately, the best guarantee against China overtaking the region may be the ethnic nationalisms in Central Asian republics where anti-Han sentiments are much more active than anti-Russian feelings.
Moscow does see China as a hypothetical risk. However, this is a risk that may or may not materialize in the long run, rather than a clear and present danger. Repeated Western assertions of a Chinese demographic threat to Russia’s borders are seen as an attempt to pit Moscow against Beijing. As Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired general who at the time was head of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, put it at a workshop at Far Eastern Federal University a couple of years ago:
China’s main rival is the U.S., not Russia. For the next 30-40 years, Russia is unlikely to face any threat from China. Beijing is doing its best to avoid whatever might cause Russia’s irritation and negative reaction. The Western countries are keen to set Russia and China against each other. They keep forcing on us this ‘China threat’ notion. We are not buying it.
Moscow views NATO and radical Islam from the Middle East as its preeminent security challenges ― not China. At the same time, military planners in Beijing are not worried about Russia’s nuclear buildup, understanding full well that it is not aimed at China.
While highlighting the China challenge to Russia, Brzezinski is conspicuously silent on Chinese ambitions toward Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea. They ― not the Russian Far East and Central Asia ― constitute the immediate targets for a rising China, creating a real risk of a big conflagration in the Western Pacific, in which the U.S. is likely to be directly involved while Russia will be a distant observer.
The West 'keeps forcing on us this ‘China threat’ notion. We are not buying it.'
Given the increasingly fraught nature of Sino-American relations, it is puzzling that Brzezinski didn’t say anything about U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who has already complicated U.S.-China-Russia relations. Under Trump, this triangular constellation may be significantly reconfigured. Given Trump’s obvious hostility to China and his friendliness to Russia, Moscow may move into the apex spot of the triangle, having better relations with Beijing and Washington than they have with each other.
This will be a third major reshaping in the history of this great power triangle. When the triangular configuration first came into being in the 1970s, thanks in no small part to Brzezinski’s own efforts, it was Washington that enjoyed the privileged position at its apex. After the Cold War, it was mostly Beijing that had closer ties with Moscow and Washington than they had with each other. Now it may be Russia’s turn.
It would be interesting to see whether and how Russian President Vladimir Putin might try to take advantage of this new constellation. Would he position himself as a sort of mediator between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping? For balance of power reasons, the Kremlin would love some degree of tension simmering between China and the U.S., but it is definitely not interested in a major clash between the two economic superpowers as that would have the potential to sink the world’s economy and Russia’s with it.
Under Trump, Moscow may have better relations with Beijing and Washington than they have with each other.
In the early 1970s, Brzezinski was one of the key architects of trilateralism ― the concept that singled out North America, Western Europe and Japan as the three main pillars of the developed world and called on them to closely cooperate in managing global affairs. This trilateral arrangement has worked for four decades but seems to have run its course. Now Brzezinski is proposing a new breed of trilateralism that acknowledges the erosion of the Western-led international order and promises to recognize the two non-Western powers, China and Russia, as key stakeholders in global security governance along with the U.S.
However, some aspects of Brzezinski’s vision raise important questions. Is the U.S. really prepared for true trilateralism that would basically mean abdicating American hegemony? Is it not an attempt at divide and rule, a policy to preclude a Russo-Chinese rapprochement by sowing discord and distrust between Beijing and Moscow? These questions need to be answered before Brzezinski’s vision can be accepted in Russia and China.