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Tuesday, 02 February 2016 10:09
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The geopolitical US - China – Russia “troika” in the 21st century

(LLCT) - A troika is the image that can well describe the relationship between the three biggest powers: the United States, China and Russia in the contemporary world, with each being a leg, depending on as well as competing against each other. This troika relationship exerts certain impacts and influences on the life of many regions and the whole world, mostly developing countries, and especially Vietnam. As such, it is imperative for developing countries, including Vietnam to study this “troika” carefully as well as identify its impacts so as to work out appropriate policies.

1. The history of formation of this “troika”

This troika was formed quite long ago but only became very evident in the 21st century and its “legs” have been walking through changes and moves in new status and context. After World War II, these three powers were both rivals and partners. The US opposed both Russia and China, especially Russia, because at that time China was facing too many difficulties to become a sufficient counterbalance against the other two.

After the collapse of socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, among the three, the US gained the best advantage in the last decades of the 20th century. At the beginning of the 21st century, China and Russia gradually recovered their roles in international affairs. The balance of power among the three has changed a little bit, but all of them adopted the safe strategies that can ensure their interests while restrain them from harming the other rivals.

Embarking on the second decade of the 21st century, Russia, the US and China formed a quite visible “ally”. This relationship is actually “friends outside and enemies inside”, and will change occasionally with a different collation of different couples in different situations. Recently, “the two against one” disposition has tended to come back as it did in the Cold War. China and Russia used to shake hands to fight against the US imperialism, but now China shook hands with Russia against the US in a new context. Clear evidences of this are the Ukraine incidents and the disputes over the East Sea territories. China turns a blind eye on the Russia’s merger of Crimea, and to retaliate, Russia turns a deaf ear to China’s increasingly aggressive actions on the East Sea; this has caused the US to simultaneously fight on both the Asia and Europe fronts and to work out a sound strategy towards both of its rivals.

After the Cold War, the US implemented many measures to consolidate its hegemonic position. It has been implementing urgently many policies and strategies: expanding NATO to the East by which kicking Russia out of the category of first-class countries; wage airstrikes against Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003); campaigning for turning the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in order to launch the world economy onto a new “playground”; deploying the strategy of “intervention and expansion” and the strategy of “pivot and rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific with the view to fight off the powerfully flaring-up challenges from China.

In 2010, US President B. Obama announced his country’s national security strategy which stipulates that: “What happens within the US border will determine the American strength and influence outside the U.S. border”(1). In April 2014, the US President paid an official visit to four Asian countries including Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, declaring the strategy of “pivot and rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific. This policy concerns not only with the issue of redeploying American security forces in the Asia Pacific but also with other political, economic and commercial issues, including negotiations towards the agreement on Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The US should keep close control of the entire Europe and Asia continents against its two potential competitors, Russia and China. President B. Obama once declared that America would no longer play the role of an international gendarme, but so far his country has shown no indication of total withdrawal from the commitments of the coalition formed in the Cold War but has only rearranged its global strategic priorities. It still intervenes in the Middle East, North Africa, Ukraine and remains committed to protecting its allies Japan, the Philippines in the maritime disputes, etc.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, China clearly saw its opportunities for development. The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012 affirmed that: Given the world current situations and domestic situations, China is now still enjoying the period of “important strategic opportunity” with lots of space for development. China has quickly become the 2nd biggest power and can overtake the US in the next few decades. China’s ambition is not to maintain the current world order, but to “re-draw” a new world map to its advantage. Many of its initiatives for consolidating the BRICS country alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are seen as its efforts to compete with the international institutions of the West and the US. China’s goal is to realize its “Chinese Dream”, where it should become the centre of the world, or otherwise at least be one of two or three most important “focal point” of the world. The policy China pursues is profit-focused; however, it indicates a long-term vision. Chinese leaders try to avoid a war with the US, and in the 21st century, they will resign themselves to standing on an equal footing with the US in order to have more time to prepare themselves for rising to the first position later. China is now focusing on making use of its historical, cultural, and economic strengths and take avail of opportunities to become a world power, expand hegemonism, and dominate over other countries by all possible means, including the use of force. All its actions demonstrate well its intention of “creating the own rules” and not following the rules laid out by other countries(2), including international law. China is now implementing the strategy to expand its political influence, especially on the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia, and deliberately “rewriting some international rules” to its own advantage. Regarding the East Sea issue, China now demonstrates its apparent ambition of a big country by claiming its sovereignty over 80% of the sea, and refuses to obey the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), even as a signatory to it. China has boosted up its relationship and military cooperation with many countries in different continents. It has consolidated partnerships and expanded strategic cooperation with Russia, strengthened its comprehensive strategic partnership with Pakistan and maintained a good relationship with ASEAN, speeded up military relationship with 52 African countries and military cooperation with Latin American countries; by 2014 China has established military cooperation with 18 countries, especially with Argentina and Venezuela(3).

Russia has many advantages that can help reassert its position and influence in the world life and to create a relative balance between big countries who are striving for peace, stability and firmly safeguarding security and economic development. Russia is the key supplier of oil and natural gas to Europe, China, Japan, and South Korea, and it uses this resource as the “strategic card” when necessary. It has established, consolidated and strengthened its alliances; it sees CIS countries especially Kazakhstan and Belarus as its “vital” partners; it has enhanced the strengthening of the Collective Security Treaty (ODKB); promoted cooperation and military dialogue with countries, especially long-established friendship; strengthened the strategic cooperation partnership with China; promoted in-depth relationship with India; maintained its close relations with Syria, Iran; and it determines Vietnam as the “especially important” partnership(4).

2. The recent moves and the policy of big powers towards Vietnam

In the “troika”, each country faces not small challenges and difficulties: the US is not the sole superpower anymore; China has become the world’s second largest economy and is increasingly showing unilateral actions to trigger tensions in the region. In the meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific becomes a region of dynamic development and driving force for economic development in the world in the 21st century. China tries to avoid a war with the US; it has strengthened its forces for protecting the roundabout oil transport route from the Middle East to the South and Southeast Asia to prevent itself from being the target of attack of extremist Islamists once Chinese people are now prevailing there and established a security “buffer zone” around the Chinese borders. But China’s recent aggressive actions in the East Sea by chance have paved the way for the US to accelerate its process of shifting its strategic focus to the Pacific and to strengthen its relationship with longstanding allies such as India, the Philippines, Australia, Japan and Korea. No country (including the US) wants to enter into any alliance against China, but the sole cooperation among big countries is strong enough to exert a significant pressure on Beijing.

Russia is also facing major challenge: an aging and shirking population and slow rate of economic recovery due to corruption, an inferior industry except in energy and weapons compared to that of other world countries, etc. At present, China, Russia and the US nurture their ambition of expanding their influence all over the world. The competition among them is becoming more severe and happening on different levels and steps. They compete not only on earth, but also in space thanks to achievements of the current scientific and technological revolution. Recently, Russia and the US have made many achievements in conquering the space, while China has also proved itself as no inferior. In September 2007, as part of its efforts to realize its ambition of exploring the moon, China has amazed the whole world with its great strides by launching Chang’e 1 satellite into space. If it continues this pace of investment in space exploration, then it’s highly likely that China will reach the goal even faster than the US and Russia.

The US has always kept itself alert of China’s rapid developments in space, but it now decides to suspend its space research cooperation with Russia and turns to a comprehensive cooperation with China. The secret mission of NASA Deputy Director to Beijing is a proof of this. US’s plan is to cooperate with China so that the latter will help launch its astronauts into space when it has suspended its spacecraft programs. As for China, this is a good opportunity to make use of and benefit from American modern techniques. Currently both the US and China are ambitious to build their bases on the moon for conducting scientific research and exploiting rare and valuable materials and for a springboard to make future trips to Mars.

Recently, their own interests have brought Russia and China together. They seem to take same view and have been cooperating quite well in mutual military and economic cooperation. However, underlying are some complex issues related to defence technology, especially with regard to Chinese migration to and encroachment in the eastern border of Russia. The two countries are not allies, and commit to no alliance treaty between themselves. They are only comprehensive strategic partners who are not bound by the obligations of any treaty. There is a quite fragile boundary as being ally or opponent between Russia and China.

The current Ukraine crisis has pushed Russia and the US into the most serious state of opposition since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Along with it is the rise of China, a potential rival of the US but not entirely an ally of Russia, making “the US - China - Russia troika” become more evident. In the now state of affairs in the world, China has become an entity whom both the US and Russia want to struggle for and win over to its side.

For Russia, to try to win China’s “heart” is both strategically and tactically important to help it enhance its strength against the US in the context of the Russia - US balance of power not in its favour. In addition, Russia also pushed up military cooperation and increased sale of oil and gas at cheap price to China. This is a mutual beneficiary step, because after the EU closed its market for oil and gas exported from Russia, Russia can find China as the replacement, while China counts on Russia’s cheap source of energy for its economic development. Russia is pushing up its policy of winning over China to its side in the struggle against the US.

Of course, the US can not sit still seeing Russia trying all the way to divide between China and itself and to gang up with China. When attending the nuclear security Summit in the Hague (March 2014), so busy as he was in negotiating with European partners on the status of Ukraine, US President B. Obama tried to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The US is not only boosting its relationship with China at the Head-of-State level, but also at ministerial level by sending its Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for a visit to a number of Asian countries, including China, to promote “a new type of military relationship” with Beijing. The US calculates that when the US - China relationship becomes warmed up again after a long spell of cold from 2010, China will be placed into the position to mind its steps more carefully with Russia, especially when the strategic benefits from the China - US relationship far exceed those from the China - Russia relationship. This means China will not trade off the less profitable relationship for the more profitable one or the US has been somewhat successful to divide between Russia and China. This is the most important thing for the US to enforce its economic penalties on Russia when it is not feasible for launching a military strike against it.

The move of both the US and Russia in winning China over to its side shows a very high level of interdependence between this “troika”. China understands well that by further expanding its cooperation with Russia it may challenge the US’s world dominating position as well as disperse the US’s resources for implementing its strategy of “pivoting to the Asia-Pacific (which analysts think that this strategy aims to contain China). Besides, China also can not side with Russia because doing so it will sacrifice the “new paradigm of big-country relations” with the US.

How will Vietnam react to the impact and influence of the “troika”? Vietnam has always been in a good relationship with Russia. Now if it shakes hands with Russia as the long-time as well as new strategic partner and use this friendship as the counterbalance against China and America, it will be subject to the oppositions from China and the US. Historically, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries have remained neutral in the struggle for power of these big countries. But this has changed now that the situation in this region has become tense as China does not accept the status quo and take repeated actions of trespassing the East Sea.

China, the US and Vietnam are all concerned about peace and stability in the East Sea and Asia at large. The US and China both want to drag Vietnam to their side, but they are temporarily satisfied with the status quo. China wants Vietnam to be stable but not too strong, nor should it be the “backyard” of any country and Vietnam should depend on China. The US wants to make Vietnam become its ally who helps it maintain its leadership role in Southeast Asia and Asia while doesn’t want to assume the responsibility of protecting and supporting Vietnam, especially in the context of their differences in political regimes and national values.

Obviously, Vietnam should escape from this “dilemma” by transforming itself. Vietnam should try best not to become a victim and be more proactive in its alliance. This is not only the task of the Government but of each citizen to ensure Vietnam is a small but not weak country.


Assoc. Prof., Dr. THAI VAN LONG

Institute of International Relations,

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics     

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