During the presidential race, political commentators were equally dismayed and puzzled by the developing relationship between then candidate Trump and President Putin. All sorts of explanations were offered to explain the apparent goodwill, from naked business interests to an alleged sex tape. But whatever the reason, Trump complimented Putin on a regular basis, referring to Russia’s president as a “strong leader” and “smart,” and stated that he intended to have a good working relationship with Russia’s president.
China, however, would be the center of a Trump administration’s ire. Trump accused China of “raping” the United States and promised that on day one he would label China as a currency manipulator and erect steep trade barriers. During his confirmation hearing, his nomination for Secretary of State suggested denying Beijing access to their artificial islands in the South China Sea.
That was then but this is now. After 100 days of Trump, the expected rapprochement with Russia has cooled and Chinese-American relations have apparently warmed. President Trump has directed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Russia’s ally Syria, accused Russia of complicity in Syrian war crimes, has made no attempt of removing the sanctions imposed after Crimea, and has publicly stated he expects the peninsula to be returned to Ukraine.
Trump, however, has failed to label China as a currency manipulator, reneged on trade barriers, and restricted Navy patrols in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping, apparently, is even President Trump’s friend.
This u-turn is highly welcomed news for the simple fact that Russia is the troublemaker, and China, not so much.
Russia is the bigger problem for American foreign policy primarily because Russia is seeking to undermine 50 plus years of European economic integration and political liberalism. As articulated in a 2013 Center for Strategic Communications policy paper titled “Putin: The New World Leader of Conservatism,” Putin’s strategy of gaining influence in Europe is by assuming the leadership role of a transnational movement that defends and renews traditional social values, both in side Russia in Europe. This means supporting positions that are anti-immigrant, homophobic, and Eurosceptic, among other anti-liberal policies. This essentially makes Russia a proselytizing power as Putin seeks to export these policies to Europe by hacking elections, funding far right parties, and spreading fake news. The French presidential election offers ample evidence of this strategy in motion.
Compare this to China which has no designs on the political makeup of foreign states, doesn’t seek to export any particular culture to its neighbors and, despite lifting 800 million people out of poverty, doesn’t pressure others to adopt its version of state sponsored capitalism. They do hack, but not to influence election outcomes, and the fake news it produces is mainly for Chinese consumption and not to influence foreign elections.
The Chinese and Russian objectives for their respected neighborhoods are in contrast to one another. Russia’s objective is to sow political and economic uncertainty throughout their neighborhood, as a Europe divided by nationalism and economic populism is a plus for Moscow. But where Russia is deliberately stirring up tensions throughout Europe, China’s number one regional goal is stability. From their policy towards North Korea to their relationship with the United States, China’s number one goal is to avoid destabilizing the region. This is because unlike Russia, China has experienced legitimate economic gains and political consolidation over the past 30 years and would prefer not to upset this trend.
When one also considers that Putin’s Russia has also invaded two countries, committed war crimes in Syria, has sold arms to the Taliban, and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it is rather clear that Russia, and not China, should be considered the bigger problem for American. American priorities and rhetoric should reflect that.