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Will warmer ties between US and Russia leave China out in the cold?

Nomination of oil executive with close links to Vladimir Putin as US secretary of state could signal new era in relations – leaving Moscow with less incentive to compromise with Beijing, say observers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 11:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 11:00pm

Beijing is closely watching for any diplomatic fallout from warmer ties between Washington and Moscow with the nomination of oil executive Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state.

As ExxonMobil’s chief executive, Tillerson gained extensive experience in Russia and forged close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Picking someone with wide connections in Russia would help to boost economic cooperation
Shi Ze, analyst

Putin went so far as to give Tillerson a top state honour in 2013 for his work in “strengthening cooperation in the energy sector”.

If Tillerson’s appointment did mark the start of a new era in relations between the Kremlin and the White House, Moscow would have less incentive to compromise with Beijing, especially in central Asia, where both Russia and China were showing greater interest, observers said.

But analysts also said less confrontation between the world’s two biggest military powers would “bring a more stable global security environment”, which would not be bad news for China.

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Shi Ze, a specialist in Russian affairs at the China Institute of International Studies, said Tillerson “knows Russia’s top leadership well and is familiar with the country’s investment environment and policies”.

Russia’s energy sector, which has struggled under tough Western sanctions since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, could be among the first to feel any thaw, Shi said.

ExxonMobil’s operations in Russia are only a small part of its global production but it has formed a joint venture with Russian oil giant Rosneft to explore fossil fuels in the Arctic.

If now Russia’s international standing improves, it will have less incentive to continue compromising with China. And China will have less leverage in dealing with Russia
Yun Sun, academic

“Picking someone with wide connections in Russia would help to boost economic cooperation, especially when ExxonMobil has been involved in gas and oil projects in Russia,” Shi said.

But analysts also cautioned that Trump’s courtship of the Kremlin could be part of a bigger game to counterbalance the rise of China.

China and Russia have grown closer in the last few years but they are also competing for influence in Central Asia, with both nations investing in the region’s energy sector.

“The rapprochement between China and Russia in the past three years is very much based on Russia’s international isolation and the strategic pressure China faces in the western Pacific,” said Yun Sun, senior associate with the East Asia programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington.

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“If now Russia’s international standing improves, it will have less incentive to continue compromising with China. And China will have less leverage in dealing with Russia.”

Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Centre for American Studies, agreed that China risked losing influence over Russia if Moscow’s ties with Washington were less fraught.

If the economic sanctions were lifted, Russia would not have to depend on China, strategically and economically. And from Russia’s perspective, the incentive to develop its ties with China could decrease
Wu Xinbo, academic

“If the economic sanctions were lifted, Russia would not have to depend on China, strategically and economically,” Wu said. “And from Russia’s perspective, the incentive to develop its ties with China could decrease.”

Nevertheless, it is still unclear how much Tillerson’s links with Russia could help bridge the deep distrust between Washington and Moscow.

Russia and the US found common ground on nuclear weapons and Afghanistan under former US president George W Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, but divisions persisted on various fronts, including the wars in Georgia in 2008 and Syria.

“Putin will make no concession on core matters like Crimea, Ukraine and even in Syria,” Wu said. “Given the West’s deep distrust of Putin, it’s hard to say how fast relations could be reset.”

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Oh Ei Sun, an international affairs specialist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said less confrontation between Moscow and Washington could bring “fresh air” to global security, but the impact on Asia would be limited.

Shi agreed, saying the two powers had to work together on global security, counterterrorism, nuclear non-proliferation and Syria.

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen