Houston Fire Department responds to reports of a fire inside the Chinese Consulate
Houston fire department responds to reports of a blaze inside the Chinese Consulate. The US demanded its closure over spying allegations © AP

When Chinese diplomats began burning documents in the backyard of their Houston consulate after the US demanded its closure over spying allegations, it echoed a scene that played out in California a few years ago.

Then, in September 2017, it had been Russian diplomats in San Francisco burning documents ahead of their eviction — also over spying allegations.

In the course of three years, China has replaced Russia as America’s greatest perceived adversary.

Although it was Russia that issued the most direct challenge to the western-dominated international order with its 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Trump administration has since focused on China as its biggest threat, from trade to technology to military affairs.

And Beijing is playing the part. Its use of threats and coercion is paired with an increasingly combative tone.

The apparent role reversal and occasional signs that the two nations are not as closely aligned as sometimes feared are feeding hopes in some quarters that the US could work with Russia to counter China.

Asked about such a strategy on Friday, Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said: “I do think there’s that opportunity.”

So far, Washington’s attempts at working with Russia are limited to arms control talks.

But Steve Biegun, deputy US secretary of state, told the Financial Times last month that he was confident the US could be more agile and find “the seam” in the relationship between Russia and China. He said that seam was held together solely by a “mutual determination to challenge the United States”.

Elbridge Colby, a former senior Pentagon official who worked on the national defence strategy, said: “Our goal should be to ensure a lot of space between China and Russia.” He added that the US should reduce irritants in the relationship with Moscow.

Last week, China used its readout from a call between Wang Yi, the foreign minister, and his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov to accuse the US of “pursuing its egoism, unilateralism and bullying policy to the extreme”. Washington, it said, had “lost its sense of reason, morality and credibility”.

In Moscow’s readout, the only mention of the US was when the foreign ministry noted crisply that “Sergei Lavrov informed his colleague about the progress of the Russia-US dialogue on arms control”.

There are other apparent fissures in a relationship that presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have repeatedly praised as the best ever. Last month, Mr Lavrov skipped China’s Belt and Road Forum and sent an ambassador-at-large instead.

Xi Jinping shakes hands with Vladimir Putin
Western sanctions have forced Russia to look east for new trade partners © Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

When Russia’s embassy in Beijing commemorated the 160th anniversary of the founding of Vladivostok this month, it triggered a backlash among Chinese internet users, who charged that Russia’s easternmost metropolis was built on formerly Chinese lands.

However, experts dismiss the idea that Washington could use Moscow against Beijing as naive. “Among these two, Russia is the country which has little interest in preserving the existing world order, while China has been the greatest beneficiary of this order and just seeks to adjust it and gain more weight in it,” said Bobo Lo from the Lowy Institute.

Mr Lo said it was part of Mr Putin’s foreign policy to “make eyes to the west every now and then and appear reasonable” compared with Beijing. “That allows him to play on the margins.”

On Friday, Maria Zakharova, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said the US was attempting “to provoke a public clash between Russia and China . . . I can assure you that they will not succeed”.

Russia’s engagement with China has grown sharply since 2014, when western sanctions forced Moscow to look east for new trade and investment partners.

But the pivot to the east predates that. Beijing’s political and economic rise forced Moscow to recalibrate its suspicious attitude to its neighbour whose desire for energy, natural resources and defence imports matched Russia’s export basket.

Since then, foreign policy goals have dovetailed, notably their shared approach to Iran, Syria and Venezuela in opposition to the US. Joint military exercises and long-range bomber flights have also deepened their defence ties.

Zhang Xin, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, said the rapid deterioration in China’s relationship with the US was pushing Russia and China to rely more on each other.

However, the two are far from an alliance in the western sense. “Both remain strategically autonomous players which share certain interests, but they have different views of the international order,” said Mr Lo.

China has come to realise that Moscow will offer support only on certain issues. “A few years ago, Chinese scholars talked about the relationship having no upper limit, but that sentiment is no longer common,” Mr Zhang said. “People are urging a cool-headed approach to the partnership.”

Eugene Rumer, a former US national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia, said that despite their entwined interests, Washington should not seek to split the duo.

In a forthcoming paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he and colleagues argue that it is “magical thinking” to imagine the US could drive a wedge between the pair’s strategic relationship.

Observers in Moscow agree.

“Politically, of course, it is good that US attention is now focused on the Chinese,” said Vasily Kashin, senior research fellow at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

“Russia foreign policy could be decoupled from the Chinese track with regards relations with the US, but right now there are two problems with that,” he said.

“First, there is no trust between Moscow and Washington and, second, Russia believes US domestic politics is too chaotic and extremist to make any dealmaking or subtle manoeuvres very likely.”

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