A Faraway Visit

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

A survey of Russian media over the past few days has revealed that folks in Moscow were paying little attention to Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States.  This is understandable: nothing that Hu and his U.S. counterpart, President Barack Obama, have said in public was of immediate relevance, much less concern, to Russia.  A faraway visit in a faraway country, so to speak.  And yet, a careful look at the Sino-American summit in Washington may give some insight into future developments in Russia’s relations with both China and the United States. 

Over the past couple of years, relations between China and the U.S. have been deteriorating.  In addition to traditional irritants, such as trade and currency issues and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, China stirred a lot of concerns in U.S. intelligence circles with a rapid progress in the military area.  China’s recent high-profile spats with its neighbors and U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, and Beijing’s bold claims of sovereignty over large parts of the South China Sea have further poisoned the atmosphere of the Sino-American dialogue.  

With its Chinese plate seemingly full, the Obama administration nevertheless decided to focus the summit agenda on yet another issue: China’s human rights record, a topic that, according to many administration critics, was underplayed over the past two years.  So President Hu was treated to a series of lectures, by Obama himself and then by Congressional leaders, aimed at persuading him that only expansion of civil liberties in China (and revaluation of Chinese currency, of course) can guarantee China’s future economic development.

The importance of economic ties between China and the U.S. is well recognized by both sides, and this fact alone, even without accounting for President Hu’s trade-mark poise and politeness, could have prevented the Washington summit from sliding into an ugly shouting match.  Yet, as much as China depends on exports to the U.S. and U.S. foreign investments, it needs energy to ensure its steady economic growth. 

And that is where economic relations between China, the world’s largest energy consumer, and Russia, the world’s leading exporter of oil, come to the forefront.  Last fall, Hu and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev presided over the launch of a 625-mile oil pipeline from Eastern Siberia to China.  Although accounting for only a tiny fraction of China’s total oil consumption, this pipeline has a benefit of providing a secure land delivery route – as compared to the bulk of China’s oil imports delivered by potentially vulnerable sea shipments from the Middle East.  This thought will undoubtedly cross President Hu’s mind when he discusses the next time China’s oil needs with the Russian leadership.  And he can be very sure that the subject of China’s domestic politics will not be raised in response.

The renewed emphasis on human rights by the U.S. in its relations with China provides an unexpected opening for Russia, and Moscow would be wise to take full advantage of this opportunity. 

At first glance, U.S.-Russia relations lack many complications that mar the interaction between Washington and Beijing.  Yet, as the much talked about “reset” is gradually losing its honeymoon appeal, and tough issues – such as further nuclear arms control negotiations or situation in the post-Soviet space – begin dominating the U.S.-Russia agenda, the Obama administration will likely start raising the issue of human rights in Russia – as Washington always does when it has nothing to offer to its interlocutor (or when the White House wants to mollify its domestic critics). 

What could be Moscow’s reaction to this potential development?  First, it should come up with a list of specific, positive, steps defining the “post-reset” stage in U.S.-Russia relations.  Second, Moscow should push back every time it is faced with spurious accusations of its domestic conduct.  To this end, President Medvedev, could lift a line from President Hu’s response to his American critics: “China and the United States should respect each other’s choice of development path and each other’s core interests.”

 Or Medvedev could ask his prime minister to help compose something more forceful.       

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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7 Responses to A Faraway Visit

  1. LOL. Nowadays pretty much anyone short of Kim Jong Il can easily refute hostile US lectures on human rights by paraphrasing one of Glenn Greenwald’s articles.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Anatoly,
    Do you think they read Greenwald in WH or the State? As a Russian saying goes: “Нет пророка в своем отечестве…”
    Best,
    Eugene

  3. Leo says:

    Watching local news in the US last week it felt like this was a faraway visit to a faraway county for Americans as well. Nevermind that China and the US now live in a M.A.D. mode economically, just like it was with the S.U. militarily.
    As for the subject of Eugene’s post, I would speculate that Obama’s renewed interst in human rights in China or Russia has more to do with his re-election than with sudden loss of pragmatism.
    All the best,
    Leo

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Leo,
    I agree: according to the Pew Center, only 3% of Americans watched closely Hu’s visit (as opposed to, say, 44% who closely watched the Arizona shooting).
    Well, when Obams begins re-shaping his messaging with re-election in mind, one can’t blame him for sudden loss of pragmatism. Quite the reverse. Besides, I strongly suspect that this emphasis on human rights is driven by HRC, who’s spent too much time in the dark woods of Obama’s pragmatism and who’s now again in the open space of her beloved liberal interventionalism.
    (By the way, the same Pew says that 53% Americans wanted the WH to get tough on Chona on trade issues, but only 40% are paasionate about promoting human rights there. Our leaders are out of sink with their own people yet again.)
    Thanks for your comment,
    Eugene

  5. Mark says:

    “…President Hu was treated to a series of lectures…aimed at persuading him that only expansion of civil liberties in China (and revaluation of Chinese currency, of course) can guarantee China’s future economic development.”
    I suspect U.S. government figures would like to see China’s economic development fall off just a little bit, rather than encouraging it. After all, isn’t the Chinese economy predicted to overtake America’s in, what, 2013? And while China is indeed a voracious energy consumer, it’s still well behind the USA in energy-consumed-per-citizen.
    I wonder how much of the concern is strategic, considering the USA already has a secure energy supply right next door, via pipeline, from which it gets the largest part of its foreign-supplied oil, about 2,000,000 barrels per day.
    Russia would indeed be wise to cultivate trade ties with China now, as their appetite will likely only grow in future. You never know when you might need a big friend.

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mark,
    Sorry, I wasn’t at home when you stopped by: I was visiting your site and going through the fascinating discussion on your excellent — as always — “whataboutism” piece.
    Sure, there is some recognition in the expert community that something needs/has to be done with/on China. But as it always happens in the country where the next election is always around the corner, any “strategic” concerns rapidly give way to perfectly tactical election posturing.
    That’s why, IMHO, having a lot of serious issues to discuss with Hu, Obama instead resorted to human rights lecturing: easier and more rewarding with domestic audience. And this is inspite of what the electorate wants him to do with regards to China (see my response to Leo above, the Pew part).
    Give Hu a credit: he could simply hint at China’s desire to diversify its investment — just for the heck of it — and the next day, Dow would have dropped 300-400 points. He didn’t.
    Best,
    Eugene

  7. I certainly enjoyed the way you explore your experience and
    knowledge of the subject! Keep up on it. Thanks for sharing the info

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