Is Trump planning to play Russia off of China?

Is Trump’s fondness for Russia a simple matter of admiring Putin’s ruthless fascist moxie or is it all part of a game of eight-dimensional chess he’s playing to box in China? There’s a theory kicking around in foreign policy circles that his looming detente with Putin is actually “Nixon in reverse,” i.e. instead of making nice with China as Nixon did in 1972 in order to form an axis against Russia, Trump might be making nice with Russia in order to form an axis against China. No less than Henry Kissinger predicted the eventual necessity of that move when he and Nixon were planning their rapprochement with Mao decades ago:

On Feb. 14, 1972, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger met to discuss Nixon’s upcoming trip to China. Kissinger, who had already taken his secret trip to China to begin Nixon’s historic opening to Beijing, expressed the view that compared with the Russians, the Chinese were “just as dangerous. In fact, they’re more dangerous over a historical period.”

Kissinger then observed that “in 20 years your successor, if he’s as wise as you, will wind up leaning towards the Russians against the Chinese.” He argued that the United States, as it sought to profit from the enmity between Moscow and Beijing, needed “to play this balance-of-power game totally unemotionally. Right now, we need the Chinese to correct the Russians and to discipline the Russians.” But in the future, it would be the other way around.

Okay, but what can, or will, Russia do to “correct” and “discipline” China? When Nixon went to China, the Soviets were a superpower and China was a fledgling power; today China is a rising power, asserting itself in the South China Sea to Japan’s and South Korea’s dismay, while Russia is a fading power. China is the most populous country in the world and had a GDP of more than $10 trillion in 2015. Russia’s GDP is roughly one-eighth the size of that and its population is a bit more than one-tenth as large. Its population has been shrinking for decades, in fact, although at a slower rate lately than it had been in the 1990s. Russia had something to fear long-term from China in 1972. China has little to fear from Russia long-term in 2016, barring a nuclear exchange that would extinguish both countries.

Putin’s nationalist program and power projection in Ukraine and Syria have been a shrewd away to paper over Russia’s diminishing strength, reassuring Russians that they’re still a global power even as their next-door neighbor leaves them in the dust. (So, of course, has the humiliating hacking operation in the U.S.) But it also means that Putin has more to fear from China’s wrath than vice versa. And while the U.S. and Russia can be as warm or cold to each other as they like, engaging diplomatically or retreating to their own spheres of influence, there’s nowhere for Moscow to retreat to vis-a-vis Beijing. If Putin makes a deal with Trump to triangulate against China, that deal could fall apart within a year if Russia does something to anger the famously mercurial Trump. Even if the deal holds throughout Trump’s presidency, Russia would have no reason to feel confident that his successor would continue to honor it. Democrats will hold a grudge against Russia for years for its campaign shenanigans this year and there’s still a strong base of Russia hawks like Marco Rubio within the GOP, despite the rising appreciation for Putin on the right. If Russia turns on China to make nice with the U.S. and then a fickle America walks away, Putin would be left with a hostile power on his doorstep and no friend in Washington. (Taiwan, whose relationship with the U.S. is much warmer than Russia’s, is nonetheless worried about its own version of this very same problem.) How much are we prepared to do for him to make that considerable risk worth taking?

And don’t forget, relations between Russia and China have been improving lately. Siding with Moscow’s traditional enemy, the United States, in its disputes with China would require Putin to jeopardize what’s been a fruitful economic and strategic relationship.

According to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, Beijing and Moscow have never been as close as they are today. “I would call them a ‘détente’ state of relations,” says Trenin. “That’s somewhere between a strategic partnership and a full-fledged alliance.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s seminal One Belt, One Road economic strategy — a rekindling of the iconic land and maritime Silk Road though infrastructure and development projects — is dependent on rosy relations with Russia and particularly Central Asia, which is largely beholden to the Kremlin. Today, Russia is the world’s top oil exporter — accounting for 70% of all national exports — and its top customer is China, which bought 22 million tons in the first half of this year. Squabbles over disputed territory in Central Asia have been solved with surprising prudence and a raft of pipeline and other infrastructure deals have been struck. “Relations are robust and I can only see them getting stronger,” says Trenin.

By contrast, the U.S. has little to offer Russia. But Trump’s fawning of Putin does have an effect. Trump announced Tillerson’s appointment just as Assad’s Russian-backed troops retook Aleppo, displacing thousands and reportedly slaughtering scores of innocents. But Beijing is most acutely aware that the Kremlin suffered few repercussion from its seizing of Crimea, other than economic sanctions it shrugged aside (and Trump could soon lift them at a stoke of his pen). If Trump wants to put ethics aside and talk realpolitik: What would the U.S. do if China decided to retake Taiwan?

Trump’s phone call to Taiwan a few weeks ago suggests that he’d view a Chinese move on Taiwan more dimply than he viewed Putin’s move on Crimea, but the economic reality here is what it is. Russia’s been in a recession for two years under sanctions, exacerbated by the falling price of oil. What are the odds that Putin’s going to agree to some Trump initiative in the Pacific that would piss off the biggest foreign consumer of Russian oil, a market that’s only going to get bigger as China grows and its economy presumably grows along with it? Would the lifting of U.S. sanctions be enough of an economic inducement to Putin to risk alienating the Chinese?

For what it’s worth, Russian media also seems skeptical of the idea of sacrificing improved relations with China to try to please a Trump-led America. Maybe the better way to view the U.S.-Russia detente is less as Trump’s attempt to triangulate with Russia and China than as Putin’s attempt to triangulate with China and the U.S. Better relations with Russia might encourage Trump and Putin to reach some sort of accommodation on Ukraine and the Middle East. (Whether an accommodation can be reached on Iran is a harder question. Russia warned just this week that the collapse of the Iranian nuclear deal would be “unforgivable.”) With those issues off the table for the U.S., Trump could then turn his attention to what really seems to interest him, confronting China in the Far East and figuring out some solution to North Korea’s growing nuclear reach. Putin could affect studious neutrality towards whatever the hell ends up happening as a result of that in the South China Sea or Taiwan — nothing good, probably — and meanwhile focus on what interests him, expanding Russian influence westward towards the Baltics as part of the “return to greatness” nationalist program. What is Putin prepared to do for Trump vis-a-vis China in return for, say, the U.S. not worrying too much about Russian designs on NATO member Estonia? Maybe we’ll find out.