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Will Trump-Putin summit revive a new cold war triangle?
With a duel-like standoff between China and the US in the worst trade war in economic history, the Trump-Putin Summit brought back a tinge of Cold War Triangle between the US, China and Soviet Union. But the international architecture is essentially different in a globalized world. A revival of the triangle would be nothing but a pink elephant. Above all, as long as the two powers of the US and China are embroiled in a tussle with each other and viewing Russia as a variable power to court, Putin stands to reap the most benefit. 
In Helsinki, when President Trump held a brief talk with Russian President Putin before the official meeting, he raised five issues they were going to discuss: trade, security, military, nuclear disarmament and China. By pointing out China, President Trump immediately brought back reminiscence of the Cold War Triangle among the 3 countries, when President Nixon enlisted China’s help to counter-balance the common nemesis of former Soviet Union, only this time the mortal rival being replace by China.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has been downgraded to a regional power with its sphere of influence limited to Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Although recent relationship between Russia and the West has soured over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and use of toxic agent against former KGB agent in the UK, or its meddling in the US election, the challenges posed by Russia can merely be described as pinpricks as against the full-spectrum challenges posed by China to the interest of the US.

From Trump’s perspective, China runs the biggest trade surplus with the US, allegedly endangers freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, builds strong ties with Africa through massive investment without any string attached, topples the US dominance in technology, launches Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. To the uttermost fear of the US, as China grows more powerful and assertive, it may one day redress the world order which it deems as unfairly skewed in favor of the US. Such fear of exiting power being overthrown by the new rising power will unfortunately revert the US diplomacy into the Cold War framework.

The personal rapport between Trump and Putin may also account for the revived triangle. Before his election as president, Trump has campaigned arduously for better ties with Russia and showed his admiration for Machtpolitik such as Putin. Based on his deference to Putin in Helsinki, it won’t be surprising for him to attempt to cajole Moscow to counter Beijing.

Russia, on the other hand, also wants to get closer to Trump. Some Russian scholars view the summit as a starting point of restoring Russia-US relations. But the Russia’s intention may not jibe with those of Trump. The current international architecture is essentially different from the Cold War with intertwined interests all over the world among the trio. Within the triangle, there are also independent dynamics for each bilateral relationship. Any potential realignment of the triangle will comes with huge repercussions for not only the 3 countries but also the world at large.

US-Russia alliance against China or China-Russia alliance against the US?

Under the ostentation of cozy partnership between China and Russia in their cooperation in energy, trade and regional security, such harmonious relationship is not free of problems and as China grows even more powerful, the hidden strategic divergence may surface in the future.

For example, growing trade and economic ties between the two countries have aroused concerns about Beijing’s political influence on the Russian Far East which were feared  increasingly fallen into the grip of China’s economic gravitational pull. And despite the hefty rhetoric of the SCO as a forum for cooperation, Russia also has operated the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) which excludes China as a means to keep Central Asia aligned more with itself than with Beijing. China’s Belt and Road Initiative also threatens to undermine Russia’s influence over its former Soviet republics.

The China-Russia partnership may look even more flimsy when the public opinion is taken into account. The results of an opinion poll conducted by Channel 5 which broadcasts all over Russia show that 69% of Russians believe that China will be a serious threat to Russia. Back in 2010, Moscow Echo Radio conducted a similar survey posing the question of "Who is the enemy of Russia?", with China, the US, the EU and others to choose from. The results show that 77.9% of Russians chose China over the phone,so did 59.8% of Russian netizens. When it comes to China-Russia-US triangle, 53% Russians rooted for neutrality when conflict between China and the US broke out based on another survey from the All-Russian Social Public Opinion Research Center.

Vice versa, most Chinese people take a suspicious view of Russia. Historically, Russia has been a bully to its neighbors that includes China. Parts of Asiatic Russia used to be Chinese territories. Even at the peak of the Cold War, the socialist allies turned against each other and often engaged in heated border conflicts.

However, will the rift between China and Russia be big enough for the US to exploit to coalesce into an alliance with Russia? Definitely no. Moscow may find itself at more odds with Washington than China. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, western countries, led by the United States, have imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions against Russia. Moscow’s tensions with Washington are also heating up in the Middle East, where the US accused Russia of supporting the Syrian government which the US condemned for using chemical weapons against civilian targets.

Meanwhile, US domestic politics will continue to hold back Trump. Before the summit, 12 Russian military intelligence officers have been indicted of meddling in US Presidential election. After the summit, the US Congress and mainstream media hit out hard at Trump for going soft on Putin, revealing that some US elements still use Russia-related affairs as an excuse against Trump, which squeezed the space of his Russia policy and left him little room to maneuver.

In contrast, a China-Russia alliance may seem more viable, based on their shared antipathy towards the US. But will it materialize? The answer is also no. Russia will keep certain distance from China so as not to fall into China’s economic orbit or undermine its sphere of influence in Central Asia. The strategic apprehension will also hamper the two from getting too close. Above all, as long as the two powers of the US and China are embroiled in a tussle with each other and viewing Russia as a variable power to court, Putin stands to reap the most benefit.

Muddling through without any alliance

Non-alignment is China’s enshrined principle in approaching super powers after its turbulent split with the Soviet Union. Deng said on June 18 1986: “We adhere to an independent foreign policy of peace and do not join any bloc. We are prepared to maintain contacts and make friends with everyone.” China eschews alliances based on the view that, once China allies with some countries, it will inevitably be bound by its allies, leading to a certainly unfavorable external environment.

China and US shall seek a way to coexist with each other. Given the magnitude of the two economies, any direct confrontation would be too costly for both sides. Plus, the two countries have shared interests in a diverse set of areas, including nuclear security and nonproliferation as well as regional security in Northeast Asia. The great powers are destined to coexist in competition and cooperation, although sometimes economic and geopolitical friction can be fierce.

For the US, it should reevaluate its strategic goals which put it in a collision course with China and Russia. The US shall accept China’s rise as another polar in East Asia militarily and geo-politically and chuck the illusion of framing China in a uni-polar world order. In Russia’s case, the US shall acquiesce Russia’s sphere of influence and refrain from regime change in those countries.

In short, the US shall abandon its fancy dream of a global Pax Americana, instead, it should focus on where genuine American interests and useful alliances are at stake. Only by balancing its capacity and commitments can the United States help play a positive role in maintaining peace and prosperity in a multi-polar world.

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