Today, Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Beijing on his first foreign trip since assuming the Russian presidency. The two authoritarian giants wasted no time criticizing American plans to create a missile defense shield. In a joint statement, Medvedev and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao said such a defensive system “harms the strengthening of trust between states and regional stability.”
Yet Medvedev did not fly all the way to the Chinese capital to make a rhetorical jab at Washington on something he can do nothing about. The Russian first wanted to remind the West that Russia has other friends. Putin’s initial foreign trip as president took him to London in 2000 to indicate that he was going to look to Europe and the Atlantic Alliance. His successor seeks to convince us that he can reverse that forward-looking orientation.
Second, Medvedev boarded a plane to make a second–and more immediate–point, this one intended for his Chinese hosts. Putin stopped off in Belarus on his way to England in 2000. Eight years later, Medvedev visited Kazakhstan before China. The former Soviet republic borders both Russia and China and represents a crucial prize in the seemingly eternal contest for Central Asia between Moscow and Beijing. Although the two large states see that their interests coincide when it comes to undermining the American superstate-hence all the talk about missile defense as well as a proposed treaty on banning weapons in space-they have plenty of differences among themselves.
The overriding reality is that both Russia and China need the West more than they need the other. Russia inked a $1 billion uranium enrichment deal today with China, and this will help bring the two nations together. Yet their bilateral trade last year was a puny $48 billion. In comparison, America’s bilateral trade with China was $386.7 billion during the same period and accounted for all but $6.2 billion of China’s overall trade surplus of $262.5 billion.
The Bush administration has allowed Moscow and China to throw darts at America, as if their growing relationship did not matter. Whether or not this passivity was justified in the past, the growing cooperation between the Chinese and Russians is now consequential. They are, for example, cooperating to block Western efforts on Iran, undoubtedly the most important matter at this moment. So, it’s about time for Washington to tell the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing that they are either with us or against us when it comes to solving urgent problems. They need us more than we need them. Now, when the international system looks as if it will fall apart, is the time to make this point in public. After all, Medvedev and Hu have no hesitancy in telling us off.