Sweet lures for China, Russia

Despite aggression against their neighbors, China and Russia are being offered a place in regional trade unions. This honey of an offer requires a different view of them than simply as bullies.

AP Photo
President Obama, seated next to Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaks during a November meeting with leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries,

A common view of Russia and China these days, based on their aggression in their respective backyards, is that they are bullies. The view has led to either sanctions or a military buildup, or both.

But what if the two were not seen as bullies but instead given incentives to be peaceful players? What if, as in the proverbial catching of flies, they were offered honey instead of vinegar?

This alternative view of China and Russia – that they might want to end aggression for something constructive – lies behind the dangling of an offer to each to participate in potential free-trade blocs. By some early signs, the honey may be working.

In Russia’s case, German Chancellor Angela Merkel keeps dropping hints of a trade zone that would join the 28-nation European Union with Russia’s own newly created bloc of five post-Soviet states, known as the Eurasian Economic Union. The West’s sanctions on Russia over its meddling in Ukraine would remain for now. But as a lure for a settlement, Ms. Merkel offers a trade zone that would stretch from Lisbon to Vladivostok – and would help lift Russia from its downward economic spiral.

The idea is not new. It was even floated by President Vladimir Putin years ago when he thought Russia could become the centerpiece for a “united space” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Now it would be more of a lifeline to rescue Russia from isolation after the invasion of Ukraine.

“What can we offer to Russia?” asks German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. “What can be an idea for a partnership after we solve the current problems?”

China, too, has been offered a bit of trade honey to change its ways after its aggressive moves on islands long claimed by neighbors. The United States is making rapid progress in talks to set up a 12-nation trade zone called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Chinese officials, who once scoffed at joining it, now suggest to diplomats that they might want in.

In signaling it may join the TPP, China suggests it wants to play by international rules within Asia – and include the US as a partner. This would be the opposite of its current behavior in seeking seabed resources through force and in demanding a diminished American military presence in the region.

The possibility of China and Russia jumping on these trade bandwagons is not a reality yet. Trade talks are rarely easy. And leaders of those two nations may still see external aggression for strategic advantage as necessary to their domestic power.

Yet if other countries hold out hope of peaceful cooperation, starting with a free-trade pact, that different view of Russia and China may start to sink in.

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