Edward Snowden’s flight shows the limits of US power

The tug-of-war between the US, China and Russia over fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden has increased diplomatic tensions between the three countries. EPA/Guardian/Glenn Greenwald

The flight of fugitive former NSA contractor and CIA employee Edward Snowden has captivated the international media, and starkly exposed the increasingly strained diplomatic relations between the United States, Russia and China.

Allowed to leave by Hong Kong’s authorities for Moscow, Snowden prominently missed a scheduled flight from Moscow to Havana on Monday. Snowden is claiming political asylum in Ecuador, allegedly with the assistance of whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Snowden is said to have been in contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who himself has remained ensconced in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for over a year in his own diplomatic limbo.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has now confirmed Snowden remains in transit at Moscow airport, rejecting with some rhetorical relish US demands that he be extradited. Putin stated that under Russian law “Snowden is a free man”. There is currently no extradition treaty between Russia and the US. The US has filed espionage charges against Snowden (giving the Obama administration the record for the number of espionage prosecutions), and has rather belatedly revoked his passport.

The public anger being expressed by the US is an obvious reflection of the frustration felt by the Obama administration that Snowden has thus far escaped its grasp. The US would also be fearful that Chinese and Russian intelligence services have gained access to the secrets carried in Snowden’s laptops, an accusation both countries have denied.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has sharply criticised China and Russia for allowing Snowden’s escape. Kerry claimed that their inaction is undermining the international system of extradition of criminal suspects, pointing out that the US has handed at least seven wanted suspects over to Russia in recent times. This is diplomatic bluster intended to pressure Russia: it would be unlikely that either Russia or China would fail to cooperate in handing over “ordinary” criminal suspects in future.

However, the espionage aspect of the Snowden affair makes it inherently different from a regular criminal extradition. In May, a US embassy employee in Moscow was arrested and expelled after being accused of spying for the CIA, so Russia is in no mood to cooperate with the US on Snowden.

China has also strongly rejected US accusations that Snowden was allowed to escape its jurisdiction in Hong Kong, claiming its local authorities acted according to legal processes. However, since the Chinese central government in Beijing exercises effective foreign policy control over Hong Kong, the US is no doubt dissatisfied with this excuse.

China also remembers America’s assistance of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng last year in his daring escape from detention to the US embassy in Beijing, after which he was granted asylum in the US. Facilitating Snowden’s exit from Hong Kong would therefore have been satisfying diplomatic “payback” for Beijing.

Snowden’s leaks, which accused the US government of extensive electronic surveillance and hacking including against China, has blunted US criticism of China’s own cyberattacks. This was particularly embarrassing for Obama, coming around the time of the recent visit to the US by Chinese president Xi Jinping.

A strong US-China relationship is vital for the global economy - how much strain will the Snowden saga place on it? EPA/Martin H. Simon

The Snowden incident comes at a time of increasing diplomatic tensions between the US and both Russia and China. Obama’s attempt to “reset” relations with Russia has effectively stalled, while Putin is consolidating his power in Russia in an ever more authoritarian manner. In the past week, Obama stated his aim of further mutual reductions in nuclear weapons to around 1000 each, which will require Russia’s cooperation to proceed.

The worsening Syrian civil war remains a greatly divisive issue, highlighted at the recent G8 summit. Despite possible movement towards peace talks in Geneva, Russia’s firm backing for the Assad regime confronts the US decision to increase the supply of weapons, training and equipment to the Syrian rebels.

From its perspective, Beijing increasingly views the “pivot” of America’s maritime forces towards the Pacific as a looming threat, as China more assertively pursues its rising geostrategic influence in the region. However, the US and its regional allies require China’s diplomatic cooperation to pressure North Korea to “denuclearise”. Stable US-China trade and financial relations also remain vital for the stability of the global economy.

While the Snowden case is of great frustration for the US, it demonstrates that America is still confronting the limits to its power following the military quagmires of the Iraq and Afghan wars. While not yet descending to the tensions of the Cold War, the US is coming up against the increasing assertiveness of Russia and China as they pursue their national interests of economic and geostrategic power in the global arena.

The diplomatic tussle over Snowden also serves as partial distraction from criticism of the Obama administration’s PRISM surveillance program. These wider concerns over privacy and civil liberties will remain well after the current frantic attention over the Snowden affair has faded.