Partnership in the Pacific? Russia between China and the United States in Asia

by Jeffrey Mankoff, Adjunct Fellow, CSIS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent trip to China for the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit comes as Russo-Chinese relations continue the warming trend of the past decade-plus. The high-level visits and warm rhetoric overshadow a series of challenges, ranging from energy disputes to the impact of China’s military buildup to competing agendas in Central Asia. Looming in the background is the United States, which both Russia and China are eager to keep at arms’ length in Asia, but which represents Moscow’s best option for maintaining its standing as an independent actor in Asia and the Pacific.

Putin’s Shanghai trip continued a long-standing rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing (U.S. President Richard Nixon famously traveled to China to enlist it as a counterweight to the USSR following serious border clashes between the Chinese and Soviet armies in the late 1960s, and Sino-Soviet hostility continued until the Gorbachev era). After the Soviet collapse, Russia’s leaders worked hard to repair relations with China, conscious above all that the emerging colossus next door could come to threaten Moscow’s hold on Siberia and the Russian Far East. Most importantly, Moscow obtained a series of agreements demarcating the Russo-Chinese frontier. Russia and China have also frequently collaborated on the basis of a shared antipathy to U.S.-led democracy promotion efforts and Washington’s willingness to use force without the sanction of the UN Security Council. The SCO, officially formed in 2001, is a concrete example of that cooperation, albeit one whose accomplishments remain mostly on paper.

Compared to the U.S., Russia finds China’s stance on international affairs relatively congenial. Beijing values stability, non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, and does not raise awkward questions about democracy and rule of law. Sino-Russian cooperation has been especially pronounced in recent months on the crises in the Middle East. While both Beijing and Moscow acquiesced in NATO’s military intervention in Libya (by abstaining on the Security Council vote to authorize the use of force), they opposed the West’s decision to overthrow Moammar Qaddafi, and have so far rejected suggestions for foreign intervention in Syria. Their opposition is a complex mixture of support for the principle of absolute sovereignty against the West’s allegedly humanitarian intervention, backing for a friendly autocrat (in Syria), and concern that the fall of secular Arab dictators will unleash Islamist extremism that could have negative consequences closer to home—for instance in the North Caucasus or Xinjiang. This cooperation on the basis of a shared worldview hardly constitutes an alliance. Concerned about the implications for Taiwan and Tibet, for instance, Beijing was livid over Moscow’s decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in 2008.

A bigger obstacle is the growing disparity between Russia and China, whose economy today is more than four times larger than that of its larger neighbor. Moscow has gradually come to recognize that China’s rapid development is turning it into the senior partner in the relationship, and that a more powerful China poses certain threats to Russian interests. The trade relationship between the two countries is badly unbalanced, with Russia exporting raw materials and importing finished goods. Even the sale of arms, long one of Russia’s main exports to China (and in Asia more broadly) have declined as China masters the technology for producing advanced weapons itself and seizes Russian markets. In Central Asia, China is gradually displacing Russia; China now trades more with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan than does Russia, and has financed and built energy pipelines to access Central Asian energy while bypassing Russia.

China’s growth and the continued underdevelopment of Siberia and the Far East threaten to marginalize Russia as an Asian power. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of partnership, Moscow has gradually come to recognize the danger. It is beginning to build up its military capabilities in the Far East, even while keeping its rhetoric focused on the purported threat posed by the U.S. and NATO. In 2010, Russia’s military held major exercises in the Far East against a foe modeled closely on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have spoken of making foreign investment for the development of Siberia and the Far East a priority to secure the region’s integration with the rest of Russia, though Moscow’s grand schemes for regional development have not been matched by the necessary reforms on the ground.

In the long run, Russia has an interest in more direct cooperation with the United States in Asia as a means of hedging against excessive dependence on China. Meanwhile, the U.S. would benefit from having Russia as a contributor to regional stability and security, and not closely tied to China. Both sides face serious obstacles though. The U.S. is reluctant to take Russia seriously as an Asian power given its meager contribution to the regional economy and regional security. Moreover, the U.S. is deeply committed to its alliance with Japan, whose own difficult relationship with Russia is an obstacle to Moscow playing a more active security role in Asia. Russia is trapped by its more general ambivalence about the U.S., notwithstanding the Obama-Medvedev “reset,” and its wariness about alienating China. Washington’s interest in building a more resilient regional architecture to manage China’s rise, coupled with Russia’s interest in having a strategic hedge argue for greater cooperation between the two in Asia. Achieving it will require a re-thinking of fundamental assumptions on both sides, and a greater openness to change than either side has so far evinced.

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