Russia’s hosting of the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok last month demonstrates that Russian leaders view their country as an Asian power as well as a European and Eurasian one. Indeed, a major shortcoming of the current U.S. Asia Pivot is that it has often treated Russia as an afterthought. But with the initial Russia-U.S. post-2009 “reset” having largely run its course, Moscow and Washington now need to consider how they will refashion their relationship in the next few years. In this context, Asia offers the parties some probable areas of conflict, but also several areas where mutual beneficial cooperation might be possible.
On the negative side, U.S. and especially Russian concerns about China’s growing nuclear potential are impeding further progress in their shared strategic arms control agenda. China has stayed aloof from bilateral Russian-American strategic-arms talks, arguing that their nuclear arsenals dwarf those of China. Yet, the substantial decrease in Russian and U.S. nuclear forces in recent years is narrowing this gap.
Whereas U.S. officials want the next major nuclear arms reduction agreement to include only Russia and the United States, President Vladimir Putin and other Russian policymakers insist that future nuclear arms reductions occur on a multilateral basis. They want China and other nuclear weapons states to participate. In particular, Russian representatives insist they cannot reduce their major holdings of non-strategic (“tactical”) nuclear weapons without considering China’s growing military potential. As Putin put it back in June, “With regard to further steps in the sphere of nuclear weapons, these further steps should be of a complex character, and this time all the nuclear powers should be involved in this process. We cannot disarm indefinitely while some other nuclear powers are building up their arsenal. It is out of the question.”
The next U.S. administration should assess how the United States might leverage Russian concerns and interests to induce China to participate in strategic offensive arms control. For example, China might offer a unilateral commitment not to increase the number of its nuclear warheads or strategic delivery vehicles if Russia and the United States agreed to make further reductions.
Another problem is how China and Russia have been aligning against the United States on important issues. In the United Nations and elsewhere, the two governments have already complicated U.S. policies regarding WMD proliferation, space and cyber security, and critical regional conflicts including Iran, North Korea, and Syria. They have both launched campaigns to constrain the growth of U.S. defensive alliances in Eurasia and counter global U.S. missile defense initiatives. Although they appeal to international law to defend traditional interpretations of state sovereignty, their opposition to Western assertions of universal liberal values also emanates from their interest in shielding their own human rights abuses as well as those of their client regimes.