Features | Politics | East Asia

Russia’s Asia Play Mustn’t be Ignored

The U.S. risks making a serious strategic error if it neglects Russia. As the White House and Pentagon look to the Pacific, Moscow and China are making moves of their own.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to skip both the G-8 and the NATO summits this month suggests he plans to delegate relations with the West as much as possible to his deputy, Dmitri Medvedev, while he concentrates his diplomatic efforts in the former Soviet republics of Eurasia and the emerging economic powerhouses of East Asia.

Putin is a leading advocate among Russian leaders of deepening Russia’s Asian connections, and the Pentagon and the White House need to orient their Asian pivot properly to address Moscow’s new Asian orientation. With this in mind, trying to influence Russia’s relationship with China, particularly in the nuclear realm, is especially important, since Putin and other Russians see China as both an opportunity and a challenge. Some clever trilateral diplomacy on the part of the United States could exploit these differences to induce both countries to pursue more benign security policies in Asia and elsewhere.

Russia and China have the world’s two most powerful militaries after that of the United States. China is undertaking perhaps the most comprehensive military modernization program in the world today, while Russia still has approximately the nuclear weapons capacity as the United States. Although trilateral security cooperation has been strong in some cases (such as securing renewal of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty), it has been inadequate in other instances, such as regarding Iran and North Korea, even when none of the three countries want to see the further spread of nuclear weapons.

In confrontation with Washington, Moscow and Beijing could impede realization of important U.S. goals in Asia. Both countries can, for example, veto actions of the U.N. Security Council, a point underscored when they recently collaborated to prevent the Council from adopting more stringent sanctions against Iran and North Korea for its illegal nuclear activities.

In contrast, when they cooperate, the Chinese, Russian and U.S. governments can reinforce global nonproliferation regimes under strain. They also better constrain the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea as well as discourage other national nuclear weapons programs. At the recent P-5 meeting in Vienna, as during earlier P-5 sessions, the three countries joined with Britain and France to call on Iran and North Korea to respect nonproliferation norms. China, Russia, and the United States also have the greatest ability to secure dangerous nuclear material, prevent the transit of nuclear-related items, and influence the deliberations of international and regional institutions that address nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

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This is all occurring against the backdrop of the relationship between the Russian and Chinese governments being perhaps the best it has ever been. They’ve largely resolved their longstanding border disputes, as well as contained their rivalries in Central Asia, the Korean Peninsula, and other regions. The 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship establishes a basis for extensive bilateral security and defense collaboration. Their leaders engage in numerous high-level exchanges, make many mutually supportive security statements, and cooperate in other ways in support of what both governments refer to as their developing strategic partnership. Their growing two-way commerce and investment has made China the number one foreign trade partner of Russia, and they recently completed an unprecedented joint naval exercise in the Yellow Sea.

Yet, China and Russia continue to differ on certain key issues. For a start, they’ve proven unable to resolve their differences over the price China should pay for natural gas imported from Russia. They also differ in their assessment of Pakistan. Whereas Russian government officials and analysts express concern that Islamist extremists might gain control of dangerous nuclear material from Pakistan or even seize political power themselves, China has strongly backed Pakistan diplomatically and provided its nuclear programs with assistance, helping to augment Pakistan’s potential to balance India, a country that has friendly relations with Russia but not China.

China’s experts describe “the root cause” of the proliferation problem as that “the United States and other nuclear powers [read Russia] implement…hegemonic policies” including employing military force against weaker non-nuclear states, which leads some of them to seek nuclear weapons. Fan Jishe, deputy director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies, has applauded the nuclear security summits for making considerable progress, but cautioned that Russia and the United States, the two countries with thelargest nuclear warheads and fissile materials stockpiles, “should assume a greater share of the responsibility for strengthening global nuclear security” by making further reductions in their nuclear arsenals, decreasing the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies, and accelerating their fissile materials repatriation programs.

U.S.-Russian arms control efforts have stalemated most obviously over the issue of missile defense, but Russian concerns about China’s growing nuclear potential are also playing a part. Putin and other Russian policy makers insist that future nuclear arms reductions occur on a multilateral basis, though without specifying whether this process must involve formal negotiations with all countries having nuclear weapons or can proceed through a smaller group of participants in which reductions can occur through unilateral action. The United States and Russia still possess around ten times as many deployed strategic nuclear warheads as China – whose totals approximate those of Britain or France, the other nuclear weapons states officially recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But U.S. and Russian apprehensions persist about reducing their nuclear forces much further without greater evidence that China will join the nuclear disarmament process. Unlike the United States and Russia, China has yet to adopt legally binding limits on its nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. And, although Beijing doesn’t appear to be designing new types of nuclear weapons, China is improving the means it uses to carry them to their intended targets.

Securing a more binding commitment from the Chinese government than simple declarations of intent to restrain the country’s nuclear forces is essential for reassuring Washington and Moscow that further reducing their nuclear arsenals won’t risk undermining global and regional stability. The United States as well as Russia will find it hard to reduce their strategic nuclear weapons further without some indication that China will constrain its own nuclear potential. Indeed, the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly cites U.S. and allied concerns about China’s “quantitative and qualitative modernization of its nuclear capabilities.”

U.S. officials have expressed interest in making one more round of bilateral reductions with Russia following the entry into force of the New START agreement in early 2011, but Russian government representatives have indicated they want to break with tradition and include constraints on other nuclear weapons states in the next strategic arms control treaty. Why? For a start, although never mentioned officially, Russian strategic experts have expressed concerns about China’s rising military strength to explain a reluctance to negotiate further deep cuts in their nuclear forces. Russia still has a more powerful military than China, but the disparity in population and economic growth rates is closing the gap.

Meanwhile, although Moscow’s opposition to U.S. missile defense plans are well-known, Chinese policy makers have expressed similar unease about expanding U.S. capabilities in this area, especially since Japan and the United States collaborate on several joint programs. Beijing’s fear is that Washington and Tokyo might at some point seek to extend a missile shield to cover Taiwan. China’s National Defense in 2008, for example, warns that “China maintains that the global missile defense program will be detrimental to strategic balance and stability, undermine international and regional security, and have a negative impact on the process of nuclear disarmament. China pays close attention to this issue.”

So, has concern about U.S. strategic ambitions prompted China and Russia to pursue concrete collaboration in this area? Not so far. One of the speakers at the Missile Defense Conference in Moscow organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense this month lamented how, despite calculations showing how China’s nuclear arsenal would more easily be neutralized by emerging U.S. missile defense systems than Russia’s larger fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, Chinese officials haven’t objected as vigorously as Russian representatives. Chinese and Russian representatives have thus far largely limited their ballistic missile defense efforts to issuing joint declarations. Clever U.S. diplomacy should aim to keep it that way.

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Often overlooked in all this is that China has demonstrated a willingness to adopt some confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) that promote greater military transparency and understanding among potential military rivals. Indeed, during the past two decades, China has negotiated a set of bilateral CSBMs with Russia to govern military activities along their joint border. In July 1994, the Russian and Chinese defense ministers agreed to a set of procedures to avert future incidents, including arrangements to prevent unauthorized ballistic missile launches, prevent the jamming of communications equipment, and warn ships and aircraft that might inadvertently violate national borders. In September of that year, Chinese and Russian authorities pledged not to target strategic nuclear missiles at each other. In April 1998, moreover, China and Russia established a direct presidential hot line – China’s first with another government.

But there’s more that the three countries could do that could ultimately lead toward more formal arms control measures, while serving a valuable stabilizing function in their own right even without more formal treaties and agreements. Such measures could include:

— Pursuing measures to increase transparency regarding the capacity of each sides’ nuclear weapons production complexes to construct new nuclear forces in any attempt to rapidly break out of any arms control agreement.

— Agreeing to slow the development of new capabilities that the other side perceives as especially destabilizing (e.g. U.S. prompt global conventional strike, Russia’s planned heavy nuclear missiles, China’s expanding nuclear tunnels complex).

— Increasing the transparency of the thousands of nuclear warheads the countries keep in storage pending their dismantlement by storing them separately from their active warheads and making periodic declarations of their numbers.

— Operational arms control measures to avoid accidents, misunderstandings, confrontations, and other developments that risk escalating into an inadvertent nuclear war.

A related confidence building measure would limit the use of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. In 2007, China decided to test its first ASAT in outer space against one of its defunct weather satellite. The collusion experiment, which produced an enormous quantity of space debris and ended a decades-long international moratorium against such experiments, was roundly criticized by most of the world’s government, but not Russia. Chinese representatives have informally indicated that they don’t plan a repeat ASAT, but it would be useful to have a more formal agreement given the importance of satellites in maintaining strategic stability.

Ultimately one thing should be clear – the United States may be pivoting to the Pacific, but it should also be keeping a closer eye on Russia’s relationship with China.