Can Moscow and Washington Join Hands in the Pacific?

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Can Moscow and Washington Join Hands in the Pacific?

With Russia intensifying its regional diplomacy and America ‘rebalancing’ to the Pacific, both nations have much to gain by working together.

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.

Although Moscow opposes a nuclear-armed Iran, Russian officials do not consider such a threat as imminent or inevitable as the U.S. Their main concern, at least in the short-term, is that Iran’s nuclear and missile programs are driving NATO countries to support missile defense programs that Russians fear could eventually degrade their own nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, they fear that supporting the West’s stance against Iran’s nuclear program might induce Iran to become more active in supporting Islamist militancy in the Russian Caucasus, while less cooperative in limiting American influence in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Moreover, Russia has economic and diplomatic interests in Iran’s continued alienation from the West. For instance, Russian companies benefit from the reluctance of Western companies to invest in Iran due to the numerous unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed on its government, without which Tehran would likely return to its pre-2000’s pattern of trading mostly with Western countries and hosting mostly Western foreign direct investment. Keeping Iran alienated from its natural Western partners also gives Moscow the option to move closer to Iran if its relations with the West deteriorate. Given the benefits of the status-quo, however, Moscow has little incentive to support additional sanctions against Iran.

But greater Russian-U.S. cooperation is possible regarding several important Asian issues. In Central Asia and South Caucasus, Russia’s primary energy policy goal used to be controlling the transit routes by which Caspian Basin oil and gas went to Europe. Before 2005, all the major export pipelines went through Russian territory or were controlled by Russian companies, which allowed Russia to demand high transit fees and low purchasing prices for oil and gas and also gave Russia some leverage over downstream countries. Now, the construction of alternative pipelines has ended this monopoly and reduced Moscow’s leverage, so Russian policy is changing, with less focus on keeping third-party competitors out and more emphasis on joint developments and production of energy resources. This new approach offers more opportunities for Russian-U.S. partnerships to develop and export oil and gas from the Caspian Basin to other regions.

In the case of the Korean Peninsula, Russian and U.S. goals strongly overlap. Russian officials ardently oppose the nuclear weapons program of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The economic and security interests of both Moscow and Washington would both be served by an enduring period of peace and prosperity in the Koreas. They would benefit from almost any development that relaxed regional tensions. Russian policymakers also do not want yet another nuclear-armed state bordering Russia, especially one run by an erratic dynastic dictatorship possessing inaccurate missiles. In addition, they fear that the DPRK’s possession of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles could encourage further nuclear proliferation in East Asia and beyond as well as the spread of missile defense systems in response.

Russian entrepreneurs envisage converting the DPRK into a transit country for Russian energy and economic exports to South Korea and other Asia-Pacific countries. Such a development would further Russia’s integration into East Asia as well as revitalize Moscow’s ties with North Korea. They have discussed linking a trans-Korean railroad with Russia’s rail system, which would allow Russia to become a transit country for South Korean trade with Europe, which now involves mostly long-distance shipping. Furthermore, Russian planners want to construct energy pipelines between Russia and South Korea across DPRK territory.

From the perspective of the United States and other countries, Russia’s Korean strategy offers several opportunities. First, Moscow seeks objectives (a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, at peace, and economically well-integrated with Russia and other countries) widely shared by other governments. Second, Russians can contribute helpful assets to help achieve these goals, including providing North Korea with nuclear and energy assistance and other governments with another means to communicate, via Moscow, with DPRK leaders. Third, since Russia lacks the means to achieve these ends on its own, Moscow has incentives to cooperate with foreign partners–above all China, South Korea, and the United States—to achieve them.

Unfortunately, Russia’s plans for the Koreas cannot be realized until the security situation on the Korean Peninsula improves. Russian, South Korean and other investors will not risk building the trans-peninsula rail and pipeline links when Pyongyang could again block commerce or seize these assets with little warning and no compensation.

Countering nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are likely to remain a shared concern for Moscow and Washington whoever becomes the next U.S. president. Unfortunately, Asian countries present some of the most serious challenges to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Three of the four nuclear weapon countries that are not current NPT parties are in Asia, with India, Pakistan, and North Korea having all tested nuclear weapons while continuing to strengthen their nuclear arsenals. Russian concerns about nuclear terrorism emanating from Pakistan are perhaps even greater than those in Washington.

Moscow and Washington have a long history of leading global efforts to secure loose nuclear material, eliminate excess fissile materials, and prevent their current or former nuclear scientists from sharing their knowledge with rogue states. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism was launched by Putin and U.S. President George Bush on the sidelines of the 2006 G8 summit in St. Petersburg. Russian and American diplomats also led efforts in the UN Security Council to mandate that states make greater efforts to avert nuclear terrorism. Despite initial hesitations, Russia has now become a full member of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which seeks to mobilize and strengthen the international community’s ability to curb trafficking in WMD and their means of delivery among states and non-state actors of proliferation concern.

Russia and the United States will also need to do the heavy lifting to keep more countries out of the nuclear club. For example, they can continue to strengthen the safety and security functions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and require recipients of their nuclear assistance to join the Agency’s Additional Protocol, which authorizes the IAEA to conduct additional monitoring and inspections of suspicious nuclear activities that might indicate the presence of an illegal nuclear weapons program.

The United States shares an interest in involving Russia more in East Asian economic and security affairs. Russian policymakers are eager to deepen their national integration into the prosperous East Asian region, which will enhance the health of the Russian national economy in general and the economic recovery of the Russian Far East (RFE) in particular. Russia’s trade with the major East Asian countries of China, Japan, and South Korea lags far behind these three states’ economic exchanges with one another. During the APEC summit, Putin noted that, “Two-thirds of Russian territory is located in Asia, and yet the bulk of our foreign trade — more than 50 percent — comes from Europe, whereas Asia only accounts for 24 percent.”

Similarly, the RFE lags behind western Russia economically and is becoming a security liability due to its diminishing ethnic Russian population, which creates a troublesome demographic imbalance along the Russia-China border. Securing greater Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean trade and investment would help stimulate the growth and modernization of Russia, especially in the RFE. But any enduring results will likely require Moscow to adopt a more attractive legal and regulatory environment for foreign companies.

The United States also wants Russia to become a more active Asian power to help manage the rise of China, such as by reinforcing calls to maintain freedom of the seas. An important priority for the next U.S. administration is to facilitate this process by helping resolve or dampen the territorial conflict between Russia and Japan, a close U.S. ally. Better ties between Moscow and Tokyo might prove to be the catalyst for a long-anticipated geopolitical realignment that sees Russia adopt a more guarded approach to the PRC’s rise by strengthening ties with China’s neighbors, including Japan. This repositioning would help manage the potentially disruptive consequences that could potentially result from the emergence of the new superpower along Russia’s eastern borders.