For the most part, Russians and Chinese are satisfied about the recent settlement of their territorial disputes. Russian anxieties about Chinese immigration into the Russian Far East have faded now that it is evident that Chinese immigrants in Russia prefer to work in Moscow rather than Siberia and that, rather than become permanent residents, they typically stay in Russia for only a few years and then return to their home countries. Foreign immigrants in Russia still overwhelmingly come from Central Asia. If anything, Russian policymakers want to attract more Chinese entrepreneurs and investment to the underdeveloped Russian Far East. Plans for joint Russian-Chinese economic, energy, and agricultural projects in their lengthy border regions remain undeveloped, a source of mutual frustration though not tension.
To assuage Russian anxieties about the growing Chinese economic presence in Central Asia, which includes Beijing’s developing transcontinental east-west transportation networks that bypass Russian territory and Moscow’s pushing regional integration institutions and currency arrangements that could harm Chinese economic interests, Beijing defers to Moscow’s security primacy in the region. The PLA has eschewed establishing a permanent presence in Central Asia or even selling weapons to Central Asian militaries, which rely heavily on weapons imported from Russia. China’s main problem is that Russia may not prove sufficiently powerful to maintain Eurasia’s security should the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan further regional disorder. China might then have to assume a more elevated regional security profile than Beijing would prefer.
Russia’s improving relationship with Japan and Vietnam, and traditionally good ties with India, naturally affect Moscow-Beijing exchanges. Russia and Japan share several overlapping geopolitical and economic interests. They are trying to become more influential players in regional economic integration schemes and Korean issues as well as to develop closer energy and economic ties. Tokyo wants more Russian oil and natural gas, while Moscow would like increase Japanese inward investment to modernize the Russian economy and develop the Russian Far East. Russia and Japan have yet to resolve their territorial dispute, but they have intensified their negotiations. Meanwhile, they have bracketed their territorial differences and agreed to pursue mutually profitable economic and security ties.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Russia and Vietnam recently upgraded their relationship to that of a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Despite periodic Chinese protests, Vietnam has become an important Russian energy client, arms buyer, and security partner. Unlike the United States, Russians are seeking a permanent naval presence in Vietnam. Sino-Indian relations are stable, and New Delhi has sought to expand ties with Europe, Japan, and the United States, but Russia still provides most of India’s weapons, is an important economic partner, and helps New Delhi balance its close this with Pakistan.
Although Russian and Chinese diplomats have declined to focus much on these regional issues, they both understand that Russia wants to have diplomatic options and pursue economic and energy opportunities beyond those with China. They also recognize that these extra-China ties provide Moscow with leverage in Beijing. PRC policymakers cannot presume that Russia needs good relations with China due to a lack of alternative diplomatic options. Although Chinese policymakers would like more Russian support for their territorial or history disputes with Japan, they at least want to keep Moscow from siding with Beijing’s rivals or from criticizing China’s newly assertive policies in the Pacific. This comprehensive marriage of convenience between Russia and China looks set to continue for years.
Russia’s most serious military threat in Asia is of a war on the Korean Peninsula or the collapse of neighboring North Korea. Either development would confront Moscow with massive security and economic problems, ranging from loose nukes and other WMDs, massive refugee flows, and an abrupt decrease in Korean and other foreign investment in the Russian economy. Russian security already suffers each time North Korea detonates a nuclear weapon or launches a long-range ballistic missile, which leads the United States to strengthen its missile defense capabilities, which Russians profess to see as threatening their own nuclear deterrent.
Moscow has tried to avert these threats by using diplomacy to moderate the policies of Pyongyang and its neighbors and by cooperating with China and the United States on Korean issues. More originally, Russian officials have been dangling before the two Koreas the specter of potentially massive riches if they set aside their differences and allow Russian firms to construct energy pipelines and railroads through their territory that can serve as commercial arteries for Russian-East Asian economic exchanges.
Here and elsewhere, Moscow’s big problem is that it has major stakes at issue but lacks the means to protect them. Russia has little influence in Pyongyang, except when North Korean diplomats seek maneuvering room with Beijing. Following the end of their Cold War estrangement, Moscow has developed relations with South Korea that are decent but not especially close or comprehensive. That description is also applicable to Russia’s ties with most Asian countries.
The U.S. and Russia share important goals in Asia. They both want to avert further nuclear proliferation, keep China’s rise on a peaceful path, benefit from Asia’s dynamic economy, and avoid a war on the Korean Peninsula or between China and Japan or China and India. Russians may not welcome the U.S. military ties with Japan, Pakistan and South Korea, but they recognize their stabilizing deterrent value and would enjoy a nuclear-armed Japan or South Korea, or a snarly and isolated nuclear-armed Pakistan, even less.
The United States could cooperate with Russia more effectively by not treating Moscow as an afterthought in its Asian policies. Russians bristle whenever U.S. leaders, such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at last year’s Shangri-La regional security conference, describe their key Asian partners and policies without even mentioning Russia. It is true that Russia is neither an ally nor an adversary of the United States in Asia, and that Americans do not need to buy Russian weapons and energy extorts, which makes it hard to position Russia in the Asian pivot. But Washington should set aside their private beliefs and follow their Chinese counterparts’ playbook in professing to see Moscow as an important and potentially constructive actor in Asia rather than as a regional irrelevancy.