- Russia’s Asia PivotConfrontation or Cooperation?
russia, china, energy, arms, siberia[End Page 65]
This article examines the origins and conduct of Russia’s Asia pivot, analyzes the role Asia plays in Russia’s economic development plans, and assesses Russia’s efforts to balance its strategic partnership with China and its ambitions to be a more autonomous player in Asia.
Recent tensions between Russia and the West highlight Russia’s growing ties with Asia, particularly China. Before the Ukraine crisis, this pivot to Asia had more to do with Moscow’s assessment that Asia will be the major source of future economic growth. Russia seeks Asian, especially Chinese, investment to open up new sources of oil and gas, which will in turn allow it to play a larger role in regional security and diplomacy. Economic ties are the basis for the deepening Sino-Russian partnership, while Beijing has also provided important diplomatic support as the West has sought Russia’s isolation. Yet to avoid excessive dependence on China, Russia has worked to cultivate relations with other Asian powers, especially India, Vietnam, and Japan. This interest in harnessing Asian economic growth gives Moscow and Washington a common interest in regional stability, but one that is unlikely to be fully realized as long as bilateral relations remain focused on Europe and Eurasia.
• While Russia has been pursuing a more revisionist approach in Europe and Eurasia, in the Asia-Pacific it remains largely a status quo power, whose interests in continued economic growth and stability mostly parallel those of the U.S.
• While China is Russia’s most important partner in Asia, the growing disparity between Russian and Chinese power has encouraged Moscow to hedge. Western efforts to isolate Russia risk undermining this balancing act and pushing Russia closer to China.
• Russia’s efforts to play a larger role in Asia create opportunities for the U.S. to seek deeper engagement on issues of mutual interest, including North Korea, nuclear security, economic development, and trade. [End Page 66]
Especially since the United States and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea, Moscow has emphasized the shift of its political and economic priorities to Asia. The crisis has spawned a narrative in some quarters that Russia is turning to China to compensate for its growing isolation from the West.1 Many Western analysts see the development of this Sino-Russian partnership as the first step toward the emergence of a new revisionist axis aiming to challenge the West’s economic and geopolitical dominance.2
The reality though is more complex. While the Ukraine crisis may have given Russia’s turn to Asia greater significance, Russian focus on Asia and the Pacific has been growing for several years. Driven less by geopolitical animus toward the West than by an interest in developing its own resources, taking advantage of Asia’s growing dynamism, and limiting the potential for regional conflict to jeopardize these aims, Russia’s pivot began as a gradual process of economic and political integration with Asia. Yet as the crisis in relations between Russia and the West over Ukraine has accelerated, Moscow has increasingly fallen back on an old habit of seeing Asia in general, and China in particular, as an alternative to dependence on the West.
The major goal of this shift has long been to attract investment for the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East, where a combination of natural riches and sparse populations imperils Moscow’s long-term control. Geographic proximity between Russia’s vast reserves of oil and gas and China’s huge market creates a natural synergy that has seen China become Russia’s largest trading partner in recent years. Like Russia, China is also ambivalent about the existing international security order dominated by the United States. The two countries consequently find themselves on the same side of many international disputes. For many Russian nationalists of a conservative bent, China also offers an attractive model of development without democratization and is a potential superpower whose rise will inevitably come at the expense of the United States.
Yet as Moscow well understands, Russia...