Washington seems newly determined to contain China in Asia, but its recent policies — displays of military might in the South China Sea and overtures to Hanoi — clearly underscore its tougher stance. A more subtle and possibly more effective way to curb Beijing’s outsized ambitions would be to normalize relations with Russia — a nuclear-armed state that occupies vital geopolitical space in northeast Asia, and plays a pivotal role in Asia’s overall power balance.
Russia and America have few outstanding differences in the Asia-Pacific and, as neighbors across the Bering Strait, have an objective common interest in preserving a stable regional order. China’s rise appears to challenge this, posing threats both to America’s economic and security architecture in Asia and — more subtly — to Russia’s independent status and influence a Eurasian power.
Right now, Russia is leaning toward China. The Ukraine imbroglio and associated Western sanctions are pushing Russia into a deeply asymmetrical economic relationship with China that could reshape power relations in Asia to Beijing’s advantage. What Chinese call a “stable strategic partnership” has provided Russia a respite from Ukraine sanctions while China has gained a measure of control over Russia’s economic decision-making, especially in developing its resource-rich eastern territories. At least 50 intergovernmental and government-sponsored economic agreements have been concluded for eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East since the Ukraine crisis began. The agreements, covering energy, finance, transportation and other fields, give Beijing unprecedented access to these valuable lands.
Though the new Beijing-Moscow axis is preeminently economically-driven, (unlike the Sino-Soviet alliance of old), it could evolve into something more purposeful and malevolent the longer Western sanctions remain in place. Already, the effect has been to force Russia into a kind “junior partnership” with China, constraining its policy options and potentially diminishing Moscow’s ability to act independently in Asian affairs. With Russia at its back, China can pursue its Asian agenda more aggressively, as its increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea demonstrates.
Certainly, normalization — restoring Russia’s economic access to the West — could be the basis for a more imaginative…