Washington’s two recent big summits occurred as if they were in two different worlds. First, President Donald Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, where the two leaders’ conversation focused on trade and North Korea. Then, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow, where he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traded allegations over the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The two summits were linked by concern about hotspots like Syria and North Korea, yet not by a unified strategy. But so long as it fails to see Russia in an Asian context, Washington will struggle to develop a coherent approach.
America’s friends and allies in Asia, by contrast, realize that U.S. policy toward Russia and Europe and the Middle East shapes Chinese diplomacy. Since annexing Crimea in 2014 and launching a confrontation with the West, Russia has tacked toward China to avoid complete diplomatic isolation. This has strengthened Beijing’s hand in Asia, for example, by reducing Moscow’s ability to adopt positions which contradict China’s priorities.
The U.S. summits in Mar-a-Lago and Moscow, therefore, were watched with great interest in Asia. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pursuing a strategy of improving ties with Russia to ensure Moscow does not align too closely with Beijing. To Japan, it makes no sense to look at relations with Russia and with China in isolation. Japan has promised significant business, energy, and infrastructure investments in Russia. As a result, stalled talks on territorial disputes with Russia — the biggest impediment to full rapprochement — have been resuscitated.
Better ties between Russia and Japan could help reshape diplomacy in Asia. China long knew it had no need to fear friendship between Russia and Japan, given Moscow and Tokyo’s historical disagreements. That is now slowly changing, largely thanks to Abe’s personal courtship of President Vladimir Putin, but also as a result of concrete economic and trade deals that Japan is seeking with Russia to balance its own Asia Pacific strategy. If Moscow and Tokyo improve ties, Russia would have less reason to follow China’s lead in Asia.