There is an anecdote going the rounds in Moscow these days. It seems that Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev were all riding together on a train. Suddenly the train lurched to a stop and remained immobile for an hour. What to do? Stalin ordered some soldiers on the train to shoot the conductor. They obeyed. But still the train did not move. Khrushchev ordered the rehabilitation of the conductor. This being done, the train still did not move. Everyone turned to Brezhnev for a solution. Brezhnev ordered all the passengers on the train to hold up their hands to their mouths and to whistle. Then, at least, they would think that the train was moving!

The point of the story, of course, is that the aging Soviet oligarchy is not quite up to the massive problems it faces. One perceptive Western scholar of Soviet politics says the Brezhnev regime is "muddling down" rather than "muddling through." And although this tendency toward inertia in the face of serious challenges is most notable in Soviet domestic policies, it is equally apparent in Soviet foreign policy, particularly in Soviet policy in Asia.

For ten years the Soviet Union has pursued a Dulles-like strategy of containing China in Asia by building up its ground forces on the Chinese border and its naval power in the Pacific, while seeking through a variety of political and economic means to check the expansion of Chinese influence. Yet the result of that strategy has been to leave the Soviet Union in virtual political isolation in Asia. China, Japan and the United States remain Moscow's adversaries and the Kremlin's heavy-handed policies are running the risk of driving those three adversaries closer together. None of the Asian powers has shown even the slightest interest in Moscow's plan for Asian collective security, an ill-conceived idea whose major goal was to facilitate Soviet efforts to contain China.

This essay examines some of the reasons why Moscow has failed in its efforts to expand its influence in Asia, and assesses the prospects for an improvement in the Soviet position in Asia.

Certainly since the late 1960s, when the Russians quadrupled their military forces on the Chinese border, the Soviet Union's major preoccupation in Asia has been with China. Indeed, Moscow's Asian policy has been Moscow's China policy. Chief among Moscow's long-range goals in Asia has been the desire to establish nothing more nor less than a cordon sanitaire around the periphery of China, to weaken it internally, and, in one way or another, to pressure China into an accommodation with the Soviet Union. A derivative Soviet goal in Asia has to do with the effort to win the two smaller communist nations, North Korea and Vietnam, to the Soviet rather than to the Chinese side of the Sino-Soviet conflict. Moscow seeks also to pry Japan loose from its alliance with the United States, to prevent Japan from moving closer to China, and to get as much Japanese help as possible in developing Siberia. In Southeast Asia, Moscow wants to improve its relations with all of the ASEAN countries in an effort to take advantage of the withdrawal of American power and to block what it regards as the inevitable expansion of Chinese influence into that area.1 A fifth Soviet goal in Asia is to use its relatively new relationship with India in order to expand Soviet influence in the Indian Ocean, the gateway to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and to use India as a countervailing force against both China and the United States. Finally, in the region as a whole, Moscow seeks to project its military, particularly its naval power, and to insert itself into the various security arrangements in the region, thereby assuring for itself a leading role in Asian politics.

Before turning to consider Soviet successes and failures in achieving each of these objectives, let me stress what these objectives do not include. There is little evidence of any strong Soviet interest in promoting communist revolutions in Asia. One reason for this, no doubt, is the absence of many good prospects for such revolutions. But an equally compelling fact is that the Russians need to improve their relations with existing Asian governments if they are to compete for influence with both China and the United States, and any significant support to Asian revolutionaries would simply be counterproductive.


The most spectacular Soviet failure in Asia has been its inability to come to terms with China. China has become the most active, and the most uncompromising, adversary of the Soviet Union not only in Asia but in the world at large. In Africa, the Chinese feel themselves to be in a de facto alliance with the United States against the spread of Russian influence; they reportedly urged U.S. intervention against the Russians and Cubans in Angola and they continually warn the African powers against the desires of the "new Czars" to become the "new colonial power in Africa." In the Middle East, although the Chinese are not in a position to do much, they quickly moved in to provide military assistance to Egypt once Sadat broke with Moscow and they are encouraging other Russian clients to be wary. At the same time, in an effort to build up countervailing power against Moscow, Peking is strengthening its ties with the most conservative regimes in the region, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, China would like nothing better than to revive the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO).2

In Western Europe, China has greatly expanded its diplomatic presence and activity. Peking invites an increasing stream of the most anti-Soviet European politicians to visit China, and China has become one of the most enthusiastic promoters of both NATO and the Common Market. In Eastern Europe, Peking has promoted with equal fervor any kind of "national communism," whether of the Yugoslav or Romanian variety, which could be used to weaken Soviet power over its imperial domain. Meanwhile, at the United Nations and in Third World forums, Peking maintains a steady level of vituperation designed to convince whoever will listen that the Russians are the gravest danger to world peace and are intent on world domination.

In Asia, China has become a quasi-ally of the United States, lobbying actively for a strengthening of the American military presence throughout the region, for ASEAN military collaboration, for the ANZUS Pact, which joins Australia and New Zealand to the United States, for maintenance of the U.S.-Japanese Security Treaty, and, recently, even for Japanese rearmament.

Whatever prospects may have existed for a limited Sino-Soviet accommodation after the death of Mao have greatly diminished during the past year. The new Chinese leaders seem to have considered and to have rejected the possible advantages of such a rapprochement. Probably the most important factor is that the new Peking leadership is still divided and would require a united leadership to undertake such a substantial change in foreign policy as a limited accommodation with Russia. Moreover, Chairman Hua Kuo-feng's legitimacy derives from the fact that he was Mao's candidate for the top job in China; if Hua were now to agree to what looked like a radical change in Maoist foreign policy, he would weaken his own position. Finally, the new Chinese leaders may have decided that they have, at least for the time being, more to gain from the West than from the Soviet Union. They will want increased trade, technology and credits from the West in order to develop China; the Soviet Union cannot supply these in the amounts needed. And, so long as China genuinely fears Soviet expansion in Asia and the possibility of Soviet military action against China, Peking will need the cooperation of the West to maintain an effective balance of power against Moscow. In any case, throughout the period since Mao's death in October 1976, Chinese anti-Soviet polemics have remained constant. Huang Hua's address to the U. N. General Assembly on September 29, 1977, was typical in striking most of the major themes: the Soviet Union is on the offensive. It wants to "grab" all of Europe, Asia and Africa. It is accelerating its "plunder" of strategic resources and areas in Africa, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Its ambitions far exceed those of the "old Czars." It is more aggressive and more adventurous than any other imperialist power. It has to rely on threats of war and military strength to pursue its expansion because it has inadequate economic strength. Finally, its highly concentrated state-monopoly, "capitalist" economy and its "fascist dictatorship" make it easier for Moscow to militarize its economy. Therefore beware of growing Soviet military power.

The Russians, for their part, after suspending polemics for a few months after Mao's death, resumed them again in the spring of 1977. In May, "Alexandrov," a pseudonym for the highest ranking Soviet authorities, launched a broad indictment of "Maoism without Mao," accused the Chinese of preparing for war, and bluntly warned the West against appeasing Chinese "expansionism" by providing military assistance to the People's Republic. Since then, Moscow has increasingly emphasized the dangers of growing Chinese military strength and war preparations.

The events since Mao's death suggest that the Sino-Soviet conflict has now reached a new and higher level. Moscow must now bury whatever hopes it may have had for reducing tensions with China after Mao's death; it must confront the likelihood that China will be a long-range adversary, an adversary who may become more dangerous than the United States at the height of the cold war; finally, Moscow can no longer take comfort from the fact that Mao's ideological campaigns in his last years led to instability and weakness in China. Now that Mao is dead, the new, more pragmatic Chinese leaders are already concentrating their efforts on economic and military development. And, although the Russians are likely to remain much stronger than China for years, if not decades to come, they know from their own experience what a determined, stable, totalitarian leadership can accomplish. In sum, the Kremlin must now begin to ponder seriously the long-range implications of permanent hostility with a determined and increasingly powerful neighbor.

It is, of course, possible, as some Western analysts have consistently speculated, that Moscow may consider a military "solution" to its China problem. But it would be difficult to envisage any military action for Moscow that makes much sense. An effort to deal China a "punishing blow," to detach a portion of its territory, or to knock out its nuclear capacity - options that are cavalierly discussed by Western "strategists" - would almost certainly lead to a long, protracted and debilitating war that would have the gravest consequences for the very stability of the Soviet system. For Russia to undertake such a war at a time when it is already preoccupied with a developing internal economic crisis caused by declining rates of productivity, with growing problems of empire, and with a faltering relationship with the United States, is difficult to conceive. Even a limited military action would almost certainly drive Japan, Europe, China and the United States into a military alliance against Russia. And it would deprive the Soviets of any of the considerable advantages they now gain from détente.

But if war remains unlikely, an accommodation will now be even more difficult. Those Western observers, including this writer, and those Soviet "optimists" who foresaw the possibility of such a reduction of tension after the death of Mao seem to have underestimated the degree of suspicion and inflexibility on both sides. Although Moscow suspended polemics with China for a few months after Mao's death, it was unwilling to make any more substantial gestures such as a thinning out of its forces on the Chinese border. Such a gesture to the new Chinese leaders would have been particularly important as an indication that the Kremlin was now prepared to deal with Peking on a more equitable basis rather than from a position of strength. As Arnold Horelick has recently pointed out, it was the Soviet military buildup, including airfields, fixed missile sites, depots, supply stations, and permanent garrisons that completely transformed the military geography of the border. Nor was Moscow willing to offer the Chinese any concessions on the disputed territories. At least that is the impression one has from the abrupt suspension last February of the border talks that were resumed after Mao's death. This does not mean that a border settlement is no longer possible. But it does serve to reinforce the view that even if such a settlement does come about, any far-reaching resolution of the conflict sufficient to relieve the deepest fears of either side is extremely improbable and could take decades to occur, if it occurs at all.

The most likely development in Sino-Soviet relations over the next few years, then, is the institutionalization of a "neither peace nor war" relationship. This new adversary relationship will be characterized by a continuing, if not an intensified, military-strategic competition. That competition will become most acute in the thousands of miles of poorly defended borderlands between the two countries. These borderlands lie in regions that have been traditional invasion routes; they are inhabited by minority nationalities of doubtful political loyalties; and they are geographically remote from both European Russia and the center of Han Chinese power, a fact that increases fears on both sides about their defensibility.

The strategic competition will also lead to a continuing buildup of military forces more generally. The Chinese held four national conferences on defense in January 1977, and there is much evidence of a higher priority being assigned to military modernization. The Russians, for their part, will probably continue to expand and to modernize their Pacific Fleet and to upgrade their forces in Siberia.3

Finally, it is likely that the worldwide competition for influence between Russia and China will intensify, particularly in those areas where the United States is weak, such as Southeast Asia and southern Africa.

In sum, the Soviet Union has not only not succeeded in resolving its China problem; it has probably run out of options for dealing with China, unless it is prepared to make some fundamental concessions of the kind it has so far rejected, e.g., a substantial thinning out of its forces on the border, or a willingness to consider at least some of the Chinese territorial claims. Otherwise, all that Moscow can realistically do now is to be patient, to hope that the opportunity for a more civilized relationship will develop later on, and to discourage the West from adding to its long-range fears by providing China with arms.

Of course, not all of Moscow's current difficulties with China can be blamed on the Kremlin leaders. The Chinese leaders, and particularly Mao Tse-tung, must share a considerable part of the blame for the deterioration of the relationship. But the characteristic Soviet overreaction to the Chinese "threat," particularly the massive military buildup in Siberia, is an example of the kind of Soviet inflexibility that has proved to be so counterproductive in its foreign relations generally.


Soviet efforts to line up North Vietnam and North Korea against Peking have also failed. The simple facts of geography dictate to Hanoi and to Pyongyang that they cannot afford to alienate Peking. Both countries have long borders with China. In the North Korean case, it was the Chinese who preserved Pyongyang's very existence by coming to its defense against the Americans in 1950. Moreover, both Communist Parties have independent bases of power. The Vietnamese Communists came to power in the course of an indigenous revolution which lasted for more than three decades. It would be foolish to imagine that after such an experience they would become willing satellites of the Kremlin. In the North Korean case, despite the fact that Kim II Sung was installed in power by Soviet troops at the end of World War II, he used the Korean War to emancipate himself from the Russians and by 1958, Kim had created an independent power base and, like the Vietnamese, was adroitly playing off Moscow against Peking.

A third factor behind Moscow's inability to line up the two smaller communist states against China is Moscow's lack of economic leverage. Both the Vietnamese and the Korean Communists are in desperate need of foreign aid, credits and technology which they cannot hope to get from Moscow; this drives both of them toward the non-communist world. Hanoi has recently accepted both credits and outright aid from the French, negotiated an aid agreement with the Japanese, and made clear overtures to private American capital, all in the interest of rebuilding a war-ravaged economy. North Korea, for its part, increasingly turned to the non-communist world, particularly to the Japanese, during the mid-1970s, when it had hopes of importing large quantities of machinery to accelerate its industrialization. These plans ran into difficulty when, as a result of the international oil recession and a drop in the prices of North Korea's major exports, Pyongyang was forced to default on its outstanding loans from the Japanese and Europeans. But if North Korea succeeds in rescheduling its debts, it will almost certainly turn once again to Japan and to Europe for the machinery, technology and credits it needs to develop its industry.

Then too, Soviet interests and the interests of the two smaller communist powers in Asia do not coincide. Kim II Sung has an interest in reunifying all of Korea by any means, but the Soviet Union has little interest in risking a war with the United States, endangering détente, and alienating Japan in order to help him achieve that goal. In the case of Vietnam, Moscow's interest is to exclude American and Chinese influence from Indochina, but Hanoi's immediate aims are to rebuild its economy and to balance Russia against China, goals that are causing it to look for help from the West, and to improve its relations with Peking. There are, however, potentially serious conflicts of interest between Peking and Hanoi over territorial issues and over Vietnam's continuing fighting with Cambodia, but both sides have an interest in avoiding increased tension which would provide an opening for Moscow. Hanoi, after all, does not want to choose sides between Peking and Moscow and China does not want to force Hanoi into increased dependence on the Russians.

But apart from such objective factors that limit Soviet influence over the smaller Asian communist powers, the Russians have been their own worst enemies. They have characteristically used the crudest kinds of pressure in unsuccessful efforts to force North Korea and Vietnam off the fence. Between 1962 and 1964, in an effort to force North Korea to the Soviet side of the conflict with China, Khrushchev cut economic assistance to Pyongyang; this virtually drove the North Koreans into the arms of the Chinese. Although Brezhnev has been somewhat more subtle, there is evidence that, in the early 1970s, once Moscow became Pyongyang's largest trading partner, it sought to use this trade as a political weapon to turn North Korea away from China. Once again, the effort backfired and Pyongyang this time turned to the non-communist world, particularly to Japan, in order to try to lessen its economic dependence on the Russians.

As to the two smaller communist countries in Indochina, Laos, like Vietnam, has begun to seek Western economic aid, while Cambodia, beset by isolation and border clashes with its neighbors, has recently moved even closer to the Chinese orbit. Indeed, in the area of Indochina as a whole - that is, the three communist states of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, plus Thailand - it is Peking, not Moscow, that is playing a growing and pivotal role in the new diplomatic balance that is emerging. Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are all trying to improve their relations with Peking in order to gain leverage on their more immediate and historic enemies.

Moscow's basic difficulty in relating successfully to the smaller communist powers of Asia stems from its unwillingness or inability to treat them as anything other than pawns in a great-power rivalry with China. In this chess game, the Russians have used the crudest kinds of pressures in an effort to line up both North Korea and Vietnam against China. Such a policy was foredoomed to failure from the start. It represents yet another example of Soviet rigidity in its dealings with Asian countries.


Soviet hopes of prying Japan loose from its American alliance, preventing Japan from moving closer to China, and getting a great deal of Japanese help in the development of Siberia have also not been realized. Although the Japanese-American alliance has run into troubles in recent years, it is difficult to conceive of any substitute relationship or posture that would fit Japanese interests. An alliance with China against Russia would make little sense; it would be an alliance of two military weaklings against a military superpower and would be more likely to provoke than to deter Moscow. Whatever economic gains might be achieved from an alliance with China are already being realized by the Japanese without such an alliance. Trade between Japan and China has been rising steadily since normalization and can be expected to grow even more in the years ahead once China sets its course on steady development.

A Japanese alliance with the Soviet Union against China is inconceivable. There is deep popular resentment against the Russians at all levels of Japanese society, a resentment fed by a territorial dispute, worsening fishing disputes, and continuing suspicions of such Russian actions as seizures of Japanese fishing boats, overflights of Japanese territory, and violations of Japanese territorial waters. In Japanese public opinion polls, it is the Soviet Union that consistently ranks highest as the country that most threatens Japan. More recently, Tokyo is increasingly uneasy about the growth of the Soviet Pacific Fleet.

If another bilateral alliance is unlikely, a Japanese rejection of the American alliance in favor of a policy of neutralism is equally unlikely. Such a policy would leave Japan with much reduced leverage on Russia and China, as well as on the increasingly powerful minor states in the region such as North and South Korea and Taiwan. It would also foster growing protectionist sentiment in the United States and thus pose grave consequences for Japanese economic interests.

In short, there do not seem to be any realistic Japanese alternatives to an alliance with the United States. Moreover, now that China enthusiastically endorses that alliance, out of its fear of Soviet expansion, the alliance comes under much less domestic pressure within Japan, particularly on the Left.

Soviet efforts to prevent Japan from moving closer to China also seem doomed to failure. There has never been a strong feeling in Japan that China is a serious threat. Insofar as such a feeling once existed before the 1972 normalization of relations, it has declined remarkably in the past few years. The Chinese, unlike the Russians, are extremely adept at cultivating Japanese politicians. While Moscow's influence is limited to one faction of the Japanese Socialist Party, Chinese influence extends across the entire Japanese political spectrum. When the Japanese do show doubts about their relations with the United States, they show a proclivity toward closer ties with China, the nation that has most profoundly influenced Japanese culture in the past. Moreover, China and Japan are natural trading partners, and now that the new Chinese leaders have embarked on an effort to modernize their industry and agriculture, economic ties between the two countries should mushroom. Whether or not the Japanese leaders decide to go ahead and sign the controversial peace treaty with China that contains the famous "anti-hegemony" clause to which Russia objects - and there is a good possibility they will do so - Japanese-Chinese relations are likely to grow closer in the years ahead.

Finally, the Soviet Union is not likely to involve Japan in the development of Siberia on any large scale unless the United States also agrees to help develop Siberia. Japan wants American co-participation in Siberian development both as a guarantee on its economic returns and as a guarantee against Soviet political pressure. Yet substantial American involvement in Siberia is almost out of the question unless there is a radical improvement in Soviet-American relations. To be sure, Soviet trade with Japan has been growing steadily since the 1960s, and Japan has provided more than a billion dollars in credits to several Siberian development projects. But the volume of these credits still falls far short of Soviet expectations and needs.

Soviet disappointment in its relations with Japan can to some extent be credited to factors beyond Moscow's control. But Moscow's inflexibility on the issue of the northern territories has been decisive in preventing any real warming up of Soviet-Japanese relations. In a period when Japanese policymakers were shocked by Nixon's approach to China without prior consultation and might have been receptive to Soviet concessions on the controversial island issue, Moscow remained adamant.4 For the Soviet Union, which has so much to gain from Japan, to sacrifice its relations with that country over a few small islands is an example of the nineteenth-century mentality that the current Soviet leadership often demonstrates.


Soviet efforts to contain Chinese influence in Southeast Asia have also met with little success. Despite the fact that Moscow itself has established diplomatic relations with all of the Southeast Asian countries, it has not been able to prevent those countries from warming up their relations with China. In 1974, Malaysia established diplomatic relations with Peking; in 1975, Thailand and the Philippines followed suit; and in late 1976 Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew journeyed to Peking amid signs that normalization of relations is imminent. China has also established its close pre-Cultural Revolution ties with Burma. Only with Indonesia are Chinese relations still frozen, and even this may soon change.

More fundamentally, competition with Moscow has forced China into substantial overtures to the governments in Southeast Asia. China has, for example, welcomed ASEAN and the idea of Southeast Asian neutrality; it has sought to calm the fears of countries such as Singapore and Malaysia about the loyalties of their own sizable Chinese populations; and in some instances Peking has even gone out of its way to reassure ASEAN governments that it would not give support to their internal communist opponents.

On the economic front, although Soviet economic relations with the ASEAN countries are increasing, the growth rate is miniscule because the Russians are finding it difficult to develop markets for their goods. China, on the other hand, exports large quantities of rice to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Finally, in the economic realm, Moscow cannot hope to compete for influence in Southeast Asia with either Japan or the United States. At the recent ASEAN summit last August, it was Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda who stole the show by promising substantial economic involvement in the region's future. Thus, Moscow's principal weakness in this region is its lack of economic instruments to influence the course of events.


Although the Soviet Union's best publicized "success" in Asia has been its growing ties with India, Soviet prospects for expanding its influence in India, or in the South Asian region as a whole, are severely constrained. The new Janata government in India has demonstrated a clear interest in improving its relations with both China and the United States. Similarly, the new Bangladesh government that came to power after the assassination of President Mujib in 1975 is also more pro-Western and pro-Chinese than its predecessor; it established diplomatic relations with China in 1975. Pakistan is continuing to hold Moscow at arm's length, mindful of the fact that it was Russian arms that enabled India to assist in the breakup of Pakistan.

Perhaps an even more fundamental factor at work in the region is the growing effort of the Shah of Iran to use his money and influence to resolve traditional South Asian regional differences, and thereby to reduce the dependence of regional powers on outsiders such as the Soviet Union. The prospects for regional cooperation in South Asia are, as a result, brighter than they have been at any time during the last three decades.

Already there has been a rapprochement between Pakistan and Afghanistan in which the Shah has been instrumental; the development of a close relationship between Iran and India in which Iran has offered India a large amount of credits, an uninterrupted flow of oil, and jobs in Iran for Indian educators, technicians, engineers, etc.; and movement toward closer ties between Iran and Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, and Iran and Pakistan. Both of the latter two countries are extremely wary of Moscow's capacity to destabilize the region.

Ultimately, the Shah's goal is to loosen Indian ties to Moscow and to the Arab states, to increase the economic ties between the riparian states of the Indian Ocean and Australia, and to transform the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf region into a "zone of peace," which would limit the intrusion of outside powers. This concept of a "zone of peace" has been endorsed by Peking, which undoubtedly also shares the Shah's strategic vision.

Until the intrusion of all outside powers in the region is removed, the Shah and many of the indigenous powers such as Pakistan vigorously support the continued military presence of the U.S. Navy. Finally, Iran itself has begun to finance a mammoth defense buildup that includes a naval force scheduled to grow by four times between 1975 and 1978.

In sum, in South Asia, as in Northeast and Southeast Asia, there are good prospects for a durable power equilibrium that will minimize the opportunities for adventurous outside powers to increase their influence in the region.


The Soviets probably consider that the most important avenue for an expansion of their influence in Asia and the Pacific is the well-publicized Soviet Pacific Fleet. Before World War II, the Pacific waters were divided between the American and Japanese navies. In the immediate postwar period, the U.S. Navy had unchallenged dominance of the Pacific. Now there can be little doubt that the Soviet Union is intent on challenging that American naval dominance and is casting its shadow on the countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. The Soviet submarine fleet is already the largest in the world. The role of the Soviet naval air force seems to be growing. In just the past few years, the Soviets have extended their naval presence to the East China Sea and to the Yellow Sea.

Although one of the purposes of this growing naval power in the Pacific is undoubtedly defensive - to cope with American strategic submarines and with American naval forces generally - there can be no question that another purpose is to project Russian political influence throughout Asia. Indeed, Moscow's renowned Admiral Gorshkov talks like Admiral Mahan. And, in addition to Gorshkov, several Soviet strategic writers have argued that it is necessary to use Soviet naval forces not merely to protect but actively to promote Soviet interests in the Third World. Thus, in a recent Soviet volume on the suggestive subject of "Military Force and International Relations," we can read the following:

In connection with the task of preventing local wars and also in those cases wherein military support must be furnished to those nations fighting for their freedom and independence against the forces of internal reaction and imperialist intervention, the Soviet Union may require mobile and well-trained and well-equipped armed forces. In some situations the very knowledge of a Soviet military presence in an area in which a conflict situation is developing may serve to restrain the imperialists and local reaction, prevent them from dealing out violence to the local populace and eliminate a threat to overall peace and international security. It is precisely this type of role that ships of the Soviet Navy are playing in the Mediterranean Sea. . . .

The actual situation may require the Soviet Union to carry out measures aimed at restraining the aggressive acts of imperialism. Practical steps towards resolving the problem of regional military opposition to imperialist expansion by expanding the scale of Soviet military presence and military assistance are being viewed today as a very important factor in international relations.5

Moreover, this is not merely talk. To a far greater degree than is generally realized, the Soviet Union has employed its naval forces for political purposes. A list of such actions (compiled by Robert Weinland) includes the following examples:6

October 1967 Maintenance of continuous combatant presence in Port Said to deter Israeli strikes against Egypt

February/March 1969 Deployment of task group into Gulf of Guinea to effect release of Soviet fishing vessels impounded by Ghana

September/October 1970 Concentration of countervailing forces in Eastern Mediterranean to deter potential U.S. intervention in Jordanian crisis

December 1971/January 1972 Deployment of countervailing forces in Indian Ocean to deter possible U.S. intervention in Indo-Pakistani war

April 1973 Visit of Admiral Gorshkov and naval task group to Iraq during border

conflict with Kuwait

April/July 1973 Sealift of Moroccan expeditionary forces to Syria

October/November 1973 Concentration of countervailing forces in Eastern Mediterranean to deter potential U.S. intervention (or support potential Soviet intervention) in Fourth Arab-Israeli war

The extent to which the Soviet Union intends to try in the future to spread its influence in the Pacific through naval power is not clear. There are, however, some very real constraints on such a course of action. Massive naval expenditures will divert economic resources at a time when Soviet economic productivity is declining. The rate of growth of Soviet military expenditures has exceeded the overall rate of growth of the economy for a half dozen or so years. Moscow may soon have to make some fundamental decisions about its future investment priorities. Can a convincing case be made to the Kremlin leaders for Russia to rule the waves when there are so many other competing priorities for scarce resources?

Moreover, the relationship between enhanced naval power and political influence is not so clear. Unchallenged American naval supremacy in the Caribbean did not prevent the rise of Fidel Castro or Salvador Allende. The American Seventh Fleet could not prevent communist victory in South Vietnam or earlier in China. Finally, Moscow may find that its increasing naval activities in the Pacific are counterproductive. The United States, China, Japan and Australia, as well as other powers, may be forced into cooperative counteraction. China has already taken the initiative to invite "retired" Japanese naval officers to Peking to discuss coastal defense and Japanese-Australian cooperation is developing in the political and economic realms. Thus, it may well turn out that the Soviets are relying on a nineteenth or early twentieth century strategy to gain influence in the late twentieth century.

Still, the Pacific Fleet can be used as a tool of political opportunity and it would be foolish to rule out the possibility that opportunities may arise for its use. Thus, much will depend on whether the present tenuous equilibrium of forces in various regions of Asia is durable.


This brief review suggests that there are four major factors that account for the failure of Soviet policy in Asia. The first is Moscow's historic conflict with China, which has now turned China into one of the Kremlin's mortal enemies. As the United States found to its great discomfort in the 1950s and 1960s, an Asian policy whose central focus is the containment of Chinese influence is bound to fail. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States can hope to achieve its goals in Asia without taking into consideration the legitimate interests and concerns of China. If this was true during the early years of the cold war when China was relatively weak, it is even more true today when China is already one of the dominant powers in Asia.

The second major element accounting for the Kremlin's poor performance in Asia is the relatively stable situation that exists throughout the region. Despite widespread predictions that the communist victory in Vietnam would have profound domino effects on the rest of Asia, the post-Vietnam realignment of political forces has not produced any substantial change in the balance of power in the region. In Northeast Asia, there remains a four-power standoff. In Southeast Asia, the new communist states are preoccupied with their internal problems, and they do not in any case represent a coherent force because of their historic rivalries. At the same time, there is growing cooperation among the non-communist states in the region. In South Asia, there are better opportunities for regional cooperation than have existed at any time in the recent past.

It is in large part because of this relative stability in Asia that the Soviet Union, despite a massive increase of its military power in the region, has not been able to translate that military power into increasing political influence. Indeed, in no other region of the world is there such a major disproportion between Soviet military power and Soviet political influence as there is in Asia. Nor does the Soviet Union seem to be in a particularly promising position to improve its position.

Another substantial constraint on Soviet policy in Asia is its lack of instruments to influence events in that region. Neither any Asian state nor any group of Asian revolutionaries any longer considers the Soviet Union to be a model for its own development. And the Soviet Union cannot provide either a market for Asian products or development assistance and technology on the scale required. This is probably why the Soviets continue to rely so single-mindedly on military power as the principal vehicle for expanding their influence. But such a policy runs the real danger of provoking their adversaries into joint action and increasing the already great suspicions in the region of Soviet intentions. Such suspicion is deepest in Japan, Korea and China, but it exists everywhere.

Finally, Moscow's heavy-handed approach to the Asians, and its obsessive concern with frontier security, has caused it to miss major opportunities to improve its relations with Japan and, probably, with China as well. To be sure, Moscow has some very legitimate security concerns. But one cannot avoid the impression that an inflexible approach to those concerns, influenced to a considerable extent by narrow military, rather than political, considerations, has greatly contributed to Soviet difficulties. For all of these reasons, it would seem that the time is at hand for a serious reappraisal in Moscow of its Asian policies. But such a reappraisal will probably have to wait for a new Kremlin leadership, if it is to occur at all.

As for the United States in Asia, the present moment is certainly not a time for self-congratulation. American preoccupation with the Vietnam War focused our own and world attention on Asia for more than a decade. During the last 35 years, the United States has fought three large wars in Asia and lost 200,000 American lives. If the focal points of world attention are now elsewhere, on the Middle East, southern Africa, Europe, and the future of the Soviet-American détente, this does not mean that the tenuous stability in Asia will last indefinitely.

There are a variety of events that could undermine the Asian equilibrium. A further decline of American power and interest in Asia, a new Korean war, a worsening of Chinese-American relations, a communist victory in the Philippines, Thailand or Malaysia, an increase in instability in India, the coming to power in Japan of an anti-conservative coalition with a more neutralist foreign policy - any of these developments, or some combination of them, could contribute to new fears, pressures and instability.

Moreover, it would be extremely unwise for the United States to become complacent about the region. There are growing fears among our friends and allies in Asia about American staying power and the extent of the American commitment. The Administration's plans for withdrawal of American combat forces from Korea have contributed to these fears. Those plans need to be reappraised. But in a larger sense, the United States should use this welcome period of quiescence and stability in Asia to construct new and more solid arrangements and to reenforce old ones that will contribute to a long-range pattern of stability in the area.

Nothing is more important in this respect than to construct a more solid and stable foundation for American relations with China. Leslie H. Brown has stated the matter succinctly:

The issue boils down to a very simple proposition: is the threat of a breakdown of U.S.-China relations over Taiwan, with all the consequences that would flow from it, sufficiently real to justify accepting the consequences of trying to remove it? In my opinion, the threat is real, and the costs of indefinitely deferring a Taiwan settlement are unacceptable.7

There are several other matters of pressing importance in Asia. Now that there is a new government in India more inclined to friendship with the United States, the opportunity to forge new and more stable ties with India should not be lost. Also, the rising tide of protectionism both in Western Europe and the United States, unless it is checked, could engulf our relations with Japan. Since India and Japan are not only two powerful countries in Asia, but also two of Asia's most impressive democracies, we need to devote special efforts to our relations with each. Finally, in the wake of our national trauma in Vietnam, we should resist the temptation to forget about Southeast Asia. The United States and Japan, together with other interested powers in the region such as Australia, can play a constructive role in forging new ties among the ASEAN countries and in contributing to more equitable growth within those countries.

In sum, the prospects for building a stable framework for peace in Asia are much more promising than even the most bold analyst might have imagined just a few years ago. Whether or not we have the wisdom and the vision to cash in on these opportunities remains to be seen.


1 The current members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines.

2 The members of CENTO are Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The United States, while not technically a member, has participated fully in the work of the alliance. It has been for some years in a caretaker status, though the Carter Administration showed continuing interest by sending Secretary Vance to the annual meeting in Iran last May.

3 The great danger of a spiraling arms race between Russia and China, apart from the obvious danger of such a race getting out of control, is that it would accelerate Soviet-American arms competition. Some Soviet spokesmen are already saying that Russia requires a larger strategic force than the United States in order to deal with enemies on two fronts.

7 Leslie H. Brown, "American Security Policy in Asia," Adelphi Papers, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, 1977, No. 132. For an extremely powerful argument for seeking to establish full diplomatic relations with Peking, see A. Doak Barnett, "On the Road to Peking," The Asia Mail, October 1977.

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  • Donald S. Zagoria is Professor of Government at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Fellow of the Research Institute on International Change at Columbia University. He is the author of Sino-Soviet Conflict, 1956-1961 and Vietnam Triangle: Moscow, Peking, Hanoi, and other works.
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