Courtesy Reuters

Russia’s Rebalance?

By Rensselaer Lee

Fu Ying (“How China Sees Russia,” January/February 2016) argues that in the triangular relationship among China, Russia, and the United States, the points representing Moscow and Washington are farthest apart. This is certainly true in eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East. Yet in the Asia-Pacific, Russia and the United States have few outstanding differences and a long history of collaboration against third-party threats.

Russia and the United States both face challenges from an increasingly powerful and nationalist Chinese state. As Washington’s main geopolitical competitor for primacy in the Asia-Pacific, China poses a clear challenge to the United States. For Russia, the challenge is more subtle: China’s deepening economic hold on Russia’s eastern territories could lead to Moscow’s long-term irrelevance in Asia.

Chinese-Russian business deals in energy, mining, finance, power generation, and cross-border transportation, struck mostly in the wake of the Western sanctions imposed in reaction to the Ukraine crisis, have advanced this prospect. Russia’s current relative economic isolation offers Beijing the opportunity to achieve a major geoeconomic goal: joining the resource-rich Russian Far East and China’s industrial northeast into what Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao has called a “single economic integration zone,” closely coordinated with China’s industrial preferences.

To be sure, Russia’s bond with China has provided Moscow with a much-needed economic lifeline and a measure of independence from the West. Yet China’s tightening embrace also presents potential political costs, such as the erosion of Moscow’s sovereignty over its Asian territories, the diminishment of its influence in East Asian affairs, and some loss of status as a Eurasian power. Should Russia become China’s dependent partner, it would add to China’s regional and global power; that, along with Chinese domination of the Russian Far East, would pose all kinds of strategic complications for the United States.

Moscow and Washington should be mindful of the costs of the Ukraine crisis for both countries’ interests in the Asia-Pacific. A more productive dialogue on the crisis and on other areas of disagreement could lead the West to relax economic sanctions against Russia. That would help Moscow gain greater access to the foreign businesses that could assist in developing the Russian Far East. This would signify not a U.S.-Russian entente but rather a shift in the points of the strategic triangle connecting China, Russia, and the United States that would lead to a more equidistant and stable relationship.

RENSSELAER LEE

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute