- - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

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 U.S. security strategy in Asia. This won’t make Russia America’s ally or erase its new China ties, but it could bring Russia into a more equidistant relations relationship to China and the United States. There would be opportunities for a productive U.S.-Russian dialogue on Pacific security issues, including threats from China, even if Russia doesn’t participate actively in an anti-Chinese coalition. Moreover, coaxed from Beijing’s tightening embrace, Russia could emerge as an independent balancing or even peacekeeping force in the region, contributing to resolution of festering disputes over the South China Sea, the Korean peninsula and elsewhere.

For instance, Russia is well positioned to contribute substantially to international deliberations over the Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Russia shares a border with North Korea, has long experience in dealing with successive Kim regimes, and maintains multiple points of leverage that could be used to restrain the North’s nuclear ambitions. Yet when Secretary of State John Kerry wants to consult on North Korea, he turns to China, not Russia — underscoring the pernicious effect of the Ukraine mess on the U.S.-Russian relationship.

What about Ukraine? More than two years of sanctions have helped depress Russia’s growth (the economy has declined by 4.2 percent in 2015 and is expected to shrink another 1.2 percent this year). Yet sanctions have failed utterly in their ostensible purpose: They haven’t changed Russia’s ground game in eastern Ukraine, or dialed back its annexation of Crimea — now fully incorporated in Russia as its ninth federal administrative district. At the same time, the sanctions policy had harmful repercussions for America’s security posture in Asia and for the Asian power equilibrium generally. Unfortunately, the Obama administration, anxious to punish Russia for its transgressions, has not fully grasped these connections.

For its part, the Kremlin should take stock of the political costs of deepening ties with Beijing — a vastly reduced voice in Asian affairs and the potential loss of real sovereignty over its far-flung Asiatic domains. Vladimir Putin’s courtship of China and incessant touting of the countries’ “truly exemplary collaboration” and such can’t disguise these very real risks to the Russian state, at least in its Asian manifestations.

Clearly, there is nothing to be gained for either side from the current standoff over Ukraine, and there are real dangers in maintaining the current sanctions. Moscow and Washington should not linger in reaching a settlement of the crisis, or the outlines of one, so as to turn attention to matters of greater strategic import in Asia. A meeting of the minds on Asian security issues, if achievable, would help revitalize a U.S.-Russian relationship that now has reached levels of mutual hostility and mistrust not seen since the Cold War.

Rensselaer Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is co-author with Artyom Lukin of “Russia’s Far East: New Dynamics in Asia-Pacific and Beyond” (Lynne Rienner, 2015).

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