Moscow is cozying up to its old rival China. China is holding hands with Seoul. Tokyo is striking deals with Pyongyang.
In the ever-shifting game of Asian alliances, where just about everybody has a dispute over something or can actually remember a shooting war with their neighbors, past grudges run deep. But expedience and pragmatism often run deeper.
While U.S. President Barack Obama tries to develop his pivot to Asia policy, the region is rapidly spinning ahead in its own direction, energized by dynamic economies, expanding trade relations and a plethora of long-standing disputes and rivalries.
For sure, the world’s mightiest countries, themselves Pacific powers, still throw a lot of weight around. But as they jockey for advantage in the world’s most populous region, relations across Asia are fluid. Many countries, both at the center of the power game and on the sidelines, have both a chance to capitalize and a risk of getting frozen out:
Washington was long able to capitalize on Cold War rifts between Russia and China, but Dmitry Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, recently wrote that the two are rebuilding a relationship likely to grow significantly stronger. This trend has accelerated in part because of Moscow’s frustration with the West over its Ukraine sanctions.
“They are not in a clear alliance, and have a number of diverging, even partially colliding, interests. But they both challenge the global order in which the United States is the norm-setter and the sole arbiter,” he wrote. “The Chinese do this in a much subtler way than the Russians, but both appear to have come to the conclusion that working one’s way into the U.S.-dominated system is not worth it.”
Symbolic of Moscow’s moves toward Beijing is a $400 billion deal they signed last month, after decades of negotiations that went nowhere, to supply China with natural gas through a new pipeline. President Vladimir Putin called the deal “epochal,” though he reportedly had to accept a price lower than hoped for.
In Russia, the effort to improve relations with China is called Putin’s Pivot.
“A strong Russian-Chinese connection has taken shape on the international arena. It is based on a coincidence of views on both global processes and key regional issues,” Putin said earlier this month.
Trenin noted that U.S. relations with China and with Russia are substantially worse than bilateral relations between Beijing and Moscow. He said that is in part because Washington has failed to take Russia seriously as a strategic player in the region. Beijing, meanwhile, may come out with access to more resources and a more secure northern front.
“The unique position that the United States has held since the 1990s as the dominant power in Eurasia is now history,” Trenin concluded.
Here is a puzzle. Why would the president of China, North Korea’s closest thing to an ally, snub Kim Jong Un and go to Seoul to woo his archrival, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, which he did to many a raised eyebrow last week?
Fact is, China is not getting a lot of love from its Asian neighbors these days.
Major trading partner Japan is outraged over what it sees as China’s increasingly assertive claim to a set of small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines have similar beefs over islands in the South China Sea. North Korea, though still reliant on Chinese aid, trade and political backing on the international stage, continues to develop nuclear weapons, and to sidle up to Moscow, regardless of Beijing’s grumblings.
So, while recalibrating its own relations with Moscow, why not try to sneak a kiss from one of Washington’s better friends?
China’s overtures to South Korea — including the Seoul visit — play into its larger ambitions to build a China-centered network of alliances that sidesteps the U.S. and Japan, said Willy Lam, a political science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He added that China is already South Korea’s No. 1 trade partner.
Beijing is also trying to show the South that China, and not the U.S., is the solution to the North Korea crisis, said Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst with the CIA who is now chairman of China studies at U.S. think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Obviously, (the South Koreans) are never going to break away from their alliance with the U.S.,” he said. But he added that China has been “trying to convince the South that they, and not the alliance with the U.S. and Japan, are the key to Seoul’s North Korea problem.”
Increasingly, that is seen as a persuasive argument — China’s rise has unmistakably changed the power equation in Asia. Seen in that way, Johnson says, Beijing’s choice of Seoul over Pyongyang makes perfect strategic sense.
“Different tactics, different approaches for different partners,” Johnson said.
Breaking ranks, a little
Washington has had no closer and more reliable ally in Asia than Japan, which depends on the U.S. for protection and trade.
But Japan’s increasingly angry reaction to its territorial spat with Beijing, its fears of increased Chinese military might and its stalemate with Russia over a different set of disputed islands up north have made many in Tokyo wary.
Breaking ranks with Washington and Seoul, hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has revived bilateral negotiations with North Korea over the matter of Japanese abductees in the North. The issue is of key interest to the Japanese public but decidedly back-burner to Japan’s allies, who would prefer to isolate the North over its nuclear weapons policy.
Abe also led the charge last week as Japan decided to reinterpret its constitution to allow greater use of military force to defend its allies. The move was welcomed by Washington, which is bound by a security treaty to aid the country if Japan ever comes under attack. But it also underscored fears in Japan that it cannot simply expect Washington to come to the rescue anymore, along with hopes among some Japanese leaders for a bigger say in regional security.
“Countries in the region are increasingly concerned about tension over China’s high-handed approach, and showing high expectations for Japan’s role,” said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “Previously, Japan could have said, ‘We cannot contribute to the region because we cannot exercise the right to collective self-defense.’ Japan now has lost that excuse.”
Playing the field
For those who cannot throw their weight around like Moscow, Beijing or Washington, India has some words of wisdom — hedge your bets.
India has long maintained a policy of nonalignment, deliberately keeping itself away from strong, exclusive alliances in favor of playing the field and pushing for a multipolar world order that would give India more say in global governance. In the unsure waters of Asia, hedging your bets is not a bad idea.
“It’s a ‘frenemy’ kind of relationship,” said Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in New Delhi. “Everyone is a frenemy to everyone else. It’s a much more complex world. No one can clearly say ‘I’m an ally of so-and-so.’
“Our strategy is a hedging strategy — and every other player is also doing this. These days, the economy has been separated from security issues. You can have booming trade and healthy investment alongside territorial disputes,” Chaulia said.
India has more potential to be a major player than most in Asia, and good cause for worry about China. Its main concern — shared in many Asian capitals — is whether the Chinese military will become so mighty that Beijing can effectively dictate orders. India’s most obvious partner in this is Japan, and the two have always been friendly.
“India wants to counterbalance China to some extent. India believes that will give it some breathing space strategically,” Chaulia said.
“Despite its apparent political stability, China is a powder keg with no outlets for expression and an authoritarian regime,” he said, echoing a concern held widely throughout Asia. “It could remain stable and keep on growing, as everyone seems to assume it will. But if it becomes unstable, it will have a huge effect on the region.”