Volume III, No. 3, November 2014: Kakekotoba

Volume III, No 3

A publication of independent researchers

November 14, 2014



By Susan J. Cavan

As the APEC Summit drew attention to relationships, issues, and disputes across Asia, certain fundamental elements of key relationships became apparent. For the U.S., it clearly is past time for facts on the ground to match the much-debated “pivot” policy’s many explanations. An increased and broadened focus on the Asia-Pacific region to include greater investment (writ large) in intellectual, cultural, and economic relationships is required to catch up to the military and strategic efforts to date. As Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns noted in November 2011, “As Asia undergoes profound changes, we need to develop the diplomatic, economic and security architecture that can keep pace.” (1) The U.S. has a delicate balance to maintain in the region in order to assure that American policy has not turned to China and away from our traditional allies, and yet to convince China that these reassurances are neither aggressive nor threatening, in order to avoid military competition.

Thus far, the only element of the American swivel to capture Chinese attention has seemed to be the increased military expenditures and outlays to American allies in the region. Deals such as the agreement for increased use of bases in the Philippines, the end of the arms embargo on Vietnam, and the rumored deal-in-the-offing with South Korea on missile defense (2) all contribute to the sense aired in Chinese media that the United States is striving to counter China’s rise, particularly in relation to its neighbors in Asia, by flexing its military superiority. In an article published just prior to the Summit meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, China Daily recorded expert opinion on U.S.-China relations: “The US policy to contain China, although the White House denies that’s what it is, is evident in US-backed countries raising sovereignty-related disputes with China, especially in the East China Sea and South China Sea. These should stop.” (3)

President Xi was dismissive in reply to questions raised at the awkward press conference with President Obama regarding concerns about American policy in Asia; his response might suggest a slightly less negative attitude regarding American intentions. Nonetheless, greater efforts may be needed to dispel the impression that “pivot” is 21st century speak for “containment.” Post Summit commentary in the China Daily noted a more amicable atmosphere in the U.S.-China relationship and suggested: “It may also mark the beginning of real progress toward a new type of major-country relationship, if Washington could seize the momentum and take stronger action to deepen cooperation with Beijing.” (4)

In fact, the U.S. need not attempt to assuage these concerns on its own, but might benefit from a concerted effort with NATO leaders to intensify cooperation along the lines of the incantation: “NATO with Asia, not NATO in Asia.” (5) There are a series of issues, most notably of late counter-piracy, that have already propelled NATO-Chinese discussions, and which could be expanded to include other common areas of concern, including Afghanistan. Of course, there are contentious issues to address as well, not least of which involves purported cyber attacks on western systems originating in China. It may seem counterintuitive to use a military alliance to allay concerns over a military-heavy approach to competition in Asia, but coupled with significant improvements in U.S. and European investments in non-military sectors, NATO could serve as a conduit for a new form of cooperation and coordination with China. In a question and answer session following remarks earlier this year, NATO’s General Secretary noted (as he has previously), I would very much like to see what I will call a more structured dialogue between NATO and China.” (6)

Of course, opening up the avenues for communication between China and NATO raises an interesting question about Russia’s role in developing relations across Europe and Asia. Russia’s geopolitical position alone would suggest it has a vital part to play, however, President Putin’s unseemly rhetoric and aggressive actions have maneuvered Russia into a jagged corner and may have stymied future attempts to engage constructively in either Europe or Asia. By grabbing Ukrainian territory and pursuing a strategy of interference in Ukraine to its west, Russia has distanced itself (at least metaphorically) from European markets and norms. This naturally drives Russia east and south to seek a strengthening of alliances and an expansion of markets. Unfortunately, Russia was not in a particularly strong bargaining position vis à vis China even when its ties with the west were solid. Having rejected western values, ridiculed western sanctions, and retaliated with import bans of his own, Putin has managed to weaken Russia’s position in the world, including its value as a partner, while increasing the emphasis it places on its relationship with China.

The disparities in status between Russia and China are perhaps most clear when considering Russian attempts to attract investment into its Far East region. Aside from the complicated demographics of the area, the Research Director for Russia’s Institute for Strategic Studies, Vladivostok Office, noted: “Even under the regime of the strategic partnership China can hardly be named the true advocate of the Russian interests on the Far East and North East Asia. The dynamic of the regional cooperation witnesses on poor development of local cooperation mechanisms (…) Also we have a trade misbalance – 76% of the Russian export consists of minerals, raw materials, hydrocarbons, timber, fish.” (7) Russia clearly has more to offer than simply natural resources and raw materials, particularly its educated and innovative workforce, but its leadership has managed to diminish the state’s strategic value.

As the importance of the Russian-Chinese partnership increases and the disequilibrium in their status becomes more apparent, it seems likely that in coming years, China will shed the “little brother” aspect of its dealings with Russia, as it seeks to sideline Russia’s independent role in Asia. This shift in relations may have been inevitable, but Putin has managed to undercut Russia’s potential benefit to China as physical conduit and perhaps interlocutor with Europe over his imperialist ambitions in Ukraine.

These developments do not, by any means, necessarily redound to the benefit of the United States. As Dr. Stephen Blank noted in 2012, “only China benefits from Russia’s further decline in Asia because it enables the former to build militarily primarily against the United States and its allies, and to rapidly convert Russia into its economic and junior partner in Asia, thereby marginalizing Russia as an independent actor in the Asian balance.” (8) In fact both in Europe and in Asia it would be far preferable to work with Russia on many complex international issues and moving forward in developing relationships in Asia. However, this preference must have caveats. Certainly, chief among them is a respect for international law, as well as the borders and sovereignty of independent states. A great deal of effort this summer was spent in the search for an off-ramp that would provide Putin an acceptable exit from a crisis of his own making in Ukraine. Perhaps it is time to revive the effort, provided Russia and its friends in eastern Ukraine do not escalate the situation with further breaches of the ceasefire.

As things currently stand, Putin has potentially done more damage to Russia than he may fully understand. Yes, the Putin era in Russia has brought order from the chaos that was that 1990’s with all its traumatic transitions, as Russia sloughed off the Soviet political system, command economy, and military debt. However, in rejecting western values for short-term Russian nationalist gain, Putin’s new order may well see Russia’s status decline precipitously in international prestige and efficacy.

To everything — turn, turn, turn.


Source Notes:

1) “Remarks at World Affairs Council of America National Conference,” by William J. Burns, 4 November 2011, via http://www.state.gov/s/d/2011/176667.htm.

2) “Regional Maneuvering Precedes Obama-Xi Meeting at APEC Summit,” By Richard Weitz, 7 November 2014, China Brief, The Jamestown Foundation, via http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=43055&tx_ttnews[backPid]=25&cHash=b43a33c34559af3163880f1f2006ef7a#.VGOwf79QlaE.

3) “Changing Dynamics in China-US ties, China Daily, 11 November 2014, via http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2014-11/11/content_18898535.htm.

4) “Stronger Actions Needed to Enrich New Type China-U.S. Relations, By Xinhua writer Wu Xia, 12 November 2014, via http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/indepth/2014-11/12/c_133785196.htm.

5) Chairman of the Military Committee discusses Security with Asian counterparts during the Shangri-La Dialogue, 5 June 2014, via http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_110563.htm. The phrase is attributed to General Knud Bartels and was delivered during a meeting with Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese’s People’s Liberation Army.

6) Keynote speech by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at GLOBSEC 2014 (followed by Q&A session), 15 May 2014, via http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_109859.htm?selectedLocale=en.

7) “New Dimension of the “Chinese threat” for the Russian Far East,” by Andrey Gubin, 20 October 2014, Russian International Affairs Business Council, via http://russiancouncil.ru/en/blogs/dvfu/?id_4=1480.

8) “The End of Russian Power in Asia?” By Stephen Blank, Orbis, Vol 56, Issue 2, Spring 2012 (249-266), via http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0030438712000087.


By Susan J. Cavan



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