East-West Divide on Full Display in East Asia

China and Russia share interests in a region where the democracies form an alliance.

Admiral Sugimoto Mashiko, chief of naval staff of Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force, waves to graduated officers from the Eta Jima Naval Academy as they depart to their assigned ships, March 16 (US Navy/Matthew R. Cole)
Admiral Sugimoto Mashiko, chief of naval staff of Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force, waves to graduated officers from the Eta Jima Naval Academy as they depart to their assigned ships, March 16 (US Navy/Matthew R. Cole)

Developments this week in Asia highlight in stark contrast the two opposing sides that continue to emerge in the region.

Although government officials take great pains in downplaying the security implications underlying their policies and dismiss talk of burgeoning alliances aimed at any one country in particular, their actions belie their words.

On the one side there are the democracies of Asia and on the other, the authoritarian governments of China and Russia.

First, Japan and India announced what are the first joint exercises by their navies to be held in Japanese waters scheduled for this weekend.

In a news conference, the chief of staff of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces, Admiral Masahiko¬†Sugimoto, said that he wanted the joint exercises “to contribute to the stability of the Asia Pacific region.”

As such, among the specific exercises likely to be conducted between the two countries are naval formation training and the rescuing of distressed civilian vessels.

These are the first joint exercises held exclusively between the Japanese and Indian navies (they have participated previously in multilateral drills) and should be considered within the backdrop of China’s increasing naval buildup as well as closer relations between China and Russia.

In addition to the joint naval drills, Japan and India are said to be writing a joint Defense Action Plan and considering the possibility of including the United States in a trilateral strategic dialogue.

This does not portend the formation of a new defensive alliance per se as many in India bristle at their country being drawn into an anti-China alliance or a containment policy by the United States. However, it does underline the mutual interests driving the cooperation between Asian democracies versus the authoritarian governments in the region.

For their part, relations between China and Russia have been drawing closer ever since the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was formed in 1996.

During the most recent SCO summit in Beijing on Wednesday, China and Russia announced in a joint statement that they are increasing their strategic partnership. It said that they will continue the adherence to noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, mutual support of each other’s sovereignty, security and win-win reciprocity among other areas.

However deep Sino-Russian bilateral relations are — as many maintain the two countries detest each other — they clearly have mutual foreign policy interests dictating their cooperation.¬†For instance, in the United Nations, they are opposing foreign intervention in Syria by Western allies and they still have economic interests with Iran.

Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in China Daily this week that China’s and Russia’s core foreign policy interest coincide and aim at “promoting a different approach to national sovereignty, one that does not involve intervention and the use of force.”

In that respect, by drawing a line in the sand against further regime change in the Middle East, Chinese and Russian policy is driven by their own economic, political and security interests. Specifically, by their fear of what more regime change would mean to their ability to control unstable regions in their own borders like the Caucasus, Tibet and Xinjiang.