For Successful Asia Pivot, Obama Has to Engage Russia

Russia will be the swing vote in the “cold war” of the twenty-first century.

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter's dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter’s dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

As the United States “pivot” to Asia, China will likely dominate President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy. But an improvement in relations with Russia is needed for that pivot to be a success.

The American “reset” in relations with its former Cold War rival has not yielded the sort of diplomatic cooperation from Russia that the president and his foreign-policy team hoped for. If they are to prevent a new “cold war” with China from escalating into conflict in East Asia, they have to make a better effort.

The rise of China poses a challenge to the world system as it has existed since the end of World War II, dominated by Western powers and ruled by Western codes. The conflict between the supposedly covert world order that is anticipated by China and the world system as it is, is the cold war of the twenty-first century. The battle isn’t going to be fought with soldiers and tanks but for resources and through diplomacy.

The expectation of this new cold war stems from a belief that has been present in American strategic thinking since the early twentieth century; that any single major economic or military power in Eurasia, if unchecked, will ultimately extend its power into the Western Hemisphere. To prevent that from happening, the United States have sought a balance of power in Eurasia and pursued containment policies against great powers that failed to submit to it.

Historian and geostrategist Alfred Thayer Mahan predicted as early as 1900 in The Problem of Asia that not Japan or Russia would emerge as Eurasia’s preeminent power, even if, at different points in the last century, Americans dreaded both nations rising to such a station. Rather China would pose the greatest challenge to American interests and security.

At the time, China seemed to be a backwater nation, overrun by Western imperialists and later by the Japanese. But its sheer size meant it was always destined to be a major force among nation states.

The United States have, in fact, courted China for the better part of the last century, working with Mao and his successors to contain Japan and the Soviet Union. Only since the demise of the latter and the end of the Cold War have American policymakers begun to think of China as a potential threat in its own right.

2012 witnessed several political and military changes in East and South Asia which suggest that the strategic landscape is changing. These included naval standoffs in the East and South China Seas and the deepening of defense cooperation between Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States and Vietnam under the umbrella of the United States’ “pivot” to the region.

Within the outer strategic “wall” that the United States have erected in the Pacific as a hedge against China’s military expansion, extending from Honolulu, Hawaii to Australia and New Zealand to Mumbai, India, an inner security perimeter is perfected, extending from Japan and South Korea through Taiwan to the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. The Americans have signed bilateral defense agreements with all these nations as well as Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Designed to be flexible and reliant on a strong American forward presence in the region, these “walls” are the foundation of a security architecture to contain China.

This security architecture duplicates to an extent the Atlantic system that came before it. The “pivot” to Asia includes first the stationing of American troops in foreign bases to signal the country’s commitment to security in the Pacific as well as the benefits of an American military presence. Second, the strengthening of existing bases near key sea routes from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific.

If it is denied free access to trading routes and the natural resources of overseas producers, China will be forced to look inward and find other ways to feed and sustain its burgeoning population within the context of an authoritarian political system.

Smaller nations in East Asia may be able to exploit the strategic competition between China and the United States but aspiring great powers such as Australia, India, even Russia will have to adjust to the new world order. The latter especially would be a useful hedge against Chinese hegemony. If America can somehow successfully “reset” its relations with Russia (again) and bring Australia and India together under a security arrangement, China will be largely isolated in the region.

Which is not to say that Australia’s and India’s relations with China won’t be close. Rather, like so many countries in East Asia, they simultaneously depend on the United States for security and China economically. Russia has no such needs and is therefore positioned to be the arbiter in this new “great game.”

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