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Russia Looks East

DENVER – The United States’ “pivot” to Asia, a process so delicately defined that even the name had to be changed to “rebalancing” to avoid any misunderstandings in Europe, now seems to have company, in the form of renewed Russian interest in the region. Russia’s own “pivot” to Asia is not new; but, in the deep freeze settling over Russia’s relations with the US and Europe, it does seem to have gained the momentum of real necessity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been interested in the logic of marrying Siberia’s enormous base of raw materials and energy with East Asia’s vibrant but energy-starved economies. For Russia, Asian countries – and especially China – seem to bring a barebones practicality to the relationship. Nobody in East Asia plans to look into Putin’s soul, à la former US President George W. Bush, or otherwise show much concern about what kind of person he is. “Business is business,” as Deng Xiaoping taught us.

Certainly, Russia’s on again, off again – and now on again – gas deal with China is a case in point. In the West, Russian gas is discussed in terms of broader political relationships – how energy dependence on Russia could give the Kremlin leverage to intimidate Europe. Indeed, the Russia-Europe gas relationship has been discussed in Western foreign-policy and security circles for some 30 years. For China, by contrast, the only important issues seem to be quantity, price, and the pipelines’ proximity to the Chinese industrial and consumer heartlands.

Given the Kremlin’s fraught relations with the West, catalyzed by the Ukrainian drama (now moving to a new phase with a consequential presidential election), a Russian pivot to East Asia is a move so obvious and compelling that it is hard to see why it didn’t happen sooner. China doesn’t ask political and human rights questions of its business partners, and Russian doesn’t like to answer them. Perfect.

Yet the landscape – and seascape of East Asia – is vast and fast-shifting. And Putin is likely to find that East Asia’s era of “business is business” has ended. China is beset by internal political conflicts that sometimes make Ukraine seem quiescent in comparison, and managing the internal churn is not for the faint of heart. Restive Western provinces, civil-military tensions, environmental issues, and problems with a growing number of neighbors combine to make China a far more difficult economic partner than Putin may realize.

Putin has no more interest in involving himself in China’s problems in Southeast Asia any more than China has in Putin’s problems in Eastern Europe. But, with the possible exception of South Korea, China’s relations with its neighbors have been trending in the wrong direction. Ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and with specific neighbors, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, have deteriorated sharply over disputed territorial claims with little economic significance. China’s leaders, so revered for their long-term strategic thinking, may simply be overwhelmed by the combination of a restive public and institutions that no longer seem capable of taking China into the future.

Putin thus will find a China for which business is not just business anymore. It is a combination of many factors, not the least of which is the environment. Russia will not have to deal with the environmental debate of the Keystone Pipeline, but such issues are very much in the Chinese public’s mindset these days.

Putin may be content with his role in the Ukraine crisis, because all signs suggest that he believes he is righting a historical wrong. But, as a world leader of one of the United Nations’ five permanent Security Council members, he is failing to mind his international responsibilities, and historians will judge him accordingly.

As a result, in the quarter-century since the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, relations among the “great powers” have never been worse. Their ability to work together on regional or global issues – Syria, for example, or climate change – has deteriorated substantially in the last decade. Now Putin seems to want to double down on these trends and create a new Sino-Soviet axis.

China, for all of its current problems, will be not interested. The compass for China’s journey still points clearly to international integration. But its leaders, whatever internal challenges they face today, need to rise to the occasion. That means telling Putin to keep any grand visions to himself.