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.