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Thomas Graham: Russia -- the key to Asian stability?

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 28, 2015.   © Reuters

For the past 25 years, Russia has been absent from America's mental map of Asia. Tellingly, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 2011 article on "America's Pacific Century" did not mention Russia once as she ranged over the challenges and opportunities in a region of the utmost strategic importance to the U.S.

     The disregard was all the more glaring because Russia was set to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok, in large part to show that it was a Pacific power determined to enhance its presence in the region. And it was odd given America's history in the region. As it emerged as a great power at the end of the 19th century, the U.S. was concerned by Russia's penetration of Manchuria and saw Russia as a major power in Asia until the end of the Cold War.

     Today, this disregard ill serves the U.S., for a Russia that is active in Asia could help shape a future that is favorable to American -- and Japanese -- interests. This is especially true in Northeast Asia.

     Aaron Friedberg, a leading American expert on international affairs, laid out in 2011 six possible strategic configurations in Asia: American hegemony restored, an East Asian community, Sino-American "bi-gemony," a U.S.-China-India triangle, Chinese hegemony and a continental-maritime divide.

     He concluded that the last was the most likely. The future would see an intensifying Sino-American rivalry, in which China organizes an authoritarian bloc of countries on the continent, including Russia, and the U.S. leads a rival, liberal democratic one of offshore islands, including Japan, and maritime powers.

     Today, Asia appears to be moving toward that divide for reasons Friedberg explained five years ago. American hegemony restored is, at best, a distant prospect given the rapid rise of China. An East Asian community runs into the formidable obstacles of robust nationalism, especially in Northeast Asia, and an emboldened China.

     Sino-American "bi-gemony" is hardly likely, with the sharpening competition between the two countries. For the same reason, and because of long-standing tensions between India and China, a U.S.-China-India triangle is improbable. And Chinese hegemony will not be the future as long as the U.S. remains committed to the region, which seems likely.

     Meanwhile, the Sino-American rivalry is gaining momentum. The U.S. is increasingly alarmed by China's militarization of the South China Sea and has stepped up freedom of navigation operations as a warning to Beijing. Both countries are building institutions that organize the states of the region around themselves to the exclusion of the other.

     The U.S. and Japan pointedly refused to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, while the U.S. left the Chinese out of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which will shortly add Pakistan and India to China, Russia, and four Central Asian states as members, provides some structure to the continental bloc.

     The consolidation of this divide does not augur well for future security and prosperity. Bipolar rivalries rarely do, as we know from the events leading to World War I in Europe and the experience of the Cold War.

POWER BALANCE   But if Friedberg is right about the other alternatives, is Asia doomed to a dangerous bipolar competition? There is another option: a multipolar system. For that to emerge, the U.S. needs to rediscover Russia in Asia.

     The starting point should be Northeast Asia, where we tend to forget that America's strategic interests do not conflict with Russia's. There is no NATO, whose expansion Russia perceives as a threat. The U.S. is not promoting democracy in ways that raise alarms in Moscow. North Korea's small nuclear arsenal and erratic behavior have muted Russian objections to the American missile defense program in Asia.

     Meanwhile, Russia claims no zone of privileged interest in the way it does with the former Soviet bloc in Europe. Nor is Russia pursuing a "neo-imperialist" policy; rather it is focused on reinforcing its hold over its sparsely populated, resource-rich Far Eastern provinces. As a result, there is a potential for U.S.-Russian cooperation in Northeast Asia that does not exist elsewhere.

     So what is the way forward? Here is the role for Japan, which sees Russia differently to most of America's other allies and regards Moscow as a potential partner in dealing with the immediate threat of North Korea and the longer-term issue of China. No one should downplay the challenges to closer Russian-Japanese relations -- the issue of the disputed Kuril Islands, or the so-called Northern Territories, appears no riper for resolution now than it has been for decades.

     However, Tokyo and Moscow could explore a framework for a cooperative Japan-Russia-U.S. relationship. This would aim to build a flexible multipolar balance in Northeast Asia including China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. That would be an appropriate topic for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

     Such an arrangement is hardly a near-term alternative. It would have to be linked to an easing of U.S.-Russian tensions in Europe and the Middle East (but might also provide an incentive for that). And there remains the difficult issue of U.S.-Russian competition in Central Asia. Here, too, it might make sense to have Japan take the lead in developing relations with Russia, since Japan's presence there does not raise the reflexive suspicion in Moscow that the American presence does.

     Finally, care would have to be taken so that this effort to build a multipolar system is not perceived as an attempt to contain China. Containing China is a fool's errand in today's globalized world. The real task is to create flexible relations so that China's rise can be accommodated in a way that does not harm the vital interests of the other powers active in Northeast Asia.

Thomas Graham, a managing director at Kissinger Associates, was the senior director for Russia on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007.

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