Washington’s Far East strategy: US-China contradictions cause problems for Russian Far East
August 2010 saw an increase in U.S. military activity in the Asia-Pacific region. Joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises Invincible Spirit and Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the naval maneuvers Pacific Reach involving the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore, and the first ever U.S.-Vietnamese joint naval exercises took place. Some Japanese media report that in December Washington and Tokyo are to hold joint naval maneuvers in the south-west of Japan’s territorial waters. Experts believe they will test the defense of Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu) claimed by China.
Such military exercises involving the United States and its allies demonstrate the general contradiction in the U.S.-Chinese relations. On July 22, a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers was held in Hanoi (Vietnam). At this meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Washington supports the free navigation regime in the
South China Sea. However, in March 2010, Beijing announced this sea an “area of its key interest.” Moreover, Beijing viewed the increase in U.S. military activity in Asia Pacific as an attempt of the White House to interfere with China in its territorial disputes with the neighboring countries. On August 16, the U.S. Department of Defense submitted an annual report on the development of China’s military capability to Congress. The Foreign Ministry of China said that this report caused serious damage to the development of military cooperation between China and the United States.
These events have been brought about by certain strategic shifts. In February 2009, the Barack Obama Administration announced its intention to build constructive relations with China. Such relations were viewed in the White House as a dialogue between the two global economic leaders. Nowadays Washington’s policy increasingly resembles Clinton’s China strategy of the 1990s. In 1993 U.S. Under Secretary of State Robert Zoellick announced the policy of involving China in the new world order. However, the "National Military Strategy” (1995) used a much stronger term: the “containment of China.” It stipulates (1) U.S. security guarantees to its allies in the Asia-Pacific region (including Taiwan), and (2) U.S. power demonstrations near Chinese territory. In the mid-1990s Washington and Beijing were on the brink of a military conflict over Taiwan and the U.S. attempted to deploy THAAD systems in the Pacific area.
The problems in U.S.-Chinese relations affect Russian interests as well. American experts are increasingly concerned about the strengthening of economic relations between China and the Russian Far East. U.S. media have discussed the possibility of American business participation in the development of the Russian Far East. This could involve increasing the capacity of Russian ports in the Pacific Ocean, creating a free trade zone in the Bering Sea or between Alaska and Chukotka, and construction of Russian railways. They also mentioned the ambitious plans of building the “Transpolar Route,” “Northern Trans-Siberian Railway” or the “Bering Bridge.” These projects are only under discussion now, yet even this demonstrates that Washington is opposed to Chinese economic policy in the Russian Far East.
At first sight, the U.S. interest in the Far East is beneficial for Russia. The participation of American business in the Far East infrastructure development would help address many social and economic issues. But Washington’s
Far East policy may also have a negative impact on Moscow.
First, the plan to weaken Russia’s control over the Far East has already been repeatedly discussed in the United States. In the first half of the 20th century, the White House debated ways to oppose Japan in the Far East in case Russia/USSR is defeated. In the early 1920’s the United States fully supported the independence of the Far Eastern Republic. In the 1990’s, American experts argued about the danger of the Far East becoming a part of the Chinese geo-economic space. Of course, this is not the official U.S. position, but it gives Russia enough food for thought.
Second, Russia and the United States have a number of potential territorial conflicts. Moscow has not ratified the Washington Agreement (1990) on the transfer of the disputed sector of the Bering Sea. Also, Washington does not recognize Russia’s exclusive rights to a number of sections along the Northern Sea Route. Moreover, the United States has the Treaty of Alliance with Japan (1960) and supports Tokyo’s claims to the Kuril Islands. Finally, the Americans do not recognize the Sea of Okhotsk as Russia’s territorial sea.
Third, American investment would require Russia to deeply integrate in the APEC. But the strategic purpose of this forum is to establish free trade in the Pacific Ocean by 2020. Rapid implementation of this initiative would cause difficulties for many Russian companies and raise the question of how Russia can protect its borders and control migration.
Finally, the current U.S. economic policy in the Far East may alert China leaders. Beijing may consider options for countering the U.S. strategy in this region. This could jeopardize the Russian-Chinese treaty of 2001 and the border agreements between Russia and China.
Russia needs U.S. investment for the development of the Far East. However, the need to maintain effective control over the Far East is more crucial. Therefore, Russia should be extremely careful about the U.S. breakthrough economic projects for the “joint development” of the Far East.
Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences.