Nov 26, 2012
Since the historic U.S. defeat in Vietnam in 1973, South East Asia has been a hard nut for Washington to crack. It seems that America may now have a chance to restore its former influence and, at the same time, to solve the Chinese problem; currently dominating modern U.S. foreign policy. The question for Russia is how to react?
The best evidence of South East Asia's growing importance to Washington lies in the fact that the re-elected U.S. President has paid his first international visits to three key regional powers. It is also important to remember that in China, which is rapidly becoming the leading U.S. antagonist, a new leadership was installed in November. The so-called “fifth generation” came to power in Beijing and announced an increase in defence spending, to include the creation of an ocean Navy; thus challenging U.S. dominance in East Asia and the Pacific.
Strategically there are two main reasons for the United States to maintain warm relations with countries in South East Asia. First, the Malacca Strait, the very narrow route for a key energy pipeline; controlling that could potentially allow the U.S. to paralyse the Chinese economy in a month. Then there is Taiwan, the most probable focal point of any future U.S.–China confrontation. In the hypothetic event of conflict, America's military presence in South East Asia will help to divert at least a part of Chinese forces from Taipei. Hardly a realistic scenario at the moment but, theoretically possible.
The big question remains, what foreign policy position Russia should adopt as the inevitable rivalry between the United States and China takes shape? Also it is far from clear how, and in what form, relations with various South East Asian countries might best serve Russian interests. Arguably the best tactic might be to steer clear of confrontation but it is doubtful that Russia would be able to do so. Both Washington and Beijing will do their best to secure Moscow as ally. In the event of a Russia–China alliance, America's containment plans become meaningless. The two great military and economic powers combining forces would pose a serious threat to any American plans to maintain its current domination on the Pacific Ocean. On the other hand, a U.S.-Russia rapprochement, along with other American allies already active in East Asia, would totally isolate China.
Russia's significance as a regional player means that both sides of the potential new Pacific Cold War will be keen to court Moscow as a partner and it will be hard to stay out of the rivalry. Nevertheless, the country could play a role in smoothing things over and encouraging balance. This could help avoid serious confrontation and the need to make unpleasant, and unprofitable, choices. The best step in this direction could be to establish good relations with the countries that the United States plans to use in its 'Chinese containment network'.
Russian foreign policy makers should pay close attention to countries like Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam as well as other Asian states. Some will feel as though they are on the horns of a dilemma (the USA or China?) and, with a good relationship, Russia may be able to suggest another, non-partisan way forward. For now though, all of that is no more than a theoretical possibility far from being realised. Nevertheless, the overall trends concerning the region are more than clear and Russia must prepare for the future today.