Russia’s Pacific Destiny

“By virtue of our unique geography”, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a 2011 Foreign Policy article, “the United States is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power.” Russia, meanwhile, has seen itself as a Euro-Asian country, as Vladimir Putin has argued from the start of his first term in the Kremlin. The American attitude, which in Secretary Clinton’s locution is about as uncontroversial a statement as an American Secretary of State can make, reflects the country’s historic “maritime” vocation. The Russian one reflects the longstanding fascination with the country’s continental scale and reflects its traditional terrestrial focus. It is really no surprise, when you think about it, that during the “space race” Americans fetched their returning astronauts at sea, while Russians did so over land.

If one looks at military geography, here too the Pacific Ocean remains a zone of American dominance. Indeed, the U.S. preponderance is enormous: 11 aircraft carriers, 83 cruisers and destroyers, and 57 nuclear-powered submarines. China has no aircraft carriers, 13 cruisers and destroyers, and 5 nuclear submarines. Total U.S. military spending of $740 billion compares favorably to less than $160 billion spent in 2012 by the PRC.1 More than 80,000 U.S. servicemen are stationed in six Pacific Rim countries (with new deployments to come in Australia and the Philippines), and the United States has agreements with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand that have for decades defined the balance of power and ensured stability in the region. Neither China nor any other Asian state stations troops abroad, and China has no military allies.

Thus, even a first look at the situation in the Pacific shows that Asian powers are not yet dominant in the region, although many trends indicate their growing significance. Of course, it’s likely that within twenty years or so China may become the largest economy in the world, surpassing the United States in absolute terms (although not in per capita terms). Geopolitical rivalry in the Pacific may grow, too, as military balances shift in such a way as to diminish U.S. preponderance.

That rivalry may grow does not of itself predispose its outcome. The United States will retain many advantages in any such rivalry. But it abides one strategic blind spot: In American conceptions, Russia doesn’t fit into the context of its Pacific policies.

This is not hard to understand. Although Russia’s overall economic and military capabilities render it a potential “balancer” between the Asian and American shores of the Pacific Ocean, it is practically absent from the region. Its exports are directed mostly to Europe, while Siberia and the Far East remain economically underdeveloped. Indeed, the gross regional product of the whole section of Russia east of the Urals is less than the GDP of every Asia-Pacific nation except Papua New Guinea, Brunei, North Korea and Cambodia. Though Russia’s nuclear potential is comparable only to that of the United States and could critically alter the balance of power should Russia join a Pacific-centric anti-American camp, no one in Moscow formulates Russia’s interests in the region crisply enough for any such decision to be forthcoming. Russian foreign policy initiatives toward the Pacific are so sparse and abstract that it is even hard to remember what they have been about.

So Russia is an Asian anomaly. Even though the bigger part of the country is geographically located in Asia, and even though Russia has the longest Pacific coastline of all nations it is nevertheless not perceived as an Asian power by Americans or by anyone else. Russia is a loner on the Pacific Rim, a massive country, but one with no clear strategies to pursue, no allies to collaborate with, no high-profile goals to accomplish. Russia is on the Pacific, but not of it.

Little wonder, then, that Americans rarely think of Russia as a Pacific nation, but it would be useful for both countries were it to begin doing so. The reason is simple: Just as the United States tightened its relations with China in the early 1970s to gain leverage over Russia (then in the form of the Soviet Union), so American interests today require using Russian power to maintain some control over a rapidly rising China.

Full article: Russia’s Pacific Destiny (The American Interest)

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