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The New Russia in the New Asia

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | July 1994

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Russia continues to play a significant role in Asian international affairs even though U.S. policy now minimizes Russia's importance to Asian issues. Russian elites are intensely struggling over Asian policy. In this struggle we can identify two rival views: an economic one and a military or militarizing one. In the former, Asian states are potential economic partners and Russia should seek domestic reform and international economic integration, mainly with Japan, to enter into Asia's dynamic economy. This view also stresses friendship with China and more active efforts against nuclear and missile proliferation, especially in North Korea. The latter sees Asia as hostile, fixates on a U.S.-Japanese threat, and renounces both cooperation and the settlement of the outstanding territorial dispute with Japan. Instead, it favors alliance with China on grounds of Realpolitik against both Japan and the United States, and ideologically on the basis of an authoritarianism that "works," provides economic growth, respect for the military, and "order." Finally, this view's adherents dismiss North Korean nuclear proliferation except where it may lead Japan to follow suit.

The danger inherent in the latter view is that it has taken the form of military intervention in politics. This intervention openly displays the fact that the military has escaped close civilian control and engages in overtly provocative activities to derail rapprochement with Japan. To cement their position in Russian politics and to retain the primacy of the military viewpoint in Far Eastern policy specifically and security policy more generally, advocates of this position have offered a comprehensive, but in many ways dubious, strategic rationale for the pro-Chinese and anti-Japanese stand.

Although nobody disputes the need for a friendly China, an alliance with it is not what the reformers want, especially at the expense of close relationships with Japan. Clearly the adherents of the military viewpoint seek to retain the ability to threaten Japan and establish an impregnable maritime security zone around Russia even when no U.S. or Japanese threat is discernible. Although they want the United States to restrain Japan, they also demand that the U.S. Navy, in effect, abdicate its strategic superiority in antisubmarine warfare in the Pacific as the price of rapprochement with Japan. This is a most unlikely outcome, for it is the United States which benefits most from Russo-Japanese tension and sees no reason to yield its position for Russia's benefit.

Russia's developing Asian policy will lead to diminished relations with Southeast Asia and India and could encourage antireform elements at home. Thus security policy in Asia and the fate of Russian reform are linked inextricably. Implicitly, Russian Asian policy must be reoriented if Russia is to overcome its distorted historical legacy and fully participate in the new Asia. For this reason the United States only injures its owninterests if it does not pay close attention to the trends in Russia's Asian policy.


Russia remains a key player in Asian security, although U.S. thinking about Asia tends to ignore Russia's Asian presence and its impact. The Bush and Clinton administrations' formal policy statements on Russia and Asia do not mention Russia in the Asian context. Often scholars writing on U.S. policy in Asia and/or Asian security issues also omit Russia from their analysis.1

But Russian policymakers do not make this mistake even though they generally acknowledge that Russia's (and the USSR's) failure to bring its full weight (or potential) to bear in Asia lies at the root of this neglect. Russia's Asian role remains incomplete relative to its economic potential, and current economic conditions inhibit more serious and deeper linkages with Asia. Russia still stands apart from Asia's amazing dynamism. But as philosophers tell us, an absence is also a presence. Therefore no account of Asian prospects that ignores Russia's potential and its unique realities can be adequate to either subject.

Russia's government and political class have never ignored their Asian connection. Political struggles in 1992-93 over foreign policy revolved around the degree to which the government took sufficient account of those interests in Asia, not whether there were any. Nobody argued that Russian interests in Asia were marginal. From Yeltsin down, political figures openly proclaimed the aim of enhancing Russia's position and national interests.2


1. Vladimir Ivanov, "The Emerging National Security Doctrine of a New Russia," Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 1993, pp. 169-179.

2. Stephen Blank, "Diplomacy at an Impasse: Russia and Japan in a New Asia," Ibid., pp. 141-146.