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Policy Watch: Putin's Quest For Asia

While China and India are the two largest purchasers of Russian weaponry, the fact Moscow is willing to sell more advanced weapons to India than it is to China indicates the Kremlin is also wary of China becoming too powerful.

Washington (UPI) Oct 03, 2005
Increasingly at odds with the United States and even the European Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been seeking allies in Asia, where governments seem less concerned about his record on democratization and human rights.

China and India are seen in Moscow as especially important potential allies.

Others include South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (though these last two are more problematic). How successful are Putin's efforts likely to be?

The aims of Asian governments differ significantly. To a greater or lesser degree, however, Asian states share certain common aims with Russia, including opposition to American "unilateralism" (as in Iraq), and opposition (or lack of support for) American-supported democratic revolutions (as in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan).

Opposition to American "unilateralism" (especially regarding the use of force) is common to these countries, though the reasons for it may differ. Some, like Iran and Syria, fear this because they see themselves as potential targets of American intervention like Iraq was. Others, like China vis--vis Taiwan, oppose it because they do not want the United States to interfere with their own ambitions.

Others still oppose it because they fear American intervention will create problems for them that neither they nor the United States can resolve. Finally, there are those who simply oppose the United States acting to reshape the international order without their consent since this makes them look and feel both weak and unimportant.

Opposition to (or lack of support for) democratic revolution is also common to these countries. Democratic revolution is something the United States and some of its European allies support. Yet even those European and other developed nations that do not strongly support it do not strongly oppose it either. Authoritarian governments in Asia, by contrast, strongly oppose democratic revolution because they fear they may be overthrown by it.

Nor do they want to see it in countries that they have or wish to have influence in since they equate democratic revolution with the spread of American influence and the loss of their own.

Despite these common interests, however, there are also important obstacles to Putin building strong alliances in Asia - or, more precisely, to building ones that are amenable to Russian leadership.

One of these is Russian uneasiness about growing Chinese power despite all the talk about Russian-Chinese friendship. There has been much commentary in the Russian media questioning whether Moscow working with Beijing to reduce American influence in Asia is really in Russia's interest if China turns out to be not so friendly.

Russian concerns about Chinese migration into Siberia, even if exaggerated, also reflect a concern about Russian ability to keep a powerful China in check. While China and India are the two largest purchasers of Russian weaponry, the fact Moscow is willing to sell more advanced weapons to India than it is to China indicates the Kremlin is also wary of China becoming too powerful.

Additionally, persistent enmities continue between Asian states that Moscow wants to recruit into the alliance network it envisions. These enmities include ones between India and Pakistan, India and China, Vietnam and China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, and many others. Their persistence makes it difficult for Moscow to maintain close ties to each of the parties involved simultaneously.

These disputes also make it unlikely the parties to it will focus equally on joining with Moscow to limit American influence in the region. Indeed, one or both parties usually has a strong incentive to seek American support against the other. This problem would be alleviated, of course, if Moscow could help resolve these disputes. So far, however, Moscow has not shown a greater ability to resolve these often long-standing disputes than any other outside power.

In addition, wariness toward Russia exists in many Asian states despite whatever differences they have with the United States. This wariness sometimes stems from the Russian habit of engaging in security cooperation with states that are at odds with each other. Moscow, for example, sells arms to both China and India as well as to Iran and the U.A.E. While selling arms to Syria, Moscow cooperates closely with Israel in the security sphere.

Even when Russia seeks to ally with a specific Asian country against the United States, Moscow has usually been unwilling to make any concessions to that country where there are differences between them. Moscow, for example, has been unwilling to make any significant concession to Iran over the division of the Caspian (indeed, Russia is building up its naval forces there). Other examples could also be cited. The result of all this is that Asian states often do not fully trust Moscow or view it as a reliable ally.

Finally, most (though not all) Asian states have important reasons to maintain good relations with the United States despite whatever differences they may have with it. In particular, Asia exports far more to the United States than to Russia. Nor could Russia afford to dramatically increase its imports from Asian states if the United States curtailed its trade with them as a result of political differences.

The willingness of Asian states to ally with Russia against the United States, then, is quite limited. Even those states with very bad relations with the United States, such as Iran and Syria, do not want to engage in hostilities with it - especially after Russia proved unable to prevent an American-led attack on Moscow's old friend Saddam Hussein.

There can even be dramatic rapprochements between Washington on the one hand and states long hostile toward it on the other, as Libya recently demonstrated. What this means is that most Asian states are not so anti-American that Moscow can ally with any (much less all) of them against the U.S. whenever it chooses.

What, then, are the prospects for Putin's hopes of building an alliance network in Asia? There are strong motivations for various Asian states to cooperate with Russia for various purposes, including where they wish to limit the role of the United States. On the other hand, the problem Putin faces in building alliances in Asia is that most Asian nations are not trying to push the United States out of the region altogether, but instead just want to maneuver Washington into pursuing those policies that each prefers.

But of course, different states want different things from the United States -- things that are not necessarily what Russia wants. Finally, with the exception of some of the former Soviet states of Central Asia and Armenia, Asian states willing to ally with Russia - including those with the sharpest differences with the United States - do not look upon Moscow as their leader. The states of Asia, in short, are not particularly reliable allies for Russia (just as Russia is not a particularly reliable ally for them).

The differences that many Asian states have with the United States, as well as with each other, practically guarantee that Moscow will find some partners in Asia willing to cooperate with it against Washington. At the same time, however, the many differences among Asian states, their many differences with Russia, and their many common interests with the United States limit both how many Asian states Moscow can ally with, and more importantly, how closely it can ally with them.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

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