Washington Insights (January-February 2022)


The beginning of 2022 saw Russia threaten war in Ukraine, China loom as an undiminished threat to Taiwan, and North Korea launch missile after missile as its threat intensified. In these circumstances, alliance tightening took center stage. One webinar focused on Japanese thinking about boosting defense along with a tighter alliance with the US. Also, a workshop explored the impact of a possible war in Ukraine on Russia’s close military relationship with China. Another theme was India’s attitude toward the Quad. If some voices could be heard opposing defense build-ups, alliances drew the keenest attention in an atmosphere of impending conflicts. Important, too, was clarity about the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Below, the tightening Sino-Russian relationship is studied especially closely.

Japanese Thinking on the Japan-US Alliance

A second 2+2 Japan-US meeting in January showcased a joint commitment to modernize the alliance in anticipation of Biden’s first national security strategy and new documents to be prepared by year-end on Japanese security. Listeners heard that Japan is committed to fundamentally reinforce its defense capabilities with an eye to integrated deterrence with the US. Countering missile threats is part of the agenda, which includes next-generation projects, including in the space domain. Controversy has been sparked by talk of giving the SDF the capability to attack enemy bases. Yet, on the whole, consensus is building in the LDP, where although Kishida represents a dovish faction, he has shown his commitment. While in 2018 Japan and the US earlier set goals for closer defense cooperation, China’s forces have advanced rapidly, leaving the SDF air and sea superiority in doubt and necessitating a new deterrence structure. Debates in Japan pit those favoring more funds for traditional arms (the US strikes and Japan provides a shield) and those who favor a more integrated model with less rigid separation of responsibilities. Specifically, people are asking if a contingency should arise in the Taiwan Strait, what form would Japanese collaboration take. Japan would have no choice but to be involved is the response listeners heard.

Optimism is cautiously building for a new level of Japan-US-ROK trilateral security cooperation after the March elections in South Korea. Those active in security support this. The North Korean challenge is driving it and may lead to a turning point this year. Japan-ROK ties are haunted still, and if action is taken in South Korea to seize funds from Japanese firms, unlikely as it seems, the impact could be irreversible. As for Ukraine, the G7 already made clear with Japan’s concurrence that strong steps will be taken if Russia attacks further. Failure to act would send the wrong signal to China. If talks go forward to avert war and missile defense is included, Asia must not be ignored. Yet, more urgent is the need to demonstrate US credibility in Europe as a deterrent to China’s ambitions in Asia.

India and the Quad

India sees a bipolar great power rivalry taking shape, which is not desired, given economic ties with both the US and China, but China is seen as a huge external threat. India prefers multipolarity and not to be forced to choose sides. It is no longer non-aligned, but it has no alliances. It wants to balance China with the US, Russia, and others. The Quad helps fulfill its goals, which are not explicitly anti-China. No mention there of Russia is acceptable to India, as in the Ukraine crisis. Even if military issues are off the agenda, security is huge—data flows and Chinese apps are of concern; emerging technologies are big, too, threatening critical infrastructure; as are supply chain issues and denying China domination in various areas with dual-use implications. Modi is seen as pro-investment and anti-trade. It is much easier to do business in India. But India has a massive trade deficit with the world. It needs a grater manufacturing industry. Customs duties have increased. Local content requirements have risen. Positive is the widespread goal of diversifying supply chains from China. China has tried to grab strategic infrastructure in South Asia, and the Quad’s infrastructure moves are welcome. Does the US recognize that the Indian Ocean is contested or does it seek to drag India into the US Pacific strategy? The US has reassured India of the former. A high degree of leadership has to be ceded to India in the Indian Ocean if India is to offer more support. India seeks more involvement of the US and its allies in the Indian Ocean unlike earlier.

Without a platform like the Quad, India would not be able to manage its security environment as challenges have grown. India is invested in it, but it differs on Russia and Myanmar. India has flexibility by not being a defense partner of the US. Yet, the security aspect of its relations has boomed with each of the three other Quad members. Defense is driving closer ties with each, but it is not a Quad theme, which takes a broad view of what constitutes security.  Getting other states to work with the Quad is easier if its “anti-China” agenda is not explicit. India talks of issue-based alignments. Yet the trend line is complicating working with Russia, which is deeply anti-western. There are signs the defense relationship is fracturing somewhat. However, India is urging the West to drive a wedge between Russia and China, not to isolate Russia, even now.

US Strategy toward the Indo-Pacific

The US Indo-Pacific strategy was released on February 11. It is premised on the concern that China’s vision of the world and regional order is a challenge to US leadership on many dimensions, and there is little ability to change China. Even so, the strategic environment around it can be altered, allowing the US and its partners to write the rules of the 21st century. This requires investing in the US, network building, and closing vulnerabilities while building resilience. Much of this is not negative, but an affirmative vision for outcompeting China across a range of domains. Competition can be managed responsibly, holding out the prospect of working together where interests align. Yet the US will not accept a Chinese sphere of influence. Already in the first year of the Biden administration progress has been made in shaping the regional environment with investments such as in COVID vaccinations, infrastructure as part of economic recovery, and supply chain resilience. Working with allies has produced huge results, resolving disputes with some and refocusing on China’s unfair practices.

Where it applies coercion, joint responses are taken. On national security, new steps were taken on the export of surveillance technology and data protection, but there is lots of unfinished business. Although the US is not reentering TPP and RCEP has linked China to US allies, the US has other ways to set the rules, e.g., for harnessing technology and preparing for energy and climate transitions. An Indo-Pacific economic framework with allies is coming, complementing national security objectives while protecting US workers. The US stresses maintaining deterrence, reinforcing the capacity of its allies and partners, and showing clarity to China. Given grey zone activity, a whole of government approach is required for what is called integrated deterrence. The principle at stake in Ukraine and Taiwan is no unilateral change to the status quo, including through the use of economic coercion. Essential is to reduce dependence on China, which allows it to use such coercion and split allies.

When the Quad Plus is raised, the response is that no plan exists to formally expand; issue specific groupings are anticipated with the ASEAN states in the foreground. As for economic decoupling, it is argued that China is leading the way, seeking to reduce its dependence on others through indigenizing its own capacities, while at the same time increasing the degree to which others are dependent on it so that trade can be weaponized. Biden is keen on proving that democracy works as it is challenged by certain autocracies. This is not promoting democracy worldwide, but it delivers an alternative vision to that of the Xi-Putin summit on February 4.

South Korea on the Eve of Its Election               

With so much attention focused elsewhere, the South Korean elections have drawn little attention. North Korea has been sending a message that it is ready to break its moratorium. What are the next steps for the US and South Korea, given North Korea’s hard preconditions to start talks? The deterrence posture needs to be strengthened. Implementation of UN resolutions need to be enforced. And trilateral ties must be strengthened, denying any wedge strategy. Is there a basis for optimism that talks could occur? No. A new government in Seoul in May will be the next point for the North to consider its options. The campaign to put more pressure on the incoming president is continuing. China and Russia are now more negative toward South Korea; so ties to Japan are even more pressing. A more escalatory phase lies ahead, as for the 2013 and 2017 incoming administrations.

A Foreign Affairs article by candidate Yoon Suk-yeol calls for a stronger posture toward the North, trilateral coordination, and economic security. South Korea should be a global pivot state, contributing to the US Indo-Pacific strategy. An ICBM test on April 11 or 15 would not be a surprise. This election has huge consequences for US foreign policy, as reflected in this article. Supply chain resilience is a big stress of Yoon and is likely to be welcomed in the US. As a high-end middle power with great soft power, Seoul has much potential. The piece is tough on China, and its reaction is awaited. North Korea is not moving, and Seoul has much it can do in other settings.

Moon’s strategic ambiguity actually tilts toward China despite the positive roadmap of the Moon-Biden summit, which is slow to be implemented, listeners were told. The statement dealt with things pent up for years when there was inadequate alliance management. There still needs to be a clear vision of the alliance beyond military ties. The US nuclear umbrella needs to be reasserted, not diversions into other options. This includes missile defense development too. The three alliance pieces: are North Korea—still not quite on the same page, as on a peace declaration; China—still pretty far apart despite recent South Korean public opinion; and Japan—which really needs a policy boost. Yoon’s camp has signaled predictability, with clear affirmation of beliefs reassuring to the US and reliance on experts who know the issues. Strategic ambiguity does not benefit the US or the ROK, and strategic predictability may be unwelcome in China but it will provide more clarity for various situations.
Sino-Russian Relations

With Russia poised to launch a war in Ukraine and the US and its allies gearing up for sanctions and other counter measures, a timely discussion focused on Sino-Russian relations. How close are they? How might events in Ukraine and in Russo-US relations change them? What are the implications for Asian relations?

The clear consensus is that Sino-Russian relations have grown much closer and that a war in Ukraine would boost them further. Russia would be more dependent on China. An asymmetrical relationship would become even more so. Given fear in some Russian circles over how China is already taking advantage of inequality and showing signs of “wolf warrior” behavior toward Russia, such a shift may arouse considerable alarm. Yet, censorship prevents open debate of this prospect. Moreover, Putin’s close ties to Xi Jinping and obsession with advancing Russia’s position in the West militate against that issue gaining much visibility at this time.

Russian and Chinese sources provide abundant clues of the strength and weakness of bilateral relations, but neither Russians nor Chinese are at liberty to speak fully about them. Western and Japanese observers are rarely well-informed about these sources and are often misled by partial presentations on the relationship. The big picture is easy to grasp: Sino-Russian relations have grown much closer, and this facilitates Russia’s aggressive behavior in Europe. The fact that they do not have an alliance and they disagree on relations with certain countries in Asia is obvious, but a nuanced picture of the relationship is usually lacking, the workshop observed.

It was noted that both sides are apprehensive over existing difference of interests (relations with India or Ukraine are indicative), but that the deepening of China-Russia ties over the course of the last 30 years has been a result of three trends: the need for peace and security along their border, natural complementarity of the two economies, and an overlap in authoritarian regimes, compounded by simultaneous confrontations with the US. While exception was not taken to this overview, it drew scrutiny for two possibly misleading elements: neglect of the role of entrenched ideology or identities bringing the two together, and neglect of the tensions riling the relationship, as in differences over historical memory. A key point raised is that tightening relationship is not mainly a biproduct of US policies, but something deeply rooted from the 1980s—particularly as backlash to the cost of the Sino-Soviet split for both sides. Since 2014 ties have accelerated not just due to US sanctions on Russia and growing opposition to China’s behavior, but as a result of a more aggressive Russian strategy toward Ukraine and other lost parts of the Soviet Union in Europe and of a more aggressive Chinese strategy toward Taiwan and other targets in East Asia, including North Korea. The spiraling tension of late only adds to the reasons why the relationship is further strengthening.

How can closer ties be manifest in the coming months? A summit planned for February 4, when Putin visits Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, will have importance comparable to the May 2014 summit after the invasion of Crimea in demonstrating how China will be supportive. They could announce agreement on the Power of Siberia-2, a new pipeline through Mongolia recently under discussion. On the military side, there appear to have been secret deals of late on joint development of weapons, which could be clarified or given new impetus. Another possibility is to signal more maritime security cooperation in East Asia with negative implications for Japan and South Korea. In 2014, China was surprised by Russia’s moves in Ukraine, but this time it has prepared, likely with plans to be more supportive or even to coordinate its own, new actions.

Discussion raised the question of whether the West had ideas on how to pressure China to back down from assisting Russia to weather western pressure. Little hope was put on driving a wedge between Beijing and Moscow given the strength of the alliance-like relationship despite no mutual defense commitment. Putin has worked hard to build a close relationship to Xi, even making sure family members of the leadership in China have fared well in economic ties to Russia. It is up to China how far it will go in backing Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine. Will it prefer a quieter atmosphere in 2022 not to spoil the Olympics environment or the 20th Party Congress or because its economy is slowing? Does Xi have reason to withhold his backing given China’s own ties to Ukraine and its fidelity to sovereignty as a rule? Or does Xi seize this opportunity to pile on with Russia, pursuing his own ends? In any case, China is not likely to sit back and let Putin drive a confrontation in which its ties to the US and its allies are damaged without setting an agenda to its benefit.

One expression heard is that Beijing and Moscow are never against each other but not always together. One gets the sense that Beijing has red lines while accepting divergence on many issues that do not cross them. Strategic autonomy prevails in many areas, and they talk over points of competition more than before. Yet there is concern in Russia that as the balance tilts further to China—especially if a war in Ukraine leads to China having 30-40 percent of Russia’s trade—China will use its leverage on commercial deals, strategic decisions, and even historical memory in light of emotions of humiliation being aroused toward Russia behind the scenes, which could be activated quickly. The two do not share a vision of what the future global order should be, as much as they agree on the undesirability of the order at present. Russia has in mind a kind of Yalta agreement of a division of labor among the powers. China envisions a Pax Sinica. Trust is lacking, for example over China’s spying in Russia. Yet the word from Putin is to turn even further to China. China did a lot to help Russia with Crimea, such as in laying a sea cable to Crimea. China’s controls due to the pandemic are a problem Putin will want to resolve on February 4 by finding a visa work-around if Russia is to resume full-scale talks.

When discussion turned to the Chinese side of Sino-Russian relations, arguments were sketchier. It was said that there is no sentimentality in Beijing and Moscow about the decades-long cordial ties; they cooperate because it is in their respective national interests to do so. Yet the idea that relations are lately holding in a steady pattern drew pushback. Listeners were seeking more detail on what Chinese have been saying in their assessments of the relationship. Yet it was agreed that on the Chinese side, there was also little the US could do.

One theme raised were the possible costs to China of backing Russia. Up to this point, China has not had to take real risks to deepen its relationship with Russia. It was suggested that the US and its allies and partners should highlight for Beijing the risks that its backing of Moscow would pose to its credibility as a supposed defender of peace and stability and noninterference. It is still an open question just how far Beijing would go to aid Russia if it recognizes that its backing would jeopardize its ties with Europe or amplify an ideological struggle with the united democratic world. China must understand that this is a turning point. It may well boil down to which system of alliances is deeper and more effective. The US, Europe, and Indo-Pacific allies have clear advantages in this regard, but it is time to step up cooperation while mounting a more robust defense of democracy. In response to this line of reasoning, some doubted the resolve and unity of the US-led alliances or sought more details on Chinese thinking and its options. In a December Xi-Putin phone call, Xi had signaled support for Russia’s demands on the West. So far, China seems more inclined to join Russia than US allies are together. Some predicted that China would lean further toward Russia than in 2014 but would try to protect its economic interests by avoiding sharp sanctions, leaving Russia without the degree of support it expects. Others anticipated a more robust Chinese response after the Olympics, given China’s own non-economic ambitions and its deeper split with the US since 2014. Given North Korea’s belligerent potential, Northeast Asia is a possible arena for a second front, putting pressure on both South Korea and Japan with some backing from both China and Russia.

In one set of writings and discussions on the state of Sino-Russian relations and their prospects in light of Russian aggression in Ukraine, at least seven themes were raised, excluding those centered on Europe: (1) how has the relationship evolved? (2) how strong are bilateral ties today? (3) what is the balance between national interests, ideology, or identities in relations? (4) how closely do they work together in Central Asia? (5) what will be the impact of Russia’s “turn to the East”? (6) how will Japan respond to a Ukraine conflict? and (7) what will China do to capitalize on new strife between Russia and the West? Each of these themes is raised in turn, including questions about shortcomings in the presentations.

How has the relationship evolved?  

Some analysts still repeat the argument of Bobo Lo that Sino-Russian relations are an “axis of convenience.” This underestimates the driving forces in relations even in the 2000s when Lo’s book appeared. In contrast, a Carnegie Moscow Center article by Alexander Gabuev traces the momentum in ties between Moscow and Beijing to the late 1980s. Moreover, he refers to a secret 2011 meeting conducted by Medvedev in Khabarovsk that accelerated ties even before the momentum of 2014 and then of 2019-21. Relations have been strengthening for a long time and will further strengthen is the consensus, but two caveats are overlooked by some: (1) talk of a pragmatic response to outside pressures misses driving forces that are more serious; and (2) tensions plaguing this partnership matter, too.
How strong are bilateral relations today?

The clear consensus is that relations are strong, politically, militarily, and even economically. Given the Russian obsession with Ukraine and China’s priority on Taiwan—both in opposition to the US and its allies—they have compelling needs to tighten their ties. Yet the shadow of mistrust over the future of bilateral ties and the architecture of Asia should not be overlooked. Russians fear arrogance in an asymmetric relationship accompanying a clashing worldview about history and a “wolf warrior” outlook on pressing advantages in economic dependency. Signs abound in Chinese sources of dissatisfaction with Russian wariness. The pandemic aroused further distrust as China closed the border except to cargo and a dispute over fishing arose. Tensions over issues have kept building despite closer ties.

What is the balance between national interests, ideology, or identities in relations?

The shared mantra of Moscow and Beijing is that ideology plays no part in their relationship unlike the era of the Sino-Soviet split. Yet they agree that both are driven by a quest to block US ideological behavior and to forge a world order based on different principles. How is this not an ideologically-driven partnership? Indeed, each justifies the ideological pursuit of the Cold War era as it pertains to opposition to the West or support for North Korea. A closer look at dimensions of national identity reveals considerable overlap in thinking. Yet there is one striking exception: the importance of Russocentrism and Sinocentrism. So far, that matter has been secondary due to the geographical thrust being concentrated elsewhere or conscious self-restraint. Russians fear, however, that Sinocentrism is drawing closer—as in calls to join the BRI and China’s rejection of the Arctic-Pacific.

How closely do they work together in Central Asia?

While recognizing that Chinese and Russian activity in Central Asia has not been well coordinated, it was suggested that their moves are well harmonized. As China presses for a larger military role in that region, it was even argued that Russia has not opposed this trend. Missing is a review of the cat-and-mouse game over the past decade in Sino-Russian actions and responses in Central Asia. For Gabuev, the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia are an object of competition for economic, political, and cultural influence, even if they are also an arena for both cooperation on security and support for authoritarian regimes. The idea that if China extends its influence Russia does not seek to oppose it is misleading.

What will be the impact of Russia’s “Turn to the East”?

Joining more closely with China throws into doubt how Russia has conceptualized its “Turn to the East.” It is supposed to enhance multipolarity, not Sino-Russian ties at the expense of Russian ties to other Asian states. Russia has showcased its “Greater Eurasia” architecture, but despite Chinese lip-service in support there is no room for it in light of BRI and China’s policy toward India. With Beijing and Moscow tilting sharply toward North Korea, Russo-South Korean ties are in limbo. Turning to China has eased the way for Moscow to antagonize the West, but it is not a strategy for boosting other ties in the East apart from just a few outliers.

How will Japan respond to a Ukraine conflict?

From 2014 on the message from Japan was that Russian policy in Europe and in Asia should be kept separate. If as a member of the G7, Japan had agreed to sanctions over Russian moves into Crimea and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, it had limited those to a minimum and explained to Moscow’s its independence on bilateral relations. Now, the message could be that Japan can only play a limited role in response to new Russian aggression, but that would hardly suffice in this atmosphere of Japan-US alliance tightening and US stress on economic sanctions. As Moscow is already warning Kishida about breaking away from Abe’s posture of striving for better relations, this could be the break that not only fully reverses the bilateral détente since 2013, but even leads to harsher Russian moves, such as in joining with China on its territorial claims. Japan cannot waffle on Russia again.

What will China do to capitalize on new strife between Russia and the West?

At one extreme, it could give rise to a two-front challenge by causing a crisis over Taiwan. At another, it could take advantage of Russia’s vulnerability with moves undesired by Moscow, bilaterally or in parts of Asia. How strongly will China back a war agenda and compensate for Russia’s economic losses due to sanctions? This is a discussion still little explored. Some assume that during the Olympic Games in February or even in advance of the Twentieth Party Congress in the fall Beijing is likely to keep a low profile. Also of consequence is how the US would respond to Chinese support for Russia, perhaps sanctioning Chinese behavior, too.

Gabuev on Sino-Russian Relations

Gabuev’s article in Carnegie Moscow Center on January 24 is one of the richest analyses of the Sino-Russian relationship. It ends by stressing that the main factor of uncertainty in Sino-Russian relations over the next several decades is how China will use its growing advantages and whether Russia will be able to preserve strategic autonomy. More active Chinese moves without regard to Russia’s opinion may test the relationship, Gabuev warns, pointing especially to contradictions in historical memory. Despite formally settling the territorial question, China has kept an image of Russia as a colonial power which humiliated China and stole its territory. Recently, China resumed using in its maps Aigun, where an unequal treaty was signed; its local museums have a cult of historical images casting Russia in a damaging light, it has erased the role of the Red Army in the liberation of China, and negative images can be activated if some trigger arises, such as in the 2020 Russian commemoration of the anniversary of Vladivostok. History could again be on the agenda of Russo-Chinese relations, arousing in Russia Sinophobia. Gabuev says it has recently diminished due to accurate media coverage of China, but a better explanation is that it is due to censored, distorted news coverage.

Gabuev also warns of the danger of China imposing its will on matters of foreign policy and security, which it already is trying to do with Australia and South Korea, as examples of countries until very recently had cordial ties to China. Using rising economic dependence, Beijing could try to alter Moscow’s foreign policy, e.g., on India and Vietnam or in accepting a greater security role in Central Asia for China. He explains that the biggest risk to stable relations is growing asymmetry along with rising self-confidence in China. In future negotiations Beijing could impose its will as on energy prices, where Russian pipelines bind it to only one consumer.

Already there have been many political and economic strains in this relationship, but Moscow and Beijing have quietly dealt with them, trying to deepen ties where possible while still preserving strategic autonomy. As examples, Russia does not recognize China’s claim to the entire South China Sea, and when it was reported in August 2021 in Chinese media that in a conversation between Putin and Xi that Putin had given his full support, the Russian foreign ministry even had to issue a corrective. Mutual investments are meager despite growing trade, and mostly involve strategic state companies or powerful businessmen close to authorities. Espionage in China and Russia against each other is common. Open sources point to successes of Russian counterintelligence against what appear to be very active spying, at least three cases of which involving Russians came to light in 2020-21. Chinese hackers seek to gather data on the latest Russian weapons.

Given such distrust, joint intelligence operations against the US are hardly possible. Yet Gabuev warns that the risk of a Pax Sinica in Eurasia, including Russia, is not discussed seriously or in much detail in Moscow. Given the extreme orientation to great power autonomy in China and Russia, in league with sovereign nationalism, it is difficult for China and Russia to forge a formal alliance, and they have agreed to each proceeding on a separate line, but the sustainability of this arrangement may be in doubt if China holds more and more levers over Russia. Indeed, Gabuev suggests that Moscow is wary of Chinese investments and seeks diversity in Asia in awareness of growing asymmetry and its possible consequences. Yet it took until the 2010s for Russia to complete a cross-border bridge over the Amur given earlier concern of a China threat, and it was not until recently that Russia stopped talking of the need to change the terms of trade with China, although recently big contracts on military and technology and nuclear energy have helped to change that attitude. A broad set of consultations bolsters ties, if not always effectively, and, to a large degree, compensates for the near absence of contacts between the two societies. Gabuev sees this dearth as explicable by the nature of the regimes, Eurocentrism in Russia, and China’s orientation to partnership with developed countries, notably the US. Still, his explanation omits some other factors stirring distrust in each other.

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