Russia's Retreat, China's Advance: The Future of Great Power Politics in Asia

  The Soviet Union's demise spelled the end of Russia as a European Great Power, although post-Soviet Russia remains a major European state and a power among others.

  The Soviet Union's demise spelled the end of Russia as a European Great Power, although post-Soviet Russia remains a major European state and a power among others.  Less obvious, but equally important, is Russia's decline as an Asian Great Power.  Moscow enjoyed this status for a relatively brief period and in large measure due to the weakness of China, Asia's historic continental hegemon.  China's recovery from external domination set the stage, despite the disasters of Mao's policies, for its expansion as a major economic and regional political force.  Today, China is reclaiming from Russia its place as the leading land power in Asia-the country others must always take into account.  This is a momentous transformation in Asian affairs and of great importance to the United States.  

Russia is a fading Asian power undergoing an imperial retreat comparable to those of other European states once dominant in Asia (including Spain, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Britain, and Portugal).  Russia is different in that it expanded into Asia by land as well as by sea, so that its Far Eastern territories became part of the national "metropole."  However, Russia's self-perception as an Eurasian Great Power is a residue of Soviet thinking rather than rational analysis.  While the so-called "Eurasianist" policy school remains prominent and influential in Russia today, it reflects the same post-imperial psychosis which requires French politicians to proclaim their country's "grandeur" despite the reality of France as a second-tier power dependent for much of its influence on its neighbors.  Indeed, some pessimistic Russian scholars have even publicly questioned whether Russia will be able to maintain effective control of its Far Eastern territories in the decades ahead regardless of the actions of neighboring states simply because there may not be enough young Slavs willing to live in those areas to maintain Russia as a Pacific Rim country.  

In the past, most Asian powers have, at one time or another, felt themselves either dependent on Russia or threatened by it.  Today, outside of Central Asia, no Asian state sees Russia as either a mentor or a danger.  Russia still exercises power and influence in Asia, but these are diminishing assets sustained by its residual military and naval forces, its ability to export sophisticated weapons to regional rivals, and its simple possession of immense territory.  Two other factors unrelated to Russia's strengths give it continuing importance in Asia.  First, the rivalries of Asian states with each other - Japan with China, between the two Koreas, China with India, India with Pakistan, etc. - allow Moscow to play a role as each side seeks external support, even from a reduced power like Russia.  Second is Moscow's limited role for many Asian capitals as a partial counterweight to the United States.  Even governments that welcome America's Asian presence, such as Japan and South Korea, bridle at the extent of their dependence on Washington, while China and India share an antipathy to a "unipolar" world of American primacy.  For these countries, Russia remains useful as an independent, although weakened, foil to the United States.

Recent events must remind Beijing and Moscow how much the contemporary world is structured in terms favorable to the United States.  China has no external security alliances, while its close relations with North Korea and Pakistan are as much liabilities as assets.  Russia has no alliances with powerful states, while the CIS Mutual Security Treaty binds Moscow to a series of weak states unable to contribute to Russia's power but capable of drawing on her very limited resources.  In contrast, the United States sits at the center of a structure of alliances encompassing most of the developed world.  While most U.S. allies provide only modest tangible support in armed conflict, nonetheless this web of alliances-stretching from Australia to Norway-constitutes power in depth such as to make Moscow and Beijing feel keenly their comparative nakedness.  The new American presence and influence in South and Central Asia - including facilities from the Persian Gulf to Singapore - are tangible manifestations that must inspire China and Russia to caution, to accommodation, or to competition.

Whether for good or ill, Russia, as the last of the European imperial powers engaged in Asia, is in retreat.  Even in the "near abroad" of the former Soviet states of Central Asia, Russia may expect increasingly to play second fiddle to the dynamism and ambitions of China.  In its relations with China itself, Russia is no longer either the dominant nor even the primary factor in Beijing's worldview.  Rather, Russia is a useful partner to China in many aspects of its own external relations and a secure hinterland in any potential future crisis over Taiwan or Korea.  For China, Russia is also a school of economic and social policies it regards as failures and, unfortunately, an object lesson to the Chinese Communist leadership against the rapid introduction of multi-party democracy, a free press, and loosening of a highly centralized system of state control over its provinces. (1)  In the resolution of the division of Korea, Russia will play the least important role among the external powers.  Japan looks on Russia in frustration - both as a negotiating partner over the Northern Territories and as a locale for investment - but can at least take comfort that the long and bitter rivalry between the two is resolving in Japan's favor, although with Japan itself no longer the dominant power in East Asia it once sought to become.  Only with India can Russia anticipate a relationship of relative equality, and the very fact of equality reflects the sharp decline of Russian power from its Cold War greatness.