Recent tensions between Russia and the West highlight Russia’s growing ties with Asia, particularly China. Before the Ukraine crisis, this pivot to Asia had more to do with Moscow’s assessment that Asia will be the major source of future economic growth. Russia seeks Asian, especially Chinese, investment to open up new sources of oil and gas, which will in turn allow it to play a larger role in regional security and diplomacy. Economic ties are the basis for the deepening Sino-Russian partnership, while Beijing has also provided important diplomatic support as the West has sought Russia’s isolation. Yet to avoid excessive dependence on China, Russia has worked to cultivate relations with other Asian powers, especially India, Vietnam, and Japan. This interest in harnessing Asian economic growth gives Moscow and Washington a common interest in regional stability, but one that is unlikely to be fully realized as long as bilateral relations remain focused on Europe and Eurasia.

Especially since the United States and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea, Moscow has emphasized the shift of its political and economic priorities to Asia. The crisis has spawned a narrative in some quarters that Russia is turning to China to compensate for its growing isolation from the West. Many Western analysts see the development of this Sino-Russian partnership as the first step toward the emergence of a new revisionist axis aiming to challenge the West’s economic and geopolitical dominance.

The reality though is more complex. While the Ukraine crisis may have given Russia’s turn to Asia greater significance, Russian focus on Asia and the Pacific has been growing for several years. Driven less by geopolitical animus toward the West than by an interest in developing its own resources, taking advantage of Asia’s growing dynamism, and limiting the potential for regional conflict to jeopardize these aims, Russia’s pivot began as a gradual process of economic and political integration with Asia. Yet as the crisis in relations between Russia and the West over Ukraine has accelerated, Moscow has increasingly fallen back on an old habit of seeing Asia in general, and China in particular, as an alternative to dependence on the West.

The major goal of this shift has long been to attract investment for the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East, where a combination of natural riches and sparse populations imperils Moscow’s long-term control. Geographic proximity between Russia’s vast reserves of oil and gas and China’s huge market creates a natural synergy that has seen China become Russia’s largest trading partner in recent years. Like Russia, China is also ambivalent about the existing international security order dominated by the United States. The two countries consequently find themselves on the same side of many international disputes. For many Russian nationalists of a conservative bent, China also offers an attractive model of development without democratization and is a potential superpower whose rise will inevitably come at the expense of the United States.

Yet as Moscow well understands, Russia’s great-power aspirations are incompatible with excessive dependence on China. Given the disparities between a rapidly growing China and a stagnant Russia, their partnership is an unequal one, and Russia’s freedom of action is compromised by being overly dependent on China. Moreover, by identifying its interests at the global level with those of China, Russia undermines its ability to become a full-fledged Asian power by sowing distrust among the large number of Asian states that see China as a potential threat to their own interests.

For that reason, an important component of Russia’s Asia pivot has been to cultivate ties with Asian powers such as Vietnam and India, in part to balance its relationship with China. More recently Russia has also begun seeking a rapprochement with Japan. Even as these bilateral relationships develop, the perception of Russia as a proxy for China inhibits Moscow’s influence in the region more broadly, including in the multilateral organizations that Russia seeks to engage.

Russia’s resulting support for maintaining balance and stability in Asia is largely compatible with U.S. interests in the region, as long as the confrontation over Ukraine does not become the basis for a global stand-off on the model of the Cold War. Even as the United States and Russia continue to spar over European and Eurasian security, Washington has an opportunity to pursue limited engagement with Moscow in the Asia-Pacific. Doing so would allow the United States to maintain a working relationship with Russia at a time when tensions over Ukraine threaten to unleash a protracted confrontation in Europe. Such engagement can also help address some of Asia’s major security challenges, including the nuclear stand-off on the Korean Peninsula, territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, and the formation of a new regional security architecture, while minimizing the chances of a Sino-Russian strategic axis emerging. Combining containment of Russia in Europe with any degree of engagement in Asia will present a major challenge for U.S. diplomacy. But given the region’s growing significance for the global economy and the potential for geopolitical tensions to undo the Asian economic miracle, Washington has a strong interest in Russia being a constructive player in Asia, regardless of what happens in Europe and Eurasia.

A version of this Commentary originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Asia Policy.
Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program