Asia’s shifting geometry

Last week, on the occasion of Hu Jintao’s visit to Moscow, I wrote this post, suggesting that while China and Russia may appear to be moving ever closer together, there are good reasons to think that both Russia and China will be seeking greater flexibility in the Asia-Pacific region.

Two recent articles develop this idea further.

First, in Japan Focus, M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, argues that Sino-Russian ties are weakening, and Sino-American ties are deepening, citing the symbolism of General Pace’s visit to Beijing just before Hu went to Russia. Notably, Bhadrakumar calls attention to Chinese concerns about becoming too dependent on Russia for energy — suggesting that China, the US, and the EU may be moving towards a consensus on coping with Russia as energy superpower. And he concludes by quoting a researcher at the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who calls attention to the new wind in the Sino-US relationship: “The Sino-US relationship is moving beyond the bilateral scope to cover regional and global security and economic matters. Exchanges at various levels and between diverse sectors, trade and economic cooperation in particular, are going ahead in a big way. By all accounts, the two countries share more interests and are becoming increasingly dependent on one another strategically and economically.”

Obviously there are still plenty of outstanding bilateral issues between China and the US, not least the nature of the Chinese regime, but Washington increasingly sees in China a partner in preserving the stability of the region, a fundamental interest of both Washington and Beijing. Bhadrakumar’s essay is useful in measuring the degree to which the region’s arrangements are in flux.

That impression is confirmed in an essay by Ian Bremmer (hat tip: RealClearPolitics), author of the book The J Curve, who points to the “mutually assured economic destruction” intrinsic to the Sino-US relationship to argue against the idea of a new cold war between the US and China (or Russia). I would not be so foolish as to suggest that armed competition or conflict is impossible, but the terms of the relationship between the US and China have changed. Each country needs the other; each country needs to engage the other constructively to address issues of mutual concern. Accordingly, expect more initiatives on the order of the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue.

With the US embracing flexibility in its Asia policy, the big question is whether Japan has adjusted accordingly. Despite Abe’s early visits to China and South Korea, I strongly suspect that Japan remains wedded to a strategic concept — a maritime alliance of democracies off the coast of Asia — that seems increasingly out of favor in Washington. The “continentalists” are in control, and stability, not democracy, is increasingly the watchword of US Asia policy.

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