Two lessons on Asia the U.S. must heed

Two lessons on Asia the U.S. must heed

In determining its rebalance strategy in Asia, the US must learn from Russia’s failure and Australia’s success.

Echoing George F. Kennan’s “Long Telegram” with respect to strategic foreign policy, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently completed a study outlining how to make the U.S’s Asia-Pacific rebalance more effective. Aiming to enhance the U.S position in Asia economically, politically, and militarily, the rebalance will have a huge impact on government political risk decisions for the U.S, its allies, and partners within the region for the foreseeable future.

In addition to CSIS’ suggestions with respect to the rebalance, the U.S should take lessons from a resurgent great power, Russia, as well as a regional mid-level power, Australia.

Learn from Russia’s failure

Historically, Russia only turns east when relations with the West sour. This usually occurred after an initial rapprochement with the West failed due to long-term structural issues between Russia and the U.S. As a result, prime opportunities for further economic integration into the Asia-Pacific through the Russian Far East (RFE) were repeatedly lost. As a result, most states in the region eventually came to see Russia as only a marginal player at best with respect to economic issues and definitely not a long-term partner in the region.

The takeaway lesson for the U.S is the need to be seen as a long-term player in Asia, not just militarily, but economically as well. While many states in the region prefer a robust U.S military presence to counter a more assertive China, true staying power in Asia will be defined in terms of what economic benefits the U.S can bring to the table.

In terms of natural resources, the U.S. has its own RFE, namely Alaska. If resource-abundant, geographically-proximate Alaska could be more effectively integrated into resource-hungry Asia, this would increase U.S stock in the region immeasurably.

Additionally, most states in the region refuse to be drawn into a “bloc mentality”, choosing between China and the U.S. This extends into economics with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement squaring off against the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. The more savvy states in the region, particularly Vietnam, refuse to be used as instruments for anyone, are members of both economic blocs, and pursue a multi-vector foreign policy strategy.

Realizing that it is competing for influence in the region with China, Russia, India, and even its own ally, Japan, should help the U.S even further refine its rebalance goals.

Through its own attempts at an Asian pivot, Russia has been repeatedly wary of being overly dependent on China and has struggled to have a truly Asian rebalance, not just a “China rebalance.” It has done this through security and economic outreach efforts to other regional states, most notably Japan, Vietnam, and India.

But due to the Ukraine Crisis and subsequent worsening of U.S-Russian relations, Russia has decided that it’s far more important to have China on its side to balance the U.S globally than to have these other powers balance China regionally.

Related to this lesson on instrumentality, the U.S would get far more traction out of its rebalance strategy if it demonstrated genuine interest in engaging Japan, Vietnam, and India (among others) more on an economic basis focused on their respective merits.

This stands in contrast to the current overarching mentality of checking local states off as being either “with us, or against” on a scorecard vis-a-vis China.  It would also actually lend more substance to the declaration that the rebalance is not about containing China.

Learn from Australia’s success

Lastly with respect to rhetoric versus actual achievements, the continual failure of Russia to live up to its actual potential as a player in the Asia-Pacific region has spillover effects to this day. Asia by and large has realized that true political and military power rest on the foundation of solid economic power and political functionality. The underpopulated and ineptly-administered RFE will take many years to develop into a functioning piece of the Asia-Pacific puzzle.

Additionally, with most of its population facing westward toward Europe, Russia’s attention to any one of the numerous states it borders is going to be divided. Asia, as always, will be competing for this limited attention span and therefore might further doubt Russia’s resolve in the region.

As most of Russia’s population is literally a continent away from the Asia-Pacific, so the U.S is literally an ocean away. True, the U.S currently has a material presence in the region, but as the remaining superpower, its attention will constantly be drawn to other theaters and concerns; Syria and ISIS to name just two.

Additionally, like Russia, the U.S faces the argument that it is culturally Western and only a Pacific power, not truly Asian, and so will always be seen as an interfering outsider in some quarters.

Australia faced the same dilemma, essentially being a Western outpost in an ocean of “Asianness”.  Geographically-proximate, but culturally-distant Australia has made itself into an indispensable part of the Asia-Pacific landscape due to its resource abundance and regional economic integration.  Although a continent unto itself, this has made Australia a model citizen of the Asia-Pacific community and this possibly holds lessons for both Russia and the U.S going forward.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is a U.S. Foreign Policy Analyst & Project Manager with Bright Group Consulting, where he provides confidential geopolitical forecasting services regarding various aspects of U.S.-China foreign policy. Additionally, he is an Expert | Geopolitical Intelligence with RANE, an information and advisory services company that connects business leaders to critical risk insights and expertise. He is also an Analyst with the Foreign Policy Association where he writes blogs on foreign policy analysis. As a Senior Analyst and Editor with Global Risk Insights, he provides analysis on political risk & geopolitics. Lastly, he is a Writer for Geopoliticalmonitor Intelligence Corporation, an international intelligence publication which provides comprehensive geopolitical analysis. Having previously consulted in Ukraine, his area of focus is U.S.-Russia relations. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.