By Rami Ayyub
A long term strategic game is being played out between the United States and Russia in the Asia Pacific, with China at the nexus. (Photo by Alexei Druzhinin)
There may be intimations of a limited rapprochement between Russia and the U.S. in the wake of the recent Paris bombings. However, a longer-term game is still being played out between the two powers in the Asia-Pacific region. China is the nexus of their competing strategies in this realm, as well as those of other states.
Currently the most powerful of these states, Japan, finds itself in a position of balancing competing priorities in order to sustain its regional standing.
Japan has also recently been improving ties with several states in its region in order to counterbalance the rise of its rival, China. These include the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, and India. Unlike itself and the former two, the latter two are not U.S. treaty allies. Consequently, they have much more room to maneuver and pursue more pragmatic, multi-vector foreign policy strategies with respect to the U.S., Russia, and China.
Enemies Become Allies
Forty years ago at the close of the Vietnam War (brokered with China’s assistance), it would have been near impossible for the U.S. to imagine that it would one day approach its former enemy for assistance against this very same broker, yet also a larger potential enemy unto itself.
Yet that is precisely the situation the U.S. finds itself in now due to several factors, the most prevalent of which are: 1) China’s phenomenal rise and potential peer competitor status to the U.S. and 2) historical Sino-Vietnamese animosity which today manifests itself most prominently in the South China Sea disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands.
The U.S. is not the only power vying for Vietnamese attention, however. Russia is also developing economic and security ties with Vietnam to counter the rise of its quasi-ally, China.
What makes Vietnam so attractive to both powers is its long coastline which abuts the South China Sea. Most importantly, it also has the longest coastline of any of the non-China claimants in the South China Sea disputes.
Lastly, its Cam Ranh Bay naval facility, formerly utilized by both the U.S. and the Former Soviet Union in quick succession during the Cold War, allows power projection into and signals intelligence gathering from this disputed area, specifically China’s nine-dash line.
The Master of Non-Alignment
Historically unwilling to be a pawn in anyone’s geopolitical game, India also has a prominent security role to play itself in the Asia-Pacific region. With respect to Vietnam above, it is improving security and economic ties with the Southeast Asian nation, along with Russia and the U.S. In addition to the reasons stated above, Vietnam also has the potential to serve as India’s power projection proxy in a “Malacca Dilemma” situation.
More importantly, India itself is being wooed by both Russia and the U.S. in their efforts to manage China’s rise. A founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, India was viewed with suspicion by the U.S. during the Cold War, despite its democratic credentials. This allowed for closer relations between it and the Former Soviet Union.
Much as in Northeast Asia, Russia now finds itself in a position to potentially influence the foreign policy tilt of others due to its natural resources and proximity to rapidly-growing, energy-hungry states. It also does this through security ties with the Indian defense establishment.
Consequently, as a powerful, but distant state, the U.S. has its work cut out for it getting India to bandwagon with it against China (or even Russia). Currently, the U.S. plays on past Sino-Indian difficulties such as the Sino-Indian border skirmish of 1962, as well as the present situation, where India fears Chinese encirclement via a “String of Pearls” strategy under the pretext of fighting pirates on the high seas.
Unlike Russia, a supplier of natural resources to China, India nonetheless serves an important role as a potential blocker of resources from Africa and the Middle East, through the Indian Ocean, and finally onward to China.
Use Barbarians To Fight Barbarians
Seeing their most powerful neighbors working to block its rise, most states would probably get very anxious, very quickly. Among several factors, there are two which apply in the case of China which explain why it’s an exception to this rule.
Similar to how the Former Soviet Union and now Russia tries to foster division amongst its Western counterparts, China has a deep history of playing different outsiders off against one another. Playing the long game, it realizes that there still remain a host of problems preventing an effective alliance between the U.S. and India, Russia and India, and definitely between Russia and the U.S.
Chief among these and related to the first is the realization that Vietnam, and India in particular, are never going to be fully in anyone’s camp. They are both pursuing multi-vector foreign policy strategies which enable them to accrue the maximum possible benefits from all parties. These strategies, in turn, have both economic and strategic components.
The subsequent lack of ideology among the strategies enables the parties to pursue pragmatism to its fullest and also demands pragmatism from any of Vietnam’s and India’s successful suitors.