Argument

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Asia’s Stakes in the Biden-Putin Summit

Geopolitical shifts have put a U.S.-Russian detente in the interest of much of Asia.

By , the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies.
Putin and Modi at the 2016 BRICS summit
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting at the BRICS summit in Benaulim, India, on Oct. 15, 2016. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

If Beijing is likely to watch next week’s summit meeting in Geneva between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin with a bit of concern, New Delhi is cheering the two leaders on, hoping they find a way to get along. Better relations between the United States and Russia will certainly make it easier for India to balance an increasingly aggressive China. And while India might be especially enthusiastic about a U.S.-Russian detente, it is not alone in Asia. Many others in the region believe that an independent Russian role will create more wiggle room for themselves in the emerging confrontation between China and the United States.

Skeptics, however, point out that both Washington and Moscow are downplaying expectations for the summit and that multiple difficult issues continue to hobble the U.S.-Russian relationship. If China’s fear of the United States drawing Russia away from its influence are far-fetched, it may be similarly unrealistic for the rest of Asia to hope for an early and significant reset of the triangular dynamic between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow.

Even a mere loosening of this great strategic triangle, however, could have significant consequences for Asian geopolitics. The immediate effect of a U.S.-Russian detente would be on Europe, which in turn would have significant fallout on Asia.

The European security order has long been a contested terrain between the United States and Russia. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a decade of relative harmony between Russia and the West, but by the turn of the millennium, the European compact between the two sides was under strain. Relations have become a lot more conflictual since then—and headed south after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

That Biden is risking a summit with Putin so early on in his presidency suggests that he is taking a fresh look at the troubled Russia relationship as he focuses on the much greater challenge from China and the need to mobilize European support for the new geopolitical contestation with Beijing.

Reducing tensions with Russia should make it easier for Europe to pay greater attention to Asia and back U.S. efforts to balance China.

Biden now appears ready to reverse the proposition in Washington that the United States can and must simultaneously confront both Russia and China. The conventional wisdom is that Moscow and Beijing are now so tightly linked that the Biden administration will find it hard to separate them, even if it tries.

But reducing tensions with Russia should make it easier for Europe to pay greater attention to Asia and back U.S. efforts to balance China. India, along with Japan, is stepping up efforts to draw the European powers, including Britain, back into the Asian security order. While the European Union and key member states are beginning to develop new approaches to the Indo-Pacific and recognize the systemic challenges presented by China, their potential contribution to Asian security will be limited by the more proximate threats from Russia.

A grand bargain between Russia and the West undoubtedly serves the interests of both, but no one is betting it is within reach. There is little political support within the United States for a positive relationship with Russia, nor is there unanimity in Europe on how to deal with Russia. But circumstances can often compel states to do what seems impossible. Even a pause in the conflict between Russia and the West could set the stage for a potential rearrangement of Eurasian geopolitics. A Europe that worries less about Russia could play a greater role in Asia.

If Russia looms large over Europe, China is the rising hegemon over the Asian horizon. Many in Washington are skeptical whether Moscow can contribute in a way that benefits the West in Asia. Russia’s relations with China today are at a high point, and Moscow is eager to intensify them. The structure of their cooperation is deep and comprehensive. Even if the United States and Europe offer an acceptable grand bargain to Russia, it is unlikely that Moscow would want to trade its strong ties with Beijing in return.

But Russia is not yet in an alliance with China, nor should one presume that Moscow is condemned to become Beijing’s junior partner. If Russia is at peace with the United States and finds a new political accommodation with Europe, Moscow might be under less compulsion to tack to Chinese positions in the Indo-Pacific and more likely to reclaim an autonomous role in Asian security.

A Russia less shackled to China, at least, is the hope in New Delhi and Tokyo, where insecurities vis-à-vis Beijing have sharply risen in recent years. If there were few takers for a Russian detente in Western capitals until now, Biden seems to be open to exploring its possibilities as he ramps up the U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

New Delhi is no stranger to shifting currents in the Chinese-Russian-U.S. strategic triangle. While India sought good relations with all the three in the 1950s, it eventually drifted toward a semi-alliance with the Soviet Union, driven by the breakdown of India’s ties with China over Tibet and territorial disputes in the 1960s and Sino-U.S. rapprochement in the 1970s.

New Delhi has sought to maintain its close ties with Moscow through all the changes in great-power relations since then—including the expansion of the Sino-Russian partnership and the new strategic warmth between New Delhi and Washington. But the growing mutual hostility between Washington and Moscow over the last few years has begun to squeeze New Delhi’s freedom of action.

The rest of Asia, too, is open to a larger Russian role in the region that enhances their space in the unfolding bipolar reorganization.

Nothing illustrates India’s great-power quandary better than the likely imposition of U.S. sanctions, mandated by Congress and triggered by the Indian acquisition of S-400 advanced air defense missiles from Russia. This will undoubtedly cast a dark cloud over the expanding Indian-U.S. partnership, especially in the security domain.

Meanwhile, New Delhi is also having trouble with Moscow, which has become increasingly uncomfortable with India’s deepening strategic partnership with the United States and is sharply critical of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—the evolving strategic coalition among India, the United States, Australia, and Japan. New Delhi has also been deeply anxious about China’s new salience in Russia’s foreign-policy calculus and its long-term consequences for Indian security.

As Beijing and Washington continue to complicate their relationship, New Delhi and Moscow want to hold on to theirs. India remains reluctant to wade into Russian disputes with the West, and Moscow has kept a studied neutrality during the current military standoff between India and China in the high Himalayas that began in the spring of 2020. Most significantly, Russia has kept open the supply lines of much-needed military equipment for the Indian armed forces during the crisis.

If India’s interest is to hold on to an existing partnership with Russia, Tokyo has sought, unsuccessfully so far, to draw closer to Moscow. Both India and Japan see Russian neutrality—or even support—as highly valuable in their quest to restore an Indo-Pacific equilibrium that has been shattered by an assertive China. New Delhi, Tokyo, and Moscow have also blessed a Track II triangular dialogue among their think tanks to derive a better understanding of the complex regional dynamic and find some common ground.

The rest of Asia, too, is open to a larger Russian role in the region that enhances their space in the unfolding bipolar reorganization in Asia. Vietnam, for example, is eager to sustain its past links to Russia and hopes Moscow will lend it some protection from Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has long been enthusiastic about drawing Moscow into the regional multilateral order, but it has been disappointed so far by the limited impact of the Russian pivot to Asia. This could conceivably change if Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe become less confrontational and Moscow distances itself from Beijing’s policies in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Few in the 1970s would have imagined that the efforts by then-U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to warm up to China would have the kind of massive structural consequences for Asia that eventually unfolded. Biden’s apparent plan to normalize ties with Moscow might not succeed—and even if it does, it might not have a similar impact, because Russia is not at the heart of Asian geopolitics like China.

Even at its apogee, the Soviet Union’s influence in Asia was limited. And once Washington began to normalize relations with Beijing in the 1970s, Moscow was further marginalized in Asia. Today, Russia is much weaker than both China and the United States. Yet there is no doubt that Moscow retains some influence in various regions of the Indo-Pacific, from the Korean Peninsula to parts of Africa.

Above all, there is high demand for greater security in Asia—and Russia can be either an important supplier or a spoiler. It is in the interest of the United States, Europe, and much of Asia that Russia is a provider rather than a disruptor of Indo-Pacific security. Asia will therefore be watching very carefully next week.

C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja