Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current prime minister and future president, has shown a strong interest in Asian affairs. In his second term, Putin would undoubtedly like to maintain good ties with China, consolidate Moscow’s first-among-equals status in Central Asia, manage the regional repercussions of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, prevent a war or major crisis in the Koreas, and deepen Russia’s integration into East Asia’s more dynamic and prosperous economic networks. At the same time, Putin is eager to strengthen Russia’s position in Europe.
It’s a big to-do list, but Russia has already succeeded in raising its profile in Asia over the last few years. Its partnerships with China and India are solid, while relations with Iran and North Korea are stable despite all the complications surrounding both countries. Last year, Russia joined the East Asian Summit, which could emerge as the most important multinational security institution in East Asia. Russian government representatives regularly participate in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers’ Meeting and Dialogue Partners, the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, and other important regional meetings where they were once absent. But Russia is still too often treated as an afterthought in Asian-centered initiatives. Even eastern Russia is poorly integrated into East Asia’s dynamic economies, while Moscow’s diplomatic flexibility is constrained by its conflict with Tokyo, the mutual Russian-U.S. failure to extend their reset to Asia, and Russia’s inability to either align with a rising China or develop a means to manage its consequences.
It’s true that Putin chose China as the destination of his first foreign trip after his announcement in late September that he’d run again for president. But to read this as a signal that he would align Russia closer toward Beijing in the coming years would be a mistake. Putin’s October trip had been scheduled long before his announcement, and the fact is that he didn’t pursue particularly Beijing-leaning policies during his earlier terms as president (2000 to 2008).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Still, Putin did publish a series of major substantive articles during the recent election campaign. In his survey on foreign policy, Putin professed to welcome the rise of China. He wrote: “First of all, I am convinced that China's economic growth is by no means a threat, but a challenge that carries colossal potential for business cooperation – a chance to catch the Chinese wind in the sails of our economy,” such as by using Chinese investments and trade to revitalize the depressed Russian Far East.
“Second, China's conduct on the world stage gives no grounds to talk about its aspirations to dominance.” Furthermore, Putin wrote, “we have settled all the major political issues in our relations with China, including the critical border issue.” Finally, Moscow and Beijing “have created a solid mechanism of bilateral ties, reinforced by legally binding documents. There’s an unprecedentedly high level of trust between the leaders of our two countries.” In short, “Russia needs a prosperous and stable China, and I’m convinced that China needs a strong and successful Russia.”
But whatever Putin professes before taking office, it’s unlikely that he’ll break with the cooperation-conflict pattern that has characterized Russia-China ties during the past two decades. The two countries pursue similar policies towards a range of subjects, including regional security and world order issues. They share an aversion to certain Western practices such as NATO’s military humanitarian interventions in Libya, Serbia, and elsewhere. But Putin has made clear that he values Russia’s national independence, sovereignty, and freedom of action above all else – as does Beijing. Notwithstanding their improved post-Cold War relationship, Moscow and Beijing haven’t formed a mutual defensive alliance. They still tend to pursue distinct, if largely parallel, policies regarding many issues, including those cited above.
The reality is that despite the generous comments in his article, Putin and other Russians fear becoming China’s junior partner in world affairs. They can see that global economic, demographic and military trends are all moving in Beijing’s favor. China has become Russia’s largest trading partner, but in 2010, Russia ranked only as China’s 10th-largest trading partner, and China no longer needs most Russian high-technology or industrial exports. Russia’s population is stagnating while the Chinese people are becoming more numerous, wealthy, and influential. Bluntly put, Russians fear becoming a mere raw materials appendage to the Chinese colossus. They are bargaining hard to make the Chinese pay top dollar for Russian oil and especially gas deliveries to China, but they insist that China also buy Russian industrial goods as well as raw materials and better protect Russian property rights and trademarks.