To Hedge Its Bets, Russia Is Encircling China
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To Hedge Its Bets, Russia Is Encircling China

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Russia is playing all sides as it expands ties with both China and many of the countries along its periphery, including Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam and India. The moves appear to be aimed at giving Russia the ability to hedge against Chinese influence.

The Diplomat has closely followed the growing ties between Russia and China over the past year or so. This most recent example of this expansion of ties was Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s trip to Beijing last month to meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as part of an annual meeting between the two heads of state.

The most important outcomes of the meeting centered on energy cooperation, a growth area for the bilateral relationship as of late. Specifically, Medvedev said that Russia’s state oil company Rosneft would supply an additional 10 million tons of crude oil to China over the next 10 years. According to Xinhua, China purchased 24.33 million tons of crude from Moscow in 2012. The two countries also agreed to jointly build an oil refinery in China and continue nuclear cooperation.

According to China’s Foreign Ministry, Medvedev said the following at the meeting: “Russia-China relations are comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership both in name and in fact. Russia is ready to further expand the scale of trade and investment with China.”

Trade between China and Russia reached US$88 billion in 2012. While in China, Medvedev said the two sides hope to raise that to US$100 billion by 2015 and US$200 billion by 2020.

Given their historically competitive relationship, the booming ties between China and Russia have puzzled many analysts. However, there is growing evidence that Moscow is seeking to balance against China’s influence by expanding its bilateral relationships with China’s neighbors.

Over the weekend, for instance, Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera held Japan’s first “2+2″ meeting with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

The two sides agreed to hold a joint naval drill aimed at countering terrorism and piracy, and also to hold 2+2 meetings an annual event. Lavrov reportedly told a press conference after the meeting that bilateral cooperation with Tokyo would help resolve security issues on the Korean Peninsula as well as territorial disputes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to hold a 2+2 meeting back in April when Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Russia in nearly a decade.

The expansion in defense ties comes despite the fact that Russia and Japan technically still remain at war, having never signed a peace treaty ending WWII hostilities. Agreeing to formally end hostilities has been inhibited by their ongoing territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands. Abe and Putin agree back in April to redouble efforts to reach a negotiation over the Kuril Islands, which the Soviet Union seized in the waning days of WWII.

Abe met with Shoigu and Lavrov while they were in Tokyo over the weekend and reaffirmed his commitment to end the ongoing dispute quickly. Negotiations over the islands will resume early next year.

Russia has also been beefing up its ties to both Koreas in a delicate balancing act. In September, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced that Moscow had agreed to forgive North Korea on 90 percent of its Soviet-era debt, which totals US$11 billion. The remaining US$1 billion will be restructured as a “debt-for-aid” program and repaid gradually over the course of the next 20 years.

“The agreement marks the beginning of a new stage of development and financial relations between the Russian Federation and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Russia’s FM declared in a statement announcing the deal.

Experts noted that the deal paved the way for Russia to begin issuing credit to Pyongyang. This in turn was expected to facilitate progress on pipeline, railway and electricity projects Russia is pursuing in the Hermit Kingdom.

Last month it was announced that Russia had completed building the 54-kilometer railway link with North Korea. The railway links up the southeastern city of Khasan in Russia with a newly rebuilt Rajin Port in North Korea. Ultimately Russian President Putin is aiming to reconnect the Koreas via railways, which itself would connect to the Trans-Siberian Railway. This in effect would make Russia a transit point between Europe and the Koreas and other parts of Asia. The trip by railway would be about 30 days faster than maritime shipping through the Suez Canal, albeit only at an increased cost.

Moscow has completed similar projects linking Germany and China together through rail via Russia.

Russia has also long advocated for a natural gas pipeline linking it to South Korea via North Korea, albeit progress on this front has been slow coming as well. Moscow and Seoul resumed negotiations over the pipeline last month. At the APEC meeting last month in Bali, Putin floated the idea of circumventing Pyongyang by building an undersea gas pipeline linking Russia and South Korea. The idea is viewed skeptically by experts due to its technological complexity.

Both the railway and pipeline projects will be on the agenda when President Putin visits Seoul next week to meet with President Park Geun-hye. The two leaders previously met at the G20 meeting in Russia back in September.

At that meeting Putin declared, “The Republic of Korea is one of our priority partners in the region.  We maintain relations in many different areas. Our trade has reached $25 billion and rose by another 3% in the first six months of this year.”

South Korea announced Putin’s forthcoming visit­ — scheduled for November 12 - 13 — on Friday of last week. Korean media outlets noted that Putin would be the first foreign leader of one of the “four major powers” (China, Japan, Russia and the U.S.) to visit South Korea since Park assumed the presidency.

On Sunday South Korean media outlets reported that the two sides intend to issue a joint statement following the Putin-Park meeting. The reports said that the joint statement would vow to push ahead with the joint economic projects with North Korea discussed above. It will also discuss bilateral cooperation to denuclearize North Korea, reportedly containing much stronger language than that used in the 2010 South Korea-Russia joint statement on the issue.

Russia has recently been stepping up its traditionally muted role in the six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. In July, North Korea’s nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-Gwan, visited Moscow for talks aimed at restarting the six party talks. Although Russian officials at the time said that substantial differences remained between it and Pyongyang over the latter’s nuclear program, lately Moscow has joined Beijing in pushing for the resumption of talks. In August, South Korea’s representative to the Six Party talks, Cho Tae-Yong, also visited Moscow.

Directly prior to his South Korean visit, Russian President Putin will also make a quick stop in Vietnam, another Chinese neighbor that Russia has long maintained robust ties with. In 1979, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China invaded Vietnam in no small part because of its fear of encirclement due to growing Russian-Vietnam ties.

Even as it deepens cooperation with China in many areas, Russia has again turned to Vietnam as a potential way to balance Chinese power. As Stephen Blank recently wrote in The Diplomat, Russia has “quietly but openly resisted Chinese encroachments and is forging a deeper military-political relationship with Vietnam” to achieve that objective.

Along with Vietnam, Russia has also maintained robust relations with India. Last month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Moscow where he held a summit meeting with Putin. A joint statement issued at the end of the summit said that Russia and India would also work “to enhance cooperation in the fields of rocket, missile and naval technologies and weapon systems.”

A bilateral defense meeting between Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Defence Minister A.K. Antony is scheduled for later this month in Russia. In previewing the upcoming meeting, Rogozin said, “We have drawn up a comprehensive package proposal in the sphere of helicopters and aircraft that should be of interest to India. We will also discuss plans for building new surface warships and submarines.”

The two sides will also discuss boosting cooperation on global position monitoring systems.

Following Singh’s visit last month, Russia and India also held their first-ever battalion level joint military exercise.

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