The Sochi Olympics should help counter the view that Russia is not an influential player in Asia. Whereas major European and U.S. political leaders have boycotted the event, the leaders of China and Japan could not. Indeed, Sochi witnessed vigorous trilateral diplomacy as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping lobbied for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favors. Russia has critical national interests in Asia and employs diverse tactics to pursue them. Moscow’s main problem is that, while it has major stakes in Asia, its means to pursue them are weak. In some cases of overlapping Russian-U.S. national interests, it would prove mutually beneficial for Washington to help Moscow to achieve its goals.
Russia’s overarching goals in Asia generally include promoting multipolarity (limiting U.S. influence but also managing China’s rise), developing beneficial economic relations, having a visible presence in all major Asian events and institutions (to accord with the vision of Russia as a great power), and minimizing the adverse impact of regional disputes while seeking to exploit some of them to enhance Russia’s influence and interests.
Russia’s tactics to achieve these objectives include pursuing a “multi-vector” strategy of seeking good relations with all players, encouraging balanced trade and high-tech inward investment, using arms and energy exports as foundational instruments to develop more comprehensive ties, conducting flexible diplomatic alignments in which Moscow seeks to avoid backing one side in territorial or other disputes so as to induce all parties to curry Moscow’s favor, and “Project Siberia.” The latter strategy of developing the Russian Far East by increasing its economic integration within East Asia has both defensive and offensive purposes. Moscow hopes to counter Chinese economic absorption of Siberia as a raw material appendage while simultaneously building a more solid foundation for promoting Russia’s regional influence.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Russia’s most important Asian relationship is clearly with China. The two countries share interests in maintaining stability in the Korean Peninsula, Central Asia, and the Middle East—all regions where their local allies are threatened by various forces. China has clearly emerged as Russia’s most important trading partner, gateway to other Asian markets, and soon could become its main source of foreign investment. Meanwhile, Beijing is eager to benefit from Moscow’s growing interest in Asian affairs to manage their disruptive North Korean neighbor, territorial disputes with other Asian countries, and the uncertainties generated by the U.S. Asian pivot.
In recent years, Russia has relaxed its operational “firebreaks” with China, partnering with China on issues that until recently were out-of-bounds. Whereas in the past Russia was unwilling to sell China its most advanced weapons systems, now Moscow policymakers have decided to run the risk of further strengthening the Chinese military-industrial complex through transfers of more advanced weapons systems in order to earn money and, more importantly, retain market share and influence over the Chinese military establishment. After years of stagnation, Russia’s arms sales to China are again booming; for the first time, Russia is willing to sell China weapons systems that it has not offered its long-standing defense partner India.
Similarly, Russian leaders have been allowing China to assume a larger economic role in the Russian and Central Asian energy markets in order to secure Chinese capital to help Russia and its allies develop new energy production. For example, Russian and Chinese energy firms are partnering to pursue joint ventures in Siberia and even the Arctic. Although China has eroded Russia’s previously dominant economic presence in Central Asia, Chinese investment and trade with Russia’s southern neighbors is helping to promote stability in a region that, should it experience something like the Arab Spring, could present a grave security threat to neighboring Russia as well as China.
For the most part, the Russian national security community does not see China as a near-term military threat to Russia. It is true that some Chinese military actions alarm Russians. For example, some recent Chinese naval exercises near Russian waters have been followed by Russian military exercises in the same regions. But Russian analysts still believe their conventional military power and weapons systems are superior to those of China. Although the People’s Liberation Army is gaining a quantitative advantage in some metrics, Russia’s nuclear potential remains considerably ahead—and Moscow’s military buildup seeks to keep things that way. Russian official discourse regarding China eschews dire or threatening language and is always embedded within the rhetoric of a strategic partnership.
China’s tactics and goals have melded well with those of Russia. Chinese officials make a show of treating their Russian counterparts as representatives of an equal great power, a status they deny India and Japan. When Xi visited Sochi, he played up his knowledge and respect for Russian culture and sought out bilateral face time with Putin. Thanks to the convergence of their models of government and their national ideologies, Russian and Chinese leaders increasingly share a common conceptual framework that is distrustful of popular democracy and of unconstrained free market economics and that shuns criticisms over other countries’ human rights practices. Their joint statements and actions reinforce each other’s legitimacy. Although wary about how Russia exploits its energy exports in the case of Ukraine and other European countries, Chinese energy managers still want to obtain some Russian oil and gas even while limiting their dependence on any single external energy source. Chinese analysts keep to themselves whatever doubts they might have about Russians’ staying power as a great power, their nations’ lack of mutual trust and checkered historical relationship, or Russians’ xenophobic views of the Chinese.
In terms of global goals, Russia and China share concerns about U.S. hegemony and Washington’s military alliances and capabilities. Although China does not have or seek a formal military alliance with Russia, some Chinese are concerned about Beijing’s lack of powerful friends and how the U.S.-led Asian pivot might threaten China’s security. Russians may not worry much about the Asian pivot, and perhaps see the growing U.S. attention to Asia as enhancing Russia’s leverage in the Middle East as well as with Beijing, but Russian anxieties over NATO’s activities in Europe are sufficient to make Beijing an attractive partner. More generally, Russia and China have bad relations with many of their other neighbors, so each wants to keep their bilateral ties decent to avoid having yet another alienated neighbor.