Russia’s Elusive Quest for Influence in Asia

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Russia’s Elusive Quest for Influence in Asia

Putin arrives in Shanghai desperate to reorient Russia’s Asia policy amid tensions with the West and China’s rise.

Russia’s Elusive Quest for Influence in Asia
Credit: EUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

One of the most useful exercises for understanding Russia’s geopolitical dilemmas is to take any of the number of commercial flights from Moscow to Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East. It is a journey of about eight hours, covering thousands of miles and a dozen time zones of virtually uninhabited space – in the words of a 1960s Soviet hit, “a green sea of the taiga.” It really does look like a sea from 30,000 feet, rolling in all directions: forbidding, vast, mesmerizing. For generations Russia has tried to come to terms with its size, sending explorers, colonists, convicts, peasants, soldiers, and Youth Communist league activists to build up islands of “civilization” across Siberia and the Far East.

They built cities dilapidated from inception, laid roads that turned to swamps, erected golden church domes and monuments to Lenin. They brought Russia to Asia and made Asia a part of Russia, leaving indelible marks on Russia’s identity, its present dilemmas, and its future directions. Putin’s arrival in China this week highlights the continued – indeed, growing – importance of Asia in Russia’s global calculus. Today, perhaps more than ever, Russia looks East, not West. It sees Asia’s potential markets, eyes its potential battlefields, and seeks a role for itself as a broker, a visionary, and a leader.

Russia’s Asia policy rests upon three pillars. The first is economic ties. Russia’s number one trade partner is China with an annual turnover of nearly $90 billion. Japan and South Korea jointly account for another $60 billion. All three import Russia’s natural resources, primarily oil and LNG. These products make up more than two-thirds of Russia’s exports to China and South Korea, and over 80 percent of exports to Japan. Minerals, timber, and fish account for most of the remaining percentage, while Russia’s industrial and “high tech” goods barely even appear in the statistical tables.

Russia’s export of oil and gas to the dynamic Asian markets can be lauded as the so-called “energy lever” or derided as dependence on a “natural resource appendage.” Regardless, there is just no alternative to oil and gas, especially in the underdeveloped provinces of Siberia and the Far East. Putin has raised concerns about the unbalanced structure of Russia’s Asian trade, particularly with China. In an interview earlier this week he again expressed his hope that the Chinese would invest in something other than Siberian oil and gas and even create “technological and industrial alliances” with Russian companies. But there is as yet little to show for all his efforts to attract Chinese, or, indeed, Japanese or South Korean financing for developmental projects in any area other than the extractive industries.

In recent years the resource pillar has shown signs of strain. Moscow has been beset by threats, some – like shale gas – still ephemeral, others – like competition from Central and Southeast Asian exporters and from the Middle East – more of a pressing concern. A sign of Russia’s declining ability to set the terms of trade, the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom has been unable, despite multiple rounds of talks and Putin’s numerous personal interventions, to agree on the price of gas supplies to China. Putin’s current visit to China is a last-ditch effort to break the deadlock with a deal that could see Gazprom, now almost entirely dependent on the European market, annually export 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China. The importance of a breakthrough cannot be understated at a time when Russia is threatened with Western sanctions. In what looks like a bid to increase the stakes, the Russian media has announced that the deal has been agreed to. The Chinese failure so far to confirm this points to the intensity of negotiations, which, reportedly, include Beijing’s demands for equity stakes in Siberian gas fields, something that Gazprom has bitterly resisted.

The second pillar of Moscow’s Asia policy is military power. Historically, Russia’s expansion in Asia depended on its ability to project force. Russia was never a trading empire. It struggled to keep up with commercial rivals and fell back, invariably, on the good old expedient of territorial annexation, followed by the construction of forts and bases and the build-up of troops. Yet acquiring new territories only fed Russia’s insecurities, which called for still more troops and still more military infrastructure. The difficulties of defending such a massive empire were highlighted in the course of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, which Russia lost. From then until 1945, Russia’s Asia policy revolved almost entirely around the overriding imperative of keeping Japan at bay.

The Cold War amplified Russia’s perceived vulnerabilities in Asia, while the collapse of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the 1960s added a new security threat: China. After the 1969 Sino-Soviet skirmishes, theirs became the world’s most militarized border. The Soviet logic, articulated by then-General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, was that “the stronger the defense of our borders, the less danger there is of a really dangerous military confrontation at our eastern frontiers.” But this logic worked against Moscow, leading to regional arms race and adding to the Soviet economic burdens.

Moreover, because of weak institutional constraints in Soviet policy making, military expansion acquired a self-perpetuating dynamic with the acquisition of bases and garrisons on foreign soil (for instance, in Mongolia after 1968 and in Vietnam in 1979), and ill thought-through military adventures (as with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).

Historically, the military obstructed the more reasonable ideas for engagement with Asia. For instance, it has been a staunch opponent of making concessions to Japan in the dispute over the four southern-most islands of the Kuril chain, arguing that losing the islands would make it impossible for Russia to protect its nuclear submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk, defend Kamchatka, and launch bombing raids against the U.S. aircraft carrier force parked off the coast of Japan.

In April, following the deterioration of the situation in Ukraine, the Russian military drastically increased its bomber missions skirting Japan’s airspace. In explaining these missions, the Defense Ministry cited Japanese sanctions against Russia. Similar to the height of the Cold War, Moscow again resorts to clumsy intimidation and displays of force in the hope of scaring Japan into benevolent neutrality. The effect of such actions is exactly the opposite of what is intended: Japan draws closer to the United States amid heightened fears of the Russian bogeyman.

These fears will further intensify when China and Russia hold their joint naval exercises later this month. Reportedly, the ships will stay well clear of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, the bone of contention between China and Japan. Nevertheless, their presence in the East China Sea at a sensitive time in Sino-Japanese relations naturally heightens concerns in Tokyo, adding a new layer of uncertainty to an already volatile situation.

After the post-Soviet retreat into rusty junkyards, Russia’s cruisers are again sailing full steam from Vladivostok, Russian for “the Ruler of the East.” Brandishing steel in front of worried neighbors is one way of asserting regional influence. This is also a way of raising regional tensions and the level of apprehension about Russia’s long-term goals, even among its ostensible friends and allies. For, in the long-term, serving as Asia’s bogeyman is a losing proposition. It does not generate wealth. It does not bring investment. Ironically, it does not make Russia the slightest bit more secure, as history so aptly demonstrates.

The third pillar of Russia’s Asia policy is geopolitical strategy. Its basic target is China, where Russia has two approaches: managing China and allying with China. It is rare for one approach to completely displace the other, although it has happened in the past. For example, in the 1960s and the 1970s, at the height of the Sino-Soviet confrontation, the Soviets invested heavily in relations with China’s neighbors, such as India and Vietnam and, after 1969, peddled (with little luck) an Asian collective security arrangement aimed at containing the “China threat.”

Relations began to improve in the 1980s as Moscow turned to China amid international isolation and Western sanctions imposed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the declaration of martial law in Poland. But the architect of Sino-Soviet normalization, Mikhail Gorbachev, sought to place the process of gradual rapprochement within the framework of what he called the Sino-Soviet-Indian “triangle.” It was a geopolitical conception of subtly anti-American connotations, and an effort to claim leadership in Asia as a broker between its major powers. Fundamentally, it also permitted Moscow to manage China in a broader multilateral context.

Gorbachev’s “triangle” idea did not work for various reasons, not the least of which was that neither China nor India cared much for mutual cooperation, and certainly not under Gorbachev’s leadership. Each of them was more interested in solid relations with the West than with each other. Nevertheless, the conception was rehabilitated in Yeltsin’s Russia by one of its original authors, and the godfather of Russia’s Asia policy, Evgeny Primakov. Its present-day embodiment is BRICS, where Russia claims a degree of moral leadership.

For Russia, BRICS is as much about promotion of what Moscow calls a “just and democratic world order” as it is about managing China, which is thereby downgraded from a superpower to just another letter of an acronym, standing no taller than the other letters. This arrangement gives Russia considerable leverage vis-à-vis China. The same purpose is served by the now somewhat sidelined Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is essentially a forum for China and Russia to manage their differences in Central Asia.

Recently there have been growing signs of Sino-Russian tensions over Central Asia. Moscow has found it more and more difficult to keep up with China’s economic influence in the region. The turning point was reached during Xi Jinping’s trip to Central Asia in September 2013, which coincided with the SCO summit in Bishkek. Xi used the occasion to announce a major initiative, “the New Silk Road Economic Belt,” which aimed at bolstering China’s ties with Central Asian states.

Russia was bypassed in this initiative, and it was immediately obvious that Xi’s Silk Road was a competitor to the Eurasian Union, Putin’s integrationist scheme for Central Asia. China has since tried to address Moscow’s concerns, denying that the plan had “anti-Russian intent.” Russia now hopes to widen the initiative so as to redirect some of the Chinese investments towards Siberian infrastructure projects. This will probably be one of the most important subjects of Putin’s discussions with Xi this week.

But the bigger issue here is that China is now increasingly willing to take initiative and to claim leadership in regional and global matters, thus further undercutting Russia’s leverage in Asia or its ability to manage China through the sponsorship of proverbial “triangles”.

This still leaves open the possibility of forging closer links with China’s neighbors, as was Moscow’s practice in the 1960s and the 1970s. There is reason to believe that this is exactly what Putin was doing until recently. The most important developments in this respect were his visits to Vietnam and South Korea in November 2013.

“Comrade Putin” (as he was suitably called by the Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang) reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to develop a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with its former socialist ally, signing 17 agreements in areas ranging from oil exploration (in the South China Sea, where China and Vietnam are locked in a territorial dispute) to nuclear cooperation. But one element of the developing Russo-Vietnamese relationship that has really alarmed China is Moscow’s sale of six “Varshavyanka” diesel submarines to Hanoi. Deliveries on this deal, agreed to in 2009, have recently begun, boosting Vietnam’s capability to project power in the South China Sea at China’s expense.

Russia and South Korea have committed to develop relations “in the spirit of strategic partnership.” Putin’s fondest dream on this front has been to create a transit corridor for exporting oil, gas, and electricity to Seoul via North Korea. Although his visit did not achieve any breakthroughs on this front, it showed the seriousness of Russia’s effort to improve its standing among China’s neighbors and thus maximize its leverage in Asia.

And then there is Japan. Recent years have seen forward movement in Russo-Japanese relations, leading many observers to wonder whether Moscow and Tokyo may finally agree to a solution to their long-standing territorial problem. Already in 2001 Putin, in a meeting with then-Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, voiced readiness to give away two of the four disputed islands. The dialogue stalled but in 2012 Putin suddenly announced that he would consider solving the problem on the basis of “hikiwake,” judo term for “draw.” Mori’s trip to Moscow in February 2013 as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s personal envoy, followed by Abe’s talks with Putin in April and then again in September, rekindled speculations that a deal on the islands was within sight.

Abe was the only “Western” leader of prominence to come to Sochi for the opening of the Winter Olympics, highlighting a special relationship between himself and the Russian President at a time when Japan’s relations with China have plunged to new lows. Unfortunately, this promising relationship has now largely unraveled, a consequence of Russia’s isolation in the wake of its annexation of Crimea. The one thing Putin has not yet done is publicly back China in its deepening row with Japan. When diplomatically prodded by Chinese journalists to do just that, Putin turned to Ukraine in what was perhaps a subtle hint to Beijing that it needs to be more supportive of the Russian stand in Ukraine if it wants Putin’s support with Japan.

Still, as Putin arrives in Beijing this week, his Asia policy is undergoing a shift of emphasis. The sort of multi-pronged approach we have witnessed in recent months is giving way to closer alignment with China. Historically, there had been occasions when Russia’s Asia policy was, basically, its China policy. This was so in the late 1940s-early 1950s, the golden age of the Sino-Soviet alliance. There were two reasons for this. First, the world was distinctly bipolar, leaving little room for maneuvering or a sophisticated balancing strategy. China, therefore, had few options but to “lean to one side.” Second, the power disparity between Stalin’s Russia and the newly established Communist China was so great that there was no need to manage the latter by forging a network of overlapping alliances, or through some sort of a regional security system.

Today Russia is again shifting from management of China (which requires a degree of strategic balancing) to alignment with China. This is, firstly, because the power disparity between Russia and China has grown to a gulf, except, of course, that it is now China that is the “elder brother” of this relationship. China has become too big to succumb to “management” of any kind.

The second reason is Russia’s international isolation as a consequence of the Ukrainian events. In the black-and-white world Putin finds himself in, he is by default “leaning to one side” – the Chinese side – despite Beijing’s evident reluctance to support Russia’s quarrels in Europe.

Will China reciprocate? Will the unclear contours of the China dream allow Russia a role in Asia that would accord with Putin’s ambitions? These are important questions that Russia faces as Putin arrives in Shanghai, and the answers to these questions will not only define the character of Sino-Russian relations for the foreseeable future but Russia’s destiny as a Eurasian power.

Sergey Radchenko is Reader in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, UK. He is the author of Unwanted Visionaries: the Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War and Two Suns in the Heavens: the Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962-1967.