Country Report: Russia (July 2014)


New Russian articles suggest that South Korea’s foreign policy is more intriguing than previously anticipated. Explaining that there is talk today of forging a new system of global governance, an article in the June issue of Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’ argues that the responsibility is rising for South Korea, with its important interests in the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Korean Peninsula. The author, Sergei Sharko, explains that it needs to strengthen its position—its international authority and, consequently, its degree of influence on the Korean Peninsula—, which depends on its ability to foresee, in time, the prevailing tendencies of global and regional development and to adjust its geopolitical orientation in the area important for it. The article serves as a warning to Seoul that without reconsidering relations with the great powers, i.e., Russia, and neighboring states, i.e., Russia and North Korea, it is in danger of a tragedy on an enormous scale. This means reflecting on whether Park Geun-hye’s trustpolitik is an effective instrument or whether a new approach to North Korea and regional diplomacy is needed. Insisting that Lee Myung-bak lost the trust of voters because of the lack of results from his North Korea policy and applauding Park’s interest in building trust with North Korea and finding a peaceful path to reunification, Sharko praises North Korea for steps it has taken and suggests that new possibilities exist on a multilateral as well as a bilateral level with a synergistic effect on joint development in Northeast Asia. Park’s recognition of the “Asian paradox” indicates the need for a new order for building peace as well as prosperity in Northeast Asia. The author calls for showcasing the “Korean Idea” of reunification and striving to achieve it. (Although mention of denuclearization as a goal is briefly made, there is no indication of how this might happen or whether it even matters).

Reexamining Seoul’s geopolitical priorities in the direction of greater “realism” toward the North is proposed. This would include unblocking barriers to investment in large-scale projects involving Russia on the peninsula, which would lessen tensions and offer a way out to a lagging part of East Asia. Already preparing to be a bridge between East and West, Seoul can relax tensions, it can open Eurasia’s access to the Pacific Ocean, which due to the international isolation of the DPRK is essentially being blocked by it. The division of Korea not only gives legitimacy to the dominant US role, but also strengthens, in this way, a new version of the colonial regime. Those who initiate the divide on the peninsula are, we are told, provoking a new cold war and an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region, which will be difficult to stop. More flexibility in dealing with North Korea, moving away from pro-Western illusions that serve American geopolitical designs for the rapid collapse of the DPRK, alleviating the anxieties of the North Korean regime from economic sanctions and international isolation as well as the “Arab spring,” are the “realist” course proposed in the article. Give North Korea security and a chance to develop, in accord with South Korea’s national interests, and trust building will really work. This means breaking away from Obama’s policy of isolating the North. Kim Jong-un is appealing for this, but South Korea is not ready nor is it ready for a peace treaty with the North, as it sacrifices its independence for the geopolitical games of the United States in the region and ruins the chances for reunification. The cost of unification under South Korea could bankrupt the country, but continuation of the division as the United States withdraws further from Asia and China’s power keeps rising is not the best scenario. A third approach is to pursue unification in stages through soft integration. This is the recommendation of the article, implying that it is Russia, as opposed to the imperialist United States and natural ascendancy of China, which would be the ideal partner. Without warning directly about China, the article hints that the north-south corridor linking the peninsula to Eurasia is the one way to combine reunification with Korea’s aspirations to be an autonomous power as it promotes Northeast Asia as a region.

In Russia in Global Affairs on July 2, Vladimir Portyakov predicted that over the coming decade China’s foreign policy would be more adversarial with the West and Russia would side with China. Arguing that Beijing has avoided a confrontation with Washington, despite the anti-Chinese subtext of the declared “rebalance to Asia” as it strengthens its alliances in East Asia, he suggests that relations will still fluctuate without China making concessions on matters of principle, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Yet, China will seek closer relations with Russia. He notes that Chinese experts have over the past year or two been raising the question of the necessity of strengthening relations with Russia to the level of an alliance. Adding that the “frontal attack of the West on the rights and interests of Russia” in 2014 in Ukraine is increasing the requirement of Moscow to have a closer relationship, he concludes that the chances for this are noticeably increasing as a result of the weakening in Russia of the position of supporters of a strategic orientation toward the West. Portyakov remarks that now and in the future the real threat from the West is much greater and more dangerous than any future hypothetical threat from the rising power of China. Thus, in 2021, on the twentieth anniversary of the Sino-Russian treaty, he expects not only renewal, but also a transformation to relations close to an alliance, at least in spirit. This would no longer be what Russia sees as equidistance in the strategic triangle, as if he assumes this to be the current pattern. This article welcomes the prospect of an alliance-like relationship.

Vitalii Vorob’ev’s piece in the latest issue of Russia in Global Affairs analyzes China’s grand project of the New Silk Road. Based on speeches and interviews by China’s political scientists and recently published Chinese materials on the subject, the author argues that the New Silk Road thus far does not represent a systematic endeavor. He refers to it as the “road going in an unclear direction,” and points to a number of questions and uncertainties pertaining to China’s ambitious project. First, Vorob’ev highlights the ambiguity of the concept of a “road,” without clarity whether it mainly refers to economic belts alongside the historic route of the Silk Road or it encompasses 40 countries stretching from Asia to Europe, including Russia’s Siberia and the Far East. Vorob’ev suggests that the correct interpretation of the “road” should be the latter option, a vast area with a higher degree of integration. Second, the article grapples with the strategic goals behind the project, questioning whether it is merely a new “brand” for ongoing Chinese initiatives in Central Asia. He concludes that it is something more. Third, Vorob’ev wonders about the potential use of new institutional international mechanisms to manage the evolving economic relations in the region, as opposed to China guiding other states in establishing liberal economic zones, resembling the Eurasian Union. He finds that new mechanisms can be expected. Fourth, Vorob’ev questions the concept of “mutual benefit” guiding the Chinese discourse on Central Asia and the New Silk Road, questioning whether it should be interpreted strictly in financial calculations of mutual gain or as China’s “altruistic” financial assistance to these countries. The article conveys a wary tone, implicitly urging authorities and scholars to pay close attention to China’s activities in a region historically under Russia’s influence. The author is wary of a G2 with China too interdependent with the United States to take a strong stance against it. He is also wary of a combination of economic, cultural, and strategic objectives in China’s newly shifting foreign policy. Its interest in the Silk Road Economic Belt is not just trade and financial relations as well as transport, but also the establishment of a platform for spreading China’s worldview or philosophical principles.

The past year has been rich in initiatives by China’s leaders, and this one is no exception. Where the United States has sought to strengthen its military presence, China has proposed to Southeast Asian states a “Maritime Silk Route,” recalling Cheng He’s fleet of 600 years ago. At the same time, China has proclaimed its national security interest in areas not directly connected to the defense of its borders, which the author says raises an association with the American doctrine of a superpower type of behavior and does not seem to be consistent with declarations of a good neighborly zone.

Vorob’ev is naturally concerned with how the new concept relates to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). He argues that China wants to ensure the continued development of the existing body as one of its founders and the one known for its “Shanghai spirit.” Central Asia is also the core of the new Silk Road. Thus, the proposal, at present, is to extend what it embodies, not replace it. Yet, all the same, questions are being asked about what this means for the future of the SCO, and whether China’s strategy for that organization will be directed at boosting the new project, which could cause harm to the ongoing activities of the SCO. Vorobiev is concerned that the strong international reputation of the SCO will be weakened if it will start to primarily serve as a channel for China’s grand ambitions. He concludes that before states agree to participate in the project they must understand its essence and its aims. The sooner China clarifies what the New Silk Road Economic Belt is, the quicker it will be possible to dispel the disagreements and speculation about it. Despite expressing such concerns, Vorob’ev ends positively, that it should be possible to respond favorably.

A. I. Grivach argues in the latest issue of Russia in Global Affairs that the recent China-Russia gas deal serves the economic interests of Gazprom, as well as the national budget, and objectively lowers Russia’s dependence on gas exports to Europe. The head of Gazprom evaluated the contract at USD 400 billion for a period of 30 years. This means that the price for one thousand cubic meters of gas is evaluated at USD 387, which is not a coincidence, considering that Gazprom’s gas exports to Europe and to Turkey were evaluated at the same price last year. The specific price of gas in the China-Russia deal, however, might fluctuate depending on a number of economic factors at play. Nonetheless, the initial estimates suggest that the expected profit from the contract is eight times the initial investments, and these investments themselves feed directly into Russia’s economy. Grivach further argues that this gas deal is of critical importance to China, as it facilitates stable development of its northeastern provinces and helps meet the growing demand for energy in China’s economy. Beijing grasped the unique geopolitical moment, using Moscow’s renewed interest in signing the deal to its advantage. Although the price of gas is much higher than what Beijing was initially anticipating, the urgent need for gas supplies in China’s Northeast, which continues to heavily rely on coal, pushed China towards signing the deal. The article concludes that this deal could mark the beginning of Russia’s expansion of gas supplies to Asia. Japanese parliamentarians are already actively lobbying Russia to construct a gas pipeline from Sakhalin. Although it seems unrealistic in the short term, Tokyo’s interest in Russia’s gas is unlikely to subside. Thus, criticisms of Putin’s move are unwarranted.

Evgenii Sevastianov argues in a recent piece in Nezavisimaya gazeta that China’s position on Ukraine is clearly in support of Russia. Although he admits that the official statements have been rather neutral, he points to media reports that favor Russia’s position, claiming that the United States provoked the crisis in order to weaken Russia—something it also attempted to do in China in 1989. Some Chinese netizens, moreover, view Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a good example to follow in defending China’s interests in the Asia-Pacific. When discussing these media viewpoints, Sevastianov unquestionably believes that they represent or at least partially reflect the official line.

At the same time, Sevastianov admits that China does not support Russia’s actions fully, as it remains highly sensitive to separatist claims in Tibet and Xinjiang, but also to Taiwan’s potential calls for independence. Crimea’s annexation can empower these separatist movements. Also, China is not going to get into a conflict with the United States over Ukraine, as it would not want to undermine the already strained bilateral relations. Finally, some segments of public opinion are also critical of Russia’s actions, interpreting them as a return to expansionism of the tsarist and Soviet eras. Despite these differences, however, Sevastianov concludes that the Ukrainian crisis helped to bring China and Russia closer and to deepen bilateral ties, which Russia values strongly.


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