How closely should Russia align with China in the Asia-Pacific? Against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine, how is the regional architecture in Asia taking shape? Are those arguing against a full embrace of China pro-Western forces in high places and the media who need to be rooted out? In the spring of 2023, Sino-Russian relations aroused debate although it proceeded indirectly. In the academic establishment challenging proposals emerged against fierce pushback, albeit with a lack of specificity in acknowledging the ideas of those not enamored of a military alliance.
Torkunov and Strel’tsov posted the most striking articles proposing an alternative path to sharp polarization in East Asia, even looking back to the decade of the “Turn to the East” in new ways. They make the point that Russia needs a balanced relationship with China focused on its own interests or even that Russia is a neutral power in the region and should remain so. They also say that the situation in Ukraine has not changed China’s calculus to be more tilted to Russia. In their articles one finds hints of opportunities with other states, even Japan and South Korea.
A report by A.V. Torkunov and D.V. Strel’tsov on Russia’s “Turn to the East: Problems and Risks” appeared in MEIMO, No. 4, addressing the geopolitical context of late 2022 and focusing on East Asia. Noted are Russia’s lack of experience in this area’s regionalization processes and the caution aroused by Russia’s image as a non-Asian country whose elite has West-centric thinking. Also mentioned is the risk of tilting toward China and depending on gas exports to it, endangering Russia’s status as a neutral power to mediate conflicts. Greater Eurasia, it is said, must be coupled with infrastructure development devoid of ideological considerations and intensified diplomacy in the SCO, BRICS, RCEP, and the East Asian Summit. The authors describe the “turn” as a response to dissatisfaction in much of the world to the West’s “rules and norms.” It has three components in East Asia: the socio-economic development of the Russian Far East, integration of Russia’s economy in the Asia-Pacific region, and strengthening bilateral or multilateral ties in the region. One of the dual aims is to ensure Russia a role as one of the leading actors in the subregion. The “turn” proceeded from the financial crisis of 2007-08, as energy pipelines were constructed, and Russia in 2012 at the Vladivostok APEC fully positioned itself as an Asia-Pacific power. The “turn” gained special significance in 2014 after the Ukraine turnabout with China in the forefront, to the degree in the mid-2010s a new system of regional and global management began to be institutionalized.
The report claims that Russia strengthened ties to Japan and South Korea, especially in energy, but to 2022 partnerships in East Asia had not become an alternative to ties to Russia in energy. Everything changed abruptly with the special military operation, dropping gas imports from Russia to Europe from 41% to 7.5% by October, as Asia as a whole took a neutral position. Traditional political discourse in Russia holds that Russia does not merge into any microregion, but is unique, and the “turn” did not signify a civilizational shift. Asian countries had begun in the early 1990s trying to forge regionalization on the basis of ethnonational identity, as in the proposal of Malaysia and in the 2014 speech of Xi Jinping. The development of economic integration in East Asia is a struggle between open and closed regionalism, the latter led by China and certain members of the ASEAN. The term “Asian values” was often heard in opposition to Western, liberal values, stressing cultural autonomy and the priority of sovereignty.
Russia’s main interests were deemed neither in the East nor the West. Both Tsarist Russia and postwar and post-Soviet Russia appeared West-centric in foreign policy thinking, and treated Asia as secondary region of the world. In South Korea, Russia is even seen as the heir to the USSR role in the Korean War and division of the country, and in North Korea it is faulted for refusing unconditional support in the confrontation with the South. Meanwhile, the eastern regions of Russia, and Russia itself, are a marginal regional player, leaving Russia an observer role or one of a transit area and raw material supplier. The only FTA is with Vietnam.
Cooperation within the SCO and BRICS is essentially political; economic projects there proceed on China’s initiative and with its financial support. Over the past three decades Russia has not become a major economic actor in East Asia. The risk of “buyer dictates” damages Russian suppliers’ negotiating position. A deficit in logistics stands in the way of rapid reorientation of supplies to Asia. “Power of Siberia-2” through Mongolia will not be completed to 2029. Sea transport needed to South and Southeast Asia is limited by Western financial sanctions, above all in insurance. Due to this India in September 2022 rejected Russian oil. China is cutting back on demand for gas due to energy conservation and diversification as well as its own supplies. Its companies enjoy diverse options to lower prices from various pipelines or even US sources. While bilateral trade is rising, investments have not since 2014.
The goals of the 2009-18 program between Northeast China and the Russian Far East were not reached, leading to a new 2018-24 program. The gap between expectations and reality is noticeable in services and high technology. Even after February 2022 the situation has not changed, and ties with China have not compensated Russia for its losses in Western technology and capital markets. Russia needs oil and gas trade more than China, leaving a poor foundation for resolving future problems. Giving China critical significance in its foreign policy priorities, Russia loses room to maneuver with other Asian partners and risks losing its status as a neutral power not drawn into conflicts in the region or an “honest broker.”
Such was the outcome after 2014 when Russia had to limit its activity in Asia, minimizing multi-vector actions in the context of ties to China, affecting ties to Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN states. Japan sought to pull Russia away from China, but it was motivated to curtail its contacts with Moscow and to develop its alliance with the United States further. It was most worried about a military alliance against the US and its allies in East Asia. The tightening US-Japan alliance required more Russian expenses for security in the area. Also, Russia’s considerable potential in participating in Korean diplomacy depended on equal relations with both sides to the conflict, which was lost. Many in ASEAN saw tightening alliance ties with China as proof Russia could not be an independent political actor, notably after a 2016 statement in support of China on the decision in the Hague International Court of Justice and the joint maritime exercises with China in the South China Sea. This was the background to the closer Vietnam-US military ties, seen in Hanoi as the only guarantee of its security.
The article concludes that it is extremely important for Russia’s interests to leave the shadow of China and become an active participant in the economic and political processes in East Asia. In the Cold War, Russia loomed as a counterweight to China in Southeast Asia. Now it has to support China’s policies there. Naturally, China is a valued partner, sharing the heritage of the communist epoch and humiliation by the West (in Russia due to its interests being ignored after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both seek a multipolar system, balancing the interests of various centers of power. Joint development of Eurasian integration demonstrates the success of bilateral relations. Even so, the interests of the two do not coincide, in thinking about economic ties with the West and in pursuing their own interests in the post-Soviet space.
The situation in Ukraine did not cause substantial change in China’s strategic calculations. It expressed understanding of Russia’s position, while sticking to neutrality and not putting ties to the US and EU member in jeopardy at a serious economic cost. Big Chinese companies, thus, avoid paying Russian banks through the Chinese payment system. China does not openly support Russia on its referenda in view of its views on sovereignty and territorial integrity, even with regard to Crimea. There is no anti-Western alliance or NATO-like military alliance. Russia needs a balanced relationship with China focused on its own interests. Forging a Eurasian partnership with Pakistan, Iran, and India as well as China is in order. In May 2015 Russia fully supported BRI (One Belt, One Road), and China the EEU.
The idea of Greater Eurasia draws positive responses from Asian countries, including India. A Western stereotype of it as above all a geopolitical project due to problems between Russia and the West could limit participation, but Putin seems to attract states that do not want to make a hard choice between the West and non-West. Even most of the EEU follows a multi-vector foreign policy, preferring to leave aside unresolved problems of civilizational, geopolitical, and ideological choices. Greater Eurasia needs to be treated as an instrument of economic integration. New measures are needed, such as a visa-free regime, tariff preferences, and state-private partnerships. Russia needs close ties with India, North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. It is worth considering steps to restore ties with Japan, starting with economic, scientific, and cultural spheres, as well as with South Korea, which participates in sanctions against Russia with much less enthusiasm than Euro-Atlantic states. There is promise in three-way talks of Moscow, Beijing, and Seoul or four-way talks of Moscow-Beijing-Seoul-Pyongyang on security and confidence-building measures, as well as Moscow-Hanoi-Beijing, and Moscow-Hanoi, Delhi, with Russia avoiding ideological limits. So far, Russia lacks a full organization and ideo-political basis for realizing these proposals.
In Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, May-June, Strel’tsov asked if Japan is becoming a normal country, citing standards such as a military build-up, nuclear weapons aspirations, balanced international relations, and willingness to resist US pressure. Contradicting Soviet sources of the past, he credits Japan’s political establishment and the LDP with adherence to a pacifistic ideology rather than a thirst for remilitarization. This legacy remained strong, serving as a terrific instrument for strengthening Japan’s international position, above all among developing countries, and was welcomed by the US as helpful in defending their East Asian interests. Yet, even as early as the 1950s some sough “normal” status, which peaked with Nakasone, Koizumi, and Abe—not as Russians had long argued due to US pressure but from pragmatism and quests to have political authority commensurate with its economic weight and to become a permanent member of the Security Council. From the mid-90s, with China’s military rise and assertive foreign policy and North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons, the urgency grew, and Abe put an end to the “Yoshida Doctrine. This was not militarization or a reason to consider Japan a full global military power. Just by virtue of being a US ally, Japan could not join a military conflict. Its military expenses, type of arms, and military doctrine were not those of the real military powers. Japan’s recent shift gives a powerful boost to development of the Quad as an instrument for containing China along with trilateral schemes aimed at preserving a balance of forces in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan recognizes that friendly states will not support it if it does not do everything to defend itself, linking the Ukraine situation to its own security. Its tough stand against Russia tightens ties in the G7 and counts on solidarity versus China. If Russia could turn Ukraine into a client state, China would be emboldened in the Indo-Pacific region. If the Ukraine crisis ended quickly, the US and Europe would be able to focus on that region.
Strel’tsov noted the risk of Japanese and US strategic interests deeply diverging. Entrapment in a US military operation could occur, as Japan is more regionally oriented or could be left out by a US isolationist leader. Acting apart from the US could lead neighbors to fear the rebirth of militarism, although so far there is understanding, especially given alarm over China’s rise and histories of vassal state relations. Japan-ROK relations can only exist in a triangular context. For Russia even limited autonomy of Japan’s policies is good news, opening the door to economic and even political and strategic relations, which Japan is seeking. In its 2022 national security strategy Russia was called a threat only in Europe, and a “concern” in other contexts and not in regard to Russian policies in Asia apart from Russo-Chinese security cooperation in the region and the intensifying military presence of Russia on the Southern Kuriles. Japan preserves much of its pacifist status. It is at a crossroads. If it becomes a “military power,” qualitatively new challenges will arise.
Igor Istomin in the May/June issue of Rossiya v Global’noi Politike focused on the Biden doctrine with emphasis on trilateralism with Japan and South Korea after Yoon Suk-yeol opened new possibilities with a hard line to North Korea, raising the stakes for US security guarantees. While containing North Korea is emphasized, the experience has value in case of a conflict with China. Many in Seoul are alarmed by Chip 4 plans, fearing Chinese retaliation, but in February 2023 the plans went forward. What does activation of this triangle mean for Russia? Consolidation of bloc architecture in Northeast Asia appeared afoot, as even more cautious states like South Korea was being drawn into the net of American minilateralism. If in the 2010s, South Korea and Japan refrained from pressuring Russia apart from symbolic measures, this is no longer possible. Seoul is a source of arms for NATO, notably Poland, and supplies technology to Ukraine. For years, US experts have called for more military potential near the Russian Far East and intermediate range missiles. Deepening tensions between the US and North Korea offer a pretext for the return of US nuclear weapons to the peninsula.
Aleksandr Zhebin in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, May/June reviewed a joint Russian-ROK book issued at the end of 2022 on the history of bilateral relations. With 13 Russian and 12 South Korean authors it covers more than 1 ½ centuries. Zhebin identifies as a cause of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 was the US joining Japan and Great Britain in a blockade of Russian exit into the Pacific Ocean, unwilling to accept the presence of Russia as a competitor there. Roosevelt supported turning Korea into a Japanese protectorate over its neutrality. A Korean historian credited Russia in 1910 with being more against the change in Korea’s international status and for its independence. Also, part of the book challenges the thesis that the USSR and DPRK were exclusively responsible for the 1950 outbreak of war on the peninsula. Zhebin complains that Korean authors avoided serious analysis of what Americans were doing on the peninsula prior to the war and its responsibility. In the Cold War period the extreme orientation of the ROK to the US alliance exerted a negative influence on the formation of a multilateral foreign policy in Northeast Asia. The Korean author is maximally politically correct in covering US rejection of ROK economic ties with Moscow and Beijing, readers are told. US sanctions against North Korea and Russia interfered with ROK business joining large-scale projects in the Russian Far East and three-way cooperation with North Korea. Zhebin finds controversial ideas of the USSR trying to improve ties to South Korea to drive a wedge between it and Japan and that Russia’s improved ties to the DPRK in the 2000s were motivated by competition with China or even an interest in containing it. If the book had been completed after the beginning of the special military operation in Ukraine and the ROK joining most Western sanctions against Russia, the conclusions would have probably been much more pessimistic, Zhebin concludes.
Evgeny Kanaev and Mikhail Terskikh wrote about cooperation between Russia and the states of the South Pacific, focusing on multilateral dialogues, in riatr.ru. They observed that regional processes are not contributing to Russia’s partnership with states there, as participants lose interest in the stymied dialogue platforms and polarized environment due to anti-Chinese rhetoric. While relations with Australia and New Zealand are shaped by the confrontation with the West, Papua New Guinea would be more promising if it were not so remote with little business community interest. Part of the problem is Russia’s approach to APEC in 2012 as a one-time event for hosting not sustaining. The article claims that the “Turn to the East” has been stagnating, while center-local contradictions fester. Russia’s failures stem from a lack of diasporas, supply chains, and infrastructure as well as the effects of anti-Russian sanctions and of the pandemic. Readers are warned that without strong positions in the Asia-Pacific it is impossible to remain a global power, and that “underdeveloped economic ties between Russia and ASEAN tarnish Moscow’s image as a contributor to Asia-Pacific security since, in ASEAN’s vision, economics and security are closely intertwined. The ASEAN-driven system of cooperative security in the Asia- Pacific region is the only regional alternative to the US-led hub-and-spoke system, underpinned by the Quad and the recently created bloc AUKUS, which runs counter to Russia’s interests. As the Chinese system of common security premised on the BRI contends with the US-led system, Russia’s goals of neutrality an inclusivity will soon be eroded. Clearly, the article does not consider Russia part of the BRI orbit or a supporter of polarization.
Sergei Lukonin and Ivan Vakhrushin examined Sino-Russian trade and investment at a time of anti-Russian sanctions in riatr.ru, explaining some changes but no shift in the overall structure. Challenges faced are the diversity of channels, such as offshoring, non-formal ties, as well as Western sanctions, which have a powerful limiting effect, but also some positive ones. To the start of the Ukraine crisis, some positive signs existed. Since February 2022 big Chinese, international companies have been wary. Also holding back trade are many differences over integration in Central Asia (competition between the BRI and the EEU), volatility in global energy prices, the meager scale of Chinese investment in Russian industry, high administrative barriers on both sides, the geographical distances between industrial centers, the weak development of border-crossing infrastructure, and Chinese barriers due to Zero-COVID. The structure of the Russian economy has been a problem too. In the 2010s there was no serious change in the structure of imports from China apart from reduced imports of textiles and footwear. The article points to a fundamental disproportion between Russian natural resource exports and Chinese industrial exports and warns of trouble ahead for Russia as environmental policies reduce imports in China. Yet, the 2019 plan to reach $200 billion in trade by 2024 is still on track, and new border crossings have opened, notably due to Russian energy and metal exports and Russia’s turn to China for import substitution from the EU. Uncertain prospects for Russian economic growth will dim investments from China as will currency fluctuations and changes in tax laws as well as Western sanctions and infrastructure shortcomings. Yet, China’s weight in Russia’s economy will increase.
An article in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, No. 4, explored perspectives for expanding BRICS, which is praised for its openness, inclusivity, and equality as a force for reforming the international system. The situation qualitatively changed in March 2017 when Wang Yi proposed adding as partners the principal developing economies, leading to the concept of “BRICS plus” and the notion of a “point of intersection” of the G20, to which the BRICS members belong, and other developing countries. In June 2022, Russia opened a process for expansion, calling Iran and Argentina, both of which had applied to join, worthy candidates. China could propose Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Mexico, although India could object to the first two. What criteria matter? The first is economic potential, since economics are the basis of activity. The second is an independent position in the international arena. Arguing that BRICS plus would be more effective, the article lists Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea as potential targets.
On May 5 Kommersant considered China as a factor in the Ukraine conflict, noting Xi Jinping’s call with Zelenskyy and Qin Gang’s conversation with Lavrov about coordinating with Russia for optimal political management of the crisis. Although Moscow accented bilateral cooperation, Beijing is not inclined to a secondary role, as seen in its special representative visiting various capitals in search of a political resolution of the conflict. If Ukraine launches a successful counterattack, Washington believes that Beijing would be able to play a positive role.
Ivan Zuenko in the Valdai Club asked on March 9 if China has a foreign policy strategy. He notes formulations that have the effect of confusing Western observers about the logic of Chinese behavior and giving them confidence that China will strive for global dominance. First, he cites claims that China is a great civilization destined to be the regional leader due to its superiority. Second, he points to historical ethnocentric memory of neighbors’ vassal relations and the prospect of drawing many states into a Sinocentric economic and cultural system. This foreign policy “ideology” reflects the contradictory character of today’s Chinese state: both an ambitious great power with revanchist attitudes and the ideology of a the “leader of the third world,” declaring support for enriching its post-colonial brethren.
In Izvestiya on May 4 Natalia Portiakova wrote about improving ROK-Japanese relations in response to North Korean missile launches but, to no small extent, due to China’s rising military power. Citing Valerii Kistanov, she said that trade is more important as leaders seek to give a new stimulus to it on the basis of political reconciliation after business circles on both sides were greatly displeased by the political split. In the face of the North Korean threat, it is important for them to combine forces, and Washington views them as the key to denying access to China of high technology. At the end of March METI limited exports of 23 elements in semi-conductors to China. South Korea is holding back but with difficulty, caught between the vast Chinese market and the US, from which it imports many of its advanced components. It is said that Yoon in the US asked Biden to weaken US restrictions on South Korean companies investing further in the mainland without effect. Anti-Japanese sentiments remain strong in South Korea with the likely result that in four years a new president from the opposition will nullify today’s thaw and undercut the joint alliance of the two countries with the US.
In Nezavisimaya Gazeta on May 14 Valerii Kistanov focused on the conflict between the G7 and the other two, China and Russia, arguing that Kishida was intent on making his international show a way to raise his ratings, drawing attention away internal problems. While Kishida condemns Russian “nuclear blackmail” over Ukraine, he will not say a word against the US, which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without any military need. The US, Japan, and others in the G7 seek to turn the Global South to condemning Russia’s military activities in Ukraine and participating in sanctions despite the neutrality of most. A sharp line will be drawn between two camps in the process of formation: the collective West and the tandem of Russia and China. Driving the two closer together is the tendency in the West to paint them with the same brush as a “threat” and to advance the concept of the indivisible security of the European and Indo-Pacific regions. In these conditions Moscow and Beijing should contemplate their own conception of indivisible security in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe. Seoul at the G7 will be pressed to contain the “aggressive ambitions” of Beijing and Moscow. With the G7 driving confrontation, inevitably the tandem will coordinate closer in the international arena, not excluding over time forging a “military alliance.”
On April 27 in MKRU closer ties of Moscow and Beijing were welcomed, commending Putin’s 2015 statement oh cooperation of the EEU and Silk Road Economic Belt as putting to rest the speculation of pro-American forces in Moscow on Chinese “infringement into Russia’s living space.” Instead, Putin called the rise of China’s economy a chance to catch the “Chinese wind” in the sails of the Russian economy. Partnership with Russia became a part of the “China Dream.” China’s rising power and independence arouses antagonism in the West and fuels its containment of China, making Russia the natural strategic ally in a “Cold War.” In both countries over three decades of pro-Western influence entire generations of the elite have been oriented to the West, some educated there or with relatives living there along with bank accounts and property there. They still harbor illusions of returning to the “good old days,” and only resolution actions by leaders have kept control over state, economic, and financial structures. Much remains to be done to purge the elite and the entire society of pro-Western attitudes. This applies to attitudes against strengthening cooperation with China still seen in the mass media and the blogosphere, sometimes without ill intent. One factor is the predominance of specialists on the US and Europe in popular talk-shows and in the foreign ministry and other offices supposed to transliterate the political will of the Kremlin. The struggle will proceed on a global, civilizational scale with change unlike anything seen in 100 years, agreed Xi and Putin.