Debating Russia’s “Turn to the East” over a Decade
Mainstream coverage of Russia’s decade-long reorientation to the East consistently found wisdom in Vladimir Putin’s decisions and progress on all dimensions of foreign policy. The country was marching from one success to another, although it had to adjust in light of changing circumstances over what I have identified as four stages in ten years.1 Yet doubters seized opportunities to ask questions, raise concerns, and present an alternative narrative, especially of late. This article seeks to tie together the strands of a case for changing course. Compared to the alternative narrative of the 1970s-early 1980s in criticism of Soviet foreign policy toward China and East Asia, this is more out in the open and forthright.2
Critics of the mainstream narrative are a diverse lot, whose views do not necessarily overlap or remain consistent over time. Raising questions, of course, does not equate to offering any clear alternative. Fundamental problems are only hinted at in mainstream writings. Why has the Russian Far East fallen short on one developmental program after another? What does Xi Jinping’s switch to “wolf warrior” foreign policy mean for Russia? Why had Abe’s quest for a breakthrough with Putin failed? What could Russia do to manage the growing rift between China and India? The one focus of far-reaching significance was Sino-US relations, but US thinking was poorly conveyed. Alternative arguments broached these issues cautiously, not directly confronting the mainstream positions. Yet, they planted the seeds of a far-reaching rebuke of policies and a quest for change.
In the fall of 2021, Alexander Lukin asked if the peak of Sino-Russian rapprochement has passed.3 If ties had advanced in 2014-16 with Russia pressing for it, China’s subsequent sharper turn against the US was accompanied by a rise in assertiveness that only intensified during the pandemic and has not spared Russia, Lukin argues. This is suggestive of the backlash in Russia against closer ties to China, but, in my opinion, it understates the continued momentum toward an alliance and tells only part of the story of troubles in the relationship and why a backlash has lately been building. Below I trace concerns about drawing closer to China from 2012 as the debate over this issue intensified.
This article is organized chronologically. As Russia’s turn eastward and rejection of the West grew more pronounced, doubts were more openly aired, despite generally tightening censorship. They pointed to unmet expectations, contradictions in Russian objectives, and possible dangers. In 2020-21, the resistance reached an unprecedented level, fearing a point of no return ahead. It came against the background of unprecedented mainstream interest in an alliance with China.
Three problems stood out in this initial period of Putin’s pursuit of the “Turn to the East.” First, there were worries about the cost to modernization of Russia casting the West aside and joining China, not prioritizing domestic economic reform. Second, there was fear that multipolarity was under threat, given the heavy reorientation toward China. Third, suspicions ran deep of China’s intentions in Central Asia, especially after X Jinping unilaterally launched the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB).4 These were just reservations prior to 2014 since Putin’s policies were still unclear.
The case for prioritizing the fight against internal Russian problems was voiced often in this initial period, warning that with its “Turn to the East,” Russia was ignoring domestic modernization. If the mainstream insisted that this “turn” would ensure the future by hitching the Russian Far East and Siberia to the dynamism of Asia, that was refuted by warnings that plans to develop this part of Russia keep failing with little sign of foreign investments or the launching of industries. Resting the argument for this reorientation heavily on its impact on economic transformation left an opening for rebuttals. The APEC summit saw critics decry that Vladivostok had only superficially changed, and the real problems of Russia and the Far East’s economies were not being addressed.5 This area was being perceived as a resource-abundant, depopulated territory while diversification of investments was not occurring due to an unaddressed lack of political and economic reforms.
Supporters of multipolarity argued that Russia must not support any one side in conflicts but keep good relations with all and press for an effective regional security system. How such acts would be viewed in China went unmentioned as did rebuttals of the Cold War school’s arguments. It was hard to challenge those who see China solely through the lens of confrontation with the US, but, indirectly, criticisms of failures in multipolarity due to prioritizing only China had that effect.6
The agenda for multipolarity continued to be aired. It was wary about Russia becoming a pawn of China, drawn into its conflicts and other processes destructive of multipolarity and now obliged to transfer military technology and weapons that Russia had hesitated to do. Concern for attracting foreign investments from the West included keeping China at a distance in Asiatic Russia, as Russia gave attention to breakthroughs with Japan and South Korea as well as balancing ties to India and ASEAN. On occasion, there were warnings that Xi’s arousal of national identity emotions could eventually put Russia in the crosshairs in pursuit of what he considered historical justice. It follows that Russia should stay on the sidelines as tigers fight it out, eventually competing to win Russia to one side.
As Russia focused primarily on China, it remained wary of China’s economic penetration, either in Asiatic Russia or Central Asia. Critics recognized Russia’s resistance and asked how was that in line with talk of opening the door to China and others. Indeed, the establishment of the EEU (Eurasian Economic Union) mainly with Central Asian partners was viewed by some as an effort to block the growing weight of China’s ties there, after the SCO no longer was perceived as sufficient for that.7 Worried about Xi’s call for SREB after China had been excluded from economic domains in Central Asia, one commentary asserted that the sooner China clarifies what the SREB is, the quicker it will be possible to dispel unstated disagreements or speculation about it. In 2013, this and other strains in bilateral ties remained unresolved, as writers obliquely questioned Putin’s unbridled optimism.8
In the second stage of the “Turn to the East,” the situation was different because Putin had upped the stakes, breaking sharply with the West and embracing China tightly—albeit with uncertain results. When the “Turn to the East” was still new and the break with the West uncertain, resistance was generally seen as old thinking by Europhiles, who had stood in the way of earlier efforts. There was some willingness to give Putin the benefit of the doubt for good intentions. Skepticism was visible in a wait-and-see attitude since the Soviet and post-Soviet habit of big programs with little funding was hard to erase from people’s minds. Putin heralded summits with regional leaders, but critics did not credit his high-sounding proclamations with turning the corner on Russia’s regional status.
Vladimir Putin in his “triumphant” May 2014 summit in China made a strong case that massive Chinese funding would boost Russia as an energy superpower with powerful spillover effects. However, some detected show projects of meager commercial benefit to Russia, asserting that China signs memoranda short of binding contracts, dangling dazzling amounts of money with no actual promises, and taking advantage of a monopsony position to dictate conditions.9
China drove a hard bargain on the big gas deal of 2014, after crudely forcing a price adjustment in 2011 in an oil pipeline deal, exposing growing asymmetries in the relationship after the split with the West. Critics charged that China was taking advantage of Russia and not becoming the partner Putin had sought, and they warned that the “Turn to the East” was losing multipolarity.10 By late 2014, China’s failure to step up was noted in a few forthright sources. One blamed the recent anti-corruption purge in China, including of Zhou Yonggang and others from the energy sector—some who had dealt with Rosneft, which had instilled great caution in Chinese banks—and reforms that make state-owned enterprises subject to punishment for unprofitable investment. But there was also mention of private visitors from China giving a very cold reception to proposals; this generated the impression that there was little prospect of Chinese capital replacing the losses from the West, dashing hopes for development of the Arctic and for the technology required for the extraction of oil offshore and shale gas.11
In Russian foreign policy thinking, the ability to advance big geopolitical and geo-economic projects is proof of being a great power. Vying within a rarified grand strategic triangle, putting Russia at the center of a vision of a new regional and global order, and summitry with grandiose promises all sustained the “Turn to the East.” Russia approached China in search of acceptance as a co-leader with its own autonomous model. China responded with soothing words about leadership but stringent conditions for cooperation. The case of the 770 km railroad from Moscow to Kazan, where a Chinese bank would provide credit requiring the import of technology and equipment from China and for payment of Chinese specialists, revealed how cooperation was floundering. Russia wanted Chinese money to buy high-quality equipment, not necessarily from China, with Russians handling the construction, local technology, and labor. China would not work on the basis of such Russian conditions. Yet, it was noted, Chinese had reason to blame Russia for the failure of declared projects, given protectionism, red tape, and corruption.12 Disappointment inside Russia was palpable when this high-profile project and others stayed unbuilt despite geopolitical claims.
After November 2014 summits in East Asia, one Russian noted that China is the motor and Russia should free itself of illusions on the speed with which China was advancing in Central Asia, the weak prospects of the BRICS, and the lack of Russian leverage on China.13 A crisis in the Russian economy was felt from the dire news in December 2014 and January 2015 of a collapse in energy prices. Some saw the door closing for Russia’s leverage in the Asia-Pacific region or for developing the Russian Far East as anything but a resource appendage for China.14 The emptiness of claims to be finding a home in Asia to compensate for its estrangement in Europe was exposed, while the outline of another gas pipeline deal with China was perceived as not providing the right answer.
Writings on Sino-Russian relations refuted charges that they had failed to meet expectations; and those on multipolarity praised Russia’s ability to remain aloof from the major disputes in the Asia-Pacific while maintaining its great power role. Yet, divided over the meaning of little progress in joining the EEU and SREB (just a transit corridor or a geo-economic, geopolitical rearrangement), Russians were asked to widen their horizons to Greater Eurasia. A geographical construct was given as reason for hope, but some saw it as a diversion. China’s priority for SREB was a transport corridor via Central Asia, bypassing the Russian Far East to Russian chagrin.15 The most important document for China may have been the joint declaration on the establishment of the EEC and the SREB. Chinese experts had been concerned that the September 2013 initiative of Xi would be seen as a threat to Russia’s position in Central Asia and to Putin’s main geo-economic project, the EEC. Eager to find compatibility, the two identified the SCO as the coordinating arena. This failed to impress those doubtful of the SCO’s promise and of the EEC as posing little restraint on the SREB.16
Russia had argued that the West was declining as Russia engaged in a crusade against the world order. Only China took this seriously, but economic complementarity was limited. Then came the illusions of 2014-2015 that China was interested in helping Russia, exposed by the disheartening trade and investment figures of 2015. Political statements had little economic meaning, as Chinese firms exploited the sanctions to raise the prices for Russia and to make new demands, blaming a lack of understanding of each other’s business culture. Visions of regional architecture diverged. Economic results suggested that the “Turn to the East” was at an impasse. The Russian Far East languished, and transportation routes bypassed it for Central Asia. Some warned that the “Turn to the East” had stalled, noting the continued stagnation of the Russian Far East.17 If it was customary to credit progress at the federal level of a geopolitical or a civilizational nature, the situation in the priority areas of the “turn” was not easy to conceal. One warning feared Potemkin villages, used for impressing visiting bosses and theft.18 The results in this corner of Russia were a litmus test in this period.
Putin had rested his hopes on China for a miracle rescue from the consequences of quarrels with the West, but questions arose when the results proved disappointing. Russians had counted on demand for Siberian natural resources, provision of capital in place of the West, and Chinese know-how to make a smooth transition from the interruption in technology. The “Turn to the East” seemed to be exclusively with China, counted on to build infrastructure for exporting resources. But projects that rely on Chinese loans and provide China with new markets for its technology and work force drew criticism for how few Russian jobs would be created and how much they would increase Russia’s debt. Capital and technology for Siberia and the Russia Far East, leading to production for markets to the south, was not forthcoming.19 In 2015 with the ruble weakened, export of Russian non-natural resources to China became more competitive, but the results were disappointing. Firms faced more infrastructure issues and delays and excessive costs in transportation. Russia overestimated the desire of China to help in Russian import substitution. China looked at Russia for oil and gas projects, but it did not seek the rebirth of Russia’s industry.
On this, arguments abound: (1) expectations that Asian partners could almost fully replace Western ones were not met; (2) Asian partners, notably China, are tough negotiators, using Russia’s situation to extract more favorable terms; (3) Chinese partners are only interested in Russian natural resources, the sale of Chinese goods to Russia, and the use of Chinese labor, not in helping Russia to develop its own production and import substitution; (4) afraid of US sanctions, Chinese banks do not provide enough credit; and (5) trade with China and other Asian states fell sharply in 2015. If some hinted that Russia must compromise with the West, the mainstream called for more decisively shifting to Asia, accommodating China.
Worsening Sino-US relations in 2015-16 encouraged Russians to anticipate greater influence. They hoped to avoid involvement in the disputes in the South China Sea, leaning to China but avoiding entrapment by it. Instead of the Russian Far East and the EEU-SREB docking, geopolitics reigned. In these adjustments in mainstream thinking, critics discretely warned of further wishful thinking.20
The Great Eurasian Partnership, introduced by Putin, could be called a pipe dream—a distraction from China’s BRI to set the rules of the game. Whereas SREB was a narrow regional initiative—where Chinese provinces claimed to be renewing historical, external ties and establishing mutual connections with the outside—BRI was ideologically connected to the “China Dream” and a far-reaching effort to reshape Asia. In turn, Putin’s appeal was no longer confined to the integration of the EEU and SREB, but now on “Greater Eurasia” including the SCO and ASEAN, while desperately denying a Sinocentric vision of Asia without openly acknowledging that a problem even existed.21
If economics had dominated the rhetoric on the “Turn to the East” to 2016, geopolitics stood in the forefront from 2017. There was always a mix of the two, but with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un rocking the world order and Putin eager to put the spotlight on security, a new era had dawned. Critics of the mainstream narrative warned even more of overreliance on China. If the mainstream stressed the growing need to respond to danger from the US, critics pointed to changes in China disruptive to Russian plans. The disconnect widened in Russian commentaries.
One critic argued that escalation of the Soviet matrix was felt more strongly, leading to foreign policy problems.22 This matrix is counterproductive in dealing with the rapidly changing world, having a backward effect on how Russia is perceived. The effect at home is to steer Russia’s political elite to strategic dreams oriented to the geographical parameters of Stalinist USSR after the war—for which resources do not exist and neighbors are resistant. Abroad, it arouses others to perceive a new Cold War. Xi Jinping’s foreign policy in 2017 was seen as a challenge to Russia for its intention to more actively and unilaterally shape the world order. Chinese triumphalism in the media and on the Internet has been conspicuous since the second half of the 2000s, spurred by those seeking a new, hawkish foreign policy and ideology fighting for core interests. Hawks saw their suggestions come to fruit such as in economic sanctions on Mongolia in 2016 and South Korea in 2017. Territorial disputes heated up with Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Russia was now marginalized. It was suggested that reverting to Deng’s modesty would be positive.23 A less self-assured China could be much more convenient for Russia, downplaying the perceived territorial debt owed to China, making China aware it cannot get by without partners, and respecting Russia’s interests.
Moscow and Beijing were not in lockstep about what to do, as Chinese warnings made clear. On one occasion, Dai Bingguo praised relations but urged raising them to an even higher level and limit the impact of obstacles, resolving problems such as: (1) neutralizing Russian actors who do not welcome stronger relations (as if this would be serious and hard to reverse); (2) building trust, given the long-term nature of the relationship (as if Russians of late have shown too little trust); (3) orienting the relationship toward the progress of humanity and the development of civilizations, respecting one another as forces for this common good even when problems arise; and (4) improving mutual images based on contacts. This shows that China sought a closer relationship on its terms, but critics feared the effect of yielding to its demands. 24
Dreams did not overlap. Stressing economic ties beyond natural resources, Russians perceived scant partnership in machine-technical and innovative production, and projects to make the two countries world leaders for machinery, high-speed railroads, wide-body aircraft, and robots. The projects exist; but where is Chinese capital? This illustrated how far Russia aspirations were from reality. China sought to forge a Sinocentric system of regional economies and security. Russia sought the rise of Siberia and the Russian Far East, diversification of its raw material markets, and incoming investments. China has more territorial conflicts, not corresponding to the interests of Russia, which, it was claimed, seeks good relations with all sides in these disputes. These critiques exposed the gap between those sticking to multipolarity and the mainstream clinging to China.25
Two dangers stood out: China could challenge Russian sovereignty with no country left to come to Russia’s side; and infrastructure could become so Sinocentric that China could dictate the terms of trade. One critic warned of the impact of Russian and Chinese disinformation, leaving no state inclined to reinforce Russian sovereignty, and of the danger of infrastructure in the Russian Far East concentrated on China’s border, rather than coordinated for balance.26 As its economy grew, China was seen as looking down on Russians, whose material existence has fallen behind. At the same time, concern about China turning instruments of economic coercion against Russia was growing. A review indicated it started using them in the mid-90s, made them a regular practice in the mid-2000s, and expanded their frequency, the reasons for using them, and the range of targets in the 2010s. Among the targets listed are Vietnam, the Philippines, Mongolia, South Korea, and Japan. A decision not to use Chinese products, such as from Huawei, could lead to retaliation, it is said.27
Beginning in 2018, after Trump launched a trade war, China’s tone had shifted, including through undiplomatic diplomats, such as those in Kazakhstan angrily reacting to any criticism of China and in Russia demanding the removal from Nezavisimaya Gazeta of wording on the slowing of China’s economy with threats of never being allowed into China.28 In the West this is called “wolf warrior diplomacy.” Diplomats demonstrated their ideological fealty and intolerance of China’s enemies.
Pointing to “wolf warrior” diplomacy as the new style of Chinese assertive foreign policy, which mainly concerns countries considered opponents in Beijing and in which China is itself subjected to harsh and open criticism, a source noted that it has begun to touch upon Russia. The first sign may have been a July 2016 article in Global Times, which asserted: “The constant Russian accusations of the United States of hegemony and interference in the internal affairs of other countries are true, but overshadowed by hidden factors. Russia really wants to do what it accuses the United States of itself.”29 This new tone of Chinese assertiveness was viewed as not just for hostile states and as supported by a significant share of the Chinese elite—a matter of serious Russian concern.
Going over to the side of China is not in the interests of Russia as a country trying to become an independent center of influence in Eurasia. Instead of recognizing Russia’s perspectives, China was demanding more complete support for its policies.30 Long having charged the US with forcing its “client-states” to adhere to its thinking, Russia now saw China making such demands on others and coming closer to doing the same with Russia. There were calls to draw closer to third parties in Asia to deflect China’s agenda for the region, but it was unclear who should be targeted and what price Russia would be willing to pay with China. No forthright discussion of alternatives is in sight.
The “Turn to the East” has stalled; elites in Central Asia fear losing their positions and do not understand its benefits, and compared to the end of the 2000s, external conditions for integration into Asia have become more difficult. Just by military-political interaction and export of raw materials, Russia will not be successful. A colonial approach that economically exploits the area (as perceived by locals) or a Soviet-style paternalistic approach that distributes benefits for defense goals (or now export ones) is not the answer.31 A modern, attractive business is required.
The first decade of the “Turn to the East” was ending with a sharp clash between the mainstream and the critics. The former took the new Cold War as reason for optimism—Sino-Russian ties better than ever, the US position weakened, Russia primed to exercise greater influence, the Russian Far East poised to boom with Sino-Russian cooperation on the Northern Sea Route, etc. The latter had turned markedly more pessimistic about Russia’s prospects—overdependent on an aroused China that is likely to turn on Russia, bereft of hope for multipolarity, without a strategy for technological autonomy, in danger of falling prey to China’s disrespect for Russian sovereignty in the Arctic, etc.32 The critics were careful to say nothing positive about the United States and not to challenge the merits of close Sino-Russian relations, but they painted a gloomy picture of Russia’s options.
Biden will intensify anti-Russian behavior. A vindictive China will use its economic clout to punish countries that defy it. The North Korean powder keg will grow more dangerous because the US will not take the right policy and South Korea lacks the autonomy to do so. And Russia is stuck with no domestic economic agenda and empty regional rhetoric. The feel-good themes of the 2010s about Russia’s rise, Eurasia, the Sino-Russian regional docking, Russian diplomatic advances in Japan and India, and plans for the Russian Far East had faded. This critical rhetoric of the early 2020s drew a far more pessimistic conclusion than in prior times but not in open opposition to the mainstream.
The stark choice posed by what Russians recognized as the onset of a new Cold War led to sharper pushback in 2020-21. If Russian hopes to create a third center of the world and Asia had been dashed, as some stated, did this deal a death blow to the “Turn to the East,” premised on multipolarity? Last-ditch efforts are needed to boost the institutions of Greater Eurasia, it was argued, even if China resists. Critics saw a huge challenge for Moscow from the deterioration of relations between China and India, given the summer 2020 clash along their border in the Himalayas.33 As host of the SCO and Russia-China-India trilateral meetings of defense and foreign ministers just afterwards, Moscow found itself helpless to assuage tensions. They were not blamed on India; charges against China were oblique.
Russians claimed to know what the new Cold War would be like—and how it would differ from the old Cold War—but, mostly, that meant benign assumptions about China and its need for Russia. In response to assurances from people in responsible posts that Russia does not want to get dragged into a confrontation, some asked how it could stay aloof, given its weakness and animosity to the West as well as Putin’s dreams of restoring great power status. Despite its isolation in the pandemic and troubled economy, Russia was upbeat. Saying less about Greater Eurasia and multipolarity, it stressed the strategic triangle, assuming that close relations with China would avoid excess dependency and troubled relations with the US would leave room to maneuver. Bipolarity would replace multipolarity, but Russia still retained some autonomy. Unlike the Cold War era, there are no longer two parallel worlds, enabling Russia to hold firm. In response to the mainstream optimism, critics cast doubt on China and called for multipolarity.
The Sino-US rivalry in Asia means a clash of two concepts of international order based on different values. The BRI has merged into a broader Chinese strategy. An existential choice loomed. In these urgent circumstances, opposition to joining with Xi’s China intensified and grew more open. It was noted that “wolf warrior” rhetoric has been radicalized with an obsessive demonstration of China’s successes and the advantages of the CCP-led political system.34 Among the negative effects listed are the anger aroused in various countries and from such actions as India-China border clashes in June 2020, leading to an apparent drift of India towards partnership with the US and undermining Sino-Indian cooperation. Recent damage to the prestige of the United States was seen as contributing to the acceleration of even more aggressive international behavior by China.
As talk of a Sino-Russian alliance intensified, the pushback in writings about China grew louder as well. More details about what is troubling this relationship came to the surface amid warnings that things could get worse. “Wolf warrior” diplomacy, seen as directed at Russia too, was blamed for a worsening image of China and China’s aggression against India.35 A divergence in viewpoints was more evident than at any point in recent years, but the warnings appeared to be too little, too late given the rapidly building momentum to take the relationship to unprecedented heights. After all. China has become a 21st century superpower alongside the US, while Russia is next in the world hierarchy of powers and has to focus on strategic triangle jockeying, which cannot be pursued with the US because Russia is so completely demonized, especially under the Biden administration.
Left aside by most was the threat of “wolf warrior diplomacy” being turned against Russia, but that was seen by 2020, as in the July spat over Vladivostok in regard to the territorial issue.36 It seemed to come as a surprise to Russians that China’s assertiveness could be directed at Russia, not only at China’s enemies. As Russian leaders heralded the closest relations ever, even on the verge of an alliance, doubters warned of a relationship that has peaked as China seizes on Russia’s dependency. While some took satisfaction that in the new Cold War China needs Russia more, others warned that its reasons for taking Russian interests into account could be ephemeral. Already, some saw, China’s style of diplomacy had changed, as it crudely dictated terms and started keeping blacklists of those in Russia as elsewhere whom it was prepared to punish. A stronger China is less inhibited and is now behaving in a manner contrary to Russian interests.
Attempts by Chinese diplomats in the EU countries to switch to personal threats against the most active critics destroyed social capital that China has been building for many years. The ratification of the investment agreement with the EU, which China had been seeking for seven years, was put in jeopardy. Beijing has virtually no allies, and “wolf warrior diplomacy” is getting worse.37 Public opinion towards the PRC has fallen sharply in almost all parts of the world. It needs to understand other countries and their interests and work with them not by shouts and orders, as the US does, but by cooperating through mutual compromises, demonstrating sincerity and understanding.
The complex of “lost territories” is constantly being fed in China, as in the summer of 2020 criticism of the celebration of the 160th anniversary of Vladivostok in Russia. Russians were reminded of a recent Weibo attack on the name of Vladivostok,38 harking back to China’s historical humiliation. Anti-Russian emotions were raised by a Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, as spillover from the Sino-Indian border clash. This was seen as a sign that while China’s leaders did not intend at this time to get in a dispute with Russia, they are artificially arousing emotions over history. Thus, once the world becomes bipolar, Russia would be left in a difficult position.
As talks began in 2021 between Nikolai Patrushev and Yang Jiechi on new contents for the renewal of the 2001 treaty, some Russians urged that the territorial issue be closed once and for all.39 They noted that even after the 2004 supplementary agreement on the border, mass media and blogs in China repeat pretenses for Russian territory. Chinese tourists visiting the Russian Far East make statements in this spirit, leaving notes in books for visitors to museums. The border issue must be finalized in a single document, putting an end to speculation about history, some insisted.40 They cautioned about proceeding without clarifying Chinese thinking on Russian territory and called for a border agreement in a renewed bilateral treaty as insurance against what China might later do.
Criticisms ranged widely: over China’s handling of the pandemic; over economic dependency in an era of technological polarization; over “wolf warrior” diplomacy alienating countries from China and from Russia, too; over the bilateral territorial dispute not yet being resolved in Chinese thinking; over the implications of the BRI for Russian foreign relations, whether in Central Asia or within the rubric of Greater Eurasia; and over the impact of a new Cold War on Russia’s quest for autonomy. These warnings about Russian policies added to a telling indictment.
Cooperation over the pandemic was far from indicative of a close partnership, it was observed.41 Despite declared cooperation in that fight, China did not respond to Russia’s request to provide strains of the virus, which Russia had to request from another country.42 Russian epidemiologists who went to China were not given direct access to patients.43 Chinese propagandists, exaggerated China’s successes while contrasting them to failures elsewhere, even in Russia. It unilaterally closed borders and cut back ties, pointing more to unilateralism than coordination. One author said that the living and working conditions for foreigners in China are constantly becoming more difficult. The borders are closed, and no one knows when they will open, although a Russian can fly to the USA with a valid visa any day. Both countries are introducing more and more trade barriers; business is going bankrupt. It is not just the pandemic. This only accelerated a process growing over the past five to six years with new negative issues, e.g., China’s recent closure of ports under the pretext of fighting the spread of the coronavirus. If criticism was muted in comparison to that abroad, it may have been a contributing factor to the overall backlash seen in 2020-21.44
Breaking with the West and hitching Russia’s cart to China drew concerns that Russia would not be able to navigate a course that left it with technological clout and without excessive dependency.45 This theme was raised by doubters in many ways over the course of the decade. In 2020-21 with the polarization of cyber and technological platforms, worries were aired about how Russia with its weak economy could create its own platform and avoid becoming overly dependent on China’s. Related to this, technical cooperation was viewed as skewed with China importing more advanced Russian technology and Russia importing just components and equipment. Talk of joint techno-parks did not mean commercialization of Russian work in China or Chinese investment in Russia.
In spite of a high-sounding agreement on building a joint space station on the moon, Russians were nervous about having only a peripheral role. Why China needs such cooperation, one wondered. If it is access to Russian technology, that is precisely why, in the work on the future lunar station, it is important to immediately determine the “rules of the game” and clearly describe all legal and economic aspects of such cooperation.46 The signed memorandum was solely a statement of good intentions, not a real plan. Russia cannot afford one-sided dependence on the Chinese manned space program, which would destroy the still high status of Russia and the legitimacy of the internal political order. It has nothing to offer China in space technology but would be ready to consider deepening ties if China made part of its civil space program dependent on Russia and formalized this agreement. In 2011, the Russian probe to Mars was lost along with the Chinese probe, which increased Beijing’s skepticism about the possibility of deeper cooperation. And Moscow, under sanctions and without legal access to European and American space electronics, is distrustful of imports from China. This fear applied also to other cooperation agreements. The reorientation of a significant part of Russian companies to predominantly Chinese technologies would lead to a gradual drift toward Pax Sinica—a China-centric geo-economic space, where the PRC will be the main trading partner for all, the main investor, creditor, and issuer of currency for settlements and savings, as well as source of advanced technologies and legislator of technological standards.47
Preventing the concept of Greater Eurasia from going beyond Russian internal official and expert discussions is Russia’s fault—it has little to sell in the region and its initiatives are not in demand—and China’s too, including policies to countries such as India driving them elsewhere. Talk of the EEU signing FTAs as a pathway forward was countered by data showing that its 2016 FTA with Vietnam lifted Russian exports by only $1 billion to $2.4 billion in 2018, which then collapsed to $1.1 billion in 2019,48 while the only other FTA with Singapore was not yet in force.
There has been a shift in Russia’s attitude to BRI. In 2017 and 2019, Putin was the main guest at the BRI forums; however, in January 2021, Russia’s representative to BRI publicly noted risks in this cooperation. An article noted that Russia only signs bilateral documents on cooperation with China within the framework of the BRI initiative as a member of the EEU, interacting with just the SREB. In turn, Beijing prefers to do business with smaller members of the EEU on a bilateral basis.49 Wary of the BRI, some call for diversification to countries on the outside, e.g., Japan and South Korea, which have refrained from escalating sanctions, as well as India. Closer ties to Japan would help to avoid a Chinese economic monopoly in the Russian Far East and stay aloof from the region’s most serious problems. BRI, in contrast, serves Chinese economic dominance, marginalizing Russia.50
On Central Asia, China’s penetration grew more worrisome, as many acknowledged that Russia’s economy could not provide the credits or investments found in China or appeal much as a market. Russia has the EEC, but that does not suffice. With the president of Kirgizstan, after the toppling of his predecessor, having close ties to China, it was suggested this may be the first move by China to establish a friendly regime in its sphere. China was also perceived as using access to Central Asian states to breach holes in the fence to send goods into the Russian market. The old division of labor, leaving military matters to Russia, was also seen as lapsing, as China sells weapons and countries start to send their officers to China. A border base was opened in Tajikistan without Dushanbe or Beijing informing Moscow. For protection of Chinese assets private military companies will form, and China will try to prevent reactions to its concentration camps and extreme assimilation tactics against the Uyghurs. The only way for Russia is to strengthen the sovereignty of the Central Asian states, precisely what it sought to undermine earlier to put each under its sphere of influence. If not, China is said to have the long-term goal of an exclusive sphere with Russia a junior partner.51
Beijing’s strategy toward some Central Asian republics has changed. Anti-Chinese protests have spread—in 2019-2020 more than 40 from solidarity with the persecuted Uyghurs in China to protests against the transfer of land to Chinese companies on long-term leases—as the rhetoric of now criticizes not only China, but also local elites, which, it is said, have sold out to Beijing.52 In response, leaders talk of punishing everyone whose activities would threaten bilateral relations, and call on citizens to be grateful to Beijing, which demands more support from its local partners.
Why must Moscow eschew an alliance with Beijing? As many as ten answers can be discerned:
- China is disrespectful of Russia’s interests and sphere of influence, as seen not only in Central Asia but also in the sale of a missile system to Serbia;
- Russia would become entangled in Sino-US conflicts and territorial disputes in which it has no stake—a parallel was even drawn with Russia’s fatal decision to take sides in WWI;
- Beijing will push Moscow to stop selling arms to Vietnam and India, obliging it to cross a red line of political subordination to China;
- An alliance would turn a triangle into an axis of two against one, undermining Russia’s model of development and autonomy and obliging it to side more solidly with China in conflicts in the East and South Chinese seas and against India, Japan, and both Koreas;
- The dominant partner—China—would hold sway over foreign policy, ideology, and even budget expenses;
- A boycott of Russia in Western financial, trade, and commodity markets could follow;
- Beijing has learned to use economic instruments such as sanctions, embargoes, and tariffs to put pressure on other countries, as in the trade war with Australia, which until recently was considered a success in symbiosis with China’s economy, offering a lesson to Russia;
- Historical memory in China has left remnants of distrust and might lead to use of the “history card,” in the form of threats to revive territorial demands to keep Russia in line;
- In economic deals, China will use its clout and Russia’s dependency to extract favorable terms; and
- Whereas before Russia countered the BRI with its own regional frameworks, the choice has narrowed to joining the China-led framework or resisting it in uncomfortable association with the US–if multipolarity is no longer an option, Russians will be forced to make a binary choice.
A hallmark of Russian thinking is that worsening Sino-US relations is in Russia’s interest, but some demurred, saying Russia faced multiple risks from strategic instability and economic spillover.53 The opinion was spreading that China views Russia as a second-rate country, even more so after China’s resurgence in 2020-21 as others faced prolonged troubles. As China and the US struggle for domination, Russia should not participate; it must stake an independent position, critics argued. In one article, focus was on reviving Russo-Japanese talks on security, and a telling comment was that Russia is attentive to its own sovereignty and strives for balance with an added appeal for avoiding incidents.54 This clearly goes against the Cold War narrative while offering a way to avoid bipolarity.
Commenting on the delicate line between China’s economic, technological sphere in Central Asia and Russia’s security and political sphere of influence, one commentator fears the line is changing. The situation has grown more problematic, as seen in the challenge of docking the EEU with BRI, exposing the idea of Greater Eurasia as propaganda.55 Lacking a strategy to protect its interests in Central Asia as China’s influence grows, Russia must stop treating states as “younger brothers” and show respect to lead a coalition of states weaker than China to establish rules of the game.
China’s strategic arsenal drew interest by 2020, as it dug a massive number of silos for ICBMs. It was recognized that there is no sense of the limits and goals of China’s build-up.56 China says it will not enter talks, and the US has left the INF treaty, in large part, to counter China’s build-up of missiles, which could affect Russian security in Asia through the deployment of intermediate-range ones. In the absence of writings on a Chinese military threat, coverage of strategic weapons is a new twist.
Having thrown in Russia’s lot with China, Putin kept shifting his reasons for optimism. Successive setbacks—in Central Asia with BRI circumventing Russia’s veto in the SCO; in South Asia with China alienating India despite yielding to Russia in admitting it (with Pakistan) to the SCO; and also in Southeast Asia with Russia forced to back down in plans with Vietnam due to Chinese pressure—did not add up to acknowledgment that the EEU was not “docking” with the SREB, the SCO could no longer check China’s ambitions, or ASEAN was a shell of what was claimed. Talk of “Greater Eurasia” and Korean diplomacy leading to a regional security system obscured the impact of China. Playing the “North Korean card” versus South Korea and the “history card” versus Japan leaves just China.
In the 2020s, Russia is facing a more polarized regional environment and a changing Chinese economic model. How can Russia duplicate Putin’s success in the 2010s in “catching the Chinese wind in its sails?” With an expanded SCO and a fragmented BRICS, what organization offers promise for reaching beyond bilateral relations in Asia? Will Sino-Russian coordination work in a new round of diplomacy over the Korean Peninsula? Will a strengthened Quad or even Quad-Plus shatter Russian illusions about India and then Vietnam? Is it safe to assume that China will need Russia more or will it use new bilateral integration or greater assertiveness as a weapon against the heir to Tsarism? These questions are raised by those wary of how China may behave in the new era.
The crux of the criticisms against Putin’s “Turn to the East”—though never expounded clearly or fully—is the following: (1) the policy has become the “turn to China” but it is being mischaracterized; (2) this imposes a big cost on the declared goal of multipolarity, which has not been acknowledged; (3) the strategy for the development of the Russian Far East and Russia as a whole is misguided despite pretenses to the contrary; (4) talk of Greater Eurasia has become hollow as its pillars, one by one, are proven not to exist; (5) China has failed to deliver on what was assumed, notablyy on an equal relationship; (6) by turning to China, Russia has put itself in an increasingly dangerous asymmetrical relationship; (7) “wolf warrior” diplomacy in China is a threat to Russia’s multipolar plans and even to Russia itself; (8) the shadow of history hangs ominously over Sino-Russian relations; (9) dependence only on China amid technological polarization strips Russia of autonomy with dire consequences; and (10) China’s growing authoritarianism reinforces the most negative forces in Russian politics.
As telling as this litany of criticisms is—however disguised—they omit another array of charges on how Putin’s “Turn to the East” has misinterpreted the landscape of Eurasia. One should have no difficulty listing five failings: (1) blatant mischaracterization of the US role in Asia and the greater opportunity for Russo-US cooperation here than in other regions without loss of autonomy; (2) assumptions about Europe that repudiate Russia’s place in it and potential for cooperation in Asia as elsewhere; (3) notions of the “West” and its values that unduly dismiss any “universal values”; (4) honesty about Russian politics despite some qualms about the Russian economy and the lack of its expertise in decision-making about China; and (5) Soviet-type neglect of Western publications and their main arguments as well as those in Chinese and other Asian publications that contradict Russian logic.
The critiques of the “Turn to the East” stand, side-by-side, with the mainstream literature, couched in language that renders them less forthright or missing direct refutations of what is disagreeable. Compared to the extreme subterfuges, which were needed four decades earlier to challenge the mainstream on China, these succeed in exposing a substantial array of problems in official policy. The quality of writing is far superior, revealing that the gap in scholarship with the West is far narrower today. In fact, on what is going wrong in the “Turn to the East” Russian analysis is far more detailed.
Would Russia’s reality of becoming a junior partner to China start to eclipse the obsession with not being respected by the United States? Prospects of closer Sino-Russian ties raised deep concerns in some circles by 2021. Yet publications stopped short of crossing what appeared to be three red lines: (1) criticism of Putin for his foreign policy choices; (2) suggestions for steps Russia should take to ameliorate the relationship with the US; and (3) direct challenges to the wisdom of close ties to China. Thus, there was little open challenge to Putin’s continued drive to boost bilateral relations.
What had turned the tide to such strong criticisms? Three factors deserve emphasis with a fourth out of sight but not necessarily out of mind. First, China’s assertiveness had begun to be directed more blatantly at Russia. The unwritten contract of leaving the past behind and respecting each other’s domestic narratives had been broken. Second, China’s foreign policy behavior in Asia had undercut the Russian agenda, most seriously with India. Russian assumptions about how the two would work together had been shattered. Third, the image of China’s domestic trajectory could not be sustained. If the West had soured on a prior image of Chinese convergence with sustained reforms, many Russians were also growing concerned about an image of China reverting to past authoritarianism and foreign policy aggressiveness, which reminded them of the China that stood as an enemy and a threat to the Soviet Union. A fourth factor may have parallels to the rhetoric of critics of Soviet “stagnation” and inflexibility in relations to East Asia prior to Gorbachev. Then, it was, at times, possible to couch criticisms of their country in writings about China and, later, other East Asian countries. The case against Putin’s authoritarian drift and foreign policy obsessions may also be on people’s minds when they challenge the mainstream version of the “Turn to the East.” Indeed, as some took satisfaction from China’s “victory of socialism” against capitalism, a backlash was growing against the threat of Russia also reasserting socialism in a “tandem” relationship.
1. *This is a companion piece to the “Tracking” article, which was posted in The Asan Forum. Whereas that piece omitted notes, presuming that all sources can be found in Country Report: Russia, this article is documented with citations drawn from that bi-monthly resource, reflecting the diversity of Russian critical commentaries.
2. Gilbert Rozman, “Moscow’s China-Watchers in the Post-Mao Era: The Response to a Changing China,” The China Quarterly 94 (June 1983), 215-41; Gilbert Rozman, A Mirror for Socialism: Soviet Criticisms of China (Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985)
3. Alexander Lukin, “Have We Passed the Peak of Sino-Russian Rapprochement?” The Washington Quarterly, 44:3 (2021) 155-73.
4. Alexander Gabuev, Vedemosti, September 4, 2018.
5. Gilbert Rozman, “China’s s National Identity and the Sino-U.S. National Identity Gap: The View from Russia,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S. Korea Academic Studies, Asia’s Uncertain Future,” Vol. 24 (Washington, DC: Korean Economic Institute, 2013).
6. Gilbert Rozman, “The Russian Pivot to Asia,” The Asan Forum, December 1, 2014.
7. Alexander Khramchikin, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 7, 2014.
8. Timofei Bordachev, “Novoe Evraziistvo,” Rossiia v Global’noi Politike, No. 5, 2015.
9. Alexander Gabuev, “Povorot v nikuda: Itogi Aziatskoi politike Rossii v 2015 godu,” Carnegie.ru, December 29, 2015.
10. Alexander Gabuev, “Pax Sinica: Decoding Chinese Inroads in Russia and Eurasia,” Carnegie.ru, March 19, 2021.
11. “Country Report: Russia,” The Asan Forum, September 2014.
12. Timofei Bordachev, “Novoe Evraziistvo.”
13. Gilbert Rozman, “The Russian Pivot to Asia.”
14. Andrei Ivanov, “Itogi 2015: Rossia i Kitai druzhat bez torgovli,” SvobodnayaPressa, December 26, 2015.
15. Andrei Ivanov, SvobodnayaPressa, January 5, 2016.
16. Vestnik Mezhdunarodnykh Organizatsii, No. 3, 2016.
17. Mikhail Korostikov, “Nedovorot na Vostok,” Kommersant, December 25, 2015.
18. Sergey Karaganov and Anastasia Likhacheva, Profil’, September 29, 2020.
19. Ivan Zuenko, Lenta.ru, November 24, 2015; Aleksandr Gabuev, “Pravila Igry,” Kommersant, May 5, 2017.
20. Mikhail Korostikov, Kommersant, May 9, 2016.
21. Alexander Gabuev, Kommersant, February 9, 2017.
22. Vladimir Lukin, Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, No. 1, 2017.
23. Sergey Tsyplakov, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 29, 2019.
24. Rossiiskii Sovet po Mezhdunarodnym Delam, May 30-31, 2016.
25. Aleksei Verkhoiantsev, SvobodnayaPressa, July 13, 2016.
26. Gilbert Rozman, “Russia’s Revived Debate on China: historical perspective and implicit significance,” The Asan Forum, October 18, 2018.
27. Anastasiya Piatachkova, Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, August 26, 2020.
28. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 4, 2019.
29. Alexander Lukin, Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, July 1, 2021
30. Alexander Gabuev, Rossiiskii Sovet po Mezhdunarodnym Delam May 30-31, 2016.
31. Sergey Karaganov and Anastasiia Likhacheva, Profil’, September 29, 2020.
32. Alexei Kupriyanov, Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, November 9, 2020.
33. Kommersant, September 10, 2020.
34. Alexander Lukin, Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, March 23, 2021.
35. Aleksander Lukin, Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, July 1, 2021
36. Vladimir Skosyrev, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 5, 2020; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 15, 2020.
37. Aleksander Lukin, Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, March 23, 2021.
38. Ibid.; Gilbert Rozman, “Multipolarity versus Sinocentrism: Chinese and Russian Worldviews and Relations,” The Asan Forum, August 27, 2020.
39. Iury Tavrovsky, Perspektiv, 1,2, June 2021.
40. Vladimir Skosyrev, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 20, 2021.
41. Ivan Zuenko, Profil’, April 23, 2020.
42. Ivan Zuenko, “Russia-China Partnership Proves Immune to Coronavirus,” Carnegie Moscow Center, May 25, 2020.
43. Vasilii Kashin, April 17, 2020.
44. Ivan Zuenko,, RIA Novosti, March 28, 2021. Also see Ivan Zuenko, “The Balance between Sinophobia and Discourse on Cooperation: Expert Opinion on China in Russia and Kazakhstan” The Asan Forum, October 16, 2018.
45. Aleksander Gabuev, “Soiuznicheskaia Demonstratsiia: Zachem Putin zagovoril o voennom al’ianse s Kitaem,” Carnegie Moscow Center, November 30, 2020.
46. Mikhail Kotov, Izvestia, March 14, 2021.
47. Alexander Gabuev, Carnegie Moscow Center, March 19, 2021.
48. Alexander Korolev, Profil’, November 19, 2020.
49. Aleksander Lukin, Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, July 1, 2021
50. Anatolii Komrakov, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 22, 2019.
51. Aleksander Gabuev, Kommersant, February 29, 2021.
52. Lenta.ru, May 3, 2021.
53. Aleksander Gabuev, Carnegie Moscow Center, November 30, 2020.
54. Dmitry Trenin, “Ne tol’ko Kurily: Kak sokhranit’ sotrudnichestvo s Iaponiei pri novom pravitel’stvo,” Carnegie Moscow Center, October 15, 2021.
55. Sergey Trush, Вестник – Российская академия наук, No. 11, 2020.
56. “Akademik Arbatov,” Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2021.