Multilateralism in Northeast Asia – 1


In Northeast Asia the search for multilateralism has taken an abrupt turn. In the 2000s the Six-Party Talks gave hope that North Korea would bring five other states together, tying security and economic multilateralism together and offering the default position of five plus one to keep pressure on the North and keep common interests in the forefront. In the 2010s, especially in 2014, the US alliances are strengthening, and China and Russia are deepening their strategic ties.

Some see two triangles reemerging in place of the Six-Party Talks that once were viewed as a regional architecture bridging various divides. On the one side are the United States, Japan, and South Korea—an alliance triangle newly solidified after a shaky period with President Barack Obama’s late April visits to Tokyo and Seoul. On the other side are China, Russia, and North Korea—a northern triangle energized by President Vladimir Putin’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in May, if still complicated by the independent, defiant posture of Kim Jong-un. Is there an alternative to polarization? This exchange explores whether an opening exists for Russian ties to Japan and/or South Korea in pursuit of a different alignment. In this exchange over the coming three months, we explore diverse views of how multilateralism is evolving in Northeast Asia. As our starting point, we juxtapose three viewpoints: 1) an article by Togo Kazuhiko in the May issue of Gekkan Nihon; 2) a chapter, “China-South Korea-US Relations,” and the Introduction to Part I, by Gilbert Rozman to be published early this summer in a book he is editing through the Korean Economic Institute; and 3) my recent articles in The Diplomat and Foreign Policy. As this exchange proceeds, we will elaborate on the alternative arguments by all three while considering counterarguments. Here, we lay out and differentiate the main viewpoints. Anticipating input from Togo and Rozman as this exchange proceeds, I summarize their viewpoints at the outset and develop my own thinking as the main contents in this initial statement.

The Togo Position

This argument is that Russia views the Crimea and Ukraine through a lingering historical prism as the same nation and country, which is reciprocated in Eastern Ukraine. Whereas in the United States and the Obama administration Russia’s actions are perceived as unacceptable, Russian thinking is directly opposed to this. Togo finds that there is no simple right and wrong in this dispute. While Abe joined in the G7 response to Russia, Japan refrained from strongly criticizing it, and in his March 18 speech, Putin criticized America and Europe, but he said nothing about Japan. In responding in this manner, the Abe administration is acting in accord with Japan’s national interests, Togo explains, and Putin wants to keep the door open. Observing how Putin fervently thanked the Chinese people for their response and recognizing the nightmare that would result from a Sino-Russian alliance on the Eurasian continent (Russia is also strengthening its relationship with Iran), Togo recommends that Japan urge the United States not just to criticize Russia but also to cooperate in order to avoid a Russian military invasion of Ukraine. He adds that the planned trip of Foreign Minister Kishida to Russia should go forward. (It has since been postponed). On May 6, Togo further developed his perspective in PacNet #36, “Assessing President Obama’s Asia Tour,” and on May 7 in EastAsiaForum, he wrote “Obama Visit Fails to Strengthen US-Japan Trust,” offering another take on his thinking.

Starting from the assumption that the biggest problem for international society is a rising China, not only economically and militarily but also as a civilizational challenge to modern society, Togo argues that Japan and Russia are the only two major countries that do not belong to either the Western or Chinese culture. As Abe seeks to escape from the postwar regime and return to Japanese values, Putin is also striving to revive Russia, discarding the Western influence advanced under both Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Togo finds a parallel in the Westernization of both states before the twentieth century and the subsequent backlash that accompanied a debate over values. Thus, there is commonality in the civilizational debates encouraged by Abe and Putin. This reverberates in today’s bilateral discussions, which not only deal with the territorial question and new economic relations, but have this third civilizational element too. For that reason, Togo proposes that Japan should be more positive on the issue of Ukraine with the possibility it can temper Russian excesses. Indeed, he goes further to suggest that the Ukraine crisis even gives Japan a once-in-a lifetime chance to play a positive role and dramatically boost awareness of Japan’s presence in the world. This is also a plea for multilateralism in Asia separate from the West and in opposition to China’s reorganization of the region.

The Rozman Position

In writings Rozman presented at the end of March for a Korean Economic Institute panel and the forthcoming book, he drew pessimistic conclusions about multilateralism and the prospects of Japan, Russia, and also South Korea taking a leading role on behalf of it. This argument starts with a contrasting view of recent US policy toward Russia. It disagrees on the Sino-Russian relationship and the civilizational divide that is involved in any contemporary search for multilateralism and for a breakthrough in relations between Japan and Russia.

Rozman’s doubts about a Russian breakthrough with Japan or South Korea center on three points. While he does not say that Putin is unwilling to offer two islands to Japan or even that Abe and Putin could not reach some kind of agreement on a two plus alpha plan to proceed to a peace treaty, he does find such an agreement difficult in the current environment and the geopolitical implications suggested by Togo and Radchenko in even more doubt now.

The first point is that China and Russia are driven together by forces many underestimate. The idea that Russian Eurasianism as a civilizational concept has room for shared identity with Japan—perhaps reviving its Eurasian diplomacy of the late 1990s—is misleading, for the national identities of both states, he argues. On the contrary, the identity overlap of Russia and China, drawing on the legacy of a Communist Great Power National Identity Syndrome in transition since the 1980s, is far stronger than is acknowledged.

The second point is that national interests are becoming polarized with China driving Japan to the United States and Russia so vehemently opposed to the United States that it is being drawn rapidly into China’s orbit. Beijing and Washington are now more insistent on displays of support, as in joint Sino-Russian naval exercises in the East China Sea and graduated extension of sanctions through the G7 as Russian interference in Ukraine intensifies. Conditions are not ripe for Tokyo and Moscow to test each other’s geopolitical flexibility when they are unable to offer each other much, and they both must be wary of the reactions of the power that matters most for their security. They certainly do not have a common enemy.

Rozman’s third point is that the Korean Peninsula, which has long been a thorn in the side of Russo-Japanese cooperation, still is a divisive factor rather than the basis of joint action. When North Korea makes its next provocative move, the United States will further press for alliance trilateralism with South Korea, while Russia will be more inclined to seek an advantage by resisting serious sanctions on North Korea and, even, strengthening its ties with the North. China and the United States are unlikely to adopt a common stance as the danger from the North intensifies, and Japan’s abductions diplomacy in 2014 has little prospect of changing the geopolitical realities. Failure to make much progress in dealing with North Korea through the Six-Party Talks did not leave the two most marginal states, Japan and Russia, in search of a common policy; it left each more dependent on either China or the United States to deal with new challenges. South Korea did not emerge as a partner in multilateral projects in the Russian Far East or in shared security planning, but Moscow’s relative tilt toward Pyongyang and Tokyo’s increased distrust of Seoul meant that it could not be a force for reconciliation. Even in the face of the two principal quests for multilateralism in Northeast Asia since the end of the Cold War—joint development of the Russian Far East and containment of North Korea—there is no common view.

The Radchenko Position

One of the most important points of disagreement dividing Western observers of present-day Sino-Russian “strategic partnership” is the nature of this ever-closer relationship: is it, in essence, ideological, which is to say, largely autonomous from external factors, or, at the other end of the argument, is it a marriage of convenience that reflects immediate foreign policy concerns and external constraints of each power, as opposed to their long-term strategies? This debate is anything but new. It animated US foreign policy discussions as early as 1949, when Communist China and Soviet Russia closed ranks in the menacing, if short-lived, Sino-Soviet alliance. In one sense, the ideological argument had much greater resonance then than it would today. Both Beijing and Moscow were committed to a specific doctrine—Marxism-Leninism—that made Mao’s “leaning to one side” natural and inevitable. It is for this reason that historians such as Chen Jian and Odd Arne Westad have argued that there was no “lost chance” for America in the late 1940s—early 1950s in the sense that neither China, nor the Soviet Union, was Washington’s “to lose.” The Sino-Soviet relationship had an internal dynamic that operated independently from what the White House did or did not do.

One can also make a similar argument with respect to the mid- to late-1980s, when Moscow and Beijing mended fences after more than two decades of hostility. While both Deng Xiaoping and Mikhail Gorbachev explicitly ruled out restoration of “fraternal” relations of the 1950s—Deng was particularly emphatic in arguing that there was no return to the past—, in-depth investigation (including work done by this author1) suggests that there was a shared perception that the Sino-Soviet rapprochement was more than just good neighborly relations on the basis of the much-touted “five principles of peaceful coexistence,” that there was an understanding in both Beijing and Moscow that the two countries were on related and overlapping trajectories. The Soviet collapse ostensibly altered Moscow’s trajectory. Marxism-Leninism, moribund as it was, had been, at last rendered completely irrelevant to Russia’s foreign policy. China, too, had long shed all pretense of a “communist” foreign policy. Yet, in spite of these changes, China and Russia had come to adhere to a common vision of international politics. Certain elements of this vision—shared resentment of the Western-sponsored discourse on human rights and opposition to global US hegemony—are not far removed from the ideological imperatives of old, which makes it even easier to see continuities in the Sino-Russian relationship, and to argue on this basis that Moscow and Beijing share an ideology of a kind that may not even have a name but certainly does have a tendency to distort perceptions and influence foreign policy outcomes.

At the other end of the argument is the equally attractive notion that Russia and China, as two great powers, are destined to a relationship of contestation rather than cooperation. From this perspective, Sino-Russian cooperation, whether in the form of “fraternal solidarity” of the 1950s or the “strategic partnership” of more recent years, is secondary to strategic competition between the two powers, and for this reason cannot last. The fate of the Sino-Soviet alliance, which fell apart amid great acrimony in the early 1960s, is a pertinent reminder that the facade of unity may, and often does, obscure deep and irreconcilable internal contradictions. Such contradictions, the argument goes, may even be profitably exploited, which gives more agency to third powers, including the United States. A good example of this is the Sino-American rapprochement of the early 1970s, itself by and large a consequence of Beijing’s fear of its northern neighbor. The logic of this argument suggests that Washington’s policy can make a big difference for Sino-Russian relations. By fostering closer relations with Moscow or Beijing, or both, it can effectively preclude the possibility of the two coming together in an anti-American combination. In contrast, a confrontational policy vis-a-vis one or the other can facilitate Sino-Russian rapprochement and cooperation. The argument would find traction with the realist discourse in international relations theory. It also rests on solid historical evidence.

One interesting precedent is the early 1980s, when the Soviet Union and China made tentative steps towards rapprochement. Although, as pointed out above, there were certain ideological considerations in the policy debate on both sides, the underlying imperatives for better relations were strategic. Following its invasion of Afghanistan, and again after the declaration of martial law in Poland, the Soviet Union faced international isolation and Western sanctions. Ronald Reagan’s militant rhetoric and mounting tensions in Europe over deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles caused anxiety and apprehension among the Soviet leaders, who then sought to break out of isolation by developing a dialogue with the Chinese who, though hostile, appeared less implacably hostile than the Reagan administration. Moscow’s moves were reciprocated in Beijing. While Deng was adamant that the Soviet military threat—the invasion of Afghanistan, concentration of troops on the Sino-Soviet border and in Mongolia, and support for Vietnam’s war in Cambodia—remained in the way of the normalization of relations, he was not averse to contacts and dialogue, in part to build up leverage with the United States, which had antagonized Deng by selling weapons to Taiwan while refusing to sell advanced technology to China. It is, thus, inappropriate to separate the process and the consequences of Sino-Soviet normalization from the broader international context, in particular each country’s relationship with the United States.

Which paradigm, then, tells us most about the state of Sino-Russian relations today? On the one hand, this relationship has proven to be more robust than many skeptics would have allowed. If we take Boris Yeltsin’s fraternizing with Jiang Zemin as the starting point of the “strategic partnership,” then one can speak of twenty years of progressive development of Sino-Russian relations, marked by deepening political and economic dialogue. Moscow and Beijing have been able to resolve their thorny territorial problems, have worked closely together in regional forums, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and have put up a united front on a range of international issues, including North Korea and Iran. They have taken the lead in counter-hegemonic discourse, most notably in the context of the BRICS challenge to the US-led world order. Significantly, this forward movement in Sino-Russian dialogue occurred even as each country’s relationship with the United States went through ups and downs. All of this suggests that there is an intrinsic quality to this “strategic partnership,” and that each sides sees the other as more than just a “card” vis-a-vis the United States.

The opposite view also has a degree of validity. The reality is that Sino-Russian relations do not exist in a vacuum. They cannot be isolated from the broader context of policymaking in both Beijing and Moscow, and this broader context includes elite perceptions of America’s role in the world. This does not mean that one should overstate here the significance of the US “unipolar moment,” not only because the degree of US global influence is a hotly debated subject but also because neither China nor Russia is, in fact, as implacably opposed to US “hegemony,” as one may judge from propagandistic pronouncements. In fact, China and, before the Ukrainian imbroglio, Russia as well, have willingly participated in and even assumed positions of power and responsibility within key structures of the “US-led” world order. Nevertheless, both have voiced resentment at what each perceives as Washington’s long-term strategy of subversion and bullying. This resentment, in China’s case, goes back to at least the late 1980s, and in Russia’s case to the mid-1990s. It turned to fear and apprehension in the mid-2000s with the string of “colored revolutions,” giving way to outright siege mentality in the early 2010s with the uprisings in the Arab world, which were, of course, interpreted in Moscow and Beijing as a consequence of US meddling. These external circumstances have clearly facilitated the closing of ranks between China and Russia. Whether this unity is a product of common ideology of some kind or a reflection of the growing insecurity of the ruling elites, cannot be determined with precision. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

The real question is to what extent Sino-Russian unity has already been, or has the potential of being, eroded by the contradictions inherent in a great power relationship. Both Putin and Xi Jinping have been careful to brush off all hints of tension. Both have stated that relations are as good as they had ever been. Putin’s visit to China in May 2014 served to highlight the growing intimacy of this relationship. In Xi’s words, he and Putin reached “unity and understanding on all questions of a bilateral dimension.”2 Putin, for his part, referred to Xi Jinping as nothing less than “comrade,” an appellation that conjures images of the “eternal Sino-Soviet friendship” of the 1950s.3 In a recent interview Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called China a “strategic ally” (as opposed to “partner”). It is a sign of Moscow’s increasing expectations, which is still to be matched by similar rhetoric on the Chinese side.

At the same time, there have also been plenty of indications, which point to the existence of tensions in Sino-Russian relations. Putin has complained incessantly about the unbalanced structure of trade, i.e. Russia’s overreliance on the sale of natural resources to China. The skyrocketing volume of Sino-Russian trade—nearly USD 90 billion at last count—has already made China Russia’s number one trading partner. But a close look at the statistics reveals that merely 0.7 percent of Russian exports are advanced industrial goods. The rest is oil, minerals, timber, and other natural resources.4 Is it fair to say, then, that Russia has become China’s natural resource appendage? One could argue, after all, that energy exports give Russia a degree of leverage over China, and that this relationship speaks to growing interdependence of the two countries rather than Russia’s dependence on the Chinese market.

The real test here is to what extent Moscow or Beijing can set the terms of trade in natural resources. In this sense, the recent summit in Shanghai offers interesting clues, for it witnessed the final signing of a contract for the supply of Russian gas to China. Negotiations on this deal dragged on for about ten years over pricing disagreements. Moscow wanted to charge China as much as, or close to what the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom received on the European market. The Chinese have pushed for a lower price. Given increasing competition among gas suppliers to the Chinese market—here, Russia has to contend with the likes of Qatar, Malaysia, Myanmar, and, more worrisomely, Turkmenistan—, Beijing has on the whole driven a hard bargain. Putin upped the stakes before his departure for Shanghai by announcing that an agreement was within reach; it was then advertised by the Russian media as a done deal. In fact, negotiations continued until the very last moment, and it was not until four in the morning on the day of Putin’s departure from China that Gazprom and its Chinese partner CNPC agreed on what will become the biggest gas contract Russia (or the USSR) had ever signed. “Our Chinese friends are difficult, hard negotiators,” was how Putin described the experience.5

This is hardly surprising. Russia’s international isolation and the prospect of new Western sanctions have significantly eroded Moscow’s negotiating position. Putin knew that a failure to reach a deal would not only weaken his political leverage vis-a-vis the West but also cast shadow on the Sino-Russian relationship. Given that much of the criticism of the current state of this relationship points to the perils of Russia becoming China’s “natural resource appendage,” and given how much Putin himself had emphasized the importance of lessening this dependence by diversifying the structure of trade, it is of course profoundly ironic that the success of this historic summit hinged on a deal that will deepen Russia’s dependence on the export of natural resources to China. But Putin was in no position to be ironical. For him, the matter was ultimately political, and the decision that was made, and the way it was made, points to the primacy of political considerations in Moscow’s calculus.

Putin has refused to say what price China will pay for gas imports, which makes it difficult to judge who surrendered more ground in torturous negotiations. Constructing a new pipeline to China will require colossal investments, a projected USD 70 billion. As costs for this kind of a project will almost inevitably spiral beyond initial projections, and accounting also for the inevitable impact of corruption, borrowing costs, and lost tax revenues (Russia waived some of the taxes on the “Chinese” gas in a bid to lower the price), it is easy to see why many energy experts are unsure whether the project, in the end, is economically worthwhile.6 Only time will tell. For now, Putin can advertise this deal as a major success that shows to the West that Russia is too big to be effectively contained, especially when it has a friend like China, which, though “difficult and hard,” saved Putin’s face in Shanghai, even if, by doing so, it also exposed the growing asymmetry of the Sino-Russian relationship.

Another sign of this asymmetry is Moscow’s (assumed, though rarely expressed) frustration with China’s economic inroads into Central Asia. For instance, Xi Jinping’s proposal for a “New Silk Road Economic Belt,” aired in the course of his September 2013 visit to four Central Asian nations, can be interpreted as a challenge to Russia’s own integrationist plans for the region, including the Customs Union and Putin’s pet project, the Eurasian Union. Unsurprisingly, the idea initially met with a sour reception in Russia. However, Xi’s talks with Putin in Sochi in February 2014 are said to have addressed some of the Russian concerns. China, in the words of Lavrov, has shown willingness to “align” the New Silk Road with the “processes of Eurasian integration.”7 In practice, what Russians want is to attract Chinese financing for the modernization of the trans-Siberian railroad and the Baikal-Amur Mainline (the latter, ironically, was constructed largely to redress China’s military threat to Russia’s Siberian defenses). It is far from clear whether this vision of an expanded Silk Road is in fact what Xi Jinping had in mind for Central Asia or whether the inclusion of Russia in this project is ultimately compatible with Putin’s plans for the Eurasian Union. The two discussed the matter in Shanghai, and it even received mention in the joint statement with the unpromising reservation that China and Russia “will continue the search for possible ways of linking” the two projects.8

Although China has been at the center of Russia’s Asia policy, Putin has also shown interest in hedging his bets by engaging with other Asian players. One noteworthy recent development was his trip to Vietnam in November 2013, his third since first coming to power. The trip resulted in the signing of 17 bilateral agreements, including one on increasing military cooperation. In recent months Russia began deliveries of “Varshavyanka” diesel submarines in line with a deal first inked in 2009. Vietnam’s acquisition of six of these submarines will vastly improve its ability to project military power in the South China Sea, something that cannot be taken lightly in China. Russia maintains a powerful presence in Vietnam’s oil and gas sector, and has also invested billions of dollars in the country’s nuclear industry. Also, Moscow has been working on a free trade agreement between Vietnam and the Customs Union, bypassing China. In presenting a case for what is now called a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Vietnam, Russian policy makers cite shared adherence to the idea of a “just and democratic polycentric world order,” which is similar to the notion of the “just and rational world order” that provides an ideological justification for closer ties with China.9 By engaging with Vietnam, and, though Vietnam, with Southeast Asia, Moscow has thus tried to lessen its reliance on China, even as it has hoped to reconcile Sino-Vietnamese antagonisms by bringing both on board a common ideological platform.

Another target of Putin’s hedging strategy in Asia has been South Korea. Russia’s economic relations with Seoul have prospered: trade turnover has reached USD 25 billion. Putin was looking to South Korea as a potential investor in Siberia and the Far East. Moscow has long eyed the potential of connecting South Korea with the Russian Far East through railroads, pipelines, and electricity networks. Such infrastructure would dramatically expand Russia’s presence in East Asia’s energy markets, and lessen its reliance on China. The main obstacle to realization of these plans is the continuation of conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Putin has shown genuine interest in facilitating the regional dialogue, an example of which was Russia’s enthusiasm at South Korea’s agreement to invest in a joint Russo-North Korean rail project (which connects the Russian town of Khasan and the DPRK port of Rajin). The Kremlin advertised it as one of the substantial outcomes of the Russo-South Korean summit in Seoul in November 2013. The joint statement signed on that occasion explicitly chastised Pyongyang’s nuclear brinksmanship, and two weeks later Putin announced new sanctions against the DPRK.10 In political, economic, and strategic terms, Moscow has shown a very strong commitment to what it called the “spirit of strategic partnership” with South Korea. After China, this has been Moscow’s second most valuable relationship in Northeast Asia.

Not least, there is Japan. In recent years Russo-Japanese relations have registered tentative forward movement, leading several knowledgeable observers (including, prominently, Togo Kazuhiko, whose views are familiar to readers of this journal and are part of this ongoing exchange) to wonder whether it may be possible that, after many false starts and missed opportunities, Moscow and Tokyo would finally reach a compromise on their intractable territorial problem and bring the bilateral relationship to a qualitatively new level. Already in 2001, Putin, in a joint declaration with Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, essentially promised to return two of four disputed islands. The dialogue then stalled for years while Dmitrii Medvedev’s visit to one of the islands, Kunashir, in 2010 and in then again in 2012, suggested that Russia’s position had hardened. At the same time, however, Putin announced in March 2012 that he would be willing to settle for a “hikiwake” solution—a judo term for a draw. What exactly he meant remained unclear, but Mori’s visit to Moscow in February 2013, as Abe Shinzo’s personal envoy, and then Abe’s own talks with Putin in April and September, showed Tokyo’s interest in exploring prospects for a compromise. Abe became the only “Western” leader of prominence to turn up in Sochi for the opening of the Winter Olympics in February, an indication of his readiness to engage in dialogue with Putin at a time of precipitous decline in Russia’s standing with the West.

The big unanswered question here is whether Putin is or was really considering territorial compromise. There are reasons to be skeptical. The Russian leader has jealously guarded his nationalist credentials. Giving away territory is unlikely to bolster his domestic standing; in fact, any such move will probably encounter popular protest, especially in the Russian Far East, where public opinion is decidedly opposed to territorial concessions. Putin may also find it difficult to justify such concessions after the massive investments in the development of the Southern Kuriles witnessed since the beginning of the implementation of the Targeted Federal Program for the Social and Economic Development of the Kurile Islands (2007-2015), which saw Russia spend billions of rubles on building up infrastructure and improving economic conditions in the region.11 The prospect of surrendering the “northern territories” to Japan will also be unpalatable to the Russian military, which has put considerable effort in recent years into rebuilding its presence in the Pacific. Japan’s possession of the islands would make it more difficult for the Russian navy to maintain control over the Sea of Okhotsk, or project naval and air power into the Western Pacific. Finally, Russian policymakers may believe that Japan’s increasing fear of China, and the simmering conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, have left Tokyo with no choice but to seek better relations with Russia. If so, why pay for friendship with territory, if this friendship can be had free of charge? The ongoing debate in Japan concerning the merits of a two plus alpha solution (a settlement involving at least two but perhaps not as many as four islands) may also be interpreted as a move away from the rigid position of “all or nothing.”

The arguments in favor of a compromise are also compelling. Putin’s nationalist credentials today are at their strongest point. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea has whipped up nationalist hysteria in Russia, but it also added to Putin’s reserve of “patriotic capital,” which could be expended on reaching a territorial compromise with Japan, provided he is willing to take that road. The benefits are quite clear. Removal of this irritant would help Moscow boost the level of economic and trade cooperation with Japan while increasing the prospects for Japanese investment in the Russian economy, especially in the underdeveloped Far East. Closer political relations between Moscow and Tokyo would also be a game changer for Russian standing in East Asia, maximizing Russia’s leverage vis-a-vis China and also the United States. Given China’s uncertain trajectory, more active triangulation in East Asia is entirely in Moscow’s interest, and, in fact, this is precisely what Putin had been doing in recent months. Indeed, what evidence does one need of Putin’s willingness to breach the existing taboos if not the very notion of “hikiwake”? It would be strange if he were to introduce a concept clearly suggestive of compromise without any willingness to compromise.

Yet, this is a debate that belongs more in the past than in the present. The last two months saw a rapid deterioration of what seemed like a promising new direction for Russo-Japanese relations. Abe Shinzo, after courting Putin for months, chose to back Western sanctions against Russia. It is not the first time that Tokyo chooses a closer US embrace over the risks and uncertainties of a go-it-alone foreign policy. In doing so, it is acting against Moscow’s expectations that worsening relations with China would force the Japanese towards accommodation with Russia. The Russian reaction to sanctions was to send bombers on missions skirting Japan’s airspace. This was of course needless and counterproductive, leading only to the reinforcement of images of Russia as a bogeyman. Joint Sino-Russian naval exercises in the East China Sea, the beginning of which coincided with the summit in Shanghai, will serve to confirm Japanese policymakers in the impression that their country’s only true friend is the United States. Russia’s willingness to back China in the acrimonious standoff over memories of World War II—a clause to this effect was inserted into the joint Sino-Russian statement—further alienates Japanese policymakers and public opinion.

What we are witnessing now, then, is a kind of polarization of Northeast Asia, with Russia increasingly siding with China. While good Sino-Russian relations are much better than bad Sino-Russian relations (the years of the bitter Sino-Soviet feud are still fresh in the memory of many), it is also the case that Russia’s Asia policy is becoming less sophisticated and more ideological. Putin’s efforts to hedge his bets by engaging with other Asian players are being eclipsed by a head-on drive towards a de facto alliance with China, in which Russia now plays the role of the junior partner. Over the long-term, such “leaning to one side” can and will only lead to Russia’s marginalization in Asia.

1. Sergey Radchenko, Unwanted Visionaries: the Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

2. “Zaiavleniia dlia pressy po itogam Rossiisko-kitaiskih peregovorov,” May 20, 2014,

3. “Meeting with Jiang Zemin,” May 20, 2014,

4. “Obzor Rossiisko-kitaiskoi torgovli v 2012 g.,”

5. “Vladimir Putin’s answers to journalists,” May 21, 2014,

6. “Koshmar dlia Evropy: Kto vyigraet ot gazovoi megasdelki Rossii i Kitaia?” RBC, May 21,

7. “Lavrov Outlines the Way Forward for Relations,” China Daily, April 14, 2014,

8. “Sino-Russian Joint Statement,” May 20, 2014,

9. Sergei Lavrov, “Druzhba i partnerstvo, zakalennye vremenem,”

10. “Rossiia vvodit sanktsii protiv KNDR,” December 2, 2013,

11. For the budget, see:

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