No one has profited more from the decline of multilateralism in East Asia than North Korea. Russia’s international isolation and China’s simmering confrontation with Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have given Kim Jong-un much greater breathing space than his father and grandfather had had at any time since the late 1980s. In recent weeks Pyongyang has made an effort to shift closer towards Moscow. Kim has publically praised Putin’s efforts to “protect the dignity and interests of Russia,” and the North Korean state media has gleefully written of the recent Sino-Russian summit in Shanghai as “a heavy blow at the US foreign policy for world domination.” Kim has concluded, rightfully, that his interests are best served by polarization of East Asia. The alternative—multilateralism—would be bad news, because if there is one issue that has the potential of uniting all regional players against North Korea, it is the intractable problem of nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula. Yet, the prospect of China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States all coming together to put pressure on Pyongyang in the Six-Party Talks format appears more remote today than it has been for many years. Is it time, then, to pronounce multilateralism dead and explain what has come to replace it?
On the one hand, it is tempting to say that we are witnessing the rebirth of a Cold War-style division in Asia, with two rival camps vying for influence and power. This is what Pyongyang has counted on, and this is one way of interpreting the outcome of the May 2014 summit between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. On the other hand, such interpretation overlooks multiple currents that work against polarization, which I address below.
What is the underlying reason for the seemingly ever closer relationship between Moscow and Beijing? Rozman argues that the two countries share elements of national identity as great powers; this is convincing, for it allows one to link foreign policy aspirations with elite perceptions and the domestic identity discourses, so that China and Russia drawing together no longer appears as just realist “re-balancing.” I agree with Rozman that the notion of “greatness” is central to the foreign policy actions of both countries; this notion—as the antithesis of real or perceived “humiliation” by the West—lies at the very core of Xi Jinping’s “China dream” and Vladimir Putin’s increasing international assertiveness. I would go further than Rozman, however, in seeing both China and Russia as being motivated by common apprehension of “color revolutions,” especially in the wake of the Ukrainian drama. The Kremlin’s obsession (to use a strong word) with the prospect of revolutionary unrest—a Russian “maidan”—was on full display at the recent Shangri La Dialogue meeting in Singapore. Several observers have already highlighted the highly bizarre presentation by the Russian participant in the conference, Deputy Minister of Defense Anatolii Antonov, who spoke about the threat of “color revolutions” as one of the key issues facing Asia. Yet these very fears also preoccupy China, all the more so in recent months, as the new government tackles an ambitious reform program amid rising public discontent with a host of issues ranging from widening income gaps to terrorism to the environment.
Despite a certain commonality of interests, overlapping identities, and shared fears, and despite claims by both sides that Sino-Russian relations today are at their historic best, China and Russia are far from entering into an alliance of any kind. The problem areas in this relationship are well known. Briefly, there is a certain level of tension over Central Asia, where Putin’s vision for a Eurasian Union has so far failed to find traction with Xi Jinping’s plans for a “new silk road.” Moscow is also unhappy about the unequal structure of Sino-Russian trade, that is—Russia’s overreliance on the export of natural resources. The supreme irony of the recent gas deal is that, while it was hailed as a major breakthrough for Sino-Russian relations, it will irredeemably deepen the structural deficiencies of bilateral trade. Finally, on the international stage, Russia and China have acted in parallel but not always in unison. Beijing has offered very cautious support to Russia over the question of Ukraine—so cautious, in fact, that observers disagree whether it strengthens or weakens Sino-Russian relations. Russia, in turn, has engaged in regional hedging by selling weapons to India and Vietnam, and while Beijing pretends not to care, everyone can see that it does. There are of course hidden or obvious tensions to every relationship, so Sino-Russian frictions need not imply that that their strategic partnership will become undone in great acrimony. But what this does suggest is that despite tendencies towards polarization in Asia, both Beijing and Moscow have multiple agendas, which leave plenty of scope for acting outside the framework of their bilateral relationship.
Russo-Japanese relations offer some of the most interesting possibilities in this respect, a fact already discussed at length in this exchange. In particular, the question is to what extent there is still ground for breakthrough between Moscow and Tokyo in spite of Moscow’s fallout with the West. I would contend that this depends on what we mean by a breakthrough. Putin’s “hikiwake” approach remains in place but it probably means less today than it did just a year ago. It may be unrealistic now to expect Moscow to make concessions in the territorial dispute, and the reason for this is not so much the nationalist sentiment in Russia (for Putin has enough “patriotic” capital after Crimea to countenance a territorial compromise with Japan), as the Kremlin’s perception that Japan needs better relations with Russia more than the other way around. Such thinking has always been at the basis of Russia’s Japan policy, but the mounting tensions between China and Japan have confirmed the impression in Moscow that Tokyo is in dire need of Russia’s benevolent neutrality. In this sense, a “draw” in the Russo-Japanese relationship would mean that Russia would refuse to support China’s claims in the East China Sea, not that it would consider a compromise in its own territorial dispute with Japan in the form of a two plus alpha combination.
What Japanese policymakers need to decide is whether they are in fact willing to work towards this goal: a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with Russia, without any obvious hopes for the resolution of the territorial dispute. The benefits of this scenario are self-evident: in addition to countering China, it would also give Japan greater leverage as a broker between Russia and the West, something that Togo refers to. The drawback is that Japan will face US pressure to toe a common line on Russia, as it has already experienced in connection with the Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin’s recent trip to Tokyo, and will certainly experience as we move closer to the date of Putin’s planned visit to Japan in the fall. However, if the bottom line for Abe’s post-Crimea engagement with Russia is to win back the “northern territories,” his chances of success are very, very slim. Rather, Putin will attempt to compensate for his inability to make headway with Abe by putting greater emphasis on developing relations with South Korea.
This brings me to the future of the Russia-South Korean relationship. In many respects, the dynamic of this relationship will be the key indicator of the kind of international system that is currently taking shape in East Asia. Putin has high hopes for Russia’s dialogue with South Korea, because of Seoul’s economic importance to Russia’s Asian trade, because Russia and South Korea (unlike Russia and Japan) have no serious conflicts of interest, and because further development of this relationship, while it indirectly lessens Russia’s reliance on China, does not irritate Beijing to the same extent as the Kremlin’s dealings with Japan, Vietnam, or India. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Moscow can make headway with the key projects that matter for Putin: the trans-Korean transport and energy corridors. The chief obstacle to success here remains Pyongyang’s obstinacy. The best way to overcome this obstinacy is for Moscow to develop closer relations with North Korea. The irony of the situation is that while Russia’s engagement with Pyongyang is very much a consequence of growing polarization of East Asia, such engagement may actually strengthen the prospects for escaping such polarization.
What we are likely to see in East Asia, then, is Russia and China working hand-in-hand but without forming a solid front. Prospects for multilateralism survive, though they are unlikely to lead to a common endeavor by all regional powers to solve problems like that of denuclearization of North Korea. Instead, we will witness regional efforts to cross division lines in a series of disjointed bilateral dialogues on questions that matter to each player but not to all of them. These efforts will certainly fall short of genuine multilateralism but also will bear no resemblance to Cold War-type polarization.