Special Forum Issue

“Looking Back on Putin's "Turn to the East" over a Decade”

Tracking Russia’s ‘Turn to the East’ over a Decade

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Over four stages we can discern significant changes in how Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, sought to transform its standing in East Asia. From the time Putin reclaimed the presidency to the early 2020s, Russian publications explained the country’s thinking while, at times, acknowledging challenges that lay in wake. Sino-Russian relations were always in the forefront, while the images of the United States were never far from sight. Criticism of Putin is absent, but some opinions did not fully correspond with his unreserved optimism. Another article will examine this debate. This paper traces the mainstream perspectitve over the decade.

Key events over this decade influenced the evolution of Russian thinking. In 2012-13, the drivers in discussions of regional policy were the Vladivostok APEC summit hosted by Russia and the impetus by an ascendent Putin to challenge the United States more vigorously. In 2014-16, the fallout from Russia’s seizure of Crimea and proxy war in Eastern Ukraine leading to sanctions from the West was followed by Putin’s sharp tilt toward China in agreements to cooperate on economic integrationist plans. The years 2017-19 saw Putin respond to new initiatives by three leaders: Xi Jinping’s “wolf warrior” assertiveness; Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons gambit and diplomatic forays; and Donald Trump’s “America First” policies in Asia. Finally, from 2020, China’s closures over the pandemic and its resurgent socialist autonomy accompanied the toughening of Trump’s “trade war” and the start of Joe Biden’s grand strategy prioritizing China and galvanizing the Quad (with Japan, Australia, and India). Through all four stages in the “Turn to the East” Putin sought to boost ties to China, struggled to find a path to multipolarity, and held aloft the banner of Russia as a pole atop a new world order and of Eurasianism as a separate civilization rooted in an unending, intense historical struggle with Western civilization.

Repeatedly, Putin pointed to the closer relationship being built with China and the success of his “Turn to the East.” Indeed, over the decade the momentum kept growing, but there were ups and downs with doubts raised in Russia over whether the relationship with the PRC was unequal and whether the overall turn eastward had descended into a lone, one-sided partnership. The mainstream narrative overwhelmingly affirmed that Putin had made the correct choice in boosting Russia as a global great power and in aligning with China as the foundation of Russia’s revival as an Asian power.

2012-13: The Import of Vladivostok Hosting the APEC Summit

If in the mid-90s Russia pleaded to join APEC in order to gain recognition as an actor in the Asia-Pacific region, in the 2000s it awaited an opportunity to assert itself as a consequential player by hosting APEC as well as other moves. The challenge was for Russia both to set a course for a full advance into the region and to choose among offers from other countries. In 2009, the US beckoned with a “reset”; in 2012 South Korea proposed its “Eurasian Initiative”; and at the end of 2012, a new prime minister in Japan committed to wooing Putin. All were heartened by Russian talk of “modernization” and “multipolarity” as it sought investments in the Russian Far East and promised to make Vladivostok the gateway to Asia, an echo of the establishment of Petersburg three centuries earlier as the “window to the West.” Yet three biggest questions remained as Putin took the reins back: 1) how would Russia deal with the United States and the international community it led? 2) how would Russia deal with China at a time of slowing momentum in a burgeoning partnership? and 3) how would it treat North Korea, whose nuclear weapons defiance had destabilized the region and whose new leader was untested?

Vladivostok became a symbol of three things: (1) Russia belongs in Asia and boasts a major city to share in its dynamism; (2) the Russian Far East is a dynamic force within Russia, integrating into the boom to the south in China, South Korea, and Japan; and (3) modernization is poised to supplant natural resources in spearheading Russia’s advance in Northeast Asia. The one-time burst of funds to host the summit created an oasis of modernity in a run-down city but achieved none of these goals. Except for casinos luring Chinese tours and annual Eastern Economic Forums at which Putin proclaimed lofty ambitions, the city stayed a backwater, the region continued to drain population, and Medvedev’s talk of modernization faded as Putin set his eyes on great power glory through a military build-up and doubling down on energy pipelines. Despite warnings that the Russian Far East was viewed by other Asia-Pacific powers as a resource-abundant, depopulated territory and that diversification of investment by foreigners accompanied by political and economic reform continued to be urgently needed, that was not Putin’s strategy.

Prior to 2014, Putin was pressing for demonization of the United States as censorship tightened of domestic critics labeled “foreign agents.” He had successfully suppressed criticism of China, beyond a brief mention of some problems in the relationship and of overreach in its other relations, and stifled the wide-ranging debate prevalent a decade or so earlier on regional geopolitics. Even so, it was widely assumed that Russia could simultaneously enjoy diverse options in its “Turn to the East.” As China took a harder line toward its neighbors, Russia could draw closer to it and build ties to the others. As North Korea’s relations hardened with South Korea and others, Russia could both achieve a breakthrough with it and boost ties to South Korea. And as those neighbors tighten ties to the US, they will also be amenable to improved ties with a Russia in a Cold War struggle with the US. These illusions and that of multipolarity overrode signs that Russia’s options had been closing.

Major signs of Russian priorities included (1) annual military sales to China reviving after accusations of unauthorized copying and weapons exports, (2) the sale of weapons superior to those sent to India, and larger joint military exercises; (3) a reversal of energy policy to build an oil pipeline to China alone; (4) a tilt to North Korea including accusations by some against the US of using force not diplomacy; (5) an avoidance of criticism of China in publications except for in rare, indirect comments; and (6) the spread of Cold War metaphors. As for the Russo-Sino-US triangle, China was seen dragging its feet in the hope of a G2 deal with the US, which it pursued in the June 2013 Xi-Obama Sunnylands summit. Of the three discernable schools of thought, the Cold War one was gaining, the multipolar one was still predominant but no longer in direct contradiction from the Cold War group, and the international community school had lost all optimism and barely registered in published exchanges, even those on Japan and South Korea.

Many from the “Cold War school” had the edge, owing to their obsession with the US as the enemy and reasoning that China is the natural partner for Russia. They also benefited from the logic that for multipolarity Moscow needs to stick closely to Beijing, even as that thinking appeared increasingly out of touch. They were further encouraged by the prevailing stifling of criticism of China and the ongoing shift in writings about North Korea toward giving it the benefit of the doubt for being besieged by the US. This school insisted that a new cold war was beginning, in which the US faced China and Russia.

Even before 2013, Russia had been turning more to China after years of caution. The uptick in arms sales had begun, Russia’s liquidity crisis in 2009 had driven Rossneft and Transnet to secure a $25 billion loan from the Bank of China, and in 2013 CNPC was allowed to take a stake in the Yamal natural gas development. Instead of the APEC summit giving impetus to “modernization” deals and Russo-US relations, Putin had shown his more adamant hostility to the US and the West.

Prior to 2014, it was easier to make the case for multipolarity through optimism about bilateral ties to countries other than China. Japan was a prime target. Just before taking the presidency, Putin in an interview said he wanted to greatly improve relations with Japan by substantially strengthening economic relations and resolving the territorial issue based on a “draw” (hikiwake).  Abe Shinzo’s positive response led to his upbeat visit to Moscow in April 2013. One report noted that although the US is Japan’s first priority, it does not suffice. Developing closer ties with Asian neighbors has been Japan’s goal from the postwar era. Another called Japan’s demand for natural gas after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and shutdowns of 2011 and Russia’s supplies a “perfect symbiosis” for energy trade. Agreement on a 2+2 mechanism of consultations between foreign ministers and defense ministers, it was said, put Russia on a par with only the US and Australia in Japan’s plans. The case for multipolarity then rested heavily on Japan and the Korea Peninsula as well as India.

With the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) serving as a buffer in Central Asia between Russia and China, the area had not been a source of serious tensions, but a new factor appeared in 2013. China tested the arrangement, which had upheld political stability, safeguarded secular regimes, and given it access to energy, by calling for a Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Dissatisfied with Russian attempts to exclude China from certain political, security, and especially economic domains, Xi Jinping had decided to pursue integration in a manner still unclear but worrisome to Putin’s plans for the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)—a customs union viewed as a counterweight to China’s already growing presence. Putin had blocked China’s proposal for an FTA within the SCO framework twice, and China was trying an end run. As his response was awaited, he kept a positive tone about bilateral relations.

2014-16: Crimea’s Impact and Xi’s Challenge

Absent criticism of Putin’s leadership, his tilt to the Cold War school put multilateralists further on the defensive. Explanations for the conflict in Ukraine centered on the West causing it, obliging Russia to act. The narrative shifted further to the demonization of the US, including in Asia, with concomitant warmth toward China. Yet there was also a message that Asia welcomes Russia while Europe repels it. This posed an economic challenge since in 2013 Russia’s exports to the EU were at $256 billion in contrast to only $36 billion to China, with investments made in Russia even more skewed. Economic and ties with other major countries in East Asia clearly trailed far behind. Arguing that the future rests with the East, publications all insisted that the shift was necessary.

The crisis over Ukraine impacted Sino-Russian relations, but it was not clear how at first. For some it raised the urgency of strengthening ties to the level of an alliance. After all, the West attacked the rights and interests in Russia by its role in Ukraine, causing a new Cold War with no end in sight and obliging Russia to turn to China. To others, it had the potential to leave Russia exposed, as Xi Jinping appeared to be intent on pursuing a G2 with Obama and had to deal with an economy so intertwined with the US that he could not take a strong stance against it. Concerns were raised about the ambivalence of China’s response to the annexation of Crimea; it had been preoccupied with Taiwan claiming independence and separatism in Xinjiang and Tibet. Yet, the mainstream view held that China was giving implicit support to Russia, seeing what had occurred as another, despised “color revolution” and refusing to support the US since its aim in Ukraine was to preserve its domination.

The Sino-Russian May 2014 agreement on a long-awaited gas deal was heralded as proof of a growing economic partnership with China. Unbounded optimism proclaimed that Russia had found a way to compensate for its isolation in the West by turning to Asia. Putin had solidified ties to Xi Jinping, who was supportive of closer security relations, and had successfully secured a massive boost to economic ties. This message was reinforced by talk of Chinese assistance with a high-speed railway between Moscow and Kazan and of good prospects of Chinese capital being made available for the modernization of the Trans-Siberian railway. Putin had made sure that Western sanctions were not perceived as the isolation of Russia but as an opportunity to join in Asian dynamism. Russia agreed to link the EEU and the SREB, changing the framework for Central Asia, giving Xi a victory but pretending otherwise. Through 2014, at least, this was called a big success for the objective of integrating Russia as the main force in the EEU with China’s economy. It was also treated as proof China and Russia were working together closely and harmoniously. The Russian narrative celebrated Putin’s defiance of the West and his close comradery with Xi Jinping.

Two debates ensued in 2014-15: (1) was China taking advantage of Russia—not proving to be the partner Putin had sought? and (2) was the “Turn to the East” failing to shape multipolarity that Russia desires? At a July 2014 meeting of ambassadors, Putin insisted that China is staunchly against the US due to encirclement, small and middle powers refuse to take sides in the Sino-US clash, and Russia enjoys a favorable environment to become the geopolitical balancer in a fast-changing region. Quashing worries about China, Putin treated it as a benign, close partner, whose rise enhances Russia’s security and boosts its position with others in the region. In order to build an Asian order exclusive of the US, Xi needs closer political and economic ties with Russia; so one-sided dependence is not a problem. Thus, leaving Europe and entering Asia is desirable. Skeptics of China’s treatment of Russia and of the costs to multipolarity were stifled by this emphatic endorsement, reinforcing the hoopla of the May 2014 Putin-Xi summit.

Multipolarity had dropped the US as a factor and refocused on Eurasianism rather than the Asia-Pacific in the narratives from 2014. Yet, Putin insisted that South Korea and Japan value improved ties to Russia—despite US pressure—and drew a sharp contrast between the anti-Russian West and the East, which seeks economic cooperation and regional stability. While the United States strives to contain Russia in Asia, as elsewhere, and is pressuring its allies to do so, discussions of South Korea and Japan mainly stressed their defiance. Even as two themes garnered the most attention—closer ties to China as a lifesaver and transformation of the Korean Peninsula into a partner giving Russia clout—Japan helped to raise hope as did India, Vietnam, and others.

In 2012, Putin had spoken of Russia’s chance to catch the “Chinese wind” in its sails, but Russian officials and business distrusted their Chinese partners. If earlier many viewed China as pushing Russia to take a harder line toward the US, the image has now shifted to Russia urging China to do so—this narrative depicts China and Russia as in the same boat, both victims of US hegemonism and intolerance for their sovereignty. The TPP leaves Russia as well as China out, it was said, as Obama pressed for this initiative. Yet more serious were doubts about China’s will to join Russia in a new Cold War against the US. The high hopes invested in Sino-Russian collaboration, in direct opposition to the US-led international community, seemed to be contradicted by a series of Xi-Obama talks. In contrast, at the November 2014 East Asian Summit, Putin, who had just gone to Beijing for APEC and would go to Brisbane for the G20, was absent. In Beijing, he had little to say about multilateralism but made three points on economic regionalism: the importance of bilateral Sino-Russian relations, the linkage between the EEU and SREB, and the urgency for the Russian Far East to become a manufacturing hub for the Asia-Pacific region. He was doubling down on the China connection, not denying multilateralism.

When bilateral trade dipped in 2015 due to the fall in oil prices and the devaluation of the ruble, the focus shifted to geopolitics and identity, marked by the dual commemorative parades on May 9 and September 3, when Putin and Xi stood side by side on the reviewing stand. China’s intentions were mostly spared criticism, given that investing in Russia was difficult for all, it joined in the pursuit of a multipolar world, and it was working with Russia in the SCO and BRICS to establish that world. If strategic partnership did not trump commercial logic, it served to mend the wounds of failed promises from Putin’s “triumphal” visit to Shanghai in May 2014 in defiance of the West. After this summit, the slogan “lean to the north” was said to have spread in China, as its relationship with Russia turned more from energy to geopolitics. Agreement spread on a military-political alliance, without taking a legal form, as Russians praised strengthening of mutual support related to core interests, maintenance of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and not least, security. 

If in late 2014 and 2015, there were wobbles in public confidence that the “Turn to the East” was going well, leaders heralded repeated Putin-Xi summits, closer military ties, and the reliability of China’s hostility to the West. They reconceptualized geography to transform Eurasianism into a geopolitical and community identity symbol, giving the impression that China was cooperating in Russia’s desired reconstruction of the region rather than Russia being left on the margins in the SREB and its broadening to the super-project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Stressed were (1) the eagerness of Asian states other than China to draw closer to Russia in pursuit of great power balance; (2) China’s need for Russia given US containment of it and Russia’s security and resource assets; and (3) the weakness of the US position in Asia compared to Europe.

Russian articles on Russia’s “Turn to the East” during this period brimmed with confidence, concentrated on the big picture, and constantly repeated assumptions hardened in 2014. Rather than reflect on Russia’s isolation, they insisted that the West is isolated in the international community. Instead of identifying difficulties in the acceptance of Russia into East Asia, they emphasized failures in US pressure tactics to attract support in Asia for sanctions. China appeared in the most favorable light. The “Turn to the East” was seen as a panacea to Russia’s troubles in the West, amid claims that it could avoid becoming a weak supplicant ready to make any concessions that China was seeking. A grandiose case asserted: the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East offers a unique chance to countries in the region, the modernized transportation routes of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) and Trans-Siberian railways would become the main trans-continental arteries, a new window to Europe across the Arctic Sea would transform maritime ties for at least four months each year, and Japan and India, where the need for energy is high, would turn to Russian supplies. In urgent need of natural resources, the East would not lose the chance to join with Russia, allowing it to establish industrial and technological clusters in the Russian Far East and to entrench its companies in the Chinese market. Economic aspirations accompanied political ones, of becoming the third regional power after China and the US—even emerging as a balancer in the Asia-Pacific between the two powers with its own sphere of influence.

If in 2014 propaganda trumpeting the “Turn to the East” raised exaggerated hopes about progress in bilateral relations, and in 2015 charges were made that no progress was occurring in Sino-Russian relations, the mood in 2016 was to be patient for long-term transformation. Russia could still count on support from the world’s second economic power—China—after economic ties with the West were fractured; infrastructure continued to be modernized by using Chinese money and the EEU and SREB joined as the two sides recognized each other’s sphere of influence. China was seen as securing its northern flank at a time of competition with the United States. It was eager to find use for surpluses to increase connectivity between China and Europe and to “buy itself friends” in Eurasia as well as actively preparing for confrontations with the United States by developing continental supply routes. This gave Russia a unique opportunity to resolve its traditional infrastructure problems. By April 2016, the stage of preparing the new routes was declared, drawing on the concrete proposals of the EEU countries.

The year 2016 saw efforts to revive multipolarity: a Sochi summit with the members of ASEAN, the entry of India and Pakistan into the SCO nearing the “finish line,” the second Eastern Economic Forum in September in Vladivostok, where Abe Shinzo and Park Geun-hye brought their countries closer to realizing large-scale projects in the Russian Far East; progress toward Greater Eurasia with the EEU, SCO, and ASEAN all touted as involved. While mention was made of a Sino-Russian agreement in November, more stress seemed to be placed on the rising Russo-Indo-Chinese troika.

But by the end of 2016, the “Turn to the East” was in limbo. The much-anticipated December Putin-Abe summit failed to meet expectations, leaving in doubt what comes next. The Putin-Xi summit of late November was perfunctory, coming amid continued talk of a relationship that could soar to another level qualified by sober awareness that China and Russia differ on what that next level is, while the high hopes for economic integration were not being realized. Meanwhile, Russians awaited a new president in Seoul, wishing for a sharp shift in policy toward North Korea, complaining of the THAAD deployment plans, and sensing that poor ROK relations with neighbors may lead to an opportunity for Russia. Above all, anticipation centered on the hard-to-predict US transition to the Trump era.

Having earlier focused on Siberia and the Russian Far East, Russia saw a unique chance to propose a regional plan, but it had to do so patiently as conditions evolved. The Sino-US 1972 pact was in doubt, leaders in Tokyo and Seoul could aspire to big regional changes, and anticipation mounted that the post-Cold War era was ending and something called Greater Eurasia was emerging. More important than China’s rise was the US decline. Russia foresaw gaining a major say in shaping the newly emerging regional framework. China joined in calling for construction of an overall Eurasian partnership, broadening the scale of regionalism. Russia accepted the core status of BRI while self-assuredly claiming that, at last recognized as an influential player across Asia, it was entering a promising new era in 2017.

2017-19: The Challenge of Three Assertive Leaders

In 2017, changes were underway. Donald Trump began his disruption of the international environment, Kim Jong-un took to provocations to shake up the diplomatic lethargy, and Xi Jinping went much further toward his “China Dream” objectives. Instead of Putin scrambling to shake up the situation in East Asia, he was now reacting to others. Disappointment about Sino-Russian relations after euphoria in 2014-15 gave way to new grandiose claims for Greater Eurasia and the SCO or even the BRICS. India’s refusal to attend the BRI summit and Russia’s marginality in spite of Putin being honored signaled unilateral Chinese leadership, at odds with Russia’s agenda. Putin had to decide if bilateralism with minimal multipolarity was acceptable, even as he insisted that the EEU, SCO, and ASEAN could draw together apart from China’s domination. Rather than admit that China was on a path to regional hegemony or that Russia’s ties were not diversifying, the Russian mainstream narrative blithely predicted triangularity with China and the US and a balanced Eurasia in which Russia need not defer to China and still leads its own geo-economic, geostrategic, and geo-cultural sphere.

The shift to Greater Eurasia in Russian foreign policy had followed Putin’s December 2015 call for a broader rubric. It swung between a reaffirmation of multipolarity and an assertion of Russia and China as two centers of a widening process. In essence, this appeal raised Russia’s status at a time it was being overshadowed by the asymmetrical power of China. In defense of multipolarity, there was some talk of India or ASEAN as a center, but the US was excluded, and Japan and South Korea had declined to become objects of contestation rather than potential poles. Within this rubric were the EEU as Russia’s sphere and the SCO as a joint Russia-China steering group, leaving room for the SREB but not as China’s sphere. Unclear was how China’s broader BRI meshed with Greater Eurasia or if these were two competing conceptions. Clearer was the attempt to counter TPP, which Obama had advanced as an organizing concept. Assuming the spread of regionalization and fearing Russia’s marginalization, it had reconstructed space to give it centrality. Aware of its economic weakness, Russia also countered various schemes with stress on other dimensions of power. To add substance, it gave great weight to the SCO as the incubator of a new world order based on sovereign equality.

Formed in 2015, the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) is where Russia regularly reports the results of its “Turn to the East.” Notice is taken of which foreign leaders attend, the size of delegations, and the projects showcased. In its first years, the buzz centered on Japanese and South Korean leaders more than on Chinese ones. Xi Jinping rarely attended, although he met Putin often at other locales. The imagery and the many “contracts” signed suggested three things: (1) Vladivostok, the host city, and the Russian Far East were being prioritized as dynamic drivers in Asia, when there was in fact little happening; (2) multipolarity was proceeding well as countries clamored for invitations, but Abe, Park/ Moon, and Modi had specific aims rooted in geopolitics while offering Putin little; and (3) these forums were a kind of show with scant serious discussion of the challenges Russia faced in Asia or how Putin’s policies needed to change.

If Putin was in denial, Trump, Kim, and Xi were growing bolder. Trump was targeting China, and at APEC in 2017 he embraced the concept of the Indo-Pacific, pointing to new US ties to India, ASEAN, and Australia, posing a further challenge to Greater Eurasia. Putin’s shift away from Northeast Asia was clearer at the 2017 EEF with Modi’s presence, but India was drifting away. Abe returned that year but without the buzz of a year earlier, as relations stalled and Abe was focusing on Trump. Despite the dearth of Asian investors and the skepticism about Greater Eurasia, hope was reignited based on new signs of US decline signaled by Trump, and revival of economic confidence in Russia from trade with China. Above all, worsening Sino-US ties prompted more triangular thinking.

Xi Jinping was newly assertive in 2017, but after the 19th Party Congress, no great impact on bilateral relations was seen in Russia. Optimism prevailed at the implications for more strained Sino-US relations.  If occasional comments indicated worry about excess centralization, the habit of not finding fault with Chinese politics or identity persisted. The US response, faulting “state capitalism” and worsening human rights policies was music to Russian ears. If some in Russia were concerned about the military and national identity implications of Xi’s new bravado, most were heartened by the anti-American thrust of his orientation. As China strengthens, it could facilitate the peaceful transition to a more just international order. The biggest worry for many was the fear Xi aroused in some of China’s neighbors, making it harder for Russia to navigate among Asian states in order not to be left alone in China’s embrace. It was recognized that China had changed—the end of the “post-Mao era.” Xi’s reforms were equated in significance to Deng’s with the added dimension that they are aimed at changing the world order, i.e., “re-globalization on the Chinese model.” Since Russia also strives for the end of the existing world order, those who worried that it would fall victim were in the minority. Likewise, Chinese were seen as warming more to Putin.

The Xi era has been welcomed by Putin, giving a big boost to Sino-Russian relations. It is more authoritarian, more anti-American, and more disruptive of the regional and global orders, which Putin seeks to replace. If there are potential drawbacks or warning signs, they are not serious ones, given Putin’s short-term goals. Indeed, relations keep growing closer, and an alliance could follow if Xi turns even more hostile to the US (e.g., in a war scenario over North Korea or Taiwan) and goes to Putin as Putin went to him in 2014.

Kim Jong-un’s belligerence in 2017 was little criticized, although Moscow felt pressured by Beijing to vote for tough Security Council sanctions. His turn along with Trump to diplomacy in 2018 drew great praise, although Russia was concerned about marginalization. The stalemate reached in 2019 after Kim had met with Putin in Vladivostok was blamed on the US, even as Russia’s hopes rose for a multilateral security dialogue in which it would have a major voice. Even greater emphasis was now put on Korea’s salience in the “Turn to the East,” joining with China but with its own voice.

The latest twist in the narrative about Russian equality with China was the argument by 2019 that US policy toward China left Beijing so under siege it had no choice but to forge a relationship of equals with Russia. Increased bilateral trade in 2018 and agreement on a list of projects indicated that the economic doldrums were over. A new May 2018 agreement on docking was heralded as were big contracts on air defenses and plane engines. As the Sino-US “trade war” heated up, it was said that China needed Russia more, making it possible for Russia to obtain investments on more favorable terms. The situation began to change in 2018 with the Sino-US technological conflict—Russia and China drew closer not only geopolitically but economically, involving major Chinese firms. Finally, China is freed of illusions about the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the US, fully recognizing the value of Russia and substantially upgrading their cooperation, it was argued.

In 2019, Putin heralded a breakthrough in relations with China, through financing linked to BRI and support for the Northern Sea Route. Due to rising protectionism, China was expected to turn more to Russia. If diplomacy over North Korea was failing without any boost to Russia, talks with Japan were fruitless since it is adamant against signing a peace treaty without a deal over the islands, and India was moving away from Russia; but at least China was becoming the partner Moscow had sought. The keys were Putin’s strong leadership, Xi’s break with Deng Xiaoping toward a more “socialist” China, and Trump’s intention to block China’s rise, including its 2025 strategy. Yet, concerns were raised by some that China was forging a regional environment, leaving no room for a multidirectional Asian policy.

Russians did not find this a propitious time to warn about China, seek leverage against it from the United States or Asian states, or oppose the momentum of the BRI or even Sino-Central Asian relations. Complaints about China’s dearth of investment in Russia and bypassing of Russia in transit plans to Europe seemed less noticeable. Instead, there was more trumpeting of the many reasons why relations had boomed over more than a quarter century and would continue to prosper as a new world order took shape. Xi has turned to the region, seeking many partners for the BRI, while Trump has turned to threatening China. Reassuring Russians was the jump in trade to $110 billion, as energy comprised 70 percent of Russian exports and higher oil prices helped while the eastern gas pipeline was soon to begin operations. The goal of $200 billion in trade was in sight.

The big picture interested Russian writers. The prevalent assumption was that the West is in rapid decline and a new world order of some kind is just over the horizon. The positive forces for that include Putin’s assertive foreign policy, China’s rise and close relationship with Russia, and North Korea’s demands for how to resolve the problems on the Korean Peninsula. The notion that Russia is now in a favorable position in Asia was supported by satisfaction that countries are stepping up diplomacy with it because of uncertain US ties and Russia’s promise for their national interests. Yet, there was palpable concern about how to capitalize on the new opportunities: double down on close ties to China, develop a more autonomous project for Russia’s ascent in Asia, or seize the chance offered by North Korea. The world was entering a new Cold War with Russia firmly on China’s side, fully capable of managing Western sanctions and gaining acceptance in the East.

Putin’s announcement of Russia transferring its missile defense apparatus to China set the tone for optimistic pronouncements of an upgrading of strategic relations, even if the term “alliance” was not in the official lexicon. Some foresaw an alliance, even an integrated missile defense system taking shape. A joint communique of June 2019 on a strategic partnership for a new era gave more proof of the new quality of strategic relations—Russian assistance accelerating China’s rise as the third nuclear superpower, making US containment of China in Asia much riskier. In order for China to transition to systematic opposition to the US, this was extremely important. The US departure from the INF agreement had raised Chinese consciousness of the threat of US intermediate missiles being stationed in neighboring states, undermining China’s nuclear deterrent. For the first time since the Cold War, China characterized the situation as unstable in world politics, underscoring the rising significance of Moscow in its defense.

2020-21: The Promise of a New World Order

The groundwork was laid by 2020 for a Sino-Russian strategic partnership approaching the level of an alliance. A new Cold War was anticipated, as China finally abandoned its illusions about the US and endorsed Russia’s vision. Indeed, an aura of bravado pervaded Russian publications at the end of 2019. Putin had succeeded in diplomacy around the world, reestablishing Moscow as a decisive voice in world affairs. The relationship with China was solid and that with the US was indefinitely on the rocks. Strategic stability had again risen to the top of the global agenda, resuscitating an environment in which Washington had to deal with Moscow as an equal, this time with Beijing a third force. Completion of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline gave new reason to boast of ties with China, just as the Sino-US trade war reassured authors that this relationship would remain confrontational to Russia’s advantage. Moscow and Beijing were taking charge on North Korea, siding with Pyongyang on the need to ease sanctions and awaiting Trump’s next move. The China-Japan-ROK summit in late December had positive implications for Moscow in weakening the US position in the region. There was no sign of dark clouds on the horizon, as both the US and China appeared unidimensional in such narratives.

Indeed, claims were repeated that “Russia is changing the world,” tracing Putin’s impact from first restoring Russia as a sovereign great power, then strengthening its international position, and finally going on the initiative to advance the country’s global authority. In the course of less than a decade, Russia stopped the expansion of Western alliances, forged a de facto alliance with China, and became the center of a Greater Eurasian space with a Russian Eurasian identity. Thus, it was destroying the foundation of five centuries of Western domination. Along with the Soviet Union earlier, it had stopped being part of the West and led the charge against the West, changing the fate of human history.

Zero-sum reasoning prevailed in Russian writings in this period. The United States was the enemy, and it had to be weakened. A contradictory approach to Trump was apparent: he was fighting valiantly against vested US interests, but his actions contributed to a rapid decline in US influence. Trump led his country into retreat in alliances and into unilateral pursuit of “America First.” Optimism for Russia centered on prospects for filling some of the vacuum as the US presence in Asia waned, especially in North Korea as part of a process of slow denuclearization requiring substantial security and economic incentives and a sharply transformed environment in Northeast Asia. With US alliances on the ropes, North Korea opening the door to diplomatic vigor in transforming geopolitics in Northeast Asia, the SCO expansion promising a broader institutional framework for reorganizing Asia, and a close personal connection between Putin and Xi Jinping, it was time to reassert the primacy of Sino-Russian strategic partnership, Russians reasoned in 2020.

Although Russians had long accused the US of having a policy of containing China, it was only in 2018 that they doubled down on that charge with Trump’s trade war, and only in 2019 that they saw US demonization of China as predominant. Treating this as a shock to China, they perceived a sharp shift in Chinese rhetoric as well as a clear boost to Sino-Russian relations. The final push to an irreversible break between China and the US came with Joe Biden’s systematic anti-Chinese platform and pressure on allies to join forces. If in 2019 China was still striving to drive a wedge between the US and its allies, using economic relations as a lure, in 2020 it had swung into full battle mode against them as well as the US. The Russian mainstream salivated at this outcome.

The pandemic’s impact on Sino-US relations was welcomed in Moscow, which reasoned that China was the subject of an information war, as the US politicizes responsibility for the pandemic. There was reason to expect further strengthening of the Russo-Chinese “consensus” on an anti-American axis. They saw the Sino-US relationship turning into a full confrontation—economic, technological, geopolitical, military, and even ideological. The pandemic had accelerated it into a new bipolarity. What had been a trade war in 2020 turned into a “virus war,” as Trump blamed China for many US troubles and raised the stakes with an ideological clash, drawing an outpouring of “wolf warrior” responses. Russia, in turn, supported China in the struggle against “politicization of the pandemic.”

Russian commentaries about the virus war sided with China and went so far as to blame the US failures in 2020 on capitalism, which stripped the state of the responsibility to protect society in contrast to China’s authoritarian state. China’s claims of superiority were not always echoed, but the contrast was clear. The role of the pandemic in the battle for world domination drew responses such as that the impact of 2020 was similar to the crisis of 2014, accelerating Russia’s dependence on China’s economy and technological development, which influenced other areas of cooperation.

Two popular themes in 2021 were the Russo-China-US triangle and the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. There was little on multipolarity. The mood was upbeat for three main reasons: (1) Sino-Russian relations were strong and growing stronger; (2) the Biden administration was seen as having poor prospects on all fronts in the region, notably with China and North Korea; and (3) the North Korean challenge was not going to be managed without Russia achieving an inclusive regional security framework.

Rather than cite Chinese instances of aggressive behavior, Russians blamed the new Cold War on US containment of China, which began under Obama, was accelerated by Trump, and made systematic under Biden. Trump was not interested in ideological pressure on China or a broad anti-China coalition. Thus, Biden was seen as posing the greater problem. The prevailing opinion in Russian sources was that China was being dragged into a Cold War, as Russia had been years earlier. The US side intensified pressure for nefarious reasons, and China reluctantly struck back. If Russia’s counterattacks came first, trust was high that China’s would not wait long. By 2020, relief was palpable that this new era had dawned.

Many signs appeared of closer Sino-Russian relations: after years of resistance, China’s companies found it easier to invest in both the energy and the technology sector. Cooperation in space was trumpeted. New, advanced weapons systems were now allowed to be sold to China along with cooperation in building a Chinese missile defense system. The two were joining to create advanced fighters, hypersonic technology, highly effective radars, inter-service communications systems in combat, nuclear power plants for submarines, and night vision devices. Optimism prevailed, as if talk of a new Cold War, marked by an intensifying war of narratives, was what Moscow had sought. Confrontation over Taiwan was considered more likely. Sino-Russian relations were closer—in space, as Sino-US competition there intensifies, and in energy, where the opening of the “Power of Siberia” pipeline in December 1919 was heralded as an “historic project.”

Charging the US with starting another Cold War, Russians welcomed the joint flight of Russian and Chinese bombers carrying nuclear weapons by Japan and South Korea, where US bases are located. Putin’s approval of the sale to China of the technology of Russia’s early warning missile defense system was heralded as further sign of close strategic cooperation. The US, it was argued, had left the INF treaty not due to Russian violations but in order to threaten China with missiles nearby—a reason why Chinese, concerned about a major military confrontation, were beefing up ties to Russia. Russians warned that the US was provoking a military crisis over Taiwan as part of its Cold War campaign against China, supporting Taiwan’s declarations of sovereignty. New measures were, thus, taken on the Chinese side. Raising the chances of a confrontation was the anti-China mood in the US, destroying the basis of its relationship with China and of international peace. 

The logic of polarization had become incontrovertible, backed by the conviction that the US was the enemy and China was a dependable partner. Little was said about multipolarity. However, a new way to showcase Russia’s centrality in the face of marginalization was discourse about the Arctic-Pacific region, including cooperation on the Northern Sea Route or what China calls the “Ice Belt of the Silk Road.” In February 2020, Putin transferred the function of developing the Arctic to the Ministry of Developing the East. In June of the same year, Putin and Xi then agreed to widen the scale of jointly developing and utilizing Arctic shipping routes. China’s interest in extracting resources, transport, and scientific research was palpable when it declared itself in January 2018 a “near-Arctic” country. Earlier wary of China’s advance there, Russia may be relenting to gain investments or solidify ties.

If the Northern Sea Route was more expensive for transport, a tense security atmosphere boosted its value for security, given the superiority of the US navy along southern transport routes. Relying on this logic, Russian writers insisted that Russia could get other countries to abide by its interests and not conduct freedom of navigation operations or in other ways violate Russia’s sovereignty. In this way, they believed Russia could meet the challenge of attracting investments while ensuring unconditional sovereignty. This insistence appeared to be mostly directed at China, but concerns were muted. The concept of the Arcto-Pacific allows Russia to supplement the purely land construct of Greater Eurasia with a maritime component in its pursuit of centrality at a time of growing marginality. 

The pandemic added depth to geopolitical shocks, but as long as downward pressure on the global commodity market due to China’s slowdown was short-lived, Moscow saw little downside to the trade war turning into a full-scale confrontation.  Russians wrote of the number of Chinese-European trains passing through Russia increasing by almost 40%; scientific, technical, and innovative cooperation in 2020–2021 would allow them to significantly advance interactions in new areas such as artificial intelligence, 5G, and cloud technologies, and far-reaching plans for joint exploration of the moon and the creation of alternative energy sources. China’s share in Russia’s foreign trade increased from 10% in 2013 to 18% in 2020 against a decline in the EU’s share from 49% to 38%. Energy links keep expanding amid talk of going beyond the capacity of “Power of Siberia” of 38 billion cubic meters per year by 2024 with a Strength Siberia-2 pipeline via Mongolia to deliver gas from Yamal and Western Siberia. Given the decoupling under way with the US and Beijing’s large-scale import substitution program for critical technologies, Russia was hopeful it would become the alternative supplier and also draw Chinese investments to boost its production. Yet it remained wary of supply chains on its territory as a threat to its companies and likely to cut into monopolies that service its economy.

One reason for a sobering retreat from leadership claims was awareness that the new competition requires one’s own techno-economic platform, but Russia had no alternative but to join China’s.  Recognizing the new era as a struggle between techno-economic blocs, many assumed that Russia was already committed to China’s bloc, including 5G technology, leading to an “authoritarian digital alliance.” Some wary of losing sovereignty in an unequal alliance were holding out hope, however, for Russian technological advances or a much-improved relationship with certain countries in the West to reduce one-sided dependency on China. There was no sign of that happening in 2021. The only straw left to grasp is that China’s new-found interest in Russia will result in Russian leverage.

Space is another arena in which Moscow seeks to reclaim its great power status by riding China’s tail in an announced plan for a joint lunar base. Short on resources, Russia showcases its relevance through this initiative, suggesting the importance of what Russia has learned from decades as a world leader in space while promoting this pairing as an antidote to warnings of bipolarity.

An Alliance?

Biden’s June 2021 summit with Putin was treated as a revival of the old strategic triangle. His aim was to prevent escalation of tensions with Russia, unlike his preparations for worsening relations with China. US efforts to not fight on two fronts, however, will fail since the Biden administration views Russia as a problem, not as a strategic opportunity. It offers little to beckon a great power. By 2021 China had seized the initiative in defining the relationship in bilateral documents. Xi had broadened his penchant for defining China’s future to looking beyond China to leadership defining regional, global, and, in the case of Russia, bilateral relations. Now Putin was endorsing Xi’s terminology, such as a “community of common destiny” and a “new era of Russian-Chinese relations” to echo Xi Jinping’s “new era of building socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Every step in 2021 toward rebuilding US alliances and partnerships confirmed Russian thinking that China and Russia need each other much more than they did when they signed the treaty in 2001, when cooperation was perceived by both Chinese and Russian experts as "friendship in reserve." Now the Chinese elite have a deeper understanding of the problems facing Russia. China needs reliable partners. Therefore, the value of Russian-Chinese trust now outweighs any problems that experts point out. Sino-American trade has ceased to be a "ballast.” China had held back Sino-Russian relations based on illusions; it now sees that Russia has been right, Russians are saying

Just before the US elections, Putin opened the door to an alliance, saying. ‘We are not setting ourselves such a task now, but in principle, we are not going to rule it out.”  This followed China’s newfound interest in talk of an alliance and the sense that China was willing to do more for Russia given its confrontation with the US. As Russia grew more dependent on China’s new technologies it needed to bolster ties to secure a place in China’s camp. After Putin raised the prospect of a military alliance—abandoning the multipolarity quest—Russians talked much more about this.

Already in June 2019 the addition of the “new era” to the formula of “strategic partnership” was taken as a sign of formalization of military-political relations. Discussion followed about signing a new treaty in place of the 2001 one, whose 20-year duration would be automatically renewed for a five-year period. Whether by concluding a "Treaty of a New Era" or signing an addendum to the existing treaty, signs were that a major step was on its way. On October 22, 2020, Putin said he was "thinking out loud" about the possibility of forming an alliance: “We have always assumed that our relations have reached such a degree of interaction and trust that we do not need it, but theoretically it is quite possible to imagine such a thing. We conduct regular military events jointly. […] it is not only about the exchange of products or the purchase and sale of military products, but about the exchange of technologies. And there are very sensitive things here. I will not speak about it publicly now, but our Chinese friends know about it. Our cooperation with China, without any doubt, enhances the defense capability of the Chinese People’s Army.” 

Beijing responded that there were no limits or forbidden zones for broadening bilateral relations. Wang Yi in January 2021 did not repeat the standard language with Russia “not to join an alliance, not to arrange confrontation, and not to target third countries,” but referred to a relationship in which there is no upper limit. Russians took note, too, of Wang Yi’s statement at the March 2021 parliamentary meetings: “In a strong tandem, China and Russia play a stabilizing role in ensuring peace and stability throughout the world. The more turbulence and upheaval in the world, the more important it is to move China-Russia cooperation forward. China and Russia, as a strategic pillar for each other, mutually provide opportunities for development and act as real partners on pressing issues on the world agenda…This year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation between China and Russia. My Russian friends and I agreed to extend the Treaty and fill it with new content. This will be another historic milestone and a new start for Sino-Russian relations." The new term, "Russian-Chinese tandem" means that China has joined Russia in abandoning hope in constructive relations with the West. It no longer has illusions of the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the West.

Conclusion

Russia’s “Turn to the East” began with Putin’s pre-election appeals in 2012. The goals included dynamism in Russia’s Asian areas, a return to Soviet-era greatness in identity and the revival of the “strategic triangle,” and a sharp turn away from the West toward the emerging locomotive of world change. Russians insisted that even as they totally rejected the US-led order they were not signing up for a China-led order- harder to explain when China advanced the BRI as the mechanism for that and openly embraced the goal of forging a new order, while Russian plans collapsed, one by one.

Early aspirations centered on the Russian Far East and supplementing ties to Europe. From 2014 the focus shifted to breaking from Europe and forging multipolarity in Asia while leaning to China. Yet, what began as Putin’s initiatives soon turned to reacting to Xi Jinping’s moves—ever broader in scope. Russia’s responses switched from controlling Central Asia by docking the EEU with SREB, to countering the BRI by advancing Greater Eurasia in an effort to salvage multipolarity, to agreeing to enlist in China’s pursuit of a “community of common destiny,” to banging the drums of a new Cold War while signing on to bipolarity. The momentum kept building for a Sino-Russian alliance. The case against doing so also was building, as discussed in a companion article posted separately.

*This article omits endnotes but is entirely drawn from summaries of Russian articles and synopses in “Country Report: Russia” of The Asan Forum. There, sources/authors are cited for each viewpoint covered. Concentrating on the mainstream narrative excludes four other approaches to be addressed separately: (1) debating an alternative, critical narrative at odds with the mainstream; (2) stepping back from the chronology with a conceptual approach to analyze Russian thinking: (3) probing Russia’s undeclared scrambling in a “cat-and-mouse game” with China; and (4) treating the two narratives as a mirror to Russia’s domestic choices, as in a parallel debate four decades ago.

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