The most significant of Russia’s Asian relationships, the ‘strategic partnership’ with China, has expanded in recent years. But it is still a relatively modest affair. America continues to be the strategic reference point for Russian foreign policy, while the EU is by far Russia’s largest trading partner and source of foreign investment.
It has become the height of fashion to speak of Russia’s ‘turn to the East’. The talking-up of the BRICS; regular trilateral summits between Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi; Sino-Russian coordination in the UN Security Council – all these are said to reflect a strategic reorientation in response to changing global realities and the advent of a post-American century. Russia’s ‘integration’ into Europe and ideas of a strategic condominium with the United States have fallen by the wayside. Instead there is a new conversation, one that emphasizes Russia’s identity as a ‘Euro-Pacific’ power, a geopolitical pivot between East and West, and indispensable player in a Eurasia stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
But aspiration is one thing, reality quite another. Although Russian policy-makers have started to take Asia more seriously, there is a disjunction between Moscow’s ‘eastern’ rhetoric and its Westerncentric interests, priorities, and general outlook. Vladimir Putin speaks of catching ‘the Chinese wind’. Yet the issues that dominate his foreign policy agenda are shaped primarily by Russia’s interaction with the West – missile defense, Syria, energy cooperation with the EU, the Eurasian Union, and the situation in Afghanistan after NATO’s eventual withdrawal.
Asia is a sideshow by comparison. The most significant of Russia’s Asian relationships, the ‘strategic partnership’ with China, has expanded in recent years. But it is still a relatively modest affair. America continues to be the strategic reference point for Russian foreign policy, while the EU is by far Russia’s largest trading partner and source of foreign investment. China may have become a prime tourist destination, but it is to the West that Russians look when doing business, educating their children, and seeking safe destinations for their capital. Paradoxically, the global financial crisis has only reinforced this bias. For all the schadenfreude about the ‘decline of the West’ and ‘shift in global power to the East’, only the West can provide Russia with the technology necessary for its modernization.
Moscow’s natural Westerncentrism is complemented by the reluctance of Asian elites and societies to view Russia as anything other than Western. It has been said that while Russia ‘is in Asia, it is not of Asia’. It is an outsider, whose influence barely extends east of the former Soviet Central Asian republics. It is also operating in a ferociously competitive environment, in which the growing cast of players includes two emerging superpowers in China and India, a re-engaged United States, a still highly influential Japan, and a myriad of established and new regional powers.
How not to engage with Asia
Nevertheless, Russia could – and should – be doing much better. For all the visionary rhetoric about becoming a Euro-Pacific power, its prospects of achieving this are minimal. And if it is to realize a somewhat more modest aim – to become a serious player in Asia – it will need to address a number of major shortcomings:
Instrumentalism : Moscow views engagement with Asia, and China in particular, primarily in terms of counterbalancing the United States. It has become evident that the Putin regime is less interested in Asia as such than in strategic convergence with China and India. The Asia-Pacific region matters above all because it has emerged as the principal theater of global geopolitics. Other considerations, even its economic dynamism, are secondary to the dictates of Russian grand strategy.
Sinocentrism : Over the past decade, Moscow’s approach toward Asia has become dominated by the ‘strategic partnership’ with Beijing. In effect, it has ‘bet the house’ on China as the next global superpower, and on a continuing upward trend in Sino-Russian relations. This has made Russia increasingly China-dependent within Asia, and hampered the development of more substantive ties with India, Japan, and ASEAN member-states.
Abstractions : Russian policy-makers have invested considerable effort in promoting the BRICS, a ‘new multipolar order’, and other abstract schemes. They have been far less energetic in pursuing the less glamorous, but more important, task of economic cooperation. The contrast is especially striking in the China relationship. While leaders in Moscow and Beijing boast of new levels of trust, doing business remains extremely difficult, as shown by the protracted delays over the East Siberian-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, and the ongoing failure to conclude a long-term gas supply agreement.
Tokenism : Russia is a member of many Asian multilateral structures, yet its participation in them ranges from ineffectual to invisible. It is as if Moscow has decided that ‘club’ membership is sufficient in itself, and that various high-level forums serve mainly as opportunities to meet with the other great powers. In this connection, the forthcoming (September) APEC summit in Vladivostok will be a critical test of Russia’s commitment toward Asia. It could either mark a new stage in Moscow’s Eastern policy or end up being an ‘Olympic moment’ – a short-lived burst of enthusiasm followed by reversion to the norm.
Self-importance : The notion of Russia as a ‘Euro-Pacific power’ is unhelpful, since it emphasizes status and entitlement over performance. To many Asians, Russia is more a lucky power than a great power. It sits on vast natural resources, and has done very little to modernize itself – in marked contrast to most Asia-Pacific nations. There is some wonderment at how Russia can retain such strong feelings of self-worth when it has under-achieved so spectacularly over the past two decades.
Neglect of the Russian Far East: Russia is unlikely to be a serious player in the Asia-Pacific as long as the RFE continues to be one of the most backward and badly governed areas of the country. Moscow has repeatedly pronounced on the vital need for comprehensive development there, yet very little has been done. The contrast between the RFE and China’s northeast (not to mention Japan and South Korea) is stark.
Building a future in the Asia-Pacific
These problems are formidable, and are unlikely to be resolved soon. Ultimately, however, the solution to Russia’s ‘Asia challenge’ lies not in making primitive – and impractical – choices to ‘go East’, but in rethinking the very bases of its domestic and foreign policy.
A Russia able to move beyond anachronistic notions of great power balancing is one that will more easily adapt to a world where power and influence have never been more diffuse. The enduring obsession with America and grand ideas of global design (‘a multipolar world order’) has so far been a huge constraint on Russia’s ability to engage properly with Asia. Escape from this mental straitjacket, and the opportunities for more diverse and fruitful cooperation will increase exponentially.
More importantly still, Russia’s future in the Asia-Pacific will depend on whether it is able to modernize effectively, not just in the RFE, but in general. A non-modernizing, complacent Russia will become even more marginalized than it is today, with little to offer except as a niche provider of natural resources. But a Russia committed to reinventing itself as a modern, capable nation can become a truly valued contributor to Asian stability and economic growth for decades to come.