Review of perception of China?
There are surprises in the Strategy 2020 reform report prepared by experts for Vladimir Putin. The report sees China as a major challenge to Russian development, pushing Russia out of its traditional markets and reducing its political weight.
Origin of this conclusion isn’t clear, as it wasn't in previous versions of the document. In Russian official statements, one can barely find any mention of problems connected to China, or open talk about China as a challenge. The reason is quite clear. By publicly calling NATO or anything else coming from the West a threat, Russian leadership doesn't risk anything. Beijing is extremely sensitive to even alleged criticism. Reaction is inevitable, in private or, in the worst case, even in public. So the appearance of such a clear warning should mean something. Taking into account the status of authors, it can be interpreted as a signal to China that the Russian leadership is aware of all the risks and isn’t being fooled by the exceptionally friendly rhetoric from Beijing which is denying anything is amiss. There is another interpretation as well. Experts behind the document mostly belong to a liberal school of thought, and their major message calls for closer integration with the West, while this idea frequently is altered in Russia by talks about a possible strategic choice in favor of China.
A full scale debate about a Russian Asia strategy began 2-3 years ago. Moscow was relatively late in turning to that, in the US a China obsession started much earlier. For Russia this is a comprehensive issue – how to combine the development needs of Siberia and the Far East with the search for a Russian strategic positioning in the Asia-Pacific region. Since 2010 Asia has featured more in Russian thinking. President Medvedev showed a big interest to Asia, one can notice that through a comparison of his visits and Putin’s. This turn towards Asia manifested itself in the emergence of a new agenda, different from that which was typical for the post-Soviet period. Then Moscow was focused on restoration of its international status, and main audience for that was the West.
In Vladimir Putin’s article on foreign policy published a week before the elections, he declares a desire “to catch the Chinese wind in the sails of our economy.” Putin has emphasized the seriousness of Russia’s attitude toward its Eastern neighbor by mentioning in passing “some tensions” and its intention to monitor immigration from China. This reservation shows that China occupies an important place on Russia’s agenda, mainly positive, but not entirely. The conclusion in Strategy 2020 might mean another shift – to see risks and challenges as something prevailing over opportunities. Certainly clarification follows, China will ask for that anyway. The Chinese issue will be one of crucial priorities for Putin’s presidency; Russia needs to formulate a new paradigm of perception of China. Soon we will see, whether Putin’s new mandate can be regarded as a turning point to more a cautious stance vis-а-vis Beijing.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor–in–Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine (since 2002), member of the Valdai Discussion Club.
This article was originally published in The Russia Today