Wider Eurasia
Bends in the East: Russian Policy in Asia Becomes More Flexible

It is now most promising for Russia in Asia to focus on dialogue with individual countries in the region, taking into account the interests of each of them and its own. But strengthening relations at the country level is a matter of painstaking work by diplomats and business, of little interest from the point of view of public policy and the media, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.

The most erroneous way for Russian policy to develop in Asia would be for Moscow to concentrate on interaction with regional institutions and platforms — “fraternal cemeteries”, where individual opportunities are drowned in the need for everyone to come to a common average denominator.

Moreover, now these institutions have become an arena of confrontation between China and the United States, which are completely unrestricted in using them exclusively in the interests of their struggle. Previously, only Americans did this, which turned most regional venues into completely meaningless gatherings, like international conferences. Now China has joined them, also promoting its agenda. As a result, there has been a reduction in the space for positive interaction within such platforms as APEC or the East Asia Summit (EAS), which just a few years ago were considered important for promoting Russian interests in Asia. Therefore, it is now most promising for Russia in Asia to focus on dialogue with individual countries in the region, taking into account the interests of each of them and its own.

“Russia’s pivot to the East” was seen from the very beginning as a project aimed not only at increasing the scale of trade and economic relations with Asian states, but also as an important way to increase Moscow’s political presence in this region of the world. We must take into account that the “pivot” began in a fundamentally different historical era, when the world continued to live according to the rules of globalisation, created under the leadership of Western countries and primarily in their interests. Now the situation in and around Asia has changed significantly. First, general economic openness itself is gradually eroding under the pressure of Western sanctions against China and Russia. Second, in the context of many major military-political crises involving the great powers, the preservation of international institutions, which in previous years acted as the main agents of political globalisation, has been called into question. Third, in Asia itself, multidirectional processes associated with the aggravation of Chinese-American contradictions and the risky position of regional powers amid these conditions are gaining strength. Finally, over the past couple of years, Russia itself has significantly expanded its system of foreign economic relations towards Asia. The incentive for this was the conflict with the West and its sanctions pressure, while almost all Asian countries remain friendly towards Russia.

Multipolarity and Connectivity
Russia – North Korea: A Positive Agenda
Alexander Vorontsov
North Korea, for the first time since the existence of the Russian Federation, has become a more important partner for Moscow on the Korean Peninsula than South Korea, which, albeit without enthusiasm, was forced to implement Western economic sanctions against Russia, Alexander Vorontsov writes.

This means that now, almost 15 years after the “pivot to the East” began to be an important component of Russian foreign policy, the time has come to take a critical look at individual aspects of its doctrine. In any case, Russian policy in Asia does not remain unchanged compared to the times when the general situation in the world was completely different. But some provisions of this policy, which recently seemed unshakable, require significant clarification. First of all, with regard to the formats of political presence in Asia and building a dialogue with its individual states. The recent visits of the Russian President to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Vietnam only confirm that Russia’s strategy in Asia is becoming more focused on dialogue with individual states. This does not exclude attention to broad international formats. However, they can no longer act as priority platforms for promoting Russian interests.

Moreover, in both cases, the intensification of dialogue is a sign of a high degree of trust in relations between Russia and its main partner in Asia — the People’s Republic of China.

For China, the entire area of Asia surrounding it is an area where its cultural influence has been dominant for centuries, if not thousands of years.

It was Chinese culture, including political traditions, that formed the philosophical foundations of the statehood of countries, even in cases where their relations with China were not without conflict. However, China is not allied with any of its immediate neighbours, and many of them are worried about growing Chinese power. Another factor of concern for Asian countries, which China also understands, is the growing conflict between Beijing and Washington. For several decades, virtually all countries in Southeast Asia have benefited from globalisation driven by Sino-American cooperation. Now the situation is changing.

We can assume that China is aware that a unilateral strengthening of its own positions in the region can lead to further rapprochement of states such as Vietnam with the United States. This will become a factor of destabilisation. North Korea, of course, is a different case. But here, too, China is seriously limited in its capabilities. Despite the fact that the confrontation between Beijing and Washington is an irreversible objective process, China wants to make it as peaceful as possible. Russia, in turn, is much less restrained in its actions, which was confirmed by the results of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Pyongyang. China apparently understands that the problem of North Korea’s isolation must be solved in one way or another. But for its own reasons, China is not ready to do this directly. At the same time, Russian involvement and partnership with North Korea cannot pose any threat to China’s interests and security — such is the nature of relations between Russia and the PRC.

Vietnam in a Post-Global World: A Middle Power’s Difficult Journey
Anton Bespalov
Washington’s policy of containing China gives Vietnam an opportunity of historic proportions. Today, as globalization as we knew it unravels, some states receive privileges “just for being there,” and Vietnam’s leadership cannot afford to the miss the development opportunities opening up for the nation of 100 million people. Risks are high as well, and the end result depends on skill of the helmsmen navigating between the great powers’ conflicting interests, writes Anton Bespalov, valdaiclub.com Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

In the case of Vietnam, the progress of Russian diplomacy is also related to the desire of Asian countries to balance the influence of China and pressure from the United States. The Vietnamese authorities do not hide the fact that for them Washington is a priority partner in trade, technology and investment. The development of political ties between the countries makes it clear to China that Vietnam, like India, cannot see itself as part of the Chinese sphere of influence. At the same time, the United States also apparently understands that no one in Vietnam is going to become an unconditional ally of Washington in confronting China. This generally contradicts the logic of the behaviour of the world majority powers, among which Vietnam occupies a prominent place.

Strengthening ties with Russia becomes in this case the most suitable alternative to the unwanted choice between China and the United States. It would, of course, be somewhat presumptuous to think that Russia can replace one of Vietnam’s largest trade and economic partners. However, it acts, firstly, as an independent and, secondly, as a reliable partner in such important areas as energy and food trade. The question of competition with Europe does not even arise here — over the past few years, the European powers have fully confirmed their position as junior allies of the United States without an independent geopolitical value.

To summarise, we can say that Russian policy in Asia has now entered the next stage of its development. It is no longer based on the ideas of the past, when the most important thing was to “shine” at the maximum number of international platforms and forums. Such a “shine” previously yielded very little results — the right to speak from the position of an extra in the Sino-American conflict has now become completely meaningless. But strengthening relations at the country level is a matter of painstaking work by diplomats and business, of little interest from the point of view of public policy and the media. Therefore, in the coming years, strengthening ties with Asian states will look like a smooth process in which achievements, known to the general public, will be truly revolutionary.

Asia and Eurasia
Russia and Asia: The Paradoxes of a New Reality
Anna Bessmertnaya, Alexei Bezborodov, Timofei Bordachev, Ilya Dyachkov, Vasily Kashin, Olga Kharina, Ekaterina Koldunova, Alexei Kupriyanov, Fyodor Lukyanov, Gleb Makarevich, Irina Prokofyeva, Sergei Rabei, Dmitry Streltsov, Viktor Sumsky, Mikhail Terskikh, Alexey Zakharov, Ivan Zuenko
Back in October 2017, which may seem today a bygone era, a group of Valdai Club experts teamed up with a group of researchers to release a report titled A Look into the Future: Scenarios for Asia and Russia in Asia in the Next 20 Years.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.