The main achievement in Russia’s foreign policy for 2017, and for several years prior to that, has been the development of a strategic concept, for the first time since 1991. The physical embodiment of this concept is the idea of the Greater Eurasian Partnership. This has been achieved because Russia’s foreign policy has rapidly evolved and increased in the scope of its ambition. Five years ago, on December 12, 2012, Vladimir Putin said in his first address to the Federal Assembly after his re-election as President of Russia: “In the 21st century, the vector of Russia’s development will be the development of the East. Siberia and the Far East represent our enormous potential (…) and now we must realize our potential. We have the opportunity to assume a worthy place in the Asia-Pacific region, the most dynamic region in the world.” Over the past five years, Russia has come a long way, from the politically-modest goals of diversifying its foreign economic ties, to the formulation of tasks of a systemic nature. This is what analysts inside and outside the country demanded from Russia’s foreign policy.
If we keep up the pace, the achievement of these goals will create conditions for reforming Eurasia so that its development is better suited to Russia’s development and security aspirations. For this, the quality and level of trust in the neighboring states’ relations with Russia and with each other needs to surpass the quality and level of trust in their relations with other countries.
It is even more important that the movement towards Eurasian partnership will create conditions for the development of a new Russian foreign policy narrative, which will be based on our own ideas and views rather than on copying, or the wish to “cling” to the East or the West.
On the practical level, our biggest achievements are as follows: strategic partnership with China; special relations with all Asian countries without exception; and the launch of an active development policy for the Russian Far East. However, each of these achievements has been burdened by numerous problems that need to be resolved. Our biggest and ever-present challenge is the loss of momentum or a decision to artificially decelerate.
The New Normal with Chinese Characteristics
The 19th congress of the Communist Party of China once again vividly demonstrated the unhurried, but permanent development of the country with the use of cautious empirical designs in all spheres of life, without ideological drama about building communism, and without frenzied criticism.
Partnership with China is likely to remain the most significant element of Russia’s turn to the East and Eurasian strategy. Relations between these largest and most powerful Eurasian states are unique for the non-Western world. Russia and China have shared values. Until recently, only the United States and its European allies could boast such a degree of unity and solidarity. Russia and China agree on the importance of maintaining the stability of existing political regimes, but they certainly have fewer shared values than their Euro-Atlantic partners. For example, their world outlooks are based on different religious and philosophical views. Russia believes in institutions, while China focuses on practice. Nevertheless, the Russia-China value-based unity is growing stronger, whereas the trans-Atlantic ties are obviously slackening. Besides, the inherent Western threat to the political systems of Russia and China is a major unifying factor, taking into consideration that the United States and European countries cannot remove interference in the internal affairs of their non-Western partners from the list of their diplomatic tools.
The communist ideology Russia and China seemingly had in common in the middle of the 20th century was in fact a powerful dividing factor. Moscow and Beijing fought for leadership in the communist camp, and the Chinese leadership was unable to overcome the junior partner and apprentice complex in relation to the USSR. China has overcome this now, while attempts to develop this complex in Russia have not succeeded. Russia and China have mechanisms for exchanging information. However, it should be remembered that, historically, socialization and relative integration of the elites have always been vital factors in enhancing mutual trust and confidence in the transparency and predictability of the partners’ intentions. And ambiguity of intentions, as is know from basic studies of international relations, is the biggest obstacle to cooperation between states and the main reason for mutual mistrust. The rapprochement of Russian and Chinese elites on the basis of common values and foreign policy interests could be a task for the next five to 10 years.
On the other hand, both China and Russia are relatively vulnerable. They have strong pro-Western lobbies whose economic interests (mostly in China) and mentality (mainly in Russia) are connected to the aspirations of the United States and its allies. Many people in Russia and China alike still think in terms of the post-Cold War world order. This way of thinking resists any transformation and is a drag on the foreign policy of both Russia and China. Unlike in Russia, the Chinese majority is not ready for a more aggressive policy in its relations with the West. However, China can be no less formidable in other ways.
It has always been like this. Beijing always responded harshly to any actions that could affect its standing, such as the deployment of US missile defense systems in South Korea. Experts on China’s foreign policy say that China has always, with the exception of a short period in the 1990s and 2000s, responded harshly to the potential infringement of its interests. Deng Xiaoping, the father of Chinese reforms, who called on China to save its strength and keep a low profile, did not think twice about using force against Vietnam in 1979 and gave no quarter to the then powerful Soviet Union. Moreover, China never made concessions on crucial matters such as the status of Taiwan, an issue of comparable importance to Russia’s policy on Ukraine and Crimea in 2014.
China is currently worried about Washington’s flirtation with India. Chinese researchers admit that China has been treating India with undeserved scorn since the armed clashes of 1962. India is a rapidly growing economy where the probability of a turn towards nationalist sentiments is very high. It is true that China and India are not military or economic peers. If a strategic reconciliation between them is impossible, Russia, which maintains friendly relations with both, should try to promote trilateral cooperation within common institutions.
In the first half of the 1970s, Henry Kissinger, an outstanding political analyst and US Secretary of State, formulated the principle of “triangular diplomacy” which maintained that Washington should always have better relations with both Moscow and Beijing than they had with each other. This formula was successfully applied for several decades. Moreover, the more far-sighted members of the current US foreign policy establishment are trying to revive it. This is wise, because the role of the necessary third partner is the most suitable to it. Russia has closely approached this position as well, at least with regard to Asia.
Over the past few years, Moscow has been living in a situation when not a single country in Asia has had a consistently negative, let alone hostile, attitude to Russia. Moreover, nearly all important Asian states have better relations with Russia than with each other. At the least, this is absolutely true about relations within the “big three” – China, Japan and South Korea. There are several reasons for the development of this unique situation. First, Russia took a long pause in Asian affairs after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow has curtailed its presence in the region, pulled out its forces from Mongolia and shut down its naval base in Vietnam. It abandoned the ambitions which fueled the suspicion of many Asian countries. It appears that China might be falling into a similar trap. Its rapid economic growth is accompanied by an equally impressive military program, which has set its small and medium-sized neighbors thinking.
As for Russia, 25 years after its withdrawal, it has returned to the Asian political and information space with a new image, as a country that places economy above ideology and is hence willing to cooperate with everyone. This pragmatic image must be cultivated, because it reflects the Asian view on virtue. The key word in the phrase “Russia’s turn to the East” is “Russia,” and the practical goal is to develop the Russian Far East and access to regional markets. This should further convince Russia’s regional partners that Moscow is not after political gains on the Pacific Rim.
At the same time, Moscow now speaks with firmness on the fundamental issues of war and peace, primarily on US-North Korean relations that are threatening world peace. Russia also holds a unique place in the lineup of forces regarding North Korea’s nuclear missile program. Analysts agree that China has a special responsibility for the situation on the Korean Peninsula for objective reasons. After all, China was Pyongyang’s sole ally and sponsor after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, when North Korea faced the greatest challenges. In addition, the capital of China is located just a few hundred kilometers from the border with North Korea, which gives China the right to play first fiddle in this situation. Therefore, there is no need for Russia to be proactive because this could set other regional countries against it. Moscow only has limited economic interests in North Korea, which allows it to remain above the fray while gradually strengthening relations with South Korea, which is a more attractive economic partner.
Second, Russia does not want to force its rules on the countries of the region. Its position as one of the world’s largest energy exporters means that it should pursue an entirely friendly policy with regard to all potential consumers. Russia lives mainly on the revenues from its unique natural resources and the ability to produce affordable quality weapons. Unlike Russia, access to international trading routes is critically important to the United States and China. A conflict between them is unavoidable because of Washington’s desire to restrict China’s access to these routes. Meanwhile, Asian countries have been trying to diversify their energy sources and arms suppliers, which Russia can use to its advantage. There are many examples of such cooperation, including the quite unusual military and technical ties with South Korea, a military ally of the United States, which is also dependent on Washington on matters of national defense.
And lastly, the small and medium-sized countries in the region need an external player that is as strong militarily and politically as the United States or China. This will give them an opportunity, in certain situations, to appeal to Moscow’s neutral opinion, rather than choosing between two rival giants. This is why Russia does not need the formal union with China, pondered by some Chinese analysts. A formal union would mean that Russia would have to choose sides in the seemingly inevitable deterioration of the regional political situation. Russia must remain and will likely remain neutral. It will be the most suitable position in the so-called Asian paradox when economic progress is complemented with the inability of the majority of regional countries to improve the quality of their political relations. This scenario is becoming increasingly probable.
On the other hand, it is taking too long to transform Russia’s unique political relations with Asian countries into major economic achievements. There are many reasons for this, including: the fact that Russia has launched an active regional policy only recently; the weak, though positive, pace of development in the Russian Far East; and numerous non-tariff barriers that hinder Russia’s access to Asian markets. Russia’s most promising exports – grain, meat, chemicals and fish and other seafood products – encounter the strictest sanitary and other non-tariff restrictions on access to China, Japan and South Korea. However, even skeptics have admitted that Russia’s trade with Asian economies is growing consistently, not only because of decreasing trade with the EU. Mutual investments are increasing as well.
These problems can be solved through state policy and international negotiations. The main thing now is to avoid involvement in regional conflicts and to proceed from the assumption that a positive atmosphere in relations is more important than immediate securing immediate gains in trade or investment. Russia’s largest trading partners in 1913 were Britain and Germany, in 1957, China and in 2014, the European Union. In none of these cases did money considerations prevent wars or diplomatic confrontation. Russia’s current unique political position in Asia is a vital asset which must be preserved under any circumstances.
Moreover, friendly relations with all Asian countries are a prerequisite for the achievement of another important goal over the next few years – the development of an export oriented economy in the Russian Far East. A state policy has been adopted for the development of this region. Over 2 trillion rubles have been attracted to 18 priority development areas. Tens of thousands of jobs have been created under this program, and Asian countries account for 78 percent of the region’s foreign trade. The next goal is to open up the regional markets, which are strongly protected by non-tariff barriers. To attain this goal, Russia must pursue a proactive policy in the Asian-Pacific Region and the rest of the world, involving participation in regional events and formats and in maintaining active contacts between experts.
In the troubled world of today, the foreign policy of large and also not-so-large countries is like riding a bicycle: to keep your balance, you must keep moving. In the 19th century, Russia took 20 years to regroup after a humiliating defeat in the Crimean War, Britain pursued a “splendid isolation” policy, and the United States kept itself to itself for nearly a century after Britain’s punch on the nose in the 1812-1815 war. Today, national interests are put to test almost daily, and events in global affairs change with kaleidoscopic speed. You either attack or are attacked. Trying to lie low and hope to be left alone is a bad policy: the attacker will see this as your weakness and will press on. Pursuing such a policy in a world where nations are fighting for power and prestige is taking a very big risk.