The Challenges of Russia’s Turn to the East

Russia’s turn to the East makes good strategic sense for a number of reasons:

•   It creates the opportunity to integrate Russia, and particularly the Far Eastern provinces, into one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world.

•   Commercially, the turn to the East could provide a counterbalance to over-reliance on Europe as a trade and investment partner, which now accounts for roughly one-half of Russia’s foreign trade and three-quarters of foreign direct investment in Russia

•   Strategically, improved relations with China offers a counterbalance to the United States on the global stage.   

All these reasons have been valid for decades - indeed Russia began rebuilding its relations with China in the late Soviet period - but the eruption of the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s deepening estrangement from the West have only underscored the importance of the East. 

Success in this endeavor would turn Russia into a true global power with a high profile along its entire periphery, in Europe, the Middle East, South and East Asia, and the Arctic.

But Russia must tread carefully.  The East is a dynamic region but also a dangerous one.  Particularly in Northeast Asia, nationalism is a potent political force cultivated by national governments.  China, India, Japan, and South Korea are all modernizing and building up their militaries, in large part because of concerns about the ambitions of their regional rivals.  A  major war, while perhaps unlikely, is undoubtedly thinkable.  

So the challenge for Russia is to take advantage of the promise of the East while reducing the risks of major conflict.

How then would we assess Russia’s policy during the past five years?  The results have been mixed, and positive developments often beget significant challenges.

This is most evident in Russia’s relations with China, which has been the focal point of the turn to the East. 

On the one hand, as President Putin has repeatedly stressed, Russia’s relations with China have never been better.  Their strategic partnership has grown closer and deeper. The two countries coordinate their positions on the UN Security Council.  Defense contacts have grown especially robust, anchored by Russian arms sales to China and increasingly ambitious joint exercises in East Asia and the Western Pacific and beyond.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, jointly led by China and Russia, has become an important forum for the discussion of regional issues, especially with the recent addition of India and Pakistan.  China has become Russia’ s largest commercial partner, with bilateral trade exceeding $100 billion in 2018.

On the other hand, there remain important questions about the future of Russia’s relations with China.  There are glaring asymmetries that should be of concern to Moscow.  The most obvious is the vast disparity in economic size and potential.  China’s GDP is roughly six-to-eight times greater than Russia’s, depending on how GDP is measured, and China’s growth rate far outstrips Russia’s.  While China may now be Russia’s largest trading partner, Russia does not rank among China’s top ten trading partners, and U.S. trade with China is nearly seven times larger.  Roughly 75 percent of Russia’s exports to China are natural resources, with petroleum alone accounting for over half.   Chinese direct investment in Russia is concentrated in the energy sector and represents only a minuscule share of China’s worldwide direct investment, which stood at $120 billion in 2017.  In short, commercially Russia is much more dependent on China than China is on Russia.  Just as Russia made a turn to the East to lessen its commercial over-reliance on Europe, it must now takes steps to ensure that it does not become over-dependent on China in the East.  That means normalization of relations with European states should now be a priority fir Moscow, while it diversifies its commercial partners in the East.

Similarly, Russia has drawn tremendous strategic benefits from its deepening relationship with China, and maintaining good-neighborly relations with an emerging superpower is a strategic imperative.  At the same time, Russia must avoid becoming over-reliant on China in geopolitical matters.  It should aim to maintain its strategic autonomy, to act as an independent geostrategic player in the East and not simply and largely as China’s junior partner.

In pursuit of that goal, Russia needs partners.  Here Russia’s record is less impressive.  Efforts to improve relations with Japan have stalled in recent months, with hopes of resolving he territorial issue quickly receding despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vigorous efforts.  To a large extent, Russia’s relations with Japan have fallen captive to Russia’s deteriorating relations with the United States, as Russia has sought the erosion of US-Japanese security arrangements as the price Japan would have to pay for improved relations with Russia.  Likewise, Russia’s traditionally good relations with India have stagnated in recent years, as India has sought to build a more constructive relationship with the United States.

Admittedly, improving relations with Japan and India is a delicate matter, since to a great extent those two countries desire closer relations with Russia to help manage their mounting concerns about China’s rising power while Russia requires close relations with China for its own good strategic reasons.  This is the challenge that Russia diplomacy has to master.

In addition, two broader challenges loom ahead that Moscow should bear in mind as it turns to the East.

First, the Russian Far East’s economic future lies in integration into Northeast Asia economic zone.  That raises the question of whether economic orientation will ultimately determine political loyalty  In other words, how does Russia secure its long-term presence in its Far Eastern provinces? The answer lies in what I would call dual integration.  The Far Eastern provinces must be developed together as a political and economic unit.  The ties between them must outweigh their ties to regions abroad.  Similarly, the entire Russian Far East must be firmly linked back to European Russia through lines of communication and a common sense of political community.  To be sure, the separation of the Russia Far East is not an imminent danger, but some thought should be given to this issue now to prevent the emergence of this danger in the long term.

Second, all countries in East Asia need to think about how to avoid the emergence of two geopolitical blocs in the region, a maritime one centered on the United States, a continental one on China. This development would raise a grave threat to peace and security, as the ossification of two blocs did in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and recreate the tensions and dangers of the Cold War in Asia.  Long-term stability will come through flexibility.  As Russia pursues its turn to the East, it needs to nurture a diversity of positive relationships that will give it the room to maneuver it needs to reduce the risk of devastating conflict while advancing its own interests.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.