Asia’s Other Players
In part as a result of the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s turn to Asia is above all an embrace of China. But Russia has also embraced China for lack of other viable partners in the region.
Japan, which had been working toward some kind of strategic accommodation with Russia until Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Putin at the Sochi Olympics in February 2014, had no option but to show solidarity with its sole ally, the United States, on the issue of sanctioning Russia after Ukraine. Putin’s visit to Japan, scheduled for the fall of 2014, was postponed, and expectations of a peace treaty and a border settlement to finally close the book on World War II receded. The Russian Navy held exercises with China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in the East China Sea, and Beijing and Moscow are planning joint celebrations in 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the defeat of Japanese imperialism and militarism in the Second World War.
Russia’s relations with South Korea have sustained less damage as a result of the Ukraine crisis than those with Japan. Moscow has become more active in Pyongyang to increase its bargaining power with Seoul, which it needs as a source of technology and investment. But there are limits to what the Russo–South Korean relationship can contribute to Russia’s development of its eastern territories and to what Washington would permit Seoul to do with Moscow. Similarly, other U.S. allies in the region with highly developed economies—Singapore and Taiwan—have to be careful when engaging with Moscow to avoid running afoul of Washington.
Where these worries are less relevant, Russia has yet to put its traditionally friendly relationships on a qualitatively new level. This refers above all to the two other strategic partnerships Russia keeps in Asia: India and Vietnam.
Moscow has yet to respond to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overriding interest in spurring India’s economic development. The pattern of Russo-Indian relations has barely changed since the days of the Cold War, and Moscow is in danger of being crowded out of New Delhi’s foreign policy priorities. In addition, Russia’s greater reliance on China in the face of confrontation with the United States may take a toll on these ties.
Vietnam is clearly important to Russia, but it is a middle power. Vietnam is Russia’s gateway to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Moscow has been seeking to engage. Yet, Russia’s means for building a strong relationship with Southeast Asia are still fairly limited because of Russia’s economic and financial weakness. Moscow also needs to step more carefully in its dealings with Hanoi now to avoid upsetting its relations with China.
In Central Asia, Russia saw Kazakhstan join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), to be followed by Kyrgyzstan and eventually Tajikistan. Yet, the Ukraine crisis and the economic difficulties that Russia is facing have led the Kazakhs in particular to express reservations about their connection to Moscow.
There is more reason than before for the Central Asians to seek not just balance but also reassurance vis-à-vis Moscow in stronger relations with Beijing. As a result, China’s prestige and role in post-Soviet Central Asia have risen. The 2014 withdrawal of the U.S.-led coalition combat forces from Afghanistan makes Kabul, too, look to China. The new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, traveled to Beijing first after taking office in 2014.
Thus, the changing global and Asian regional context of Russia’s foreign policy has begun to prioritize China more than it did in the last half century. In parallel with that formal upgrade, the substance of Sino-Russian relations has also changed, in the direction of greater intimacy. The development of these relations over the past twenty-five years is a rare case of two neighboring great powers improving their relations and then keeping them on an even keel, despite the fact that one has risen in importance while the other has gone through a difficult and painful post-imperial adjustment.
No Longer Just an “Axis of Convenience” 11
The mantra in the West has long been that the Sino-Russian partnership would remain limited and that both China’s and Russia’s interests in good relations with the United States far outweighed their interest in each other. Moreover, it was assumed that the Chinese had growing disdain for the Russians and that the Russians feared the Chinese more and more. If these beliefs have ever been reality, they are not so now. China and Russia share not only a host of fundamental interests but also, increasingly, elements of a common worldview.
At the top of the list is the importance of a strong state that enjoys full freedom of action internationally. This makes the survival of the existing political regimes in both countries the key priority for Moscow and Beijing. Both the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai view perennial Western campaigns in favor of democratization and human rights in their countries as U.S. policy tools designed to destabilize them. Russian and Chinese leaders both resent Western government criticisms and denounce what they see as biased Western media coverage, foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations, and the use of Internet mobilization techniques to foment revolution. They interpret all this as aggression against their sovereignty and seek to limit or terminate it. In 2011–2012, Vladimir Putin blamed street protests in Moscow on U.S. support for Russian civil society. In 2014, Beijing saw a foreign hand behind the protest movement in Hong Kong.
In terms of the world order, since the late 1990s China and Russia have subscribed to the notion of multipolarity as the optimal structure for the global community of states. Right up to 2014, however, Russia was simultaneously seeking to carve out a place for itself in the Western system through membership in such institutions as the G8, an informal grouping of the world’s leading industrialized nations, and strategic partnerships with the United States, the EU, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Moscow wanted a foot in each camp, the West and the non-West, and hoped to benefit from this unique position.
China observed these efforts skeptically, but also warily, even as it was working its way toward the center of the global system through ever-closer economic and financial ties with the United States in particular. In 2014, watching the collapse of Moscow’s Western partnerships, Beijing must have felt vindicated. But true to form, it did not gloat publicly.
With Moscow no longer able to straddle the West and non-West divide, the Chinese and Russian assessments of Washington’s global policy have strikingly converged. True, Beijing and Moscow do not see eye to eye on all of the important international issues. Both agree, however, that U.S. policies breed chaos, citing the Middle East as evidence. In Asia, according to that view, the United States seeks to destabilize China’s periphery (for example, in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang), to isolate China by consolidating the U.S.-led alliances, and to undermine Beijing’s own outreach to its neighbors. In Eurasia, the United States seeks to move the NATO alliance closer to Russia and to foil Moscow’s own Eurasian integration plans, such as those in Ukraine.
There is an important distinction, however: based on its growing power, China is seeking to restore its “natural” historical position of preeminence in Asia, and eventually globally, while Russia, which is no longer in the running for world primacy, is seeking to establish itself as a center of power in Eurasia and a member of a global concert of powers. In the long run, Sino-Russian relations will depend on how the two concepts interact in practical terms in Eurasia.
Amid the continuing clash between Russia and the West over Ukraine, Beijing has chosen to stand by Russia, even as it formally sticks to neutrality. In view of its geopolitics and its history, China does not approve of secessionism, annexations, or foreign military interventions—unless, of course, Beijing feels the need to intervene itself. Also, Putin probably did not consult Xi before making his fateful decisions on Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Yet, Beijing sees the larger picture and formulates its position in terms of China’s interests as it defines them, not just abstract principles.
And China has no geopolitical, economic, or security interest in seeing Moscow’s will broken by Washington, or Russia itself broken and falling apart. A pro-Western or, more likely, chaotic Russia would be a major security hazard to China. Beijing also interprets Washington’s pressure on Moscow as not just an attempt to break Russia’s will and make it obey U.S. rules, but also as a warning to other non-Western competitors, above all China. Exemplary punishment of Russia, in that view, is to serve as a means to deter China. The Chinese do not expect Russia to be defeated by the United States, and they wish it to stay united internally, which fully conforms to their national interest.
While the Russians and the Chinese expect the United States to continue to be the most powerful nation in the world for several more decades, they see its grip on the rest of the world rapidly loosening. Both Moscow and Beijing see the world going through an epochal change away from U.S. domination and toward a freer global order that would give China more prominence and Russia more freedom of action. They also see the process of change gaining speed. According to a leading Russian foreign policy thinker, “the last dozen years [since the fall of Baghdad during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq] have witnessed the quickest weakening of the hegemon in history.” 13
There is also a clear personal affinity between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, something that did not really exist between Putin and the two previous Chinese presidents with which he dealt, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. And for first time since former chairman Deng Xiaoping, China again has a paramount leader who can act as a sovereign rather than just a committee chairman. In Russia, after the somewhat awkward four-year Medvedev interlude, the country’s real leader is again the formal number one. Thus, Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 and the elevation in the same year of Xi Jinping to party and state leadership in China have provided new structural elements and personal glue to make the Sino-Russian connection stronger at the very top. Both Putin and Xi expect to stay in power into the 2020s, thus giving the relationship a welcome “cadre stability,” as one diplomat put it.
The Road to Greater Asia
From its new levels reached in 2014, the relationship between Moscow and Beijing is likely to move forward in a number of key areas. In lieu of a Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, a Greater Asia from Shanghai to St. Petersburg is in the making.
In the field of energy, cooperation is potentially being upgraded to an alliance. China has become not only a buyer of Russian natural gas for the first time (until 2014 it had been virtually all exported to Europe) but also a consumer of more Russian oil. Beijing’s companies are gaining access to Russian hydrocarbon resources—something they have long been barred from by Putin’s own policies and Russian regulations. In February 2015, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said Chinese companies could now acquire majority stakes in Russia’s strategic oil and gas fields, except those on the continental shelf. The partnership between Rosneft—Russia’s state-owned oil company—and BP collapsed, as did its partnership with U.S.-based ExxonMobil, as a result of the sanctions, likely opening the way for the Chinese to take some of the business formerly reserved for the Europeans and Americans. At a time when Europe is reducing its dependence on Russian energy imports, going east appears to be a rational strategy for both Gazprom and Rosneft.
China is also moving ahead with infrastructure development in Russia. This includes high-speed rail links that will eventually connect Moscow to China via Kazakhstan; modern seaports on Russia’s Pacific coast, such as Zarubino in Primorsky Krai; and development of the Northern Sea Route shipping lane from Asia to Europe across the Arctic. These projects will not only bring Russia much closer to China but also make Eurasia much better connected internally by including Mongolia and Central Asian countries.
In the field of finance, China is unlikely to replace the West when it comes to Russia, but connections are deepening. Raising money in China has already proven challenging for Russian companies. Yet, China has expressed its willingness to extend loans to Russia. What is more, Russia’s increased use of both the Chinese renminbi and the Hong Kong dollar, along with the agreement to expand the role of the ruble and the yuan in bilateral trade, offers a path to the Chinese currency gradually rising in stature and status to become, potentially, a regional reserve currency in Eurasia. For Russia, this would mean recognizing China’s financial leadership.
Under current circumstances, China’s planned Silk Road Economic Belt, a regional trade and transportation plan, and the 2015 inauguration of Putin’s EEU are more likely to lead to a sort of symbiosis between the Chinese and Russian integrationist projects than to a rivalry between Beijing and Moscow. Again, Moscow will have to compromise, allowing Central Asian states to participate both in the EEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt.
In exchange for its support, China will insist on advanced military technology transfers from Russia, in such areas as air and missile defense, as well as air and naval power. So far, Moscow has been cautious in sharing its most advanced technologies with Beijing, mindful of the sharp reversals in their past relations and reluctant to alienate other Asian powers, such as India and even Japan. However, in the present situation, when Moscow has to rely on Beijing’s support more than ever before, Russia might have to lower the bar for defense technology exports to China.
Since 2005, China and Russia have regularly held joint military exercises. As a result, they have already achieved a modest degree of compatibility and interoperability between their forces, and that is likely to increase. The drills were staged in and off the coast of eastern China, in central Russia, and in Central Asia. In 2015, the Russian Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy intend to hold their joint maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea. This leap in geography points to the readiness of both countries to send a message to the world about their close military partnership and to demonstrate strategic unity in one of Eurasia’s strategically most important and volatile regions.