About the author: Corentin was a student in international relations at HEIP Paris and moved to Moscow where he now follows a Master Degree at the institute of international relations (MGIMO). He is an expert of Global affairs and especially of politics in Russia.
Russian Cold War Time
The Cold War is well known to have been a confrontation between the East and West, with the United States and the Soviet Union in the foreground. At the time, Soviet diplomacy was not focused on the Far East but a lot more on the European theater or Africa. The East was not the main goal. We need to understand from the start that China and the Soviet Union were very close to each other. China had a huge role in the spread of communism in Asia.
Moreover, remember that Central Asia was a part of the Soviet Union, so the capitalist threat was at its lowest.
The shift came with the death of Stalin and Krushchev’s politics. Many disagreements surfaced between the two countries, illustrated by a number of conflicts at Soviet-Chinese borders. According to many specialists, the Red Army was more focused on China than on Europe and the United States at the end of the Cold war.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a new vision of foreign policy. In 1993 under Elstine, the first plan was a failure, but the next one under former Foreign Affairs Minister Evgeni Primakov drove an active foreign policy towards the East in 1996. Since then, relations with Asian countries have been reinforced. Primakov launched the so-called “oriental vector” within Russian foreign policy.
Russia and China: the strategic partnership
Despite the fact that a war between the Soviet Union and China could have broken out, we can see today that Russia and China are the closest of allies: the fact is that these countries were both smart to avoid conflict and join forces.
The partnership was not created in a short time period; it was a long process. The first idea was to solve border problems. This was done during the 80s and 90s with numerous border-related treaties. In 2001, Vladimir Putin signed a Treaty of Friendship with the Republic of China. The two countries began discussions and of course one of the first subjects was the economy.
One of the most important aspects of trade between Russia and China is
related to energy resources. Russian politicians know they cannot compete with China, but Russia could play a role in this area by utilizing the energy sector as a bargaining tool. China is seeking natural resources and therefore has signed several treaties with Gulf and African countries in order to supply the demand for energy. The problem is security in these areas, which is very difficult and expensive. Russia proposed an agreement which permits China to safeguard a road for gas and oil transportation. They had made many agreements between Gazprom and the national China company. One of the main problems was the creation of a pipeline between the two countries.
Moreover, these countries had almost the same kind of development. They both need high value technology and can cooperate in this area. This is particularly true in the military sector, even if we have seen these relations dwindle because China copied Russian technology and the Russian foreign office immediately responded to it.
But all relationships are not limited merely to economic affairs. In terms of the conceptualization of foreign affairs, Russia and China are very close. In fact, both countries are for the self-determination of the people and demand respect for national sovereignty. These two countries have used international law a lot in order to profit from it. Their foreign policies are softer than Western powers’ ones, but these two countries have “a private garden”. A region where foreign intervention could be considered as a threat.
Russia and China are also allied on security affairs. In fact, central Asia is something of a powder keg because of terrorism and nationalism issues. In order to secure the region, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was created in 2001. Of course this is not only a military organization, but the security dimension is very important, and gradually we are starting to see shared military exercises, China and Russia becoming hugely dominant.
Despite this situation, some disagreement still persists. These two countries, like many, want to become the leader. The border issue is not completely resolved. Some regions in Russia are coming under Chinese pressure because a lot of Chinese migrants could come into these areas. Furthermore, China also has an influence in Central Asia, which is considered by Moscow as a Russian area. But the policy of détente by China allows them to avoid major tension. Nowadays, relations are good; Russia is still not a big challenger to China, but Russia could be an important one in Central Asia thanks to other allies. China also requires more free trade inside the Shanghai Organization, a proposition refused by Moscow. Despite the increase between 2010 and 2014, the trade favors China and not Russia. So Russian can no longer only focus on China.
Nevertheless, US policy does not allow Russia and China to have better relations. According to Mearsheimer, an American politic scientist, such a situation would be the worst thing imaginable for the United States.
Reinforced partnership with ASEAN
If Russia is known as a partner of China, Russian presence in the Asia-Pacific region is not very well documented; the Syrian conflict and the crisis in Ukraine are hiding it. But we need to remember that in 2015-2016, a Russian city, Sochi, was the meeting point of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), countries which of course includes Russia. Such an organization was created in order to avoid a Chinese monopoly in Asia. The presence of Russia in the ASEAN regional forum is well appreciated by some countries such as Vietnam, hostile to China´s policy. Even if the United States and other European countries participate in this forum, Russian presence allows these countries to be more independent from US foreign policy.
The link between Russia and ASEAN countries is important because of its historical foundations. Most of these countries were supported by the Soviet Union, against Western influence.Added to that, this region has seen a growth in the threat of terrorism. The expertise of Russian police and militaries is very appreciated. If the war in Tchetchnya is well known to be a mass murder, we can confirm that the method worked well. Added to that, security services like the FSB have global recognition for their excellent work.
In 2016 at Sochi another meeting took place between Russia and the ASEAN. Russia wanted to reinforce its own position in this territory. Regarding the economic figures of the last 5 years, the number of exchanges between Russia and ASEAN has doubled. Of course Russia’s main advantage is in the energy sector, among others. For example, Vietnam is the second country after China to buy Russian weapons in Asia. Tourism is also important. With 2.3 million Russians visiting the ASEAN countries in 2015, this region is a favorite of the Russian people.
In any case, relations with ASEAN countries are very significant, and Russia is well appreciated in these countries. So according to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, such cooperation could allow stability and a better international system. For him, the Sochi meeting brought the relationship to another level.
Japan and South Korea
Japan is one of the country where Russia has most tensions. First of all, these two countries are already in conflict. No peace treaty was signed during World War 2. The other main problem is the Kuril island. A lot of border violations made by Russia for example in 2006 lead to human damages, like the Japanese sailor killed by a Russian war ship. We also know of aerial violations inside Japanese territory. All of these did not allow the two countries to tighten relations. Japan is also a part of the defense doctrine of the United States in this area. In 2014, Japan enforced sanctions against Russia. Japan is perceived as a threat. Moreover, the desire to put missiles in the Kuril island will not improve relations.
Of course there are some economic ties. Japan, like many others, is looking for natural resources and energy resources and can profit from a neighbor such as Russia. For this reason, because of Japanese and Asian demand, the Russian government decided to extend the project Sakhaline II in order to have a better distribution of produce in the Pacific. But if Japan is perceived as a threat because of its alliance with the United States, South Korea has a different role for Russia.
In fact, Seoul seeks a counterbalance to Beijing in this region and Moscow seems to be a good opportunity as it’s one of the countries without any official position on the Korean reunification. Moscow could use this opportunity to stabilise the Far East and prevent a potential conflict, but on the other hamd, Moscow is afraid that such a reunification could bring more US troops or tighter relations with China. So for the moment, Russia tries to be a partner for South Korea and some kind of intermediate with China in order to achieve Korean reunification.
Military presence in Asia: Russia’s last trick.
If Russia cannot compete with the US navy in this area, the country will not leave its interests defenseless. First of all, the Russian Federation deploys a Pacific fleet, with 1 cruiser and 5 destroyers; multiple Russian submarines can defend positions well, supported by an air base in the East. Russia also possesses one base abroad in Vietnam which allows the Russian navy to refuel.
We can also envisage a more significant military presence in this area, for example, in the Philippines, where the President Duterte has asked Russia to become a friend and protector of the country. Of course it’s an important step, but Russia cannot replace the United States in this area, primarily for military reasons. Whilst the US navy can deploy an entire fleet consisting of aircraft carriers, multiple warships and many bases, Russia can only manage a tiny number of units. But there has been a modernization of Russian defense. Nowadays the West is not the priority for Russia, and if Mistral ships were to be distributed to Russia by France, Russia could have significant power in the Pacific.
Russia has made its presence known in the Asia-Pacific area. The problem is that Russia cannot play a leading role yet. Moscow needs to find its own place. But Russia has a huge advantage on natural resources and becoming an alternative to the US. Some countries are tired of the counterbalancing policy between China and the United States, especially in the South East, and Moscow could be an important new partner in this area and replace the predominance of United States in the long term.
The US and Russia in Asia Pacific. The international institute for Strategic Studies
Les relations économiques russo-chinoises en 2015, Oksana Solomakha Regards de l’observatoire Franco-Russe,2016
Russia still seeking a role in ASEAN. Canergie Moscow Center, by Anton Tsvetov.
Россия и АСЕАН: новые доли после двадцати лет партнерств, Международноя Жизнь, Sergei Lavrov 2016.
How the Kuril Island are testing Shinzo Abe’s statesmanship, Sergei Radchenko, 21 december 2016, The Diplomat.
Duterte hopes Russia will becomet Philippines’ ally and protector Ronn Bautista, 6 january 2017 REUTERS