Since the announcement of Russia’s “pivot to Asia” in 2012, exemplified in one of prime minister and then-presidential candidate Vladimir Putin’s pre-election articles 1 and proven by hosting the APEC Summit in Vladivostok later that year 2, many events have occurred that influenced the dynamics of Russia’s pivot towards the “new Asia”.
These events, from the crisis in eastern Ukraine starting in 2013 to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent breakdown of the relationship between Russia and the West, prompted the way for a new pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region, focused mostly on economic cooperation. However, two significant developments affected the prospect of turning towards Asia. The first was the lack of development of Russo-Chinese relations after the Crimea crisis, which pushed Russia to initiate efforts to diversify its cooperation in Asia. In so doing, Russia’s relationship with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and ASEAN became the cornerstone of its diversified and multi-vectored foreign policy to balance China’s dominant position in Asia. The second event was the current trade war between the US and China, which forced China to rethink its relationship with other powers in the region.
To understand Russia’s relationship with Asian countries in the context of “pivoting” towards Asia, this article explores the post-Crimea-crisis relationship with China (especially the way Russian policymakers and foreign-policy elites viewed China), how it stagnated after showing early promise, how Russia tried to diversify its Asian vector by cooperating with other Asian countries, and how the current US-China trade relationship might affect this pivot.
Relations with China Stagnate (2014–18)
The initial promise of a close Russo-Chinese partnership (or even alliance) following the Crimea crisis in 2014 quickly progressed to the notion of a “pivot to Asia”. Even before the crisis, there were discussions and statements by Russian policymakers that Asia was vital for Russia. In one of his pre-election articles in 2012, Putin said that cooperation with China was an opportunity for Russia to “catch the Chinese winds in the sails of our economy”.3
Even prominent academics such as Sergey Karaganov (honorary chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy) and Fyodor Lukyanov (editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs) changed their position on China and Asia. For example, before Crimea Karaganov argued that there was no Asian alternative to Russia’s cultural and political orientation to Europe and that “the Asian way of development” would take Russia closer to Africa and towards barbarism and the absence of civilisation.4 Nonetheless, in February 2014 Karaganov argued that he (and several others) had proposed the economic turn towards the Pacific.5 Immediately after the annexation of Crimea and its condemnation by Europe, Karaganov said that the turn towards Asia had been made and was no longer based only on economic features, but also geopolitical and civilisational ones.6
However, the early promise of Russo-Chinese cooperation—highlighted by a 400 billion-dollar deal with Gazprom, a24.5 billion-dollar currency swap agreement and an infrastructure-technology agreement to allow China to build new stations on the Moscow subway and allowing Huawei to install Chinese equipment in the Sberbank system—were not followed by more significant economic integration.7 There were reports of disappointment among Russian officials over the hesitancy of their Chinese counterparts to “flock to Moscow” and the fact that the majority of Chinese banks (excluding the Chinese Development Bank, the Export-Import Bank of China and the Silk Road Fund) had complied with Western sanctions against Russia.8 The Chinese were being pragmatic and followed economic logic in dealing with Russia. This condition of uncertainty and of being dependent on China’s policy has pushed Russia’s policymakers to expand its Asia policies towards other countries in the region, albeit to a lesser extent than analysts had been encouraging.
The “Other Asia”
As part of efforts to diversify the Asia element of its foreign policy, several countries and organisations have been the target of Russian diplomacy. One of the most crucial countries in this context is Japan. In November 2018, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe met Putin during the ASEAN-Russia Summit in Singapore and agreed to accelerate peace talks over the territorial and border dispute which has been going on since the Second World War.9 Such meetings, which increased in number after 2016, symbolised Russia’s willingness to entertain the notion of rapprochement with Japan. By the time Abe initiated this on 6 May 2016,10 Putin and Russian foreign-policy officials had been adopting a more constructive tone towards Japan for three years. In December 2018, the two leaders instructed their foreign ministers to oversee a meeting over territory scheduled for the following month.11 Despite several incidents, such as the Russian plan to deploy additional missile systems on the disputed islands, Abe and Putin met to discuss the peace treaty during the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on 4–6 September.12
Russia’s engagement with Japan, albeit with several dynamics, could be attributed to its efforts to play the “Japan card” when dealing with China. By opening up bilateral negotiations with Japan over the disputed islands, Russia had shown China that it had other potential partners in Asia and that it was trying to balance China’s dominance in East Asia. On the other hand, Russia also attempted to split the US alliances with Japan and South Korea by engaging with former and drawing the latteraway from its traditional alliance with the US.
The other front that Russia was trying to exploit was its relationship with ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and its members (most notably Vietnam and Indonesia). Although Russia has been a full dialogue partner of ASEAN since 1996, official ASEAN-Russia summits have only taken place four times (2005 in Malaysia; 2010 in Vietnam; 2016 in Sochi to mark 20 years of Russia’s status as a dialogue partner; and 2018 in Singapore). However, following events in Crimea and since the pivot to Asia in 2012, the usually neglected ASEAN and South-east Asia have become one of the highlights of Russian foreign policy. The Russian government promoted the Sochi summit extensively (as can be seen on the dedicated website, en.russia-asean20.ru/), highlighting the 22.5 billion-dollar trade with ASEAN countries (almost five times the volume in 2005). In 2018, Putin attended the East Asia Summit (together with the ASEAN-Russia Summit) in Singapore for the first time since Russia became a member of the EAS in 2010.13
Russia’s strategy towards South-east Asia is two-fold. First, it relies on high-level regional summits with the official rhetoric of strategic partnership. Nevertheless, in terms of its actions, Russia’s strategy for engaging with the region mostly relies on bilateral trade diplomacy with individual countries, especially Vietnam and Indonesia. With the former, Russia has historical ties dating back to the Cold War. A new military maintenance facility14 and Rosneft’s quiet support for Vietnam in its dispute with China over the South China Sea15 show Russia’s growing cooperation with Vietnam while at the same time trying to counterbalance Chinese influence. As Vietnam’s traditional ally, Russia’s focus on military facilities and gas reflects its primary commodities in the region, which are military equipment and energy.
Indonesia, however, presented a different case. It had been buying Russian Sukhoi aircraft since 2013 through a barter system involving agriculture commodities. Indonesia and Russia went through with the deal despite US criticism, and there is a plan to buy more Sukhoi Su-35 fighters in the future.16 However, as the biggest country in the region and being the only South-east Asian member of the G20, Indonesia presented an opportunity for Russia to diversify its cooperation away from the military to other sectors of the economy. Through Russian Railways, Russia has quietly emerged as the principal investor in constructing new railways in Kalimantan.17 The importance of this is twofold. First, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, has recently announced that a new Indonesian capital city will be built in East Kalimantan to replace Jakarta, which means the Russian-built railways will be used to move Indonesian goods and serve passengers in the new capital. Second, symbolically, Russia’s involvement in Indonesian railways provides direct competition with Indonesia’s traditional economic investors such as China and Japan, which competed to construct the prestigious high-speed railways in Java. By investing in a non-military and non-energy sector, and by competing with China and Japan, Russia offers an alternative to the China-led economic investment in South-east Asia, while at the same time still offering an alternative to the US-led supply of military equipment in the region. This strategy plays to the major aspect of Russia’s identity: its status as a great power and its perennial tendency to play a balancing role against the US.
Conclusion: The US-China Trade War and Its Effects on Russia’s Pivot to Asia
In the context of Chinese uncertainty and Russia’s engagement with South-east Asian countries to diversify overdependence on China, president Trump’s decision to launch a trade war with China pushes the loosening partnership between Russia and China into a corner: as the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said, “never press a desperate enemy; leave a way out for the surrounded army”. By forcing China into a corner, the US is pushing it into having no option other than to get closer to Russia. For China, the latter could act as an alternative supplier of energy amidst the potential disruption of trade with the US. China has indeed moved closer to Russia since the start of the trade war in 2018. In a symbolic political context, China’s leader Xi Jinping has visited Moscow more than any other capital and has even awarded Putin the first-ever Friendship Medal.18
In economic terms, although Russia is still considered the junior partner, ties have deepened significantly during the last two years. It is, however, alarming to broaden Russia’s emphasis on China by pivoting to other countries in Asia too. This raises a significant question, especially for South-east Asian countries like Indonesia: why would Russia bother investing in a distant country, with all the difficulties it will face, when it could invest or sell its products via the easier land route to China? The answer will depend on the position Russia takes on two strategic issues. First, does it consider this pivot to Asia just a way to get back at the West or an integral part of its Eurasia identity? Second, could Russia accept being dominated by China in the region if it did not diversify its pivot? For the moment, it seems that Russia is still orientating itself towards Europe, and to achieve parity with the West it will grudgingly accept being China’s junior partner. However, in so doing, it risks neglecting the opportunity to compete with the West and China and therefore will probably consign itself to being the junior partner of both the US and China in Asia.
13 The East Asia Summit is a pan-Asian forum held annually by the leaders of 18 countries in the region.