Increasingly marginalised in Europe, Moscow attempts an Asia '"pivot" of its own
After the US, it’s now Russia’s turn for an Asia “pivot”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently took no less than two days off handling the Ukraine crisis for a trip to Beijing, in preparation for President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China, scheduled for next month. “That visit is very, very important to us,” explained Lavrov, a man who is not otherwise famous for exaggeration.
Meanwhile a raft of new economic and political initiatives are being launched in Moscow: From Japan and South Korea and right up to Vietnam and Malaysia, Russia’s charm offensive is spreading far and wide.
And it’s easy to explain its primary motive, for Moscow now sees the Asian continent as its best escape from Europe, where Russia is increasingly marginalised politically, and threatened with sanctions.
Yet the snag is that Russia has attempted many of these Asian pivots before: Over the past three decades, various Russian leaders have tried to “relaunch” their country as an Asian nation and all failed, largely because Moscow never had either the diplomatic flair or the necessary power levers to forge long-lasting Asian relationships.
President Putin is now convinced he can fare better. But only an incurable optimist would bet on his success.
Soviet leaders and their Russian successors have fretted about their Asia stance since the early 1980s. Their feelings were driven partly by a sense of frustration that Moscow was missing out on spectacular economic growth opportunities and by the observation that all of Asia’s “tigers” were firmly within the Western, rather than the Russian, sphere of influence.
That had a catastrophic impact on Russia’s ability to project itself as a power to be either admired or followed.
As Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reportedly told his assistant in January 1979 after a historic visit to the United States, “if we look back, we find that all those [countries] that were on the side of the US have been successful, whereas all those that were against the US have not been successful; we [China] shall be on the side of the Americans”.
Fear of China also loomed large in Russia’s calculations. Sergey Radchenko, a British academic who recently published an exhaustive study on the Soviet Union’s failures in Asia, documents how in the twilight of his life Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev became so obsessed with the Chinese threat “that he sought a quasi-alliance with the arch-enemy – the American imperialists – to offset the sinister designs of that “perfidious” neighbour that he [Brezhnev] conceded he never understood”.
Asia’s success story
Still, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, politicians in Moscow increasingly looked to Asia not only as a possible answer to their increasingly desperate strategic dilemmas, but also to ensure their very survival: the Asian example of economic development was seen as one which Russia must emulate.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was obsessed with Japan and was ready to receive any visiting Japanese delegation however low its rank was, in the hope that this would harness Tokyo’s then-considerable hard currency reserves to Russia’s benefit.
Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor and Russia’s first president, went as far as contemplating the outright sale of the Kurile Islands that the Soviets seized from Japan at the end of World War II. And Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current leader, has lavished his attention on, primarily, India and China.
Yet all these efforts petered out. Moscow proved unable to copy Asia’s spectacular economic growth model, largely because Russia’s domestic predicament was so different. While in their initial stage of intensive economic development most Asian nations enjoyed the advantage of an abundant, cheap and young labour force eager to earn a living, Russia had an ageing, shrinking population which grew accustomed to being looked after by the state from cradle to grave.
And, as new strategic alliances were formed in Asia, the Russians were invariably reduced to the role of mere spectators. Diplomatic relations with China and South Korea were normalised, but never really thrived. Links with Japan were intensive, yet seldom fruitful. And while India continues to buy Russian military equipment, Indian security planners make no secret of their aspirations for a closer strategic partnership with the US.
Leaving all diplomatic niceties aside, there is nobody in Asia who views Russia as either a country to emulate, or as a nation destined to shape the future.
President Putin is now determined to reverse this litany of diplomatic failures. During his scheduled visit to Beijing next month, the Russian leader is expected to cave in over a long-running price dispute with China and agree to a massive, 30-year deal delivering huge quantities of Russian gas to Chinese customers.
Putin also appears to have agreed to sell to China his most advanced air defence missile system, the S400; until recently, such deals were taboo, since the Russians feared the Chinese tendency to copy their latest military technology.
But the Russian diplomatic offensive is expanding. Japan’s foreign and defence ministers were recently invited to a “2+2” meeting with their Russian counterparts. President Putin has also ordered his officials to establish a new economic zone in Russia’s Far East, specifically in order to encourage Japanese investments in infrastructure and energy projects.
Meanwhile, Vietnam, which recently concluded big-ticket deals for the supply of Russian nuclear reactors and submarines, is being enticed to join a Russian-led customs union in Central Asia.
Russia is also offering to sell its upgraded SU-30 jet fighter to Malaysia. And even North Korea is not neglected: a senior Russian economic delegation has just concluded a visit to the country.
There is no question that this is a historic opportunity, since Russia is genuinely keen to reduce its vulnerability to Western coercion in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Yet there are serious doubts whether President Putin and his senior officials truly understand what their Asian pivot must entail, if it is to have the slightest chance of success.
Limits of Russia’s tilt
For Russia’s tilt to Asia is based on feeble foundations. Out of the US$94 billion (Bt3 trillion) worth of overall foreign direct investment that came into Russia last year – itself a puny figure for a country of Russia’s size – only US$4 billion was from China, while the rest of the money from Asian sources came in the form of guaranteed state-to-state loans.
None of this indicates any confidence in the Russian economy and, at least for the moment, the tendency of capital is to flow out of Russia, rather than into the country.
Apart from the sale of oil and gas which will require the construction of a new and expensive pipeline infrastructure, the Russians don’t have much else to sell and the Russian consumer economy cannot sustain large imports of Asian goods: Russia does in a year the kind of cumulative business America conducts with Asia in a single day.
Furthermore, many of the business opportunities that Moscow touts today are precisely those that came to grief in the past: Japanese investors are being asked back to the Sakhalin gas fields of Siberia, the same fields from which they were chased off by none other than President Putin a decade ago. And the same Japanese investors are also expected to ignore Moscow’s recently-announced moves to beef up the Russian military presence in the Kurile Islands. Moscow’s penchant for both wooing and humiliating the Japanese is not a recipe for a durable friendship.
And, ironically, the Ukraine crisis, which has prompted Russia’s renewed interest in Asia, is also a reminder of just how totally European in outlook Russia’s political class remains: Moscow is prepared to wage war over the tiniest scraps of territory in Europe, seemingly indifferent to the fact that, meanwhile, the world’s centre of gravity has moved to the East.
Competing with the US
If Russia wants to be taken seriously in Asia now, it will have to learn how to take Asia seriously. Moscow will have to spell out its policy preferences on the Korean peninsula, its stance over Asia’s various territorial and maritime disputes, as well as explain how Russia’s professed newly found love for China squares with Russian deliveries of heavy weapons to Vietnam and India. The US is often accused of not taking its participation in Asian regional summits seriously; the Russians should be accused of attending all such summits eagerly, but without the slightest idea why.
Ultimately, the Russians will have to accept that their tilt to Asia has no hope of supplanting US influence in the region; Moscow needs to show that it can expand its Asian presence in parallel to that of the Americans, and not as a harbinger of a new Cold War. For if that old, tired narrative of a looming East-West confrontation no longer works in Europe, it’s even less likely to work in today’s Asia.
In short, Putin must come to Asia because he genuinely believes this to be his country’s best choice, and not because Russia had run out of all other strategic options.