Whenever a Russian president travels to Asiatic Russia or the Asia-Pacific region, he traditionally enunciates important precepts of Russian foreign policy in Asia. This was true of both Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin during all three of his presidential terms. Putin’s recent trip to the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, was no exception. His comments on Russia’s foreign relations with regard to the South China Sea, Korea and Japan were all enlightening and revealing of new trends in Russian foreign policy.
In regard to the tense issue of control over the South China Sea, Putin told journalists, on September 5, that President Xi Jinping never asked him to comment on this topic or intervene (which does not mean that the Chinese government has not spoken to Russia about it). But the Russian leader then went out of his way to state that not only does his country not interfere, it opposes any involvement by a power from outside the region on the issue of the South China Sea. In other words, he supports China’s position that the United States has no business being present here, despite the expressed support by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for that presence (Kremlin.ru, September 5). Furthermore, Putin endorsed China’s defiance of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s rulings against Chinese maritime territorial claims based on its “Nine Dash Line.” He told reporters, “as the Hague Arbitration Court and its ruling are concerned, we agree with and support China’s position to not recognize the court’s ruling” (Kremlin.ru, September 5). Here again, the Russian president’s words imply complete support of Beijing’s position, far beyond anything ever stated in the past by any Russian official—either for China, or against the ASEAN and the US.
Just prior to the G20 summit, South Korean President Park Geun-hye traveled to Vladivostok on September 2–3 for the Eastern Economic Forum (Kremlin.ru, September 3). During her meetings with Putin, the Russian president declared that Moscow did not support calling North Korea a “nuclear power” and reiterated Russian opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear programs. At the same time, however, Putin warned against “provoking” North Korea and called for bringing the North Korean regime “back to the negotiating table.” In reply, President Park emphasized that Pyongyang’s provocations were making it difficult to sustain joint economic projects in which Russia and both Koreas are deeply invested politically (Rbth.com, September 5). The most notable such projects include the proposed trans-Korean railway and natural gas pipeline, which would link the three states (NK News, January 28).
Putin’s comments to Park seem to underscore a genuine frustration in Moscow with the inability to reach a real breakthrough in relations with Seoul. Georgy Toloraya, a leading Russian expert on Korea and Asia, notes, “Russia is not happy with a situation whereby the main substance of interstate discussions with such an important and advanced Asian country as South Korea is reduced to relations with a third country [i.e. North Korea], which—furthermore—Moscow does not view as a threat to its interests” (Russiancouncil.ru, September 1). Several months ago, Putin and Xi reaffirmed their joint opposition to the THAAD missile defense system, which South Korea has joined due to the North’s threats. Indeed, Russia and China’s shared position is that North Korea is only acting unpredictably because it is threatened by Washington; they both believe that Pyongyang should not be isolated (see EDM, July 22).
Regarding Japan, Putin stated during the G20 summit his desire to resolve the bilateral standoff between Tokyo and Moscow. Nonetheless, he refused to concede anything on the Kurile Islands, blaming Japan for refusing to support Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 proposal to give Japan back just two of the disputed islands. At the same time, Putin made it clear that he himself had reservations about transferring two islands to Japanese sovereignty, denouncing Japan as a country too susceptible to US pressure. The Russian president declared that the Soviet Union gained those islands as a result of war; therefore, anyone who wants to discuss a redrawing of borders after World War II is opening up a Pandora’s Box (Kremlin.ru, September 2, 5). It seems clear that Putin and his subordinates want Japan to show Russia that Tokyo is not under Washington’s thumb by breaking with the Western sanctions regime and legitimizing the annexation of Crimea as part of Russia. Otherwise, it is quite unlikely that Japan will receive two—let alone all four—of the major disputed Kurile Islands back from Russia.
Taken as a whole, the latest developments strongly signify that Moscow is moving ever closer to a veritable alliance with Beijing regarding regional issues of Asian security. Russia explicitly called for such an alliance in 2014, when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his deputy, Anatoly Antonov, openly suggested a joint Russian-Chinese effort against terrorism and “color revolutions” (Interfax, November 18, 2014). More recently, an increasingly vocal constituency in China itself has also been promoting such an alliance—particularly as Chinese foreign policy becomes both more expansive and global in its perspectives (FT, September 1). Moreover, just before the G20 Hangzhou Summit, President Putin expanded on previous qualification of Russo-Chinese bilateral ties by conspicuously referring to them as “a comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation” (Kremlin.ru, September 1).
Russian observers, too, are alert to these possibilities. Last month, Vasily Kashin, a senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of the Far East, wrote that Moscow and Beijing may both avoid the term “alliance,” but he argued that the relationship is already something far greater than “neighborliness” or even “strategic partnership” (Vedomosti, August 18). The fact that Putin has openly adopted China’s positions on the South China Sea and North Korea while piling on the difficulties for a Russo-Japanese rapprochement seems to strongly support Kashin’s analysis. Moscow and others may call Russia’s policy moves a “pivot to Asia.” But in truth, these moves represent something much more specific—a “pivot to China.” And in this alliance, China will be the rider and Russia the horse.