Moscow’s already intense maneuvering on the international stage picked up even more pace over the past fortnight, as the Kremlin began to shift the focus of its diplomatic activity from the West to the East. Thus, late May and the month of June were noteworthy for the attention that the then newly inaugurated Russian president had lavished upon the West, as Russia held summit meetings with both the European Union and the United States and Putin visited several key European capitals. By contrast, July appears to be the month in which Russian diplomatic action in Asia will hit full stride. Moscow has recently hosted visits by envoys from India and both North and South Korea, and Putin this week traveled to Dushanbe for talks with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and leaders of the Central Asian countries. Later this month the Russian president is scheduled to travel to Beijing for official summit talks with Jiang. In quick succession he will then visit Pyongyang for groundbreaking talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and then move on to Okinawa, Japan for the July 21-23 summit of the Group of Seven countries and Russia. Over the next several months high profile summit meetings in Tokyo and New Delhi are also in the offing, as is a possible visit by Putin to South Korea.
As was the case in Putin’s meetings with European and American leaders, Russia’s current diplomatic offensive in Asia is aimed at maximizing the benefits for Moscow of the reigning belief in many foreign capitals that Putin’s accession to the presidency heralds a new and more productive era in Russia and that Moscow is set as a result to reemerge as a key international player. The Kremlin is also moving quickly to exploit a mounting international backlash against what is perceived as U.S. global dominance. Moscow’s efforts in this area have already been manifested in recent Russian exhortations to India and Japan that they need to be more assertive on the international stage. Those proposals are consistent with long-standing Russian moves to encourage development of a “multipolar” world order and thereby to blunt American influence globally. Russian attacks on U.S. missile defense plans and on Washington’s challenge to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty fit neatly into this same diplomatic scheme. Indeed, they are to some extent at its heart. Just as earlier this spring Moscow used unpopular U.S. arms policies to sharpen tensions within the Western alliance, so it now will try to use this same set of issues to highlight dissatisfaction with the United States among Asian governments.
More concretely, the Kremlin seems set over the coming weeks to firm up the close ties with both China and India which Moscow established in the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin. At the same time, Moscow is clearly angling to use the recent inter-Korean summit meeting and the apparent promise of a relaxation of tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang to win a central role for itself in the Korean peace process and to project its influence onto the Korean peninsula. (Reconciliation between the two Koreas, not coincidentally, challenges one of the key assumptions on which U.S. national missile defense plans are based, and thus strengthens Moscow’s attacks on U.S. arms control policies.)
With regard to Japan, Putin seems set to try to finesse the Kuril Islands territorial dispute, the issue which remains the main stumbling block to fully normalized relations with Tokyo. Moscow hopes to sidestep the territorial issue and thereby to use improved relations with Japan more generally in order to promote economic interaction between the two countries. In Moscow’s view, success in this area could yield the twin benefits of bringing much needed Japanese investment to Russia’s struggling Far East region, and of paving the way more generally for Russia’s incorporation into the Pacific economy. Improved Russian-Japanese relations, coming against a background of reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula, could also exert additional pressure on Japanese-U.S. defense ties and might, if Moscow gets its way, help to deter a proposed U.S.-Japanese plan for a theater missile defense system in Asia. Both Russia and China are vehemently opposed to the plan.
Russian diplomatic success in Asia is, of course, anything but ensured. To name just the first of a few of the potential problems, Moscow’s hope of increased economic interaction with Japan could yet stumble over Tokyo’s insistence on a return of the Kuril Islands and over concerns related to lagging Russian economic reform. The Kremlin may also be hard pressed to manage its “strategic partnership” with China. There is the potential for renewed competition between the two countries both for influence on the Korean Peninsula and over increasingly friendly ties between Russia and India–China’s traditional regional rival. But Moscow does seem to have recognized rightly that Asian diplomatic and security relations have entered an important transitional phase, and that changes in the region could afford Moscow opportunities to increase its own influence.