Whither Russia: Looking East and Ready to Embrace It

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 91

(Source: RIA Novosti)

The Arab Spring, especially the civil war in Libya and NATO’s “humanitarian intervention” in that conflict, has brought about much closer diplomatic cooperation between China and Russia. Their cooperation has consequently increased in response to efforts by the United States, its allies, and the Arab League under the banner of the “Friends of Syria” to bring about the collapse of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. In the latest sign of this cooperation, Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the UN Security Council held firm in their opposition to any resolution that calls for UN observers to the cease fire in Syria and unilaterally condemned the Assad government. When the resolution was changed to fit Chinese and Russian demands, it passed the Security Council by a vote of 15 to none.

But beyond tactical cooperation over the crisis in Syria, the major question is the following: What is the overall content of Sino-Russian relations as President Putin begins his third term in office and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) undergoes its own leadership transformation? Some in Moscow see the current fall of Bo Xilai and his family as a shift to the left in response to the corruption scandal, which has raised questions about further conflicts within the Chinese Politburo during a period of leadership transition (Krasnaia Zvezda, April 24). Dmitri Trenin, a long-time commentator on Russian foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment Center in Moscow, has asked the question whether over the last decade Sino-Russian relations have undergone a profound transformation to one of “faithful friends.” Trenin acknowledges that the great shift in their relations was the emergence of China as both a great power and an economic dynamo, reshaping Asia’s role in the global economy. Russia has had to accept this shift in the balance of power. China presents a set of opportunities and challenges for Russia. “For today’s Russia, relations with China open up a series of positive possibilities in the economic and political sphere: this country can serve as a market for its raw materials, an engine of economic development for the Russian Far East, and an important non-western partner in the global arena,” Trenin writes (Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 2012).

At the same time there are serious challenges, especially regarding Siberia, connected to relations with China; and there is, as yet, no answer to them. Before Moscow can work out a long-term concept of relations with Beijing, it must create a genuine development strategy for the country and a concrete vision for Russia’s role in the world. As Russia has declined in power, China has increasingly become the dominant regional power, surpassing Japan economically, and has emerged as the major exporting power in the world. Today, there is even discussion of China as the economic engine to overcome the global recession and the source of capital to stabilize the crisis of the Eurozone. In a multi-polar international system, Moscow and Beijing share some common assessments of international issues, such as a suspicion toward Western humanitarian intervention and a support for non-intervention in the affairs of sovereign states. Russia, however, remains Eurasian in focus and, as Trenin suggests, still has issues to resolve over its own economy, society and state. Russia will have to yield to China’s assertions of rights and privileges around its perimeter, even as these assertions carry risks of conflicts with other states and powers (Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, 2012).

This is not to say that there are not concerns in both Moscow and Beijing about the future of their relations. The Russian press carried an extensive critique of the Russian economy as laid out by Chinese experts. Strategy-2020, a report prepared for then President-Elect Vladimir Putin, sees China as an economic challenge to Russia, “pushing Russia out of its traditional markets and reducing its political weight” (Russia Today, March 19). The Russian press has also reported overt criticism from the Chinese government on six major defects in the Russian economy, which limit Russia’s ability to be a sound economic partner. These defects, which China expects Putin’s administration to address include the following: 1) over dependence on the export of raw materials and energy, 2) an unfavorable business climate and the erection of barriers to investment, 3) complications of the situation with regard to technology, science and business, 4) undeveloped competition and the domination of natural monopolies, 5) the low level of the development of social capital, the weak capacity for self-organization and for self-regulation of private companies, and 6) no improvement in demographic indicators and a serious shortage in labor (Nezavisimaia Gazeta, April 17).

There are also those who question Russia’s military cooperation with China, especially the sale of advanced technology. Plans to sell the advanced, fifth-generation Sukhoi PAK-FA fighter to China came in for sharp criticism as a case of commercial profits trumping geostrategic common sense (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, March 16). Aleksandr Khramchikhin, writing in Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, continuously warns of the pace of China’s military modernization and the potential threat such forces represent to Russia’s position in the Far East and Siberia (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, December 30, 2011).

At the same time, there have been others proposing a much closer strategic partnership, or even a military alliance between Russia and China, overtly aimed at countering the US and NATO. Russian Army Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov (retired) championed such a geostrategic alliance when speaking at the meeting defense experts with Prime Minister Putin in late February at Sarov, a former closed city associated with Russia’s nuclear weapons program. Ivashov, the President of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems and an ally of the “eurasianist” Aleksandr Dugin, spoke of the need for the closest strategic ties with China to include active cooperation to overthrow US geopolitical plans. Citing the German geopolitical thinker and ideologue, Karl Schmitt, Ivashov suggested that Putin was beginning to understand the need to counter US-NATO plans and went so far as to suggest an agreement for the simultaneous launch of Russian and Chinese nuclear-armed missiles in case of US-NATO aggression. Ivashov remains a fringe spokesman for such views with the Russian elite (Nakanune.ru, February 27)

The general direction of Sino-Russian relations, however, has been toward Hu Jintao’s “strategic partnership.” Two recent regional developments address key aspects of this partnership. One is Putin’s emphasis on the need to ensure the further economic development of the depressed regions of Siberia and the Far East. One of Vladimir Putin’s chief priorities in his electoral campaign was the development of this region. The new President’s first priority is to restore Russia’s position as a world power, and the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East is the key to achieving this position (Novaia Gazeta, April 13). Thus, under Putin’s directive, the Ministry of Economics drafted a new law covering the creation of a new state-owned company that would operate under the President and undertake the economic development of Siberia and the Far East, which would include 16 territorial units and 60 percent of the territory of the Russian Federation. The areas under the administration of the new state-owned company would include a number of republics and oblasts: the republics of Aktai, Burytia, Sakha (Iakutiia), Tyva and Khakasiia, the Zabaikal’, Kamchatka, Krasnoiarsk, Primorsk, Kabarovsk and Amur Krais, the oblasts of Amur, Irkutsk, Magadansk, Sakhalinsk and Evreisk, as well as the Chukotsk Autonomous Region (Kommersant, April 20). The new state corporation is expected to exist for 25 years and guide the integration of an economically-developed Siberia and the Far East into the greater Asia-Pacific economic region (Ural’skii Rabochii, April 21).

Critics have labeled the proposal “Putin’s Dal’stroi” – a reference to the Stalinist project under the direction of the NKVD for industrial extraction of gold from Kolyma in the late 1930s. They have expressed doubts about the project’s ability to attract long-term private capital (Forbes.ru, April 22). Others have called it Putin’s “oprichnina” – a reference to Ivan Grozny and his creation of, a territory outside of the existing administrative order (zemshchina), a state within a state where Ivan and his agents could do as they wanted and imposed a reign of terror (Moscow News, April 23).

The second major development affecting the Russian-Chinse “strategic partnership” has been the recent Sino-Russian naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. Sino-Russian naval exercises are not new and have been going on since 2005 under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The recent exercise, “Maritime Joint Action-2012,” however, had several unique aspects (Nezavisimaia Gazeta, April 23). First, it took place on the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and recalled the early years of close collaboration between the navies of the PRC and USSR. Second, the major tasks associated with this exercise were the protection of sea lines of communications, air defense and anti-submarine warfare, which relate to immediate problems of sea control. Third, it took place at a time of increased tensions in the waters around China as a result of conflicts over what state has sovereignty over areas containing possible oil and gas reserves. In some of the disputed regions of the South China Sea China, Vietnam and the Philippines have competing claims. Chinese warships currently are patrolling the disputed Scarborough Shoal and Reed Bank in the South China Sea where there are reports of oil and gas reserves.

The military-run PLA Daily took the start of the Sino-Russian naval maneuvers as a good time to warn Washington not to interfere in disagreements between the Middle Kingdom and its neighbors (Nezavisimaia Gazeta, April 23). The Russian naval forces that joined Maritime Joint Action-2012 came from the Pacific Fleet and Northern Fleet, which included the ASW cruiser “Admiral Tributs” and two other support vessels that had just completed a deployment in the Gulf of Aden as part of the international anti-piracy operations there. This exercise, which was conducted in the Russian language, ran until April 27.

Looking east, Putin sees both economic and a political challenges. To play in the Asian century, Russia will have to develop the vast resources of Siberia and the Far East, and this will require a population dedicated to that task – something that Russia does not have. A long-term strategy for a Russian role in Asia also requires a strategic partner. Due to tensions with the United States over the Middle East and in the Far East, Moscow seems to be moving closer to Beijing. We are seeing a return to great power politics on the model of the 19th century, but with a very different axis in Eurasia. Russia seems to have finally accepted the notion of an Asian-Pacific century, where China will be a critical player and where Russia’s role will depend upon the successful development of Siberia and the Russian Far East.