Russia is a Pacific power, pursuing its own pivot to Asia. Anna Kireeva of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations examines Moscow’s relationships in the region particularly its growing alignment with Beijing and its skepticism of the emerging “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept promoted by the United States.
Pacific power on display in Vladivostok: Russia has no interest in seeing any one nation dominating in Asia and would like to avoid a security conflict in the region (Credit: Alexander Khitrov / Shutterstock.com)
The emergence of the “Indo-Pacific” construct has arguably been the most important development in international relations in Asia in recent years. Driven by and large by Japan, the US and, to a lesser extent, Australia, the debate over the concept and what it means has inspired some countries to rally to it – India is the most prominent player to do so, but the EU and countries in Europe such as Germany, France and the Netherlands have set out their own Indo-Pacific approaches. Other nations in the region such as some of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been ambivalent about signing on, concerned that doing so could be construed as choosing sides in the US-China strategic rivalry. Beijing, for its part, has regarded the nomenclature change and the adoption of the descriptors “free and open” as clear indications that the Indo-Pacific idea is meant to contain China.
Less is known about the Russian Federation’s attitude to the framework shift. About two thirds of the Russia’s territory is situated in Asia, which Moscow considers a region vital for Russia’s security and economic development. The government’s plan to diversify its foreign policy, security, economic and energy ties and expand cooperation with Asian states is known as the “Turn to the East” or “Pivot to Asia”.
As far as regional security is concerned, Russia says its longstanding approach has been centered on the promotion of “inclusive, open, transparent and equitable collective security and cooperation architecture in Asia-Pacific”, which in Moscow’s eyes should cater for the security of all regional states but not guarantee the security of one state at the expense of others as the alliances in the region do. Institutions centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are considered by Russia to be the optimal framework to construct such architecture. Moscow is interested in peace and stability in East Asia, as any conflict in the vicinity of its borders could endanger the Far East, especially the Korean Peninsula. Russia would like to see the regional order, as well as the global one, polycentric and itself playing the role of one of the key stakeholders.
The deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West in the aftermath of the crisis over Crimea and Ukraine translated into more attempts to facilitate engagement with Asia to safeguard against the damage to the Russian economy by falling oil prices and economic sanctions as well as structural economic issues. At the same time, the relations between Russia and a number of American allies, including Australia and Japan, became strained because of their desire to demonstrate solidarity, criticize Moscow and adopt sanctions.
In Russia’s eyes, the disagreements with Asian states should be about Asia, not about the European issues that have no direct impact on the region. It has become evident since then that Russia-US relations have plunged into a systemic confrontation and strategic competition. US secondary sanctions have become a prominent factor for Russia, targeting its arms sales and damaging business with the blacklisted companies. The European sanctions have also led to the reduction of investment and technological opportunities. Above all, the regional security environment in Asia has also deteriorated dramatically, which has put Russia in an even more difficult position.
The growing alignment between Russia and China
China has undoubtedly been Russia’s most important partner in Asia. A strategic partnership with Beijing has been the result of an alignment between the powers. The two share a number of interests, first and foremost stability on the border. They also have common goals such as establishing a multipolar world order. At the same time, there is no obligation to defend each other, which provides the two countries the freedom to maneuver. In the eyes of Russian leadership, China is a partner that shares many of its principles and aims, especially regarding the world order, but does not pose an existential threat as the liberal West does since it has no interest in regime change.
Being great powers, Russia and China possess both complementary and contradictory interests. Their entente has been based on the premise that they do not conduct policies that are aimed against each other but at the same time have different strategies and enjoy different relationships with other powers.
Political, security and military cooperation have been the hallmarks of Russia-China relations, while economic interaction remains complementary but unbalanced and focused on the procurement of Russian resources, especially energy, in exchange for manufactured goods and goods with high added value. The latter, however, is the characteristic of Russia’s trade relations with all major Asian states, especially Japan and South Korea. While Russia remains China’s primary source of the import of sophisticated military equipment and technologies, China has emerged as a new source of technologies and equipment in energy, telecommunications, manufacturing and other spheres where previously Russia’s chief links used to be with Europe.
There has been an increasing alignment between Moscow and Beijing as the two feel an intense pressure from Washington. Russia’s confrontation with the West has pushed it into China’s embrace, and the rise of the US-China strategic competition has also prompted Beijing to strive for a greater cooperation with Moscow. In their joint declarations of 2016 and 2019 Russia and China criticized the military build-up of the US military alliances and the deployment of ballistic missile defense systems in Asia and Europe as sources of instability and triggering a dangerous arms race. They accused Washington of eroding global rules and dismantling the arms control regime in the form of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which has a negative impact on global stability. The 2019 Declaration on the partnership entering a new era also signified that despite the global turbulence, the Russia-China strategic partnership has stayed as strong and solid as ever.
On June 28, 2021, Russia and China extended their bilateral Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, which was signed in 2001. Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the principles stipulated in the treaty such as “mutual support in protecting state unity and territorial integrity, a pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons and not to target strategic missiles at each other”. The Joint Statement also states that their relations have reached the highest level in their history and that they play an important role in promoting a multipolar world order and regional security.
Apart from regular military exercises, the two countries also conducted their first joint Asia-Pacific air defense patrols in 2019 and 2020, flying in the vicinity of the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands/Liancourt Rocks. More than that, in October 2019, Putin made a statement that Russia is helping China to construct a missile early-warning system that can help it develop the same capabilities that only Russia and the US currently have and the ability to launch a retaliatory strike.
China and Russia’s respective tensions with the West have provided an incentive to upgrade security cooperation. Asked about the possibility of a full-fledged military alliance in October 2020, Putin said that the current level of cooperation and trust seems sufficient and that there was no such goal but an alliance is plausible. In essence, it can be interpreted that if the pressure from the West continues, the strategic partners are likely to explore new areas of security cooperation.
Russia’s view on the Indo-Pacific
The emergence of the Indo-Pacific strategies by many regional states is a development that has concerned the Russian government. Although in the past Asia used to be the region where the differences in the interests of Russia and the US were much less pronounced, the systemic confrontation between the states has had a negative impact on their interaction in Asia. It could be considered as the main reason for Russia’s negative attitude towards the concept of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), as Russian officials highlight the American strategy.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in particular, has repeatedly criticized the concept of the Indo-Pacific. First, as it is directed against China and believed to be aimed at containing it, Russia could never support such a vision.
Second, the Indo-Pacific is described to create a competitive rather than cooperative strategic space that works against the desire of regional actors to preserve peace and stability and might force them to make the choices that they would not like to. Moscow fears that it could undermine ASEAN centrality, make the inclusive regional institutions irrelevant and focus on the exclusive groups which many regional states are not invited to join.
Third, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad – an informal strategic grouping of the US, Japan, Australia and India – is seen as a potential alliance-style arrangement. Given that Russia has a negative history of interaction with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is quite understandable why having an Asian NATO is also a concern for Moscow.
Fourth, Lavrov wondered what are the rules that the US wants to promote, how its intentions correspond with international law, and why something other than international law is required. It should be pointed out that the Russian officials focus their criticism only on the US FOIP strategy and its consequences out of concern that it could influence the actions of other states and aggravate security tensions.
At the same time, when answering a question on his views on the Indo-Pacific, President Putin in his speech in October 2019 emphasized that Russia is against creating blocs and divisions in Asia, as regional states have no interest in making choices. He emphasized the role of ASEAN as a central organization and said that Russia would welcome creating a network of cooperative engagement and “common security systems” where the countries could find common ground.
Moscow’s approach to India, Japan, the Korean Peninsula and ASEAN
Apart from China, India is Russia’s key strategic partner in Asia. Political and security cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi has traditionally been very close, with joint military exercises and joint military production. Vietnam is the major strategic partner in Southeast Asia, also enjoying warm political relations and close defense cooperation with Russia. Although these countries frequently find themselves at odds with China, albeit in different ways, Russia’s relations with its partners are still quite cordial and it remains neutral in the conflict between China and India and in the dispute in the South China Sea. Moscow sees India and ASEAN in general and Vietnam in particular as valuable partners in building a polycentric global and regional order.
At present, Russian foreign policy officials seem concerned about India’s membership of the Quad and its increasing cooperation with the US. (Hanoi’s closer ties with Washington are also a worry.) Russia would like to see India and China settle their differences in a peaceful way, and through a Russia-India-China trilateral format it provided the venue for the consultations between its two partners in 2020.
In a similar way, Moscow sees its own intrinsic value in relations with Tokyo and Seoul, notwithstanding the fact that their positions on the roles of the US and China demonstrate considerable differences. The political contacts between Russia and Japan are heavily concentrated on the issue of the peace treaty and unresolved territorial dispute, which does not, however, constitute a serious security conflict as with the East China Sea or the South China Sea. Moscow and Tokyo see each other as valuable strategic players that should have regular consultations and security exchanges but the two disagree on issues connected with the US-Japan alliance (i.e., missile defense) and the Indo-Pacific. Economic cooperation with Japan and South Korea is more developed than with India and ASEAN. The North Asian countries invest in a number of sophisticated sectors in the Russian economy and thereby contribute to its economic development and technological modernization.
Russia’s position on security issues on the Korean Peninsula is based on the understanding that the violation of the non-proliferation regime is unacceptable, that the whole Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized, and that the North Korean nuclear issue should be resolved by peaceful means without any use of force. Moscow favors a “dual freeze”, dialogue, and bilateral and multilateral negotiations as the ways to bring the situation forward, as stipulated in the Russian-Chinese roadmap on the resolution of the Korean issue, adopted by the ministers of foreign affairs of the two states in July 2017. It should be noted that Russia maintains political consultations with all major parties, including North Korea. The Russian government also believes that Pyongyang should be provided with security guarantees as an incentive to denuclearize. Interestingly enough, the North Korean nuclear issue remains one of the few avenues for cooperation between Russia and the US as the two states share a number of similar interests as nuclear states.
What is to be done?
One can easily envision two different scenarios for Russia’s policy in Asia, depending on the regional environment. If the region becomes increasingly polarized with even more aggravated security conflicts, it might put additional pressure on Russia to take reciprocal steps to ensure its security. Such a scenario is possible in the event of the US deployment of medium-range missiles in Asia after the demise of the INF Treaty.
If Russia-US confrontation and China-US strategic competition become even more pronounced, Moscow and Beijing are likely to further military cooperation and political coordination. This in turn may make the escalatory security dynamics even worse, and Russia and the US could find themselves increasingly at odds in Asia as well.
The summit between Putin and Joe Biden, his U.S. counterpart, in Geneva on June 16, 2021, could contribute to shaping a more stable relationship – one of managed confrontation and selective engagement. If such a framework is realized, it might mean that the worst-case scenario of Russia-US relations spiraling even further downward could be avoided.
Russia’s vast but sparsely populated Far Eastern territories make it a northern Pacific power. Thus, it has a stake in peace and stability in Asia. As Russia, on the one hand, has no interest in seeing any power dominating in Asia and, on the other, would like to avoid a security conflict in the region, its interests are best served by a polycentric but flexible order that should not become polarized.
Although the Russian government does not support the concept of the Indo-Pacific, mindful of its anti-Chinese character, it does support inclusive regional visions such as promoted by ASEAN and India, which leave room for practical cooperation in Asia. Consequently, it is likely that Moscow will strive to maintain cooperation with its partners in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans in a balanced and diversified manner.
Russia and Asian states share a number of common interests where Russia has the capacity to contribute to regional security in a meaningful way, such as preserving the security of sea lanes, conducting disaster relief, ensuring food security and combating non-traditional security threats including but not limited to terrorism, piracy and international crime. While security conflicts in Asia are on the rise, these areas might become the common ground for regional cooperation preventing the region from plunging into a more open confrontation.
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Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University)