Observers of Russian-Chinese relations continue to search for Moscow’s potential balancing acts against China’s rising power. It seems unlikely that the Kremlin could have ‘put all its eggs into one basket’, particularly taking into account the growing asymmetry of power between the two states. Russia’s diplomatic offensive towards its Asian neighbours last month has given the impression that Moscow is trying to escape from its Sinocentric policies. The political-military consultations with Japan were conducted for the first time in history in the ‘2+2’ formula (foreign affairs and defence ministers). Vietnam was offered closer co-operation with the Russian-led Customs Union. The idea of a transit corridor from East Asia to Europe (of course via Russia) was aimed at attracting the attention of South Korea. Russia finally handed over the aircraft carrier to India which New Delhi ordered almost a decade ago.
Is Russia trying to hedge (if not balance) against China’s rise? How seriously should these attempts be taken? What are Moscow’s prospects for improving its position with regard to Beijing by means of closer ties with China’s neighbours?
For decades, dating back to the Soviet period, Moscow has considered India as the best counterweight to China. After a short period of mutual post-Cold War disappointment, Russia and India re-built their relations. The arms trade was the most acute symbol of India’s place in Russia’s foreign policy landscape. Russia used to sell its most advanced weaponry to India while denying similar equipment to China. This pattern persisted till the early-2010s, when serious obstacles emerged. The American-Indian quasi-alignment, dating back to 2005, has been viewed by Moscow with growing suspicion. Russian arms producers started to lose one bid after another for the Indian weapons market, including the tender for 126 multi-role combat aircraft, worth US$ 20 billion. Russia’s reputation as arms supplier for the Indian armed forces has also deteriorated. The delivery of the aircraft carrier was postponed several times and its price doubled over a decade. Both states continue to co-operate on the construction of the 5th generation fighter but implementation has been terribly slow. Stripped of the arms trade, Russian-Indian relations will become an empty shell. There are no joint economic projects or investments. India’s access to Russia’s energy resources is limited. Moreover, the expected Russian-Chinese agreement on the sale of the Su-35 fighters – a more advanced type of aircraft than that operated by India – would mark the end of India’s privileged position in the Russian worldview.
Interestingly, Moscow seems to have noticed India’s weakness as a potential counter-balance against a rising China and has reached out to the East Asian states – Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. All three states, despite their entanglements with the Chinese economy, remain suspicious towards Beijing’s intentions and wary of the growing might of China.
Another candidate to counter-balance China, Japan, was approached by Russia only after the end of the Cold War. Since then, Moscow has repeatedly attempted to mend fences with Tokyo, offering access to East Siberian oil and gas and inviting Japanese investors to the Russian Far East. Every time, the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands has stood in the way of a Russo-Japanese rapprochement. The most recent overture was made by Russia after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. Moscow declared its readiness to replace the nuclear component of Japan’s energy balance sheet with its hydrocarbons. While the Russian idea was not implemented, the return of Shinzo Abe as prime minister in Japan paved the way for closer political ties. In April 2013 he paid a visit to Russia, followed by the ‘2+2’ consultations in November. Both states agreed to deepen security co-operation, including the conduct of joint naval exercises. The key question regards the extent to which this momentum can be sustained, particularly if it is not supplemented with closer economic co-operation. This is even more the case since rapprochement with Japan has not prevented further security co-operation between Russia and China – further naval drills have been announced for 2014. Chinese companies secured access to the lion’s share of the Russian oil sent to the Asian market.
With regard to smaller Asian states, such as Vietnam or both Koreas, Moscow has consistently pursued certain ideas for the last decade. Vietnam has become an important customer of the Russian military-industrial complex (e.g. the sale of submarines) and for Russian energy companies (e.g. exploration of oil in the South China Sea by the joint venture Vietsovpetro). Moscow has also been attempting to convince Vietnam to allow Russia to return to the naval base in Cam Ranh, which it vacated in 2001. The most recent idea encompasses the establishment of a free trade zone between Vietnam and the Customs Union. In the case of the Korean states, Russia has been promoting the idea of the Asia-Europe corridor, linking the two Koreas with the Russian railway system. Its first stage – the link between Russia and North Korea – was built in September 2013.
Looking at the broader East and South Asian picture, it is difficult to assess to what extent the policies pursued by Russia can contribute to making it less dependent on China. The ideas which they are based on are not new – they have been part of Russia’s discourse for several years. It is their implementation that has turned out to be much more difficult to achieve.