Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Russia Looks East

DENVER – The United States’ “pivot” to Asia, a process so delicately defined that even the name had to be changed to “rebalancing” to avoid any misunderstandings in Europe, now seems to have company, in the form of renewed Russian interest in the region. Russia’s own “pivot” to Asia is not new; but, in the deep freeze settling over Russia’s relations with the US and Europe, it does seem to have gained the momentum of real necessity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been interested in the logic of marrying Siberia’s enormous base of raw materials and energy with East Asia’s vibrant but energy-starved economies. For Russia, Asian countries – and especially China – seem to bring a barebones practicality to the relationship. Nobody in East Asia plans to look into Putin’s soul, à la former US President George W. Bush, or otherwise show much concern about what kind of person he is. “Business is business,” as Deng Xiaoping taught us.

Certainly, Russia’s on again, off again – and now on again – gas deal with China is a case in point. In the West, Russian gas is discussed in terms of broader political relationships – how energy dependence on Russia could give the Kremlin leverage to intimidate Europe. Indeed, the Russia-Europe gas relationship has been discussed in Western foreign-policy and security circles for some 30 years. For China, by contrast, the only important issues seem to be quantity, price, and the pipelines’ proximity to the Chinese industrial and consumer heartlands.

Given the Kremlin’s fraught relations with the West, catalyzed by the Ukrainian drama (now moving to a new phase with a consequential presidential election), a Russian pivot to East Asia is a move so obvious and compelling that it is hard to see why it didn’t happen sooner. China doesn’t ask political and human rights questions of its business partners, and Russian doesn’t like to answer them. Perfect.

Yet the landscape – and seascape of East Asia – is vast and fast-shifting. And Putin is likely to find that East Asia’s era of “business is business” has ended. China is beset by internal political conflicts that sometimes make Ukraine seem quiescent in comparison, and managing the internal churn is not for the faint of heart. Restive Western provinces, civil-military tensions, environmental issues, and problems with a growing number of neighbors combine to make China a far more difficult economic partner than Putin may realize.

Putin has no more interest in involving himself in China’s problems in Southeast Asia any more than China has in Putin’s problems in Eastern Europe. But, with the possible exception of South Korea, China’s relations with its neighbors have been trending in the wrong direction. Ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and with specific neighbors, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, have deteriorated sharply over disputed territorial claims with little economic significance. China’s leaders, so revered for their long-term strategic thinking, may simply be overwhelmed by the combination of a restive public and institutions that no longer seem capable of taking China into the future.

Putin thus will find a China for which business is not just business anymore. It is a combination of many factors, not the least of which is the environment. Russia will not have to deal with the environmental debate of the Keystone Pipeline, but such issues are very much in the Chinese public’s mindset these days.

Putin may be content with his role in the Ukraine crisis, because all signs suggest that he believes he is righting a historical wrong. But, as a world leader of one of the United Nations’ five permanent Security Council members, he is failing to mind his international responsibilities, and historians will judge him accordingly.

As a result, in the quarter-century since the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, relations among the “great powers” have never been worse. Their ability to work together on regional or global issues – Syria, for example, or climate change – has deteriorated substantially in the last decade. Now Putin seems to want to double down on these trends and create a new Sino-Soviet axis.

China, for all of its current problems, will be not interested. The compass for China’s journey still points clearly to international integration. But its leaders, whatever internal challenges they face today, need to rise to the occasion. That means telling Putin to keep any grand visions to himself.

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  1. CommentedVelko Simeonov

    For the chinese business will always be business, so Putin does not ahve to worry about that. In respect to environment a new gas pipeline can bring nothing else but value in that aspect as buring gas will alway result in lesser environment polution as comapred to all other fossil fuels. The comparison between an oil pipeline (Keystone XL) and a gas pipeline in terms of potential environmental damage is absurd; if an oil pipeline explodes heavy polution is all but guaranteed, no such issues with a gas pipeline. Deeper engagement between russia and china (assuming no territorial disputes) is an obvious wini win for both sides and a loose loose for the US/European community. You might not like it Mr. Hill but no amount of biased analysis is going to change that in the forsseable future.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Hill, for centuries, Russia has been looking in two directions - like its double-headed eagle - to the West and to the East. Vladimir Putin likes to see Russia as an integral part of the West, but economically he "looks east".
    Since Putin came to power in 2000, he began to forge closer ties to China. He called on Jiang Zemin not to retreat into self-isolation and instead to join a global "arc of stability" stretching from China via Russia to the Atlantic. His idea of an arc would correspond Mr. Hills "Sino-Soviet Axis". The two countries signed a new friendship treaty in July 2001. Putin assured China that Russia's recent rapprochement with the US and Europe would not in the least signify a decline of interest in China.
    Although the two felt accepted by the international community, they still feared being frozen out by a Western, and particularly American, domination of world affairs. This revival of old friendships was hence a logical alignment. Putin was the second foreign leader to meet Hu Jintao, when Hu became China's new leader in 2002.
    “Business is business”! Pragmatism has always been the watchword in the Sino-Soviet relations. The two giants realise the mutual benefits which can be gained from closer ties. Both countries have strengths and the ability to aid one another. China has a burgeoning economy and an energy-hungry market, while Russia has a well-developed arms industry and considerable mineral wealth. The Sino-Russian trading relationship is booming but Russia still holds a trade surplus.
    They have something else in common too, which plays a vital role in their relationship - suspicion and political culture. They share a similar view of the international situation. They formed the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation in 2001 - a collective security treaty among several CIS states - to encounter Nato's unrestrained eastward enlargement and reject Amercian dominance.
    There may be no great emotional warmth among Russians for the Chinese. Indeed there are anti-Chinese feelings, particularly in the far eastern region of Russia, over illegal Chinese immigration across the border. Yet Russia's Far East depends heavily on China, which supplies the region with food, clothing, goods and labour. Rail freight is expensive, so importing food from European Russia would mean higher prices for consumers.
    While their fellow citizens, who live in Moscow or St Petersburg travel to Europe, they have eyes for China, especially goods, as everything is much cheaper there. Those with money buy an apartment in China as an investment. In Vladivostok Chinese has become a more important language than English. The city has gained significance as Russia's shipping gateway to the East and is close to the resource rich Siberia. It hosted the APEC summit, a high-profile meeting between Asia-Pacific leaders in 2012. The Kremlin spared no expenses to present the city as modern and innovative.
    Yet what concerns foreign companies most of all is the pervasive nature of politics in Russia and the country's judiciary. The Kremlin however, appreciates that the Chinese don't preach about human rights. There is close co-operation between Russia and China in many spheres, despite widespread suspicion in Russia about possible Chinese territorial aspirations on the Russian Far East. Russia acquired this far-away strip of Pacific coastline from the Chinese in 1860.

  3. Commentedhari naidu

    While I'd subscribe to your final para, I don't think (new) Sino-Soviet axis or an alliance is in the card - as far as Xi is concerned. Ukraine was discussed during Putin's two day trip to Shanghai, and I take it China is not about to interfere with (historical) Russian politics.
    The real test of Xi' s strategic outlook will inevitably depend on how he decides to deal with newly designated-PM of India.

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