Russia’s Three Roads to Asia

27 december 2012

Why None of Them Leads to the Right Goal

Pavel Salin is Director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Russian Government. He holds a Doctorate in Law.

Resume: Russia has a chance to position itself as a neutral force in the region, which can be capitalized into essential geopolitical and purely economic benefits in conditions of a standoff between two blocs, especially those that hypothetically are equal in strength.

Over the past couple of years researchers of different countries and schools have developed a unanimous view that the world’s “center of power” is moving from the Transatlantic region towards the Pacific. Even inveterate skeptics now have to admit that the economic pole of power has shifted almost entirely to the Asia-Pacific, although they still harbor the illusion that the West in general and Europe in particular will remain cultural centers (including for Russia) and will retain at least part of their political capital. Yet world history shows that a shift of the economic center to another region inevitably entails a similar shift of the cultural and political components of power.

As a new economic leader displays its success story to its people and the world, its political system and cultural traditions begin to be conceived of as advanced, because presumably they provide for higher standards of living. Europe demonstrated this tendency in the past: in 1500 it accounted for only 18 percent of world production, while the East accounted for 77 percent, including 35 percent of the Far Eastern Confucian civilization. Today, the Asia-Pacific region is expected to follow the same path within the next few decades.

The rise of the Asia-Pacific offers Russia a unique historical chance as, unlike Europe, it can be actively involved in the new geopolitical project for purely geographical reasons. Incidentally, the United States has the same opportunity due to its “insular” position, and it is already using it. Washington has announced plans to significantly build up its military presence (naval, ground and air force) in the Asia-Pacific region, and U.S. high-placed policymakers are increasingly often visiting countries in the region.

Moscow does not yet have a coherent strategy to assert its positions in the Asia-Pacific and to develop its own Far Eastern territories. Since the start of its development a century ago this part of Russia has been viewed by Moscow as a remote periphery, rather than an outpost in a fast-developing region. Judging by Russia’s increased activity in the region recently, the Russian government has come to realize the ongoing tectonic shifts. Yet it still does not know how to react to them in a systemic way. Russia’s actions in the Asia-Pacific are either intended for the public at home, like a recent visit by Dmitry Medvedev to the Kuril Islands, or are attempts to “show the flag” and demonstrate to the international community that Moscow is capable of making unconventional moves. This was the case when Russia participated in the recent U.S.-hosted Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), which for the first time involved not just observers from Russia but a Russian warship. China was not invited to participate in the exercise.

This article is an attempt at rethinking the new geopolitical configuration in the region in terms of its growing significance, and to consider Russia’s possible strategies now that major players in the Asia-Pacific – the U.S. and China – have already begun to actively build a political framework in their own interests.


The U.S.’ strategy in the Asia-Pacific is transparent enough and fits into the paradigm of actions used by Washington in the Cold War years, although it is somewhat more sophisticated. And even though there has been no new Fulton Speech that would point a finger at the strategic enemy of the “free world,” it is clear that China has almost replaced the Soviet Union for Washington. However, the two countries economically depend on each other, and the world is now multipolar and less predictable than it was in the second half of the 20th century. Yet many elements of the U.S. geopolitical strategy are rooted in the past.

The main goal of the U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy is to create a “security ring” around China, just as it tried to encircle the Soviet Union with NATO bases in the past. To this end, the U.S. uses dual tactics. First, it is building up its military presence in the region. An illustrative example of that is the agreement between the United States and Australia on the stationing of U.S. troops at an Australian base in Darwin. By 2016, a 2,500-strong task force will be deployed at the base, including ships and aircraft, whose number has not been disclosed. According to the U.S. military, the equipment to be deployed in Australia will include F-22 air superiority fighters with electronic warfare capabilities and C-17 military transport aircraft. Earlier it was reported that the U.S. was planning to build up U.S. troops in Guam, a U.S. Territory in the Pacific Ocean, and to increase U.S. naval presence in the waters of allied countries, for example, Singapore.

The military base in Australia will close the “ring of encirclement” around China. In addition, it will help control major routes through which goods are transported to the tune of U.S. $5 trillion a year, and keep an eye on all states in the region. Australian officials openly say that the base in Darwin is convenient because Chinese new-generation missiles can hit U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea, but will hardly reach Australia.

Another factor showing that the Asia-Pacific is a priority for the United States from the military point of view is U.S. plans to relocate its main power projection asset – aircraft carriers – to the region. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington will build up its military presence in the Pacific by shifting about 60 percent of the U.S. Navy to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. Currently, about 300 U.S. warships are deployed in the region, and five aircraft carriers (of 11) are assigned to the Pacific. Panetta said the overall number of carriers will be cut to ten later this year, but that the number of carriers in the Pacific is planned to be increased to six. In addition, the U.S. is planning to deploy a majority of the Navy’s cruisers, submarines and other types of combat ships in the region. Although the Secretary rejected the view that the increased presence of the U.S. in the Pacific is a direct challenge to China, the reason for the relocation is transparent.

The second tactic used by Washington to “encircle” China is political – through the establishment of bilateral and multilateral alliances, de facto directed against Beijing. Success in these efforts is achieved mainly due to two factors. The first one is apprehensions of China’s Asia-Pacific neighbors that the growing ambitions of the new global power will, sooner rather than later, make them dependent on Beijing. In addition, some countries (for example, South Korea and Japan) have strong historical fears (like those that the Baltic States and Eastern Europeans had about the Russian Empire/the Soviet Union). These fears are rooted in traditionally expansionist policies of Chinese kingdoms in ancient times and the Middle Ages and in the possibility that Beijing may want to take revenge for the imperialist policies of some of its neighbors (primarily Japan) over the last two hundred years when China was weak.

The second factor is the growing geo-economic ambitions of Beijing, which tend to exacerbate long-standing territorial disputes. This allows the United States to pursue a policy of “divide and rule.” This refers, above all, to the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims to be its own territorial waters. Almost all players in the Asia-Pacific are involved in the conflict, both key and secondary ones. For example, Vietnam, China and Taiwan claim all islands, atolls and reefs in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. The Philippines claims groups of islands in the northeast of Spratly. Malaysia and Brunei claim reefs and atolls located within their continental shelves and exclusive economic zones, and Indonesia’s sphere of interest and jurisdiction borders Spratly. The settlement of the disputes over this archipelago is complicated by the large number of claimants which have many overlapping territorial claims. This factor makes resolving all the claims impossible. At present, the dividing line goes between China and its neighbors which have competing claims to the islands, but this situation may change. Washington may use this issue to put pressure on countries that may choose to side with Beijing in a new geopolitical situation.

Another explosive situation has arisen in the East China Sea after an escalation of a conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the autumn of 2012. One more conflict, concerning the sovereignty of the Takeshima (Tokto) Islands, is a source of strained relations between South Korea and Japan.

As was mentioned above, Washington pursues both bilateral and multilateral policies. In particular, it demonstrates its support for countries in the region that have conflicts with Beijing, or interacts with some of the few players who are considered to be consistent allies of China. For example, the United States held a joint military exercise with the Philippines in April 2012 near the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island), which is a source of a bitter territorial dispute between the Philippines and China. One can also cite the fast warming of relations with Myanmar, whose leadership for decades was considered by the U.S impossible to shake hands with. The end of 2011 saw the first – in 50 years – official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State to that country. The move was welcomed by the Myanmar government, which had long been weary of its growing economic dependence on Beijing, threatening to turn into political dependence.

As for Washington’s multilateral anti-China policy, the Americans widely involve international organizations. This refers, above all, to ASEAN, whose support the United States wins over increasingly often. The Association, entry to which is informally banned for geopolitical “heavyweights” (dialogue with them is held in the ASEAN Plus format), has to follow in the wake of U.S. policy as it is concerned over China’s increasingly active policy. Both Washington and ASEAN members are interested in adopting a “code of conduct” in the Asia-Pacific region (an idea voiced by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen), which would help keep China’s expansion within a relatively predictable framework.



Beijing’s strategy in the region can be described as reactive, as inertial course of events objectively works to its advantage and against its opponents, especially the United States. China is actively rearming itself, placing emphasis on naval power projection capabilities. In August 2011, China held the first testing of an aircraft carrier which it said would not threaten anyone. As was mentioned above, new-generation Chinese missiles are already capable of hitting U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan.

In addition, Beijing is actively taking advantage of the increasing economic dependence of Asia-Pacific countries on it, including ASEAN members. After the ASEAN–China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) was established in 2010, trade between the parties increased to U.S. $300 billion, and soon it is expected to reach $500 billion. When Philippine-Chinese relations strained over the Scarborough Shoal, Beijing resorted to an asymmetric response: major tour operators of China were strongly recommended not to sell tours to the Philippines. As Chinese tourists account for about 10 percent of the overall tourist influx into the country, the move dealt a serious blow to the Philippine tourism industry.

There is one more key area in China’s policy – northwestern. Former Soviet republics in Central Asia are increasingly involved in the Chinese sphere of influence. Unlike Moscow, China relies not on broad coalitions but on bilateral contacts, which puts Russia in a losing position. For example, on the eve of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, held in Beijing in early June, China held a series of consultations with SCO members. The then-Chief of Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Chen Bingde, made a tour of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, and presidents Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan and Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan paid visits to Beijing.

In this way, Beijing is hedging against conflicts with the United States and other rivals in the region, for example, India. Although China has secured resources for its industries in many regions of the world and is continuing its expansion (for example, it has announced plans to invest an additional U.S. $20 billion in Africa), all routes for delivering the resources to China are by sea. This means that the U.S., which has an absolute superiority in the World Ocean, can easily block these routes. (This scenario is largely behind the U.S. efforts to build up its naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region.) So, Beijing needs land routes to transport its resources, which would be easier to protect using the PLA potential.



The U.S. and China are de facto in conflict, and although it is not a full replica of the 50-year U.S.-Russian confrontation, it already meets the notion of Cold War in some of its key features. This factor complicates working out a strategy for Moscow, yet it also promises prospects that would have been impossible in the absence of this large-scale antagonism in the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia will have to make a choice, which will set the line for its foreign-policy behavior at least for the decades ahead. The choice is to be made between two opposite options – in line with its former superpower status, to try to create a new center of attraction in the Asia-Pacific region (similar to an anti-Chinese alliance now being built by Washington); or to enter the orbit of interests of a larger and more influential player (naturally, this may be only the United States or China). There is also a third option which is now beautifully called “multivector policy/diplomacy” or “pendulum tactics,” but in fact means a lack of a coherent strategy and an attempt by smaller players to secure preferences from larger ones, otherwise threatening to form an “exclusive” alliance with a rival large player.

The first option – the creation of an independent center of influence in the Asia-Pacific – looks unreal. In terms of economic power and influence in the region, Russia cannot compare not only to China but even to less powerful countries, for example, India or even Indonesia. All of Russia’s economic ties have always been built on an East-to-West pattern, and whereas it worked strategically in the years of Europe’s domination, now it has begun to work against Moscow’s interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

Moreover, the ability to be the core of an independent center of power often rests on military might – a country claiming leading positions must ensure security for its satellites. The Soviet Union and the U.S. gave such guarantees to their allies in the Warsaw Pact and NATO, respectively, during the Cold War years. Now Washington gives such guarantees, not sealed in legally binding agreements yet, to its existing and potential allies in the Asia-Pacific.

Moscow’s military presence in the region is insignificant and even less than its economic presence. Moreover, the Russian (and Soviet) defense policy was always oriented towards the European theater of operations (and, to a lesser degree, the South) which is a large area of land. This is why the emphasis was (and still is) made on the ground forces, whereas the program for building air-capable ships (not aircraft carriers, as some media write, but aircraft carrying cruisers which rank below classical aircraft carriers) was shut down after the Soviet Union broke up. As a result, of five cruisers put into service with the Russian Navy (plus two unfinished ships), now there is only one – the Admiral Kuznetsov which, accompanied by just a few escort ships, can only serve to demonstrate the flag, rather than project power. Symptomatically, the other four ships, as well as one of the two unfinished ships (the Varyag), have been sold to Asia-Pacific countries – China, South Korea and India.

As almost all Asia-Pacific countries are insular or coastal, it is the Navy that will have crucial importance in building geopolitical balances in the region. Russia’s Pacific Fleet has few deep-sea ships, and even after it receives Mistral helicopter carriers (it is still unclear whether there will be two or four of them), the Fleet will hardly become a serious fighting unit.

Yet Russia still has a chance to become (or rather remain) an independent center of power in China’s “soft underbelly” – Central Asia, where Moscow’s positions have been strong since the Soviet times. This region is of strategic importance to Beijing as a source of resources (and as part of a China-Europe transport corridor in the future). By partially controlling it, one can influence the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. However, Moscow’s positions in the region are being eroded, largely by China’s policy. For example, the SCO, which was viewed by Moscow in the early 2000s as an instrument for restoring its influence in Central Asia, now is increasingly going out of its control. Moscow is well aware of the potential of Beijing’s “bilateral diplomacy” tactics, as it itself successfully uses them in relations with Europe.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is under Russia’s control due to the latter’s overwhelming military superiority in it, increasingly often has overlapping interests with the SCO. For example, the latest summits of the two organizations discussed security issues in Central Asia, and it is a big question whose decisions will be a greater priority for their members. In addition, there have emerged profound problems in the CSTO, caused by the lack of full confidence among the allies, and even the growing uncertainty over Afghanistan does not cause the member countries to consolidate around Moscow.

When the Russian elites realize that the formation of an independent geopolitical center in the Asia-Pacific region is impossible, they may fall into the opposite temptation, namely to go with the tide. China is lobbying precisely for this kind of scenario, as its experts openly say that Moscow does not need any special strategy with regard to the Asia-Pacific region because “things are good as they are.” Moreover, sensing that the Russian authorities feel it increasingly hard to put up with the inertial course of events, where economic dependence may turn into political one, the Chinese act according to the principle that “if you cannot stop a process, you should try to lead it.”

For example, Beijing is seeking to exploit, for its own purposes, Moscow’s favored idea of Russia as a corridor between the East and the West. China is now actively lobbying (including through the SCO) for a project for building a Eurasian Continental Bridge (a New Silk Road), which would connect Shanghai on the Pacific coast with major European capitals. At present, SCO members are holding consultations with a view to signing an agreement on favorable conditions for international road transportation. The agreement would stimulate the creation of a network of roads throughout the region.

Beijing is trying to interest all potential participants in the project. It says, for example, that Russia, as a country with the largest territory, should be the main transit country. At the same time, it says, Central Asia is the core of the project. The name “New Silk Road” is intended for the elites of Central Asian countries, which dream of restoring the significance their countries had in the Middle Ages and ancient times. Meanwhile, Beijing is reticent about the role it has assigned to itself in this project, namely its “engine” and moderator. It will control the project’s development and its parameters, while the transport corridor will be used solely for exporting Chinese goods to Europe, and therefore it will be critically dependent on these exports.

Realizing the futility of these two variants of a strategy for positioning Russia in the Asia-Pacific region, Moscow has predictably chosen a third one – “swing tactics.” In simple terms, it intends to show to China that there is an alternative to it, namely the United States; and conversely, it shows to Washington that China may well be an alternative to it. It is in this context that one can view the participation of the Russian Navy in the U.S.-hosted Rim of the Pacific Exercise. China did not take part in the exercise; at the same time, RIMPAC involved, among others, the Philippines, which has an escalating territorial dispute with China, and, for the first time, India, which is seen as a counterweight to Beijing in the region.


The classical “multivector policy,” where a strategy is replaced by a tactic of moving from one center of power to another, does not meet Moscow’s interests, either. Paradoxically, its strategic goals partly coincide with those of China and partly with U.S. goals.

As regards the former, neither China, nor Russia is interested in preserving the world order dominated by the West. This is particularly manifest in the standoff on the Syrian issue. The world order that was established in the world after the breakup of the Soviet-led Eastern bloc with the tacit consent of a majority of players proved to be unstable. It was based on the domination of venture capital which was controlled mainly from the United States (and partly from the UK). However, the crisis of 2008 (actually it began much earlier, in 2000, with the collapse of dot-coms) dashed hopes for the stability of the U.S.-led world order.

It is necessary to build a new system.  And it is not so much the world economy that matters here, although it is the basis, as the world humanitarian infrastructure, now based on the symbolic capital of the West – in other words, on the belief that everything Western stands for “advanced.” Systemic failures, now beginning in Europe, will soon bury this logical connective and many other things. As a result, those not satisfied with the old world order will have to participate in the creation of a new infrastructure – banal stock and commodity exchanges (Asian countries actively engage in this process) and a new humanitarian network. Figuratively speaking, the new world will need its own Nobel Prize, its own Oxford University, its own The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, and its own Amnesty International.

However, the strategic interests of Russia and the U.S. in the region also partly coincide. Both countries are interested in involving China in the system of commitments stemming from its membership in international organizations. Beijing in principle prefers bilateral diplomacy, whereas the involvement strategy could make its policy more predictable. However, Moscow is still far from both building a new infrastructure and involving China into the system of international commitments.

None of the three linear recipes is acceptable for Russia’s Asia-Pacific policy. This means that its actions in the region should be (and will be) more complex, on the one hand, and more flexible, on the other, than those of Europe. It should be ready to situationally respond to challenges.

However, this situational approach does not necessarily mean the absence (or even impossibility) of a coherent concept for implementing one’s interests in the region. It is still a matter of discussion whether Russia is a European country and, especially, whether it is part of the civilizational “center” or “periphery” – there are opposite views on this issue both in Russia and Europe. It is absolutely certain, however, that from a civilizational point of view Russia is not an Asian country, especially when viewed by Asia-Pacific nations. In the foreseeable historical future, they will never view Russians as akin to themselves (which does not rule out Russia’s successful integration into the region’s geopolitical balance). However, this seeming weakness may turn into an advantage. Russia does not have a long history of participation in the colonization of Asia-Pacific countries – unlike Europeans and Americans (the short Soviet experience does not count, and it has not remained in the historical memory of people in the region). Therefore it is not an irritant to Asia-Pacific nations, as are Europeans and Americans. This means that Russia has a chance to position itself as a neutral force in the region, which can be capitalized into essential geopolitical and purely economic benefits in conditions of a standoff between two blocs, especially those that hypothetically are equal in strength. In other words, it is a case of using the “distant neighbor” cliché, an alliance with which can help counter a possible threat from a “next-door neighbor” with expansionist plans. This cliché is successfully used by the U.S., for example, in Central Asia (Uzbekistan) to the detriment of the interests of Russia and China or in Mongolia.

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