Global Insights: With Asia Tour, Putin Puts Russia’s Pacific Pivot on Display

By Richard Weitz

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip this week to Vietnam and South Korea, which follows last week’s unprecedented foreign and defense ministerial meeting in Japan, testifies to Moscow’s continuing efforts to raise its profile in Asia. Last year, Russia hosted its first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference; the previous year, it joined the East Asian Summit. Half of Russia’s arms exports flow to Asian countries, which also buy Russia’s oil and gas as well as its civil nuclear technologies. Like their Western counterparts, Russian analysts consider that demographic, economic and other trends will make the Asia-Pacific the world’s most important region in coming decades.

Nonetheless, Russia is often treated as an afterthought in Asian-centered initiatives, or as China’s junior ally, as in the Korean nuclear negotiations. Despite its location, with much of its territory in Asia, Russia is poorly integrated into East Asia’s dynamic economies. Although Putin can cite record bilateral trade figures with each country, Russia’s trade relations with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam fall far behind these three countries’ economic interactions with each other. Moscow’s diplomatic flexibility is also constrained by its territorial conflict with Tokyo over the Kuril Islands, the mutual Russian-U.S. failure to extend their reset to Asia and Russia’s inability to either align with a rising China or develop a means to manage the consequences of China’s re-emergence as a regional power.

China and Russia have established a pragmatic relationship based on their shared national interests in maintaining regional stability, limiting Western influence and strengthening mutually beneficial economic ties. Their defense relationship has become better institutionalized and integrated. Meanwhile, Sino-Russian economic ties are growing rapidly: China, which has been Russia’s leading trade partner since 2008, has become its gateway to other East Asian markets and will probably soon become its main source of foreign direct investment.

Yet, Russian policymakers are seeking a greater role in East Asia independent of their relationship with China, and they see Japan, South Korea and certain Southeast Asian countries as important conduits for generating and projecting influence. This is not an effort to contain or encircle China; rather, the goal is to enhance Russian bargaining leverage with all regional players and hedge against problems that may arise in any one relationship. Moscow has pursued that policy already in the cases of India and China, seeking strong security and economic ties with both countries while avoiding siding with either one against the other whenever possible. The same logic has more recently extended to encompass other Asian partners.

Throughout this year, Russia has launched initiatives to ameliorate its strained ties with Japan. Putin has met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe four times within the past six months. In April 2013, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister in a decade to conduct an official state visit to Russia. In their joint statement at the end of that trip, the two leaders called on their foreign ministries to accelerate the search for options to resolve their differences, while launching several joint economic initiatives. On Nov. 1, the Russian and Japanese defense ministers agreed to expand military ties by sending observers to each other’s military exercises as well as undertaking joint anti-piracy and anti-terrorist exercises. The following day, the two sides held an unprecedented “two-plus-two” meeting of their defense and foreign ministers, where they discussed the Korean Peninsula, China, cybersecurity, WMD proliferation, international terrorism and other regional security issues, while affirming both countries’ intent to coordinate their policies in multilateral regional organizations such as the East Asia Summit and ASEAN.

Expectations for progress on the disputed Kuril Islands are high for the coming year, when the Japanese foreign minister is scheduled to travel to Russia. Solving the territorial dispute is necessary for normalizing their relationship, as it would not only remove a major barrier to greater Russia-Japan economic relations, but would also facilitate a logical geopolitical rapprochement. Moscow is seeking options and leverage with China as well as an opportunity to achieve mutual economic benefits.

For their part, Japanese policymakers have realized that they need to reduce tensions with Russia to manage the threat from China. Even in the absence of a territorial deal, Russia-Japan economic ties have expanded markedly after Tokyo relaxed its policy of limiting trade and investment until Moscow yielded on the territorial dispute. Japan has become Russia’s second-largest trading partner in Asia after China, with turnover reaching a record $33 billion last year, while Japan’s cumulative direct investment in Russia reached $10.6 billion in 2012, making it one of Russia’s top foreign investors.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, in addition to seeking investment and trading opportunities, the Russians are eager to reduce intra-Korean tensions. Russian entrepreneurs envisage using North Korea as a transit country for Russian energy and rail exports to South Korea and other Asia-Pacific countries. Putin and other Russian policymakers also want to attract additional South Korean direct investment and high technology into Russia, especially toward the impoverished Russian Far East. Such a development would further Russia’s integration into East Asia as well as boost Moscow’s leverage with North Korea. Unfortunately, these plans cannot be realized without an end to North Korea’s estrangement from its neighbors, which Moscow alone can do little to change.

Russia’s regional strategy faces other major obstacles, such as its minimal diplomatic and trade tools, which mainly amount to energy and arms. For example, Russia hopes to leverage its oil and gas resources for greater regional influence, but faces the problem of diverging expectations in its desired energy markets. Russian policymakers expect Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and even China to make concessions on energy trade terms, given recent setbacks in the global nuclear energy sector and the constraints that East Asia’s manifold territorial conflicts put on exploiting undersea oil and gas fields as an alternative to Russian energy supplies. Yet, potential Asian importers of Russian oil and gas consider that their negotiating position has been improved by the growth of liquid natural gas (LNG), shale oil and other new energy sources, which have already reduced European demand for Russian oil and gas and are becoming more important energy supplies for Asian countries.

Security differences also separate Russia from its would-be Asian partners. Although Russian policymakers have grown more comfortable with Japan and South Korea’s military alliances with the U.S., they still oppose the Pentagon’s regional missile defense ambitions. China joins in this objection, but also wants Russia to limit both its arms sales to Vietnam and the help it offers Southeast Asian countries in developing contested energy resources in territories claimed by Beijing.

Putin’s desire to enlarge Russia’s diplomatic portfolio in East Asia makes good sense, and there remains a good deal of upside for Moscow to exploit. But Russia still faces numerous obstacles, including limited capabilities and policies, to fully achieve its ambitions in what many have termed the coming Asian Century.


Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.

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