Political analysts discuss Russia’s relations with Asia

Valery Khomyakov: “One of the chief principles in Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech might be expressed as follows: we’re going to play the game wherever it suits us to do so. That means not only the West, but the East as well: China, South-East Asia in general, India, and the Middle East.”

President Vladimir Putin’s keynote speech at the Munich security conference is still echoing across the expert community. In the first days after the February 10 speech, political analysts mostly talked of the threat of a new Cold War with the West; but almost a month later, it’s become clear that there’s no sign of a Cold War as yet – so the time has come to analyze President Putin’s speech more closely, in the context of Russia’s policy on regions other than the West. Last week we published the first half of our political club’s discussion (“What is the West to us, after Munich?”). This week we shall look at Russia’s possible strategies in the East. In his speech, President Putin noted that “the combined GDP of India and China already exceeds the GDP of the United States in terms of parity purchasing power.”

Valery Khomyakov, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council:

One of the chief principles I can see in Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech might be expressed as follows: we’re going to play the game wherever it suits us to do so. Applause, calls of “Finally!” and “That what I’ve always said!” That means not only the West, but the East as well: China, South-East Asia in general, India, and the Middle East, of course. President Putin’s recent visit to that region seems very symbolic, and talk of real prospects for a natural gas equivalent of OPEC has intensified since then.

Unlike the West, the East is not politically unified – so there are more loopholes for playing the game. For example, there’s a conflict between Japan and China – and Moscow could derive some benefits from that by cooperating with both sides. There’s also a game situation with regard to South Korea, which feels threatened by North Korea. Young tigers like Singapore and Malaysia are also interesting – our goods could be promoted in their markets, there are opportunities to do so.

Of course, any game we play won’t remain unnoticed by the United States, which takes a very jealous view of what we’re doing in the East. I am certain, however, that more intensive political and economic activity by Russia in that direction will have a substantial effect in prompting America to realize that it’s more useful to take us into account rather than brushing us off, as it sometimes does now. Of course, some of the Americans are crazies who dislike us simply because we’re Russians – but most of them are pragmatists. The United States used to derive benefits from the fact that Russia was weak, but now it will quickly come up with ways of using a Russia that is growing stronger. America could use our influence in North Korea and the Middle East in pursuing American national interests. A Russian-US conspiracy, in the good sense of the term, could also be beneficial for us in these areas.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation:

Everything is quite clear for Russia with regard to the East – this is an actively developing area for our diplomacy, where a very positive agenda is taking shape in relations with China and India. In effect, what is happening there is consistent application of triangle diplomacy. Our oil pipelines are now approaching China’s borders at the rate of two kilometers a day – so there’s the most visible evidence of rapprochement. Of course, it would be even better if we could manage to finish building a road from Chita to Khabarovsk. Laughter from the audience. And the fact that an APEC forum will be held in Vladivostok is an evident turnaround in our direction. Besides, our trade turnover with Asia-Pacific countries is growing at 20% a year. That’s much faster than growth in our trade with any other region of the world – although Russia is still an economic dwarf for East Asia, of course.

As yet, I’m not seeing any serious grounds for establishing Asian integration groups similar to European groups. It’s hard to imagine China and Japan as each other’s allies. Japan and South Korea are more likely to be allies of the United States than each other’s allies. But a Russia-China-India triangle is becoming more viable. Moreover, our president has started visiting India. The big problem in the 1990s was that Boris Yeltsin spent eight years promising to visit India, but never actually visited, and our Indian friends were greatly offended by that.

Another part of the East which is undoubtedly important for us is the Arab world, and the Islamic world in general. To a significant degree, Russia is a country where Islam is a primary religion. On the other hand, this is also a potential source of threats which we have encountered already, as we can recall from the Chechnya situation.

Dmitri Oreshkin, senior research fellow, Geography Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences:

In my view, the threats we face from the East are not comparable to the scare stories we’re hearing from the West. The main problem is that China is currently experiencing the phase of historical development that the Soviet Union went through in the late 1960s: it’s achieved its first successful manned space launches, its economic growth is relatively successful, and it senses the power of its Armed Forces, while the rest of the world looks on this growing military might with some horror. In reality, some very serious internal problems are ripening in China. First of all, there’s the extremely inefficient, energy-hungry economy: oil consumption is growing at 15% a year, while industrial growth is only 10%. Secondly, China has huge environmental problems: over-population and a shortage of modern technology lead to a situation where the Chinese simply don’t have enough land and water. Thirdly, there’s a very sharp boundary between the economic miracle zone – a belt along the coast of south-eastern China – and China’s impoverished heartland. Along the coast, there’s a population of 300 million with monthly incomes averaging $200-250 – but inland there are one billion Chinese with monthly incomes of $34-40. And there’s another 100 million people who simply can’t find jobs.

What will China encounter in the immediate future? If everything is left as it is, China will soon run out of all resources – environmental resources and raw materials. But if it raises labor productivity, social inequality will increase – those who adopt intensive production methods will get rich, while the rest are left with nothing. The Soviet Union was unable to accept the natural inequality between people and territories, since this contradicted state ideology. Now the Chinese leadership is faced with the same difficult choice: pursuing development and increasing social contrasts, or slowing down development in order to alleviate contrasts. To all appearances, Beijing has decided in favor of slowing development: it’s cracked down on Shanghai’s most successful business group, accusing it of corruption, dismissing all the leaders, and now they’ll face a firing-squad. Correspondingly, the money made by China’s relatively prosperous coastal zone will be taken away, and the government will try to use the money to develop inland provinces. This is what the USSR was doing. For example, the Togliatti plant could have produced twice as many Zhiguli cars, which were in demand at the time “People are still buying them,” says a member of the audience. Condescending laughter from everyone. – but that would have raised living standards in Togliatti to substantially more than the national average. So the people of Togliatti were not permitted to enrich themselves through their labor, and as a result there was an acute shortage of cars all over the country, right up until the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The same thing will happen in China: the contrast between its developed and undeveloped territories will intensify anyway, since alleviating those contrasts would take decades and huge injections of money. Successful regions will protest more and more against this levelling, and over the next 10-15 years an explosive crisis is sure to build up in China. This could lead to anything from a civil war between the rich and the poor to a perestroika-like ideological revolution. But we can’t rule out the possibility that the Chinese authorities might try to distract the people from growing problems by mobilizing them for a war on Taiwan or a takeover of “vacant territories to the north” – Siberia and the Russian Far East. Thus, Russia’s priority now should be to build up its military forces on the eastern borders and start working on those lands as soon as possible, because they’re hanging by a thread at the moment. It’s much easier to travel from Vladivostok to Seoul or Taiwan than from Vladivostok to Moscow.

Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the CIS Countries Institute:

I went to China for a conference recently. Sergei Markov (Political Studies Institute director) and I did a kind of survey while we were there. Not an opinion poll, but a psychological survey, questioning about 180 people. A very definite group: Muscovites, all with a university education, various ages. The results showed, first of all, that these people are very dissatisfied with the Russian media’s coverage of China – it’s almost non-existent. Secondly, they feel threatened by China to a significant degree. There’s a correlation here: the less we know about the East, the more we fear it.

What’s most interesting of all is that the people who show the greatest fear of the “Chinese threat” are in the over-55 age group, while the more progressive respondents are aged 24-35. Thus, in order to interact with China normally, we first need to ensure that our people know what China is, at least.

But there are also plenty of barriers to any forms of integration at the highest level. For example, the Chinese suggest discussing the possibility of China joining the Euro-Asian Economic Community and the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization. We answer, directly and frankly, that such a discussion would not be advantageous for us – since Russia is the leader in these organizations and wants to remain the leader. The Chinese response to this is fairly calm; in diplomatic language, it means an invitation to dialogue about the possibility of a bilateral economic and military-political alliance.

But we need to understand that while this is only an invitation to dialogue at present, once a specific discussion begins, China will present us with specific terms and conditions. And we should also set conditions. For example, the idea that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China – we fully support Beijing’s position, and regard this support as an expression of partnership. But is China prepared to support our policy on unrecognized states within the CIS? We get an Oriental-style reply: “Well, you understand, it’s very hard for us to take an unequivocal stance here.” The same applies to India – it has a very complicated relationship with both Pakistan and China. All the same, I think we have some resources to make progress in the East, and we should use them.

Dmitri Orlov, general director of the Political and Economic Communications Agency:

In my view, Russia is hardly in a position to establish any kind of stable construct in the East – anything like a Moscow-Beijing-New Delhi triangle. The problem isn’t just geographical remoteness, or the fact that we represent different civilizations with a thousand-year history. The main point is that Russia, China, and India are three powers with different interests, some of which don’t overlap at all and some of which are contradictory. For example, China is interested in expanding to the north – but Russia has absolutely no interest in that. So it would be better for us to develop a system of bilateral cooperation based on the priority of our national economic interests. We should also develop and reinforce the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), especially its defense aspects, establishing an effective security system in Central Asia. And we should do all we can to weaken the influence of other great powers – primarily the United States – in Central Asia.

Ever since Yevgeny Primakov was in office, the Russian elite has been saying that Russia’s foreign policy is multi-directional. This definition is finally starting to take on some realistic features: as well as our traditional sales of military hardware and industrial equipment to China and India, we are starting to pursue large-scale strategic partnership projects with these countries.

In the Far East, Russia has an interest in a development format which is comfortable for Russia itself – that is, the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline, along with the mineral resources of Siberia and the Russian Far East, should remain under state control. In everything else, we want to cooperate closely with the corporations and governments of China and Japan. But uncontrolled penetration of our territory by Chinese small business and migrants – the formation of high-density Chinese population centers in Russia – is hardly desirable. It would be far more desirable to attract strategic long-term investment: not in building pipelines and developing oil production, but in developing the Russian Far East’s infrastructure. As for other Asia-Pacific countries, the ESPO pipeline is also the axis around which cooperation between us will develop in future.

Maksim Dianov, general director, Regional Studies Institute:

To put it briefly, the most optimistic Eastern scenario for Russia in the next decade looks like this: we reach agreement with China on migration policy – we finally reach agreement with Japan on the Kuril Islands, or at least agree to postpone a solution – and we achieve some substantial economic agreements with Japan, China, and South Korea for developing the entire Russian Far East. The most pessimistic scenario entails failing to do any of that. As a result, relations with Japan would deteriorate over the Kuril Islands dispute, while Chinese and Korean migration to Russia would get out of control. But the most important issue is the fate of our own East, the Russian Far East. Unless it gets the economic development it needs, it might be forced to become a region that’s almost autonomous from Moscow.