Russia’s foreign policy “tilt” towards East and South Asia

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to China last October gave many experts the impression that the man who will be Russia’s next president is going to focus most of his foreign policy attention on the Asia-Pacific region (excepting the post-Soviet space, of course, which by definition cannot play a secondary role in Moscow’s international strategy).


They cite various political, economic and other factors to support their opinion, which is essentially predictive in nature. By and large, their forecast is linked to the expectation that the next Russian head of state will pursue a tougher foreign policy and express more opposition in Russia’s dialogue with the West. Russia’s foreign policy vector towards the West has hit a “growth ceiling,” and qualitative changes are unlikely in the near- to midterm. The main actors in the West, Russia’s counterparts, are reluctant to change their attitudes on a wide range of issues that Russia sees as having a negative or somewhat negative impact on its interests — such as European missile defense and the continued foot dragging regarding Russia’s initiative for a new European security architecture, on which Russia offered a draft treaty in November 2009. There is also the creeping, although more veiled, Euro-Atlantic absorption of some European countries and former Soviet republics. The economics of Russia’s relations with the West likewise offers little that is new — Europe will continue buying Russian energy resources while simultaneously throwing up obstacles to Russian energy monopolies, in the form of various “energy packages,” for example; and Russia will continue to be interested mainly in Europe’s healthy and broad market, while coping with its attempts to limit Russia’s gas and other energy monopolies.


At the same time, given the deplorable absence in the West of any signs of qualitative growth, the Asia-Pacific vector of Russia’s foreign policy offers new opportunities for political rapprochement, economic cooperation and coordination of interests with the “flagships” of East and South Asia, which is on the rise. China, India and a few other promising Russian partners in this vast region have the potential to offer Moscow bilateral novelty, growth and coordination, especially as they themselves are visibly tired of the too pushy and overbearing tone of the United States and its Euroatlantic allies in everything affecting the interests of the region’s largest countries.


Russia will obviously continue its relationship with the West, with the key exception of the slightest signs of confrontation with Washington, London and the major continental European countries. But a fresh breeze in the form of more steadfast development and the execution of a different foreign policy vector will not be superfluous. Diversification is not beneficial in economics and business alone; it is also needed in foreign policy because it makes it possible to spread risks and create additional spots of stable growth.


Here are some reasons to believe simultaneously in the objective nature of many Russian experts’ predictions concerning the near-term priorities of Russia’s Asia-Pacific foreign policy vector and in the factors contributing to the shift of Russian foreign policy from the West to East.


- The East has a greater potential for political rapprochement and economic cooperation between Russia and the region’s countries. This potential is very broad and includes issues ranging from foreign policy cooperation in maintaining peace and stability and Russian support for the efforts of some countries in the region to become permanent members of UN Security Council, to the development of cross-border economic projects. The East Asian vector is charged with promise, primarily from the potential that China and India could become major Russian trading partners. At the same time, little coordination of foreign policy in the China-Russia-India triangle is taking place at this stage. The difficult relations between Beijing and New Delhi are the main limiting factor here. It would be an indisputable foreign policy success for Russian diplomacy if Moscow can integrate itself into this triangle between Beijing and New Delhi.


- India and China currently are facing the urgent problem of resisting Western pressure to stop buying Iranian oil. Beijing and New Delhi have already stated their principled position on the issue, but to stand firm on their principles they could benefit from Russia’s foreign policy support and prospects for new energy projects. The following idea has some claim to objectivity: Only Russia can provide China, India and other politically and economically growing Eastern and South Asian countries at the juncture of Asia and the Pacific Ocean cooperation that is most convenient for them in their political and economic situation as equal partners that complement each other in their desire to pursue a foreign policy that is as independent as possible. In other words, Russia, like China and India, desires to extricate itself from the obtrusive dictation of the West, and particularly the United States, on many foreign policy and foreign economic issues.


- Russia lost military-political points of presence in countries outside the former Soviet Union and now has a single point — a naval resupply base in the Syrian port of Tartus. But Russia is at risk of losing even that presence because of the uncertainty surrounding the situation in Syria. Recovery of Russia’s military base in the Vietnamese port of Cam Ranh, which it stopped using in 2002, could be a good incentive for Moscow to take military-political positions in the Asia-Pacific region, where it is difficult to have power projection ambitions without a remote naval presence.


The East loves symbolism and respects great and fair strength. Vietnam has not forgotten what the Soviet Union did to build up the country.


- And India has not forgotten how indispensable the services of the Soviet Union were in resolving the Kashmir conflict (with the Tashkent Agreement that the Soviet Union occurred in January 1966, for example), or Russia’s support at international venues in restraining Pakistani ambitions to revive the conflict. India also remembers Moscow’s refusal to support Western efforts to impose sanctions on India in 1998 when New Delhi carried out a series of nuclear tests (US unilateral sanctions against India were in effect from May 1998 to September 2001). India and China have no first-hand acquaintance with the word “sanctions” largely due to the principled position of Moscow, which did not trample the interests of Beijing and New Delhi even during the 1990s when it was most compliant with the West.


- Russia not only continues providing the two giants of the East and South Asia important and at times indispensable political and diplomatic support, it also sells Beijing and New Delhi military hardware so that they can continue following an independent course on the international stage and on regional issues. Russian T-90 tanks for India and Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2 fighters for China enabled Beijing and New Delhi to maintain the regional balance of power in their difficult relations with Pakistan and the United States (on Taiwan), respectively. There are many reasons to anticipate a gradual increase in Russian military-technical cooperation with China and India, as well as other countries in the region, despite some existing bilateral problems and opposition from the United States and other Euroatlantic countries, particularly on the Indian and other East and South Asian arms markets.


- Everything I have pointed out is based on a bilateral regime for improving, strengthening and developing relations between Russia and the Asian countries on the Pacific Ocean. However, the tendency is to build multilateral venues for cooperation in which it is possible to solve many problems in a more consolidated and hence more efficient manner with a view to receiving maximum return from decisions made on that basis. The SCO and informal clubs like the BRICS have growth potential. The SCO’s mission is intended to provide a regime that is positive for all participants and observers, particularly as it affects regional security and the Organization’s consolidated stance in international venues over the long term.


The traditional criterion for assessing priority in building relations between states in different areas — the first foreign visit by a newly elected head of state — may be indicative of the feasibility of proposals for an Asia-Pacific foreign policy “tilt” by Russia. The first visit by Russia’s new president after his election could serve as such a criterion. Will Putin continue giving experts new grounds for predicting the country’s foreign policy priorities by visiting China or India in his capacity as president of Russia (after a trip within the post-Soviet space)? We will not have to wait long for an answer to that question.


Mikhail Agadzhanyan is a foreign policy analyst. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.

Originally published in New Eastern Outlook

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