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  • Writer's pictureOlga Krasnyak

Russia and China in East Asia in the next 20 years

At the regional conference in Seoul ‘Looking Ahead: Russia and Asia in the next 20 years’ organized by Valdai Discussion Club in partnership with KIEP (Korea Institute for International Economic Policy), the main question has been revolving around predictions of the future for Asia. Making any predictions might be a thankless job, but avoiding such talks is also short-sighted policy.

As high-ranking officials and senior academics from Russia, South Korea, China and Japan sought to agree a shared vision for East Asia, in discussions it fell to Beijing and Moscow, as the two key regional players who will shape the geopolitics in the region. China more so, Russia less.

North Korea’s provocations pose serious and increasingly dangerous challenges for the region’s security, yet Russia and China’s close ties to North Korea whether diplomatically or economically, place them both in a unique and strategic regional position. South Korea and Japan by comparison appear more cautious regarding their role in East Asia. This in spite of both receiving reassurance regarding military and defence commitments from the United States during Donald Trump’s recent visit to Asia.

The shift toward a multi-polar world reveals that new emerging regional powers, China in particular, seek to resolve their concerns related to border and sea security, as well as seek to strengthen their military capacity. The rhetoric of ‘brutal power’ and strong persuasion is reappearing as a cornerstone in some countries’ foreign policy approaches. Forming new alliances that leads to new tensions together with implementing new security strategies will likely define the next 20 years of inter-state relations.

In the case of the Russo-China partnership, there are the three dimensions that can be extracted. Here bilateral relations should be looked at through the lens of East Asia’s geopolitical landscape. Those dimensions are strategic, economic, and ideological. Each one is somehow ambiguous.

1. Strategic partnership between Russia and China is significant and might be viewed in contrast to the strategic and military alliance between the US and South Korea or Japan. The fact of being a part of different alliances unnecessary leads whether to confrontation or tensions, yet might remain obstacles for establishing reliable cooperation as such between Russia and South Korea or Japan or between China and South Korea or Japan. Condemning the latest North Korea missile launch, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov urged the US and South Korea to refrain from holding unscheduled and unprecedented air force exercises as announced in early December this year. This means that Russia put responsibility on the US and their partners in East Asia in provoking North Korea to develop its nuclear program to shield its sovereignty from any possible external threats. Seoul’s choice of the American nuclear umbrella instead of Chinese, then deployment of THAAD worsened economic ties and tourist industry between China and South Korea showcasing how negatively the Chinese public can impact on South Korean economy and trade punishing the latter for the ally with the US. Strategic cooperation between Russia and China sounds promising but the purposes of both countries are different. Russia is interested to secure its Asian borders when China is interested to develop its Northern territories.

2. Enlarging economic cooperation and attracting more Chinese investments in Siberia and Russia’s Far East is another string to be tied. According to Vladimir Putin, in the past 2 years, 80% of the $9 billion investment in Far East and Siberia came from China. Russia is highly motivated to develop the territories economically and to make them appealing for local population. Although, the Russian population in Far East is about 6.2 million people which is 4% and declines. The focus on economic cooperation, as Russian policy-makers wish to attain, should be turned from mineral resources-based to agriculture, finance, science and technology, and tourist industry. This appears to be rather wishful thinking of Russian policymakers than real plans to be implemented while Russia is not an prior partner for China to make investments and Russia doesn’t play an important role in the geo-economic landscape.

3. Ideological partnership might not seem obvious in strengthening bilateral ties between Russia and China due contrasting cultural, national, or ethnic identity. Although any ideological affiliation which opposes Western liberalism might be brought up to play a role in geopolitical games. One of the Russian traditional ideological notions, Slavophile, represents the country as an Eurasian power, which is neither belongs to West nor East. Slavophile showcases Russia as a commune country that values traditionalism and a strong role of a state’s leadership. This string alluring to traditionalism, gives an illusion for Russia and China to find common ground. Ideological matches with China might be used in official rhetoric, however, Russian people distinguish themselves as a product of Western civilization and gently preserve the image of Russia as a part of European heritage. Moreover, Russia's Pacific part to be viewed as the only European enclave in the Asian world.

In sum, cooperation between Russia and China is currently happening but hardly can be considered as promising for Russia.

In the next twenty years Russia’s Siberia and Far East more likely will be associated as a part of Asia at least in economic terms, which would rather sound ‘Russia in Asia’, not ‘Russia and Asia’. There is no evidence for equal economic partnership between the two countries because China invests in Russia’s Siberia and Far East as much as it needs to sustain Chinese Northern territories. Of course, it doesn’t mean that the future for Russia is not prosperous, yet Siberia and Far East are vulnerable facing the challenges of rising China as a major regional and world power. The potential for further cooperation between Russia and China will certainly suit Chinese interests.

As published at the Asia Dialogue of the University of Nottingham on December 12, 2017.

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