Boxed in by the U.S. and its allies, faced with an uneasy relationship with China and needing new friends and income, Russia is popping up everywhere in Asia.
A new strategic agreement with Pakistan. A visit by Vladimir Putin to India. Helping search for a plane that crashed off Indonesia. Coaxing Kim Jong Un to venture out of North Korea. In a region where some governments may be less squeamish about events in Ukraine, Putin is surprisingly welcome.
Russia’s forays reflect a dual strategy: To find new markets as its economy is crushed by sanctions and last year’s tumble in oil prices, and to diversify from its one big ally in Asia — China. Putin is concerned that his relationship with Xi Jinping is becoming increasingly tilted in China’s favor.
“The Russians are wary of becoming over leveraged to China and so they are very keen to try to diversify their portfolio and improve ties with a multitude of Asian powers,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The Ukraine crisis has prompted them to try to accelerate their Asian pivot.”
While Russia can’t ignore China — it was Russia’s biggest trading partner in 2013, the two hold regular military drills and China is buying Russian gas — the government in Moscow is renewing efforts to find other nations in Asia to act as a hedge. In recent months it has reached out to middle powers like India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Pakistan.
“Russia has changed the pace of looking east and what it sees is a complicated scenario,” said W.P.S. Sidhu, a senior fellow at Brookings India in New Delhi. “There is a sense of trying to balance China. Everybody is concerned about China’s growing capability and more importantly its intentions.”
Putin’s accelerated Asian focus is a mix of military engagement and efforts to promote trade, the latter starting from a low base. Russia is only the 14th-largest trading partner of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with two-way trade worth $19.9 billion in 2013, up 10 percent on the prior year, according to Asean. Russia ranked as China’s ninth-most important commercial relationship in 2013.
“Russia’s priority is relations with China, however it doesn’t want to put all of its eggs in that basket,” said James Brown, who specializes in ties between Russia and Japan at Temple University in Tokyo. “That is why it is also pursuing relations with India, Vietnam – two countries with difficult relations with China — and Japan can fit into that box as well.”
Written by DAVID TWEED on February 15, 2015 for Bloomberg Business.