In the wake of Japanese weakness to Chinese pressure comes this , , ,
Russia's Focus Shifts to the East
While on a visit to the far eastern Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said on Wednesday that the Pacific Kuril Islands chain is a “very important” part of Russia. Medvedev pledged to visit the Kuril Islands, which are controlled by Russia but claimed by Japan, in the “nearest future.” Medvedev was scheduled to visit the islands during his trip, but the stop was canceled, allegedly due to bad weather.
STRATFOR has closely followed how Moscow has paid and continues to pay substantial attention to the geopolitical events to its west — i.e., Europe and the United States. But over the past few years, Russia has finally achieved a degree of security that allows it to turn its attention to its neighbors to the east. It is true that these eastern neighbors are thousands of desolate Siberian miles from the Russian core of Moscow and St. Petersburg. But they are important to Russia nonetheless, as Medvedev’s comments about the Kurils indicate. This eastern front, which not only includes the heavyweights of China and Japan but also dynamic players like Vietnam and Indonesia, has of late seen a notable increase in attention from Russia. These interactions raise interesting questions, not only about what is going on now, but also what this could bring — in terms of opportunities, risks and challenges — in the future.
Russia is a country that spans nearly the entire Eastern Hemisphere. As such, while its core and core interests are in the West, it has natural interests in the East as well. And these interests in the Asia Pacific region have paralleled what has in recent decades been a remarkable shift in global economic power from West to East. China and Japan continue to jockey over the position of the world’s second largest economy, and South Korea is nearly in the top 10. While European countries struggle to determine what exactly the eurozone should and should not be, Asian economies, generally in better financial shape after having suffered their own crisis in 1997-98, concentrated on public investment to maintain growth and expanding regional trade relationships to make up for lower demand from Europe and the United States. While they are still heavily dependent on exports, they are not shackled by debt like the Western developed countries and continue to grow at relatively fast rates.
“Russia has finally achieved a degree of security that allows it to turn its attention to its neighbors to the east.”
For Russia, Asia’s increased economic power has made it a growing market to tap. As a country that is capital poor with an economy that is driven by the export of natural resources, Russia inevitably looks to East Asia in its efforts to build new relationships. Russia is increasingly looking at the energy-hungry countries of Northeast Asia especially as an opportunity to increase its oil and natural gas exporting portfolio, signing major deals over the past few years with the likes of China and Japan. Russia sends liquefied natural gas exports to Korea and Japan, and 200,000 barrels of oil flow daily to China. But there are opportunities with other countries as well. Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia are hungry for military, energy, nuclear and space technology — something that Russia also happens to have copious amounts of and is increasingly sending their way.
Even better for Russia, the East Asia region is one where Moscow does not need to attempt to exert hegemony the way it does in Europe. Since the Mongol invasions, there have been no strategic challengers that pose an existential threat to Russia as Hitler or Napoleon did — although Japan has repeatedly threatened Russia’s Pacific presence and China could one day threaten Russia’s dominance in Central Asia. But even if a more substantial challenger were to emerge, Russia has the strategic depth of the sheer space of Siberia, as opposed to the short and smooth invasion route presented by the North European Plain.
Of course there are challenges and potential perils for Russia when looking east as well. Russia has had a historically ambivalent relationship with China, and a disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese war was one of the primary reasons for the fall of Tsardom that led to the Russian Revolution. In geopolitics there is no such thing as permanent allies — only alliances of necessity or convenience — and while a dynamic East Asia could present some convenient relationships now, this convenience can quickly change, whether through economic stagnation, political realignment or other means. In particular, Medvedev’s promise of a trip to the Kuril Islands is especially (and deliberately) aggravating for Japan, which is in the midst of a lengthy dispute with China over another group of disputed islands and is therefore attempting to strengthen its defense posture and shore up its security alliance with the United States.
In terms of energy cooperation, Moscow is pursuing opportunities in the Asia Pacific region that show promise, though they also bring enormous geographical and financial difficulties. The success of these projects depends on future Asian economic growth, which faces risks related to global circumstances and, in particular, China’s structural flaws and deepening imbalances. Moreover, Russia’s thorny territorial disputes and deep-seated antagonism with Japan, and the persistent differences with China that prevent a long-term strategic alignment, ensure that a growing Russian focus on the region brings political and security challenges. Asian countries also have much to gain from Russia, but are simultaneously wary of Russia’s tendency to use energy as a political tool, its military might, its arms trade with their regional opponents, and its plans to revitalize its naval presence in the Pacific. At the same time, the United States is strengthening its Pacific alliance structure and attempting to re-engage with Southeast Asia. In other words, Russia is becoming more involved in the region at a time when the region’s economic and security conditions are changing rapidly, and changing in ways that suggest heightening competition.
So after decades of being engrossed in the Western theater throughout the Cold War, and the subsequent 20 years of rebuilding the influence it had lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has emerged in the East an area worth looking at for Russia. And now, even if only remarking on the importance of a small and far-flung island chain, it certainly appears that Moscow finally has a mounting interest to do so.