Russia’s strategic pivot to the Asia Pacific indicated in his address at the APEC Meet in September 2012 at Vladivostok has all the ingredients of emerging as a strategic game-changer in the highly militarised region dominated by any number of conflictual flashpoints from North Korea down to the South China Sea disputes.
Russia’s strategic pivot to Asia Pacific undoubtedly will prove a strategic game-changer both in terms of its timing and in its underlying intent. President Putin has well-timed his declaration at a time when the United States own declared strategic pivot to Asia has a tough challenge to restore the balance of power against China-induced military turbulence. In terms of intentions, President Putin has given notice that Russia after a decade and a half of resurgence under President Putin has now consolidated itself, and has now arrived on the Asia Pacific strategic scene.
In my last Paper focussing on United States strategic blunders in East Asia, a pointed reference was made that the United States most significant strategic blunder was not co-opting Russia in the management of the Asia Pacific security despite the much US publicised “reset” of relations with Russia in the first Obama Administration. Such a glaring omission hard to explain by Washington policy establishment was attributed by me to intense pressure from the “Cold War Gladiators” who still distort US policy- making and with their narcisstic fixations with China prefer ring a ‘US-Threatening China’ for management of Asia Pacific security, in preference to Russia having proven credentials of being a responsible stakeholder in global affairs.
Russia’s geopolitical significance cannot be missed as a recent Carnegie feature by Dmitri Trennin states: “In sheer geopolitical terms—landmass, natural resources and military capabilities, Russia remains a major power in the region. It also sits in close proximity to several of key countries in the Asia Pacific. It has a 4,355 kilometres long border with China, and a short land frontier with North Korea, and is only separated by narrow straits from the United States and its principal ally, Japan”.
Evidently, and it happens with foreign policy establishments of many countries, especially democracies, that they do not ponder over geographical maps oblivious to the fact that it is geographical determinants that drive strategy. Otherwise the planners in Washington would not have been seriously amiss in overlooking Russia’s strategic significance in the Asia Pacific as outlined above.
Setting the above aside a belated realisation seems to be taking shape in Washington that Russia indeed may turn out to be a positive force in the management of Asia Pacific security. Some observers have inferred that the United States lack of any adverse reaction to President Putin’s Vladivostok Declaration offers a clue that something deeper is afoot between the United States and Russia on Asia Pacific security.
Realistically the United States cannot expect that Russia would play second fiddle to the United States in the Asia Pacific strategic affairs. Nor should the United States expect that Russia would totally break away from its linkages with China. The latter can be brought about by the United States if it accords Russia the status and respect of a strategic co-equal in Asia Pacific affairs.
In the balance of power strategies that have always dominated the Asia Pacific security environment for decades when the United States played the ‘China Card’ against the Former Soviet Union and China itself exploited the ‘China Card’ to extract political and economic mileage from the United States, would it be too wild an expectation to assess that the United States may now at an opportune moment play the “Russia Card’ against China?
Russia’s strategic pivot to Asia needs also to be analysed in light of the current state of Russia-China relations. Two accepts from a CSIS publication of July 2011 by Shoichi Itoh elaborate this lucidly. The first excerpt runs as follows; “Paradoxically however it appears that Moscow and Beijing will never be freed from their everlasting mistrust regardless of how many new projects they may develop. In short the so-called Sino-Russian energy partnership has been largely a political show wrapped in a deep-rooted mutual distrust that contradicts the surface impression of an evolutionary consolidation of bi-lateral relations.” Further, the same report adds that: “Russia’s deep-rooted geopolitical distrust about China and Beijing’s mistrust of Moscow have been and will be ineradicable, regardless of how diplomatically their strategic partnership will be orchestrated in world politics”
President Putin has been careful in not projecting Russia’s strategic pivot to Asia in military terms even though that import cannot be side-lined. President Putin has projected his strategic foray in the Asia Pacific in economic terms of a comprehensive development of energy-rich Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East and integrating North East Asia into the Russian energy grid in the offing. Such strategies would offer lucrative business prospects for not only Japan and South Korea besides China, but more importantly to American oil giants now that their gaze from Middle East oil dependency is shifting.
The Asia Pacific security environment today is in a deep flux with China’s switch from a strategy of ‘soft power’ to a strategy of ‘hard power’. China’s aggressive military postures in the South China Sea and East China Sea have been directed not only to subdue the smaller countries of the region but also erode the image of the United States as a reliable and credible power to underwrite Asia Pacific security. It was this which prompted the United States strategic pivot to Asia.
While the United States have been able to marshal the South East nations and Japan and India too in this direction, their combined weight cannot match the strategic weight of Russia emerging in the Asia Pacific as a substantial stakeholder in North East Asia security even if not the whole of Asia Pacific.
Concluding, it can be said that Russia’s strategic pivot and more assertive profile in Asia Pacific security while not being part of any United States strategy of containment of China, could definitely induce strategic concerns in China, to the benefit of Asia Pacific security and stability as a whole.
Dr Subhash Kapila is an international relations and strategic affairs analyst, and a consultant, Strategic Affairs, with the South Asia Analysis Group. By arrangement with South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi. Author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org