Russia’s Elusive Quest for Influence in Asia

Putin arrives in Shanghai desperate to reorient Russia’s Asia policy amid tensions with the West and China’s rise.

RadchenkoFor The DiplomatSergey Radchenko writes:

One of the most useful exercises for understanding Russia’s geopolitical dilemmas is to take any of the number of commercial flights from Moscow to Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East. It is a journey of about eight hours, covering thousands of miles and a dozen time zones of virtually uninhabited space – in the words of a 1960s Soviet hit, “a green sea of the taiga.” It really does look like a sea from 30,000 feet, rolling in all directions: forbidding, vast, mesmerizing. For generations Russia has tried to come to terms with its size, sending explorers, colonists, convicts, peasants, soldiers, and Youth Communist league activists to build up islands of “civilization” across Siberia and the Far East.

REUTERS-Alexei Nikolsky-RIA-Novosti-Kremlin

“Putin’s current visit to China is a last-ditch effort to break the deadlock with a deal that could see Gazprom, now almost entirely dependent on the European market…”

They built cities dilapidated from inception, laid roads that turned to swamps, erected golden church domes and monuments to Lenin. They brought Russia to Asia and made Asia a part of Russia, leaving indelible marks on Russia’s identity, its present dilemmas, and its future directions. Putin’s arrival in China this week highlights the continued – indeed, growing – importance of Asia in Russia’s global calculus. Today, perhaps more than ever, Russia looks East, not West. It sees Asia’s potential markets, eyes its potential battlefields, and seeks a role for itself as a broker, a visionary, and a leader.

 [Sergey Radchenko is the author of Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War (Oxford Studies in International History) and Two Suns in the Heavens: The Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962-1967, both are available at]

Russia’s Asia policy rests upon three pillars. The first is economic ties. Russia’s number one trade partner is China with an annual turnover of nearly $90 billion. Japan and South Korea jointly account for another $60 billion. All three import Russia’s natural resources, primarily oil and LNG. These products make up more than two-thirds of Russia’s exports to China and South Korea, and over 80 percent of exports to Japan. Minerals, timber, and fish account for most of the remaining percentage, while Russia’s industrial and “high tech” goods barely even appear in the statistical tables.

Russia’s export of oil and gas to the dynamic Asian markets can be lauded as the so-called “energy lever” or derided as dependence on a “natural resource appendage.” Regardless, there is just no alternative to oil and gas, especially in the underdeveloped provinces of Siberia and the Far East. Putin has raised concerns about the unbalanced structure of Russia’s Asian trade, particularly with China. In an interview earlier this week he again expressed his hope that the Chinese would invest in something other than Siberian oil and gas and even create “technological and industrial alliances” with Russian companies. But there is as yet little to show for all his efforts to attract Chinese, or, indeed, Japanese or South Korean financing for developmental projects in any area other than the extractive industries.

In recent years the resource pillar has shown signs of strain. Moscow has been beset by threats, some – like shale gas – still ephemeral, others – like competition from Central and Southeast Asian exporters and from the Middle East – more of a pressing concern. A sign of Russia’s declining ability to set the terms of trade, the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom has been unable, despite multiple rounds of talks and Putin’s numerous personal interventions, to agree on the price of gas supplies to China. Putin’s current visit to China is a last-ditch effort to break the deadlock with a deal that could see Gazprom, now almost entirely dependent on the European market, annually export 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China. The importance of a breakthrough cannot be understated at a time when Russia is threatened with Western sanctions. In what looks like a bid to increase the stakes, the Russian media has announced that the deal has been agreed to. The Chinese failure so far to confirm this points to the intensity of negotiations, which, reportedly, include Beijing’s demands for equity stakes in Siberian gas fields, something that Gazprom has bitterly resisted….(read more)

The Diplomat

Sergey Radchenko is Reader in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, UK. He is the author of Unwanted Visionaries: the Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War and Two Suns in the Heavens: the Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962-1967.

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