A host of recent international meetings involving the Russian President and the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea have tested the practical success of Putin’s pivot to Asia, Gilbert Rozman writes.
From 3 to 5 September the Russian “pivot to Asia” was tested in Vladimir Putin’s encounters with Xi Jinping, Barack Obama, Shinzo Abe, and Park Geun-hye. Xi welcomed Putin to the Hangzhou G20 Summit as the guest of honor, and he offered encouragement about connecting China’s Silk Road Economic Belt to Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. Despite having met Putin both at the June 23rd and 24th Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Tashkent and on 25 June in a bilateral summit in Beijing, Xi still had a long agenda to pursue with the Russian leader. He wants Putin’s pivot to succeed and he applauds Putin’s geopolitical impact that complements Xi’s South China Sea aggressiveness. The chill in Xi’s pre-summit with Obama was in keeping with Putin’s refusal to accept any blame for a “frozen” relationship with the US.
Immediately prior to the G20 Summit, Putin hosted both Abe and Park at the second Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. Both made counteroffers to those Xi has put on the table, but not ones that Putin is likely to consider seriously. Abe pitched an economic agenda plus a promise to meet Putin in Vladivostok annually and to host him in Abe’s hometown by the year’s end, but he also appealed for a territorial agreement as the key to long-term relations.
When asked by moderator Kevin Rudd to explain how economic ties would deepen sector by sector, Abe answered vaguely. The eight-point economic approach he had presented to Putin in Sochi on 7 May pales before Russia’s needs and its still high expectations for China despite some disappointment in 2015.
There may still be a territorial compromise with Abe, leading to the transfer of two small islands among the four in dispute since the end of the Second World War, as Moscow has offered before, and Abe may pave the way through a variety of economic sweeteners. Yet, Japanese talk of turning Russia away from China and a major geopolitical impact is an illusion.
If Abe only indirectly raised the need for territorial concessions (calling for a peace treaty), Park was more forthright. She insisted that peace and stability – by striving together to pressure North Korea to agree to denuclearise – is the starting point for realising the potential of the Russian Far East. No mention was made of the THAAD deployment to which she had agreed with the United States in July.
Putin, however, has joined with Xi in condemning that as no less serious a threat to regional security than North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Park may win some points for gracing Putin’s gathering with her presence (having failed to show at other gatherings in 2014-15), but there is no reason to think that her seemingly desperate plea will be taken seriously.
Russia’s “pivot” has three main components: economic development centered on the Russian Far East, geopolitical realignment centered on China rather than multi-polarity as originally conceived, and national identity aspirations in opposition to the West.
It has yet to achieve economic success but Xi, rather than Abe or Park, is making tangible offers. A symbolic breakthrough would be agreement on Chinese financing for a high-speed Moscow-Kazan railway. New Sino-Russian coordination on the Korean Peninsula, and even the South China Sea, serves Putin’s geopolitical aims. In Ukraine and Syria, Putin is flexing his muscles, while in arms sales and development, joint military exercises, and strategic rhetoric on the future of Asia he is coordinating with Xi. Finally, Putin is rallying the Russian people behind his reconstruction of national identity, for which China is indispensable. Both leaders are reviving the identity rhetoric of traditional communism – a legacy drawing Russia and China closer together.
The “pivot” will be slow to yield clear economic benefits, given low prices for what Russia produces and the troubled state of its economic modernisation.
With China’s support, however, there will be symbols of success, including in the Russian Far East. Given Abe’s eagerness for a deal, even on terms Japan has long rejected, there may be additional symbolic successes in the Russian Far East, which Putin will laud. Success will more easily be touted in geopolitics, including Russia’s use of the “North Korean card,” putting more pressure on South Korea. Most of all, Putin will insist that the “pivot to Asia” is successful because it is the cornerstone of his move to contrast Russia’s national identity with the West. In doing so, he will face the challenge of keeping some distance from China in an increasingly polarised atmosphere.