Moscow wishes to remain a “non-regional power” in the “Indo-Asia-Pacific” region (IAPR) – it wants to maintain commonly held perceptions of itself as a non-threat to the region’s security and economic structure; and it frequently notes that it has no ulterior motives in changing said structure.
However, with Beijing increasingly threatening sanctions and retaliation against those who oppose it’s economic/political practices, violating sovereign waters in the South China Sea (SCS), and continuing on with the extortionary Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), Moscow’s neutrality may be brought into question. China’s recent actions in the SCS and on the Line of Actual Control with India – courtesy of Beijing’s nationalistic, “wolf-warrior” policy – have brought it in greater conflict with the international community; a conflict that will also extend to Russia.
Wolf Warrior: Undercutting Moscow’s Great Power Status
While Moscow has calibrated its position on the “Indo-Pacific” in congruence with that of Beijing’s, i.e. it is a redundant conception designed to exclude/contain China, challenge inherent regionalism, and prop up US allies and interests, Beijing’s continued use of aggressive economic and territorial policies may test this position in the immediate future.
This is because Moscow’s approach to the region is based on three interests – its ambitions to maintain ‘great-power’ status, its need to balance a growing US military presence, and its desire to cultivate greater economic ties with Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, it would seem that only one of these interests is fulfilled by siding with Beijing, that of countering US military presence. Moreover, the other interests – remaining a neutral great power, and developing greater economic relationships with Southeast Asia, are directly obstructed by Beijing’s wolf-warrior diplomacy.
By siding with Beijing on all fronts, or even remaining silent on these trespasses, not only is Moscow undercutting its image a “great-power”, it also brings itself directly in conflict with Beijing, and antagonises its relationships with IAPR members such as India and ASEAN. E.g. against the Indo-Pacific, Moscow continues to regard the Indian Ocean and India as supernumerary to the IAPR question (something may have to reconsider in light of recent events); China’s territorial claims in East Asia have a direct impact on Moscow’s navigation of its own territorial disputes with Japan and South Korea; Russian infrastructure projects in the SCS are stymied due conflicting China-ASEAN territorial claims.
The Economics of Being in Beijing’s Shadow
On the economic front, Moscow has made use of the ‘Greater Eurasia’ mission centred on Russian-led economic multilateralism, with itself as a net-energy provider, physically as a conduit between Asia and Europe, and as an arms supplier. Among a number of highway, railway, sea-port, oil-rig infrastructure projects, two key ones are the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean Pipeline network, and the Trans-Korean Railway system. With these projects, Moscow hopes to create trans-regional connectivity with Russia at the centre, beginning in the Russian Far East and Siberia, and ending in Europe.
Arms sales are a major contributor to Russia’s image and economic advantages in the region; 60 percent of all arms purchased between 2014-18 in Southeast Asia were of Russian origin. In exchange for these sales, Moscow wishes to not only develop greater security cooperation in maritime, anti-piracy/terrorism and intelligence fields, but also directly barter the development of cooperative economic zones and other energy projects.
Unfortunately, the absence of appropriate funding, political will, and wider international interest, Greater Eurasia found itself tied, almost subservient to Beijing’s BRI; an initiative that in itself is being challenged by both participants and non-parties. This spells not only the death knell of a “Russia-led” multilateralism, but also the strategic autonomy required by the Kremlin to maintain ‘great-power’ status.
Such is Beijing’s shadow, that even individual deals with Vietnam and the Philippines for oil/gas exploration are viewed as contentious, e.g. Chinese fishing militias blocked Vietnamese and Rosneft workers from continuing oil-rig work in the Vanguard Bank in 2019, after Beijing warned Moscow not to do so in 2018.
And finally, while the economic field is already dominated by Beijing’s commercial imperialism and the BRI, Russian arms sales also come into direct competition with China’s growing defence export industry. It is yet another space, where the highly unequal partnership between Moscow and Beijing may spell poor crops for the former.
Normative Dilemma and Medium-Term Concerns
Many of the countries that Russia holds as gateways to the region – Japan, South Korea and ASEAN members – are in conflict with Beijing’s territorial claims and economic imperialism; some directly under threat, others within the US-China dilemma.
Even though the Russia-US relationship has deteriorated over the years, essentially forcing a de facto, long-term Russia-China commitment, Moscow must realise that this relationship is harmful to its own interests. If Moscow’s aims are to remain autonomous and neutral, and develop greater diplomatic and economic relationships in the region, an approach based on Chinese influence or within its shadow will permanently taint those aims. No longer will Russia be viewed as a non-regional power, even its attempts to wean away from Euro-centric trade will be choked by international controversy and resistance to Beijing’s influence.
On the security front, analysts in the Kremlin are also taking cognisance of the fact that Russia’s current position may require it to actively participate in a medium-term US-China conflict; something that would not only strain its own limited resources and hamper the revitalisation of the Eastern Military District and modernisation of the Pacific Fleet, but also its relationship with Southeast Asia.
Moscow’s normative approach to the IAPR, its economic outreach to Southeast Asia, its ‘Greater Eurasia’ project, its desire to effectively balance US and allied presence, all are now under threat due to China’s belligerency. The question though remains – how long will it take Moscow to pull away from Beijing’s influence? The economic and security implications of pivoting support away from China, would be massive in Russia; the cost of losing amenable economic ties with Beijing, and a cohesive bulwark against US presence would be enormous.
Barring the issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan (issues that it will never take up), Moscow’s desire to retain good-will and productive partnerships in Southeast Asia will however in the long-term, come under great duress due to China’s nationalistic and belligerent foreign policy in the IAPR.