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Russian Far East and Arctic: Emerging Arenas for India-China Competition?

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In a speech this year in Moscow, Indian Foreign Secretary highlighted the three strategic geographies- Eurasia, Indo-pacific and the Russian Far East (RFE), and the Arctic, which will be the key emerging theatres of geopolitics that upcoming diplomats will be engaged in throughout their careers. He further stressed that not only is Russia crucial to all the three regions, but there is also an inherent need of multi-polarity for the security and prosperity of these regions. Also, a multipolar world and a multipolar Asia is not possible without India and Russia.

Did the Foreign secretary underline the increasing Chinese ambitions in these regions and the need for countering these ambitions by pointing towards the necessity of multipolarity in Asia? Several questions arise when we take in consideration the recent rejuvenation in the relationship between India and Russia, and the narrative that strategic hedging against China is the main motive behind this rejuvenation. 

For answering these, one needs to understand why China is interested in these regions and what has been China doing in these key areas. Further, what are India’s stakes in these regions and whether India can think of competing with China here. Moreover, how Russia looks at the competition if it exists. This piece tries to analyze these questions and highlight the ongoing geopolitical dynamics in the RFE and Arctic and the pertaining Indian and Chinese foreign policies, in their past, present, and future goals.

Importance of RFE and Arctic

Geographically, RFE comprises of the Far Eastern Federal district that is the easternmost territory of Russia sandwiched between eastern Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. The district shares land borders with Mongolia, China, and North Korea to the south and shares maritime borders with Japan to its southeast and with the US to its northeast.

Having never known serfdom, this region has been culturally, religiously and politically different from Moscow and the Russian heartland for a major part of history, by virtue of more entrepreneurism and autonomy. Today there exists an additional dimension to this ‘difference’ between the RFE and the center. In the Soviet period, the region was tied to Europe economically but in past decade it has become increasingly clear that several of the Far Eastern krais and oblasts (units of governance in Russian political system like districts), especially those bordering China are now economically dependent more on Asia than on European region. This situation is compounded by migration related demographic issues. For more than a decade now the region has witnessed exodus of ethnic Russian population and seen a growing influence of Chinese businesses and migrants. The extent of this phenomenon is widely visible as over the years large tracts of land in this region have been leased to Chinese for farming, infrastructure projects and energy exploration, with a low tax regime and a considerable amount of autonomy over the activities. As a result, the region has witnessed  emergence of Chinese run farms which look like fortresses, surrounded by high fences and red flags.

The Arctic is deemed as the northernmost region on Earth. While most part of this region used to remain covered with snow for a major part of the year, this phenomenon has been on a downfall due to changes being purported by climate change. The Arctic region not only contains plethora of mineral resources but is extremely important from strategic point of view. During the cold war era, the Arctic held a prominent place in the political and military standoffs between the two superpowers- US and USSR. The region observed a drop in the geopolitical and geostrategic relevance in the 1990s and remained of ‘low tension’ due to commitments made by the Arctic states to keep the Arctic a zone of peace.

The unfreezing of snow makes way for the possibility of opening of the Northern Sea Route which can provide a cost-effective and shorter duration alternative for global shipping routes. Also, scientific developments taking place in hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation can lead to full-scale utilization of the resource base of the Arctic in near future.

Moscow’s Approach  

Since the rise of Vladimir Putin at the helm of Russian Federation, Moscow’s approach towards development of the RFE has been to inject money into existing industries which according to many analysts of the field has not worked due to the lacunae in addressing the problems of infrastructure and regional integrity. Moscow desires to integrate the region with the broader Asia-Pacific region to solve the problems of development, investment, and connectivity.

 In last few years, Moscow has taken decisions like encouraging the return of Russian ‘compatriots’ from Central Asia to accelerate large scale projects. It has also created Special Economic Zones with low tax regimes, focused on modernizing the ‘Trans-Siberian railway’ network, and emphasized on plans to invite investments in the region from nations like India and Japan, beyond the biggest investor in the region- China.

It has to be noted that any developments in the RFE cannot be in isolation from that in Arctic. With the aim of developing both the regions in concurrence, Moscow created the ‘Ministry of the RFE and the Arctic’ which is now working on creation of a corporation in order to supervise the economy and to assume control over elements like ports and exchanges.  For the Arctic, Russia rolled out its ‘Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security through 2035’ in October last year, which aims to advance the development of the region’s abundant resources (especially oil and gas), and improve living conditions for the population. As a long-term objective, Russia hopes to establish the Northern Sea route as a new global shipping lane. These aims and policies need to be considered while understanding Chinese and Indian policies and ambitions and the emerging geopolitical triangle between the three countries, resulting in both cooperation and competition.

The India-China Competition

 The perception of China has seen a rise and fall in the last three decades in Russian society. Unlike the 1990s, when there was much skepticism regarding a rise in Chinese immigration, Russia became less wary of engaging with China when relations with the west deteriorated in the aftermath of conflicts in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014. Gradually, China became the leading source of foreign direct investment in the region as well as the leading exporter to the districts at the Russia-China border. The extent of asymmetry in terms of trade resulted in a situation where while the exports from this region are diversified among the three northeast Asian states- South Korea, China and Japan, the imports are heavily dominated by China, mainly consisting of machinery, equipment and metals. This imbalance has been further aggravated by factors such as sanctions by the west- leading to declining investment from European nations, and the dramatic rise of China in realm of manufactured goods- which has led to stagnant conditions for the local industries of these regions which are now dependent on export of mainly raw materials and minerals.

As observed by some experts, Beijing’s interest in the region increased after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 when the Chinese investment was followed by an influx of Chinese migrants in the five districts at Russia-China border, namely- Amur oblast, Jewish autonomous region, Primorsky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai. From amongst these regions, Amur oblast has the largest gold reserves in Russia, while in another near-border district of Oktyabrsky, there are large Uranium deposits. Adjoining Amur is Sakha (or Yakutia), which carries the world’s largest diamond deposits.

 However, mineral resources are not the only source of motivation for Chinese investment in the region. RFE contains huge potential for infrastructure development in realm of power generation (where Chinese electric companies have already shown interest to gain foothold), and upgradation of railway infrastructure which can connect the RFE, Northeast China and Japan with Europe with a land-based network and thus reduce the sea-dependence. Invariably, there has been an increasingly accepted reality that like the Russian Asia-Pacific policy, the policy in RFE too might become lopsided due to the factor of overdependence on China.

 Kremlin on its part remain aware of the increasing dependence on export of raw materials to China. China on the other hand is working actively in diversifying its own energy imports and is now seeking to compete with Russia in realm of exports to traditional Russian markets for weaponry and technology. Ideas like temporary placement of skilled manpower from India in RFE are being explored. Besides this, the pledge by India for a $1 billion Line of Credit for development of the RFE highlights the importance being placed by the two countries to make this region a source of renewed cooperation.  For now, the plans have been in phase of conceptualization and once the implementation stage arrives, China’s stance towards the potential competition here will be interesting to observe.

Unlike the case of RFE, the changing dynamics and increasing Chinese interests in the Arctic region have been debated and speculated much more in the global geopolitical arena. In the last two decades, not only has Beijing accumulated memberships in all Arctic-related regional associations in some form, but Beijing has also made it a surety that China actively participates in all international organizations whose responsibilities cover the Arctic Ocean and laws related to it. To this end in the past decade, Beijing has started projecting its interest and speaking up on issues pertaining to Arctic. The extent of this activism can be verified by the aims and objectives mentioned in the white paper published by China on 26 January 2018, titled ‘China’s Arctic Policy’. This policy paper very explicitly states that China will participate in regulating and managing the affairs and activities relating to the Arctic, and that ‘respect’ is the key basis for China’s participation in Arctic affairs.

Beijing has made it clear that it has formulated policies and have interest in every realm in the Arctic, ranging from development of shipping routes, exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and minerals, conservation and utilization of fisheries, tourism, as well as strengthening her leadership credentials by having a say in Arctic governance. In totality, if RFE is a region for China’s increasing influence in Russia’s domestic landscape, Arctic is much more of an opportunity to put on display the increasing clout and aspirations for being accepted as a ‘great power’ who now has interests in every corner of the world. India, even if starting to present itself as an alternative to China in the RFE, will find it difficult to match the Chinese position in the Arctic.

 In January this year, India rolled out a draft Arctic policy of its own and highlighted that India seeks to play a constructive role in Arctic by leveraging its vast scientific pool and expertise in Himalayan and polar research. India remains aware that Arctic might be becoming an arena of increasing power competition.  But beyond planning, goal setting, and utilizing the existing mechanisms for scientific development, in coming years, the economic base of India will not let New Delhi go all-out for claiming a position on the Arctic high table. This is bound to increase tensions in Moscow who would not want a challenge to its hegemony in the Arctic by an increasingly ambitious China.

Conclusion

 On its part, Moscow has taken several steps to develop the RFE region to reduce its overdependence on China. However, remoteness of the region, outmigration and difficult business environment are some other issues which append the complex dynamic of the region. Beijing is aware of the benefits available due to scarce ethnic Russian labor, lack of investment from other sources for Russia, the geographical difficulties for nations like India for smooth access, and the absence of deep pockets like China for other nations. In case of the Arctic, Beijing is going for proactive diplomacy and wooing the smaller states. Although Beijing would not want to come to blows with Washington or Moscow in any ways, creating a discourse where China starts being seen as a ‘Arctic’ and not just a ‘Near-Arctic’ state will be a big win for China even before any other advantages as mentioned above are realized. India while looking to initiate presence in RFE can be deemed capable to some extent, but the credentials in case of Arctic region seems no match to that of China. Russia on her part, will want India to at least think about trying to punch above its weight and rise to the task of providing Moscow a way for hedging against Chinese hegemonic ambitions. Recently, India has expressed interest in cooperating with other nations like Japan in these key strategic areas. How Moscow responds to these plans by New Delhi will shape the geopolitical dynamics between Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi in these two emerging regions which look all set to witness a competition in the coming years.  

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East Asia

Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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Kishida and Japan-Indonesia Security Relations: The Prospects

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image source: twitter @kishida230

In October, Japan had inaugurated Fumio Kishida as the new prime minister after winning the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election earlier. Surely this new statesmanship will consequently influence Tokyo’s trajectory in international and regional affairs, including Southeast Asia.

Not only that Japan has much intensive strategic cooperation with Southeast Asians for decades, but the region’s importance has also been increasing under Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Southeast Asia, as a linchpin connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, is key to Japan’s geostrategic interest and vision.

Since the LDP presidential election debate, many have identified Kishida’s policy trajectory, including in the defense and security aspect. Being bold, Kishida reflected its hawkish stance on China, North Korea, and its commitment to strengthening its alliance with Washington. Furthermore, Kishida also aimed to advance the geostrategic and security initiatives with like-minded countries, especially under FOIP.

One of the like-minded countries for Japan is Indonesia, which is key Japan’s key partner in Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific.

This article maps the prospect of Japan’s security cooperation with Indonesia under the new prime minister. It argues that Prime Minister Kishida will continue to grow Japan’s security cooperation with Indonesia to adjust to the changing security environment in Indo-Pacific.

Japan – Indonesia Common Ground

In its basic principle, Japan and Indonesia shared the same values in democracy, rules-based order, and freedom of navigation in developing strategic cooperation, especially in the maritime security aspect. 

In the geostrategic context, Japan and Indonesia also have significant similarities. Both countries are maritime countries and seeking to maximize their maritime power, as well as having formally synchronized geostrategic vision. While Japan has FOIP, Indonesia has Global Maritime Fulcrum (Poros Maritim Dunia) and leading initiator for ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

In capitalizing on this shared vision, since Shinzo Abe and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo era, Japan and Indonesia have initiated much new security cooperation ranging from a high-level framework such as 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting in 2015 and 2021 to capacity building assistances and joint exercises. Furthermore, defense equipment transfers and joint technology development were also kicked off under Abe-Jokowi.

Kishida’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Profile

Compared to his predecessor, Suga Yoshihide, Prime Minister Kishida is more familiar with foreign affairs.

Personally, Kishida comes from a political family and spent several years living in the United States, reflecting his exposure to the international and political environment from an early age. This is significantly different from Suga, who grew up in a strawberry farmer family in a rural area in Akita Prefecture.

Politically, served as foreign minister under Shinzo Abe, Fumio Kishida is the longest-serving foreign minister in Japan’s history. This reflects his extensive understanding of current world affairs, compared to Suga who spent most of his prime political career in the domestic area such as being chief cabinet secretary and minister for internal affairs & communication.

Specifically, in defense and security posture, Prime Minister Kishida is willing to go beyond the status quo and not blocking any key options in order “to protect citizens”. During his policy speeches, he stated that he is not ruling out the option to build attacking capabilities due to the severe security environment surrounding Japan. Also, Kishida will not limit the defense budget under 1% of Japan’s gross domestic product if necessary.

Future Security Cooperation Trajectory with Indonesia 

In short, policy continuity will play a huge role. One of the reasons why Kishida was able to win over more popular Kono was due to his moderate liberalness, demonstrating stability over change. This was more preferred by faction leaders in LDP.

In defense and foreign affairs, the continuity is boldly shown as despite appointing entirely new ministers in his cabinet, the only two ministers retained by Kishida are Foreign Minister Motegi and Defense Minister Kishi. By this, it sent the narrative to the international community that there will not be significant turbulence caused by the changing leadership on Japan’s side.

As a background context on Indonesia, Fumio Kishida was the foreign minister from the Japanese side behind the 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting with Indonesia in 2015. Indonesia is the only country Japan has such a high-level security framework within Southeast Asia. This framework has led Japan and Indonesia to have a second edition of the 2+2 meeting in 2021, resulting in many practical cooperation deals in defense and security.

The other setting supporting Kishida’s policy continuity, especially in the context with Indonesia is that his foreign minister’s counterpart, Retno Marsudi, was still in charge from the last time Kishida left the foreign minister post in 2017, until today. Initiating the 2+2 framework together, it will be easier for Kishida to resume his relationship with both President Jokowi and Foreign Minister Retno in advancing its strategic cooperation with Indonesia, especially in the defense and security area.

The prospect of continuity is also reflected in Kishida’s commitment to continue the geostrategy relay of both his predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Suga Yoshihide, in achieving the FOIP vision.

Not only that Indonesia is having a similar vision of maritime prosperity and values with Japan, but Indonesia is also concerned with South China Sea dynamics as it started to threaten Indonesia’s remote islands, especially Natuna Islands. As this is a crucial cooperation opportunity, Kishida needs to continue assisting Indonesia to improve the security and prosperity of its remote islands. Thus, as Kishida also admitted that Indonesia is a major country in ASEAN, having favorable relations with Indonesia is important for Japan’s geostrategy.

Challenges

To capitalize on the potentials with Indonesia, Kishida needs to support Indonesia’s strategic independence as well as to make the best of his position as one of the United States’ allies in Asia.

Despite his tougher stance on China and Taiwan issues, Kishida cannot fully project Japan’s rivalry with China to Indonesia. In addition to its strategic independence, Indonesia has and needs strong strategic relations with China to support many of the vital development projects surrounding Indonesia. This cannot be touched.

Also, Japan needs to bridge Indonesia, as well as other like-minded Southeast Asian countries, with the Quad and AUKUS proponents. Indonesia is formally stated that it is concerned about the ownership of nuclear-powered weapons by its neighboring countries. On the other side, Japan supported AUKUS and is a close ally of the U.S. Kishida’s ability to grab this opportunity will solidify Japan’s credibility and position among Southeast Asians.

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