The Kremlin looks at the upcoming APEC summit in Vladivostok, hosted by President Vladimir Putin, as a chance to showcase Russia’s new engagement in and with the Asia-Pacific region. Moscow hopes that it will be able to attract investment to the chronically underdeveloped Russian Far East and Siberia, which are quickly depopulating.
There is indeed some interest from regional business towards investing in Russia. In June the Singaporean company that manages Singapore’s world-famous Changi airport, a model of efficiency and comfort, signed an agreement with state-owned Sberbank, aimed at modernizing three airports in the vicinity of … Sochi, the 2014 winter Olympics capital on Russia’s Black Sea coast. Well, the Far East seems to be truly far, even to the Singaporeans.
In fact, the challenge Russia faces in Asia is enormous. Less than 30 million Russians inhabit the vast space from the Urals Mountains to the Sea of Japan. They face nearly 150 million Chinese - more than Russia’s entire population - living across the 4,000-kilometer border, in China’s three poorest provinces.
Russia’s GDP is one-fourth the size of China’s and the People’s Liberation Army is twice the size of Russia’s (not counting reservists). The only field in which Russia is still by far superior to China is the number of nuclear warheads, which really doesn’t help Russia much in dealing with its giant neighbour. The leadership in Moscow has a lot to think about as far as its relationship with Asia’s most powerful nation is concerned.
The Kremlin is torn between conflicting considerations. On one hand, the leadership’s anti-Western foreign policy and its obsession with sovereignty as a way of perpetuating the status quo make the Chinese Russia’s natural ally. On the other, Beijing increasingly treats Russia as a second-tier partner. Even over Syria, where both countries seem to be united in their support for President Bashar al-Assad, the Chinese managed to take a softer and lower key approach than the Russians. “The Chinese never want to be anyone’s bad guys,” one U.S. diplomat told me. “They let Moscow take all the heat.”
Economically, China has been one of Russia’s most difficult partners recently. Negotiations with Gazprom over natural gas exports to the People’s Republic have been at a dead end for several years because of a dispute over pricing.
Moreover, after the Chinese state company signed a deal with Shell on shale gas exploration earlier this year, the prospects for Russia becoming an important long-term gas supplier to China look even less promising. This in turn undermines Gazprom’s already weakening position in Europe, where its exports have fallen in recent years.
China is also buying fewer and fewer Russian arms compared to the 1990s, because Moscow is reluctant to offer its most modern, top-shelf weaponry. The Russian military, unhappy as it is with defeat in the Cold War, cannot help noticing that the only country with which Russia may eventually have a military conflict on the ground is Russia’s official “strategic partner:” China. The Chinese respond by “nicking” previous Russian designs, modifying and improving them, and then selling at knockdown prices on the international market in direct competition with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms exporter.
If this is strategic partnership, what does strategic conflict look like?
Unfortunately, in Moscow, you speak about China as you speak of the dead: say something nice or nothing at all. Beijing’s rulers know that Russia doesn’t have a lot of cards to play in this relationship but prefer not to show it too demonstrably.
APEC summit could be a chance for Russia to open up towards those Asia-Pacific powers that also feel uncomfortable with China’s rise, like the U.S., Japan, Australia and South Korea. It’s time for Moscow to grasp that “Asia policy” is not and should not be equivalent to “China policy” – especially since it has no forward-looking China policy to speak of anyway.
However, it doesn’t look as if Russia is ready for that yet. It may be one day. The question is whether it will be too late by then.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.