Written by Gilbert Rozman.

After a period of euphoria about Sino-Russian relations in 2014 and the first half of 2015, Russians have begun to express rather more sober judgments, if not direct criticism of China over the past 6 months. The massive investments once anticipated from China have failed to reach Russian companies. The link-up of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt has bypassed the vital Russian Far East and left in doubt cooperation in Central Asia. Putin and Xi may keep following parallel tracks, but they are refraining from endorsing each other’s assertive moves in the South China Sea and East Europe respectively. Some observers see an opening for splitting China and Russia, arguing that the national interests of the two are really very much in conflict and that Russia’s civilizational claims and insistence on an autonomous role in a multipolar world will lead it to seek a balance of power, above all in Northeast Asia. There and in Central Asia, Russia’s interests could eventually be imperiled due to overdependence on China, some argue. Recent signs of Russian dissatisfaction with unrealized aspirations reinforce such wishful thinking abroad.

The problem with such reasoning is that it does not lead to an alternative scenario for Vladimir Putin’s quest for international power (in a strategic triangle or some similar configuration) and national identity (restoring the essence of Soviet glory). Given U.S. hostility to Putin’s ambitions to use force or a threat of force to establish a sphere of influence and China’s unwillingness to credit Russia as one of three poles in the international order, Putin has no realistic path to geopolitical leadership. In the absence of a path to triangularity, his strong antipathy to the United States and repeated view that China and Russia have no serious conflicting interests can only lead to doubling down on ties to China. The significance of China for Putin’s popular construction of Russian national identity is indisputable too. Putin is obsessed with the national identity gap with the West and the United States, refusing to allow any repeat of the identity chasm with China that opened as a result of the Sino-Soviet dispute. Overlapping narratives about the history of past communist movements and communism in the Cold War, about the danger of “universal values” and “colour revolutions,” and about the urgency of rallying the world against the alliances and security framework led by the United States, all affirm Putin’s alignment with Xi Jinping. There is no sign that Putin will reconsider his choice of China, and if he did, where he might turn to realize the objectives that he has pursued in ties to China.

Options for Balancing China?

The line of argument that Russia is seriously considering turning to other countries to balance its relations with China lacks hard evidence and is premised on vague and unexamined assumptions. The list of possible balancers in Asia includes India, Vietnam, Japan, and North Korea; however, it is hard to understand what balance—geopolitically or geo-economically, and even more geo-culturally—Russia could achieve with any one of these states. India has stopped looking to Russia as more than a secondary force in balancing China. Recently, Russians have strained to find optimism in India working with China as well as Russia in an expanded Shanghai Cooperation Organization, while saying very little about using India as a balance against China. Vietnam buys Russian weapons, but it counts on Russia for little else. As in the case of India, Russia finds nothing to praise in US ties to one of Russia’s partners or to some wider regional support for its strategic interests. The options of Japan and North Korea, which Russia has been pursuing actively, have opposite implications. A breakthrough with Japan would hint at multipolarity at China’s expense, but it likely would not be transformative. A special relationship with North Korea would, in contrast, showcase Russian autonomy, but it too would not be likely to challenge China seriously, as I explain below. With Northeast Asia in the forefront since that is where Russia is actually present and the interests of four great powers intersect, Russia’s interest in Tokyo and Pyongyang warrant the closest scrutiny.

As Putin prepares to host Abe at Sochi in about one month, some Japanese speculate that this could be a game changer for Sino-Russian relations. Yet, they offer no detail on what Japan would offer Russia or how it may compare with what China has been offering. Given Japan’s tightening alliance with the United States and eagerness to build a strong missile defense system, which Russia keeps warning is against it, the geopolitical payoff from a peace treaty and territorial settlement with Japan is not likely to be great. As over the past quarter century, Russia’s economy is too troubled to expect substantial Japanese investment, even if an LNG deal should be reached. In comparison to Chinese infrastructure and investment ties, Japan offers rather little. The argument that some sort of civilizational affinity would be realized between the two is even more far-fetched after a century of mutual distrust. If Putin and Abe were able to reach a breakthrough agreement, it would be very unlikely to alter the direction of Russian foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific and its strong ties to China.

North Korea has loomed in Russian narratives as a piece in a triangle with South Korea, leading to a transportation and energy corridor as well as regional partners of exceptional importance. At the same time, it serves as a lever to intimidate South Korea, given the implied threat of closer ties to the North to the extent that ties to the South do not serve Russia’s purposes. Yet, South Korea’s decision in early 2016 to sever economic ties to the North and Russia’s reluctant agreement to join in the Security Council sanctions against it leave this strategy in shambles. To draw close to North Korea now would isolate Russia rather than balancing against China or any other country. Without promise of this triangle, Moscow’s relations with Seoul have been exposed as having very limited prospects. Talk of Seoul’s Eurasian Economic Initiative has disappeared. Sticking close to China in North Korean policy seems to be the only serious alternative for Russia left.

Conclusion

Putin’s “Turn to the East” is overwhelmingly a turn to China. Despite disappointing economic results in Sino-Russian relations during 2015 (partly due to the sharp fall in commodity prices and to the slowdown in China’s economy), Russia has failed to present a geopolitical logic, an economic blueprint, or a national identity rationale for balancing China. The Asian countries mentioned as possible alternatives if such a balancing approach were attempted all have little to offer Russia. Doubling down in cultivating closer ties with China is a more likely response to disappointment than deciding that national interests diverge enough to seek to balance China’s power.

Gilbert Rozman is the editor of The Asan Forum and the Emeritus Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, specializing in Northeast Asian societies: China, Japan, Korea, and Russia. He has compared them, most recently concentrating on national identities. In addition, Rozman works on sociological factors in international relations, emphasizing mutual perceptions and barriers to regionalism. Image credit: CC by Martin Svalin/Flickr.