Written by Natasha Kuhrt.

In Russia’s overall policy in the Asia-Pacific the tendency has been for an intensification of Sino-centrism in Russia’s Asia policy. However, in the latest iteration of the “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation”, approved by President Putin in 12 February 2013, the order of regional priority of the Asia-Pacific region was fifth place after CIS, the Euro-Atlantic region, the US and the Arctic. This might seem surprising given the amount of space devoted to the so-called Russian pivot to the Asia-Pacific. Yet we find that the Asia-Pacific region had actually been downgraded in Russian foreign policy from fourth place in contrast to the earlier version of the “Concept” published in 2008. Asia-Pacific policy in the third Putin’s administration was formulated reflecting the changes in the security environment both in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. Russia’s interest has been in deepening an equal, trust-based partnership and strategic cooperation with China, but also in strategic partnerships with India and Vietnam, and developing mutual beneficial relations with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. This orientation has widely been viewed as a reaction to US president Barack Obama’s “rebalance to Asia” policy and potential conflicts between China and its neighbours, first and foremost, in the South China Sea.

Yet many see the Russian approach to China as a new, more accommodating one and in particular since the Ukraine crisis, there is a sense that the economic impact of sanctions and a falling oil price has forced Russia to yield economic positions to China. However, the general trend has been for trade between the two countries to be on the decline. Chinese exports to Russia fell by 36% in the first half of 2015 and trade has stalled at $90 billion, while the target agreed some time ago was $100 billion by 2015. Further, the economic slowdown means less demand for key Russian goods such as metal, chemicals, while the share of oil and hydrocarbons is nearly 70%.

As Vitaly Kozyrev notes, the US and the West perhaps ‘underestimate rapprochement between China and Russia…’ On the other hand there is also a tendency in Russia to overestimate the potential of this relationship to transform bilateral and regional ties.

The May 2015 agreement on cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the One Road, One Belt project (OBOR), looked as if Russia was again making concessions to China. The OBOR is still a rather undefined project but it also tends to highlight China and Russia’s different approaches to regionalism, where China has seemed critical of the EEU for its exclusive approach and as cutting off China from Central Asia. The process whereby a Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union together with the Chinese ‘one road, one belt’ in Central Eurasia, fuse together to form a ‘Greater Eurasia’ has been hailed by Aleksandr Lukin as a paradigm change in geopolitical terms although he acknowledges the difficulties in coordinating within the SCO. This highlights Russia’s approach to regionalism, whereby Russia increasingly proposes alternative ideas of global order, focused not so much on ideas of multipolarity, and more on new forms of regionalism, in which hegemonic control by Great Powers in their own spheres of influence is viewed as both legitimate and as an essential element in the construction of a new, post-Western world order. This is quite different to Chinese approaches to regionalism, which tends to be more functionalist.

At APEC 2014, Putin said he supports OBOR, but that it should link up with the Trans-Siberian railway, because of concern that OBOR might divert transport away from Russian railways (a major source of rents). The lack of clarity on the content of this project is unsettling for Russia. At times Russian officials have appeared sanguine, but at others, have expressed concern that while Beijing does not present OBOR as an integration project, the reality will be rather different.

Although the subject of the ‘China threat’ has been virtually taboo since the mid-2000s, economic and trade relations have become a ‘safe area’ from which to criticize relations, given the sensitivity around direct references to any hypothetical military threat. This might be seen in the broader context of the securitisation’ of economics taking place in Russia today.

Overall, Russia’s position vis-à-vis China is to continue the economic relationship, which brings economic rents for Russian elites, but to maintain a policy of equidistance in the Asia-Pacific region and not to clash with China directly, whether along the Sino-Russian border, in Central Asia. One Central Asia expert notes that whereas previously Central Asia seemed as if it would become a bone of contention between the two countries…the priority in Moscow and Beijing remains the broader strategic relationship’.

This may have more to do with Russian priorities, than an acceptance of Chinese pre-eminence however. On the EEU and OBOR cooperation agreement, Trenin suggests that while at the rhetorical level Eurasian economic integration is still a priority, the economic crisis and the rift with the West, means that the EEU will now be ‘on the back burner of Moscow’s foreign policy’ for some time to come. This raises the question as to how Russia will manage to fulfil all its priorities vis-à-vis the West and other aims in Syria, whilst also dealing with Chinese putative plans in Central Asia.

Ultimately, although China remains an important part of Russian foreign policy, as the Russian think-tanker Dmitrii Trenin reminds us, ‘Russia’s principal foreign policy priorities, as evidenced by its actions in Ukraine and Syria, are checking any further advance of NATO in Eastern Europe and confirming Russia’s status as a great power outside the post-Soviet space’ –i.e. global power projection.  This is quite different to Trenin’s assessment the previous year, when he suggested that ‘… China is seeking to restore its “natural” historical position of pre-eminence in Asia and eventually globally. Meanwhile, Russia is no longer in the running for world primacy. It is merely seeking to establish itself as a centre of power in Eurasia and a member of a global concert of powers.’ Given Russia’s actions in Syria however, it appears that Russia’s objectives are more ambitious.

In the Asia-Pacific region it’s still ‘all about Beijing’, given Russia’s economic limitations. However, at the broader global level relations with the West, principally, economic relations with the EU and recognition from the US remain top priorities. Nevertheless, in many ways it is true to say that good relations with China allow Russia to approach the West with greater confidence.

Dr Natasha Kurt is a Lecturer at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her areas of research interest include Russian and Post-Soviet foreign and security policies, post-Soviet debates on international relations, regional security complexes, especially in Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific, nationalism, and sovereignty and debates on intervention/human rights. @NKuhrt. Image credit: CC by Clay Gilliland/Flickr.