Russia in the Asia-Pacific Region, and Geopolitical Challenges of the Development of Siberia and the Far East

The Asia-Pacific Region is now more uncertain and unpredictable than at any time since the Cold War. The rise of China and India as major regional powers, the possible resurgence of Japan, the relative decline of the US and the absence of Russia as a significant regional player make Asia a very complex region.

The Asia-Pacific Region is now more uncertain and unpredictable than at any time since the Cold War. The rise of China and India as major regional powers, the possible resurgence of Japan, the relative decline of the US and the absence of Russia as a significant regional player make Asia a very complex region.

This region is now the focus of world economic power, which is moving dramatically away from the old Transatlantic power base to a new Indo-Pacific region which contains the world’s biggest economies and largest military potential. Now we are witnessing an emerging arms race in Northeast Asia.

But unlike the bipolar balance of power during the Cold War between the US and the USSR, in our region there are no nuclear arms control agreements, no conventional forces agreements and no agreements to avoid naval incidents at sea. Given its experience with such intrusive arms control agreements during the Cold War, it is noteworthy that today’s Russia seems to be doing nothing to impart its experience to an increasingly aggressive China.

A big part of the problem here is that Russia simply does not have the presence in the region that it used to have in Soviet times. During the Cold War I spent a great deal of my time, including as the head of one of Australia’s intelligence agencies, tracking the growing strength of the USSR’s nuclear and conventional forces in this region. The growing might of the Soviet Pacific Fleet was represented in Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s 1979 book “The Sea Power of the State.”

Russia’s Navy is now a shadow of its former self and, indeed, will be increasingly overshadowed by China’s naval ambitions. But the pre-eminent naval power by far continues to be the United States. If China is foolish enough to confront the US on the high seas it will lose – and lose very badly.

From a geostrategic perspective, Russia has a lot of ground to make up. China’s rise is a huge challenge to Russia which is ill-equipped to cope with geopolitical uncertainties. For all the talk of its resurgence, Russia’s standing remains modest, and its influence in our region remains limited. If Russia is to reengage with Asia it needs to do more than just be a supplier of oil and natural gas to Japan and China, though it is an important contribution to geopolitical stability. Russia’s aim of reengaging with Asia has a long way to go: it can hardly expect to be recognized as an equal major regional power with the US and China, or even Japan. The bottom line is, Asia remains a sideshow for Russian foreign policy, and the notion of Russia as a Eurasian power is merely a vague aspiration, despite Russia's hosting of the 2012 APEC Summit in Vladivostok, which had little enduring impact.

The idea of a Eurasian Union is a geopolitical fantasy designed to reassert Russia as the leading strategic actor in Asia. Moscow is mistaken in believing that its membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in 2001, carries any real weight in regional security matters, compared with the East Asia Summit or the ASEAN Regional Forum. Most of the regional countries see the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a grouping of authoritarian, state capitalist countries, which are opposed to the dominant group in Asia of democratic, free-enterprise countries, which are the leading technological innovators. This latter group is invariably aligned with the US.

In this context, it is important to understand that Russia’s relations with the West are adrift and tensions are growing. The US-Russia “reset” is long over, and there seems to be a regression on Moscow's part to a visceral aversion to the US and to the West in general. Russia seems to be sliding back into its historic Slavophile suspicion of all things Western, fueled by xenophobic nationalism and a renewed sense of grievance over the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow seems to be betting on its relations with China as its salvation, particularly for energy and resource exports. And economically, that makes a great deal of sense. However, it is one thing for Moscow to reassert its dominance in the post-Soviet space in the Caucasus and Central Asia, but it is quite another matter to have a long-term, trouble-free, geopolitical relationship with a China that is set to be the most dominant power on Russia’s distant eastern flank. For the time being at least, the Sino-Russian relationship is firmly rooted in a converging strategic calculus based on resistance to Western powers. It is true that as former empires of autocratic political cultures, China and Russia share similar views on the role of the state, the international order, and the US and its allies. They see value in playing to each other’s anti-American sentiments.

But neither Beijing nor Moscow has any illusion of genuine warmth between them, despite their so-called “strategic partnership” with its panoply of annual heads of state summits. The key question is, how long will Russia’s de facto alignment with China last geopolitically? Is Russia entirely confident that Siberia and the Russian Far East will remain free from Chinese territorial ambitions? After all, Moscow conquered large slabs of the Far East from a weak imperial China in the mid-19th century. Countries that cannot populate and develop resource-rich territories may well become victims to territorial grabs in the second-half of the 21st century.

Once the US withdraws from Afghanistan, what is the risk of Chinese expansionism into the former Soviet Central Asia, which is also resource and energy rich? I understand that in 2011 the eminent Russian sinologist Viktor Larin published an analysis of trends in Chinese academic writing on the history of Sino-Russian relations, which shows a clear trend to present Russia more negatively. This includes Chinese popular histories now referring almost invariably to Tsarist Russia’s aggression against China and the seizure of large parts of Chinese territory in the Heilongjiang and Ussuri basins.

In any event, it will be interesting to see if new trends may be emerging in Sino-Russian relations as China flexes its military muscles in the East and South China Seas and is increasingly seen as threatening by Russia’s friends in Vietnam and India. China’s growing power, and the more assertive nationalism that accompanies it, may see Moscow recalibrate its policy of alignment with China and seek to strengthen its ties with Japan and the leading countries of Southeast Asia. I would like to note here that Indonesia is now set to become the leading power in Southeast Asia, with a population that will reach 250 million by 2040, and with an economy that may rank in the top ten in the world. Moscow should give Indonesia more attention, given that country’s crucial geopolitical location with regard to world trade routes.

The Kremlin’s much trumpeted turn to the east, accompanied by a shift in Russia’s economic center of gravity to Siberia and the Far East, faces huge obstacles. When I wrote my book in 1972, called Siberia and the Pacific: a Study of Economic Development and Trade Prospects, I envisaged a promising economic future for this part of the USSR. This included potentially strong trade ties with the nearby market in Japan and mutually beneficial trade between what I referred to as “Pacific Siberia” and some other countries bordering on the Pacific Ocean, including Australia. Alas, that was not to happen, given the Soviet Union’s basically autarkic approach to international trade. This did not allow for the realization of opportunities for greater economic development of the USSR’s eastern regions that could occur through the development of international trade. I was of the view that the inflow of foreign goods would reduce and stabilize labor turnover, which was the major factor retarding orderly economic growth in Siberia and the Soviet Far East. However, the extreme climate, huge distances and poor infrastructure all worked against the emergence of a vibrant Siberian and Far Eastern economy in Soviet times.

It is instructive here to compare the development of Russia’s Pacific seaboard with that of Australia. European Russian explorers reached the Pacific in the mid-17th century, more than 130 years before Captain Cook discovered the east coast of Australia. And yet, Australia’s more favorable climate and attitudes to foreign investment have allowed it to support almost 25 million people and develop the world’s 12th largest economy with one of the world’s highest standards of living. Both Australia and Siberia and the Russian Far East are sparsely populated, resource-rich lands. But that’s where the comparisons end: Russia wasted 74 years of its history on the failed communist experiment, whereas Australia developed a democratic capitalist economy. Even so, there are perhaps lessons we can learn from each other – for example, how to attract labor to work in remote and harsh conditions and how to attract foreign capital for vital infrastructure development that the local economy cannot afford.

It is crucial in this regard that present-day Russia move away from its heavy reliance on the petro-state economy and pay serious attention to demographic problems. It is doubtful, however, whether it can attract skilled migrants from Asia in the same way as is the case in Australia these days.

Throughout history, the Russian people have shown enormous resilience to adversity, but the collapse of the former Soviet Union and its replacement with extreme state capitalism and great socio-economic inequalities do not bode well for the future of Russia.

Being a defense strategist, my bottom line must be typically gloomy. The powerful emergence of China as a potential superpower and the probable resurgence of Japan risk casting long shadows over Siberia and the Russian Far East. It is not difficult to imagine what might happen should Moscow’s capacity to defend and control the region be drastically reduced.

In my view, today’s Russia needs to pay more attention to the possibility of looming geopolitical threats on its distant eastern flank. The solution is to much more rapidly develop the economy of Siberia and the Russian Far East and to demonstrate more emphatically the Russian people’s occupation of this distant land and its capacity to defend it in the event of future geopolitical challenges.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.