PUTIN approaches the Asia-Pacific from a global perspective. The region matters principally to the Kremlin because it is central to world order — and disorder — in the twenty-first century. It is in the Asia-Pacific where geopolitical rivalries will be most intense, as exemplified by the growing strategic confrontation between the United States and China. The Asia-Pacific will be at the heart of global economic growth and competition. And it is there where the battle of ideas, norms and institutions will rage at its fiercest. If Russia is to make good on its ambitions to be a resurgent global power, it has no choice but to be actively involved in the region.
Seen historically, there are some parallels between the experiences of 19th and 20th century Europe and current security tensions across Asia. The Asia-Pacific region is witnessing a bifurcation between a 21st century economic order geared towards economic globalization and integration, and a regional security order with an increasingly sharp, nationalist and almost 19th century edge. Some have called this the “Asian Paradox.”There are, of course, fundamental differences between European and Asian realities. Europe evolved the notion of the modern nation-state steadily since the 15th century, whereas this was less formal across Asia. Moreover, despite its division into often competing nation-states, and despite the wars of religion, Europe evolved from a common Judeo-Christian and earlier Greco-Roman culture, whereas that is not the case with the vastly different civilizational histories and trajectories of Asia. Furthermore, the history of 20th century Asia has primarily been a colonial and post-colonial history. Europeans, over the same period, were in fact the colonizers.
Recent developments point to a new level of commitment in Russia’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific. Moscow has moved beyond platitudes about a ‘turn to the East’ and is pursuing a multi-dimensional approach towards the region: reinforcing the partnership with China; reaching out to other major players; and promoting itself as a significant security and economic contributor. Yet Russia’s emergence as an Asia-Pacific power is far from assured. The obstacles are formidable and the limitations of its influence are profound. And it remains unclear whether the Kremlin is ready to treat the region as more than just another theatre in a larger contest for global order and governance. Strategically, Russia does not naturally see itself as an Asia-oriented power. But it does see itself as a ‘great power’, and therefore with a pragmatic interest in geostrategic and commercial engagement with an increasingly important part of the world, particularly in circumstances of poor relations with the West. Engagement with Asia means above all, engagement with China—a very sensitive issue for Russia and Russians. Russian economic engagement with China and other Asian economies has increased in recent years, but not enough to suggest a fundamental shift in Russian economic orientation, something presumably with geostrategic implications. Russia’s obsession with the West is far from over
A new political focus will only be seriously considered if Russia reevaluates its current geopolitical position as a European-Pacific country and if the country works out a strategy that will match this position. Russia should prioritize two main goals: the “dual integration” of the Russian East with the rest of the country and of Russia itself by combining its eastern regions with the Asia Pacific Region. The main national security risk comes from the fact that Russia’s most economically depressed region borders the world’s most rapidly growing region. Finding and implementing an adequate development model for Russia’s Pacific regions could solve this problem. Whether Russia can enjoy the benefits of being the neighbour of rapidly growing Asian economies will depend on this solution.
Other indirect risks are generated by the widening rift between leading Asia and Pacific Rim countries, primarily between China and the US and between China and its neighbours: Japan, Vietnam and India. Russia should learn the art of manoeuvring to ensure its own interests, while staying away from the disputes and conflicts of other countries. But these are distant prospects. Now Russia is manoeuvring tactically or operationally at best. What does the current US buzzword, ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’, signify? If many in the region are unsure, for the Trump Administration itself, Indo-Pacific, beyond a geographic and maritime reality, is very much a work in progress. While abstract ideas have been outlined, they are contradicted by the logic and actual policies of ‘America First’. The Indo-Pacific concept, on one level, is simply expanding the Asia-Pacific notion to reflect that India, with its Look East–Act East policy, has become an economic and strategic actor in a larger maritime theatre. In practical terms, it has meant a modestly enhanced military role to the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ of the Obama Administration stretching it from Asia-Pacific to India, itself only a modest extension of long-standing US policy toward the Asia-Pacific. In bureaucratic terms, this corresponds to the area of responsibility of the US Pacific Command.
The current Pacific rivalry is only the latest version of “great powers” politics that have deep roots in the aggressive and expansive policies of these nation-states, going back to the late nineteenth century. Knowledge of these ongoing rivalries will help us understand how regional international relations in the Pacific Rim have developed and how they might unfold—hopefully short of global war—but certainly with new socioeconomic and cultural consequences. Eastern Russia’s Gazprom Group is actively operating on the LNG markets of the Asia-Pacific Region, delivering both to traditional markets, like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, as well as to the fast-growing markets of India, China and Southeast Asia. For Gazprom Group, the key source of LNG supplies to the Asia-Pacific Region is the Sakhalin-2 project. Its nominal output capacity, including two production trains, amounts to 9.6 mlnt a year; that said, actual LNG production at the plant consistently exceeds its nominal output capacity. Thus, in 2018, 11.4 mlnt of LNG was supplied to customers from the Sakhalin-2 plant. In 2018, the share of Sakhalin LNG on the Asia-Pacific Region market amounted to 5%, on the global market – to 4%.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.