Russia’s Asia pivot many-splendored thing

Only two weeks ago, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman had ostentatiously marked distance from voicing support for China in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea when she said, “I will remind you that Russia… has no intention of getting involved. We consider it a matter of principle not to side with any party.”

Russia-China drill

A JH-7 fighter jet of the Chinese Air Force takes part in an air exercise of the China-Russia joint naval drills, Aug. 24, 2015

Yet, media reports appeared in the weekend that Russia and China propose to hold naval exercises in the South China Sea. These may seem contradictory tendencies, but in reality they are not.

Military exercises are not impromptu events, and in this case, the intent to hold such a naval exercise in South China Sea was first hinted a year ago. Indeed, Russian-Chinese military exercises have become frequent in the recent years and there have been naval exercises in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Far East. No doubt, the Russian-Chinese exercises signify their robust strategic partnership, which has a growing military dimension.

Having said that, how significant the forthcoming naval exercise in the South China Sea will be – or, whether it is intended more for symbolism than practical support – will really depend on the warships sent, how long they stay, and what they do. Over and above, it is predicated on what role Moscow intends for itself in the South China Sea.

For a start, it must be understood that Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’ is both a by-product of its troubled relations with the West as also the recognition of Asia’s emergence as locus of growth in the world economy.

At any rate, it should not be characterized as a ‘pivot’ to China, the unprecedented surge in the Sino-Russian partnership in the recent years notwithstanding.

One can safely rule out that Russian Navy will exercise with Chinese Navy in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, because Moscow has longstanding strategic ties with Vietnam. Vietnam is a major buyer of Russian weaponry; it hosts Russian investment projects; and, it just concluded a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, the first of its kind for the Moscow-led grouping.

The Russian weapons transferred to Vietnam include submarines, submarine-based cruise missiles, frigates, corvettes and so on, which significantly enhance Hanoi’s maritime power and are integral to its deterrence game against China in the South China Sea.

Simply put, Russia will not hold naval exercises with China in waters that Vietnam claims as its – or, vice versa. Equally, Russia is currently engaged in a diplomatic thrust toward the ASEAN, which had no parallel in the Soviet era.

The imprimatur of President Vladimir Putin is unmistakable, as evident from the Russia-ASEAN summit meeting he hosted in Sochi in mid-May. The Sochi Document adopted at the summit affirms that the protagonists are moving toward a “strategic partnership for mutual benefit” in a broad range of areas, especially security and trade.

It said ASEAN and Russia agree to deepen political, security, counter-terrorism and economic cooperation, “based on principles of equality, mutual benefit and shared responsibility to promote peace … development and social progress in the Asia-Pacific region with a view to working a strategic partnership.”

Russia is positioning itself as an eligible partner for the ASEAN countries, should they ever feel the urge to diversify partnerships and enmesh more players in the multilateral regional framework, both as a means to whittle down the overbearing Chinese presence and/or to insulate from the perils of Sino-US competition.

Conceivably, the Russian drive aims at regaining some of its past Soviet-era global presence and stature, but then, the mercantile impetus cannot be overlooked, either. The Sochi Document mentions that Moscow proposed a ‘comprehensive’ free trade area between the EEU and the ASEAN, envisaging a single market with a GDP estimated at $4 trillion, and that the Southeast Asian grouping agreed to consider the proposal.

This could be Russia’s answer to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Interestingly, several ASEAN countries, on their part, conveyed at the Sochi summit their expectation that Moscow will remain neutral over the South China Sea.

Russia rejects the strategic rationale for the retention of post-Cold War US-led alliance structures in Asia-Pacific. Nonetheless, Russia’s actual role in Asian security remains minimal. The ‘pivot to Asia’ may seem a milestone in Russia’s strategic and security engagement, historically speaking, but Moscow’s success in turning its hopes and expectations into reality remains to be seen.

However, there is one issue where there is very little leeway for Russia – US deployments of anti-ballistic missile systems in Asia. Moscow rejects the rationale which Washington advances for such deployment – namely, perceived threat from North Korea – and instead regards the ABM system as aimed at neutralizing Russia’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.

For Russia, preservation of the global strategic balance is a non-negotiable issue that impacts its core interests. It is against this profound backdrop that Russia’s ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination’ involving China may become a major template in its overall pivot to Asia.

The fourth round of the Russia-China Dialogue on Security in Northeast Asia held in Moscow last Friday pointedly took note of the US deployment of THAAD missile defense system in South Korea.

The press release issued in Moscow stated that Washington’s steps to unilaterally develop a strategic missile defense system “that is deployed across the globe, including Northeast Asia, adversely affect the international and regional strategic balance” and can cause serious damage to the strategic security of Russia and China.

It underscored that Moscow and Beijing have discussed the “possibility of coordinating more closely” on the issue.

Suffice it to say, South China Sea territorial disputes are not the leitmotif of the Sino-Russian partnership. The raison d’etre of that partnership lies in moulding the evolution of the world order toward multi-polarity.

Russia would see South China Sea – or, Ukraine (Crimea) and Syria for that matter – as back-to-back geopolitical issues where the US is advancing its ambitions as a global hegemon.

It is a moot point whether Russia voiced support for China on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea – or whether China had endorsed Russia’s annexation of Crimea. What matters is that both kept a neutral stance while keeping the eye on the ball – namely, challenging US hegemony. They keep pushing back at the US pressure, thereby creating space also for each other to take advantage of the balance of forces.

This is already happening. The US is compelled to deploy resources to pressure Russia in Central Europe, Black Sea and the Baltics and is, at the same time, having to prevent China’s further consolidation in the South China Sea, while on yet another theater also coping with the assertive Russian intervention in the Middle East.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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