Country Report: Russia (November 2015)

Iurii Belobrov in the November Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn’ argued that Russia and China each on its own cannot match the US strategy to strengthen its presence in the Asia-Pacific region; so the two must draw closer together. In an article strikingly reminiscent of Soviet-era writings, he insists that the United States is bent on total control of the region as vital to its geopolitical ambitions to dominate the world. Yet, the transformation of China and India into leading world powers, joined with Russia in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS, is recognized in Washington to be a serious obstacle to these ambitions. Obama prioritizes strengthening military-political and economic ties with allies and new partners, and, in this polarized environment, Russia needs to do the same. Belobrov argues that Washington is focusing its might to contain China’s rise as the second global power, while it hypocritically is saying nothing about the fact that China’s military rise is in response to US policies. He also argues that Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is aimed at giving unlimited access to American monopolies and goods to the markets of the region, forming an “America-centric” trade bloc serving the interests of US industrial groups, both allowing the US economy to escape from its crisis and to increase its military potential. Washington does not want either China or Russia to participate, making demands unwelcome in those countries. It is looking to India and ASEAN states along with traditional allies to serve as a counterweight to China’s expansion in Asia and its growing military heft. Rare for a Russian source, the article acknowledges strengthening of Indo-US strategic ties without reconciling this with earlier claims that India is an obstacle to US aspirations or the usual talk of close Indo-Russian ties. This is a clear appeal for Russia to cast its lot fully with China.

Belobrov observes that Obama strives both to convince China to correct its political and financial course in favor of the US strategy and to deepen containment of China. The US aim is to enlist China in bipolar, joint management of the world order, while preserving its own leading role, but China’s refusal, readers are told, has led Obama to intensify pressure on China’s leaders. Belobrov adds that Washington is signaling to Russia that it is not losing hope on working out an agreement with China not only to divide spheres of influence in the Asia-Pacific region and the world as a whole, but also to forge a condominium on an anti-Russian basis. US declarations to China are contradicted by its provocations in the South China Sea, as it prods countries to not seek mutually acceptable management of the problems. Particularly noted is the US effort to strengthen military ties with Vietnam and to get it to view the actions of China as a threat to international navigation. Without mentioning Vietnam’s concern about China, the article casts doubt on readiness in the region to accept US thinking. It argues that around the time of Xi Jinping’s September visit analysts in Washington were calling on the government to toughen its policy toward China. This reflects the intensifying competition in strategy, trade, ideology, politics, and diplomacy, as the South China Sea disputes loom foremost in testing the changing balance of power.

As for Russia, Belobrov fully blames the West’s shift to a policy of confrontation, including political isolation and economic blockade. It treats Russia as a relatively minor actor in the Asia-Pacific region and Sino-Russian relations as filled with contradictions. In these circumstances, Russia may be pushed to support a naval build-up in China, since this would not be directed against Russia—a continental neighbor. The conclusion is that Russia and China should never underestimate the seriousness of Washington’s steps to strengthen its position in the Asia-Pacific region, which does not serve either of their interests. Neither state, by itself, has the force to counter the United States; therefore, they should go beyond existing steps to find a common strategy against US hegemonic ambitions in the region. Diplomatic efforts by Russia should focus on convincing its partners in the region, first of all Vietnam, to deal bilaterally with China on the islands rather than to internationalize the disputes, which serves US interests. In this analysis, we witness Russian reliance on China alone with rather desperate statements about India and Vietnam, support for China’s agenda without reservations, assumptions about China’s need for Russia as if admissions of Russia’s weakness apply to China too, a call for virtual alliance relations with China, and arguments straight out of the Cold War that drop the usual pretext of multipolarity in favor of simplistic acceptance of enduring polarization.

N.V. Stapran in Rossiia v Global’noi Politike in October analyzed Japan’s treatment of history, demonstrating the sharper Russian tone of late toward the “shadow of the past” in Japan. She begins by noting that Abe stated in April that he does not intend further to apologize for Japan’s conduct in the war, and in his August statement he only partially fulfilled his promise. In Japan, the discussion of WWII has always been linked to internal and external policy, and as time proceeds, arguments grow more uncompromising. She finds four main directions in this discussion: 1) attempting to whitewash Japan’s own military past; 2) undervaluing the US role in the victory over fascism and establishment of the postwar system; 3) criticizing the Soviet Union and today’s Russia; and 4) reexamining the basis of Japan’s system of national security. In looking back, Japanese view their actions as forced by others and their influence on other countries as beneficial. The focus taught to schoolchildren is the suffering Japanese experienced and, according to Japan’s neighbors, an idealized notion of its wartime militarism. Stapran adds, Japan does not put the least blame on America, which caused it untold grief. Amazingly, as many as a quarter of the Japanese, she asserts, do not consider the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a crime, but consider them necessary to speed the conclusion of the war, apparently with government support due to its pro-American attitudes. In turn, Washington strongly supports Tokyo’s growing military role in the region. Since North Korea fired a rocket in August 1998, Japan’s position on missiles has changed, joining the United States in missile defense while reassessing its “three no’s” to nuclear weapons.

Stapran also points to criticisms of her country for aggression and seizure of land, increasingly couched in the rhetoric of the Cold War. This is not due to the “Ukraine syndrome,” she says, but was seen in 2005 when a major Japanese newspaper even described the Soviet troops as more cruel than the Germans and Japanese. They see Soviet action in 1945 as treacherous betrayal, ignoring the Soviet-US agreement. In her view, Japan so many decades after its surrender, unlike Germany and Italy, has not overcome the complex of a defeated empire. She sees “historical wars” in Asia becoming a part of its rise on the arena of world politics. Such wars over history are occurring around the world, she notes, but Japan is signaled out as the Asian culprit.

In Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn’ in early November, an article by Dmitrii Kiku was posted questioning, among other things, Japan’s candidacy for permanent membership in the Security Council. Given the fall 2015 activity aimed at expanding membership, Kiku discusses which countries should be entitled to support, stating that Russia’s support in 2003-2005 for Japan—along with Brazil, Germany, and India or the “Group of Four”—is a thing of the past. Reviewing criteria for membership, Kiku lists first the scale of the economy and amount of contributions to the United Nations, arguing that the latter reeks of buying a place and violates the principles of the organization, and, in any case, Japan’s as well as Germany’s contribution is relatively declining. Moreover, neither country is a big contributor to peacekeeping operations (PKOs). Kiku adds that both are home to large military bases of the United States, casting doubt on their actual sovereignty, and, troubling to Russia and China, they are hosts to elements of the US missile defense system, while Japan’s support for other aspects of US military operations in the Asia-Pacific is a problem too. Also cited are Japan’s territorial pretensions toward Russia, China, and South Korea and its recent shift in military posture beyond its territory, widening its military and technological role as an ally of the United States. Kiku explains that Russia has now made a noticeable correction in consideration of the geopolitical situation and the degree of cooperation on the international arena with Russia, altering its approach to Security Council expansion. Already in April 2013, Abe failed to win Russia’s support for membership, linked to the absence of a peace treaty and Japan’s territorial claims. In contrast, Russia is more favorable to Brazil, India, and South Africa in light of their support for the all-around strengthening of international law and the role of the BRICS as a new model for global relations. In rushing for a decision in favor the “Group of Four,” countries are, according to this article, antagonizing other states and threatening the prestige of the council. There is no doubt here that Russia has turned sharply against Japan in recent months.

In Rossiia v Global’noi Politike in October, Evgenii Rumiantsev commented on the September 3 commemoration of the seventieth anniversary in Beijing, noting that making this a holiday to mark the anti-Japanese war and adding another holiday in memory of the victims of the Nanjing massacre are linked in China to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Xi Jinping on that day called it an historical turning point for his country. Renmin ribao called it the end of the global hegemony of Europe forever. It was a miracle of a weak semi-colonial country defeating a powerful imperialist in a process that lasted from 1931 to 1945. The article notes Chinese disagreement with the notion that either the US atomic bombs or the Russian entry into the war was the cause of Japan’s capitulation, as if China was not a major theater of the anti-fascist war and did not play a great role in defeating Japan. The Soviet Union, saved by China from fighting a war on two fronts, won in the West, and China won in the East, Chinese argue, while giving the war a new name the “world anti-fascist war” and a new chronology. To bolster their case, Chinese have upped the figure of dead “heroes” to 35 million, even exceeding the Soviet total. Rumiantsev suggests that after the bloody events of June 4, 1989 to reestablish its legitimacy, the Chinese communist leadership played on nationalist emotions with such figures and also countered the claim that the party had killed more Chinese than the Japanese had.

Pointing to a distorted quotation from the memoir of a Russian marshal in China, he argues that Beijing is trying to create the impression that its presence in the war was commensurate with its current weight in the world, ignoring uncomfortable facts, such as that German soldiers were present in 1937-1938 working with China’s army against Japan or that Japan was massing for an attack against the Soviet Union until it was defeated by the Red army at Khasan. Rumiantsev concludes that China’s propaganda is turning the truth upside down. Rather than China saving the Soviet Union, it was the other way around, as the Soviets and then the United States kept China from turning into a Japanese satellite and then enabled it to join the winning axis. The Soviets supplied essential arms and liberated Northeast China, which was beyond the capacity of the Chinese. Charging that Mao’s orders were to use only 10 percent of his forces against the Japanese, use 20 percent against the Kuomintang (KMT), and keep the rest in reserve, Rumiantsev concludes that both the communists and the KMT took an essentially passive role during the war and China did not achieve even one victory in a major strategic operation, its lands were liberated by other countries, and claims of glory are now misplaced. He warns too that China continues to spread anti-Soviet propaganda, e.g., about the 1969 border clash. Instead, he asserts, the seventieth anniversary should give China reason to stop anti-Soviet and anti-Russian propaganda among its population and military forces. This joint celebration, which presented a united front about history, is seen here as a Chinese challenge to truth about the Soviet role echoing the anti-Soviet arguments during the era of the Sino-Soviet split, to which the writings of Soviet advisors in China are again cited as proof that China’s aggrandizement of its past is being done at the expense of Russia’s role.

Also in Rossiia v Global’noi Politike in October was T.V. Bordachev’s article on the new Eurasianism, as Russia and China join to transform the political and economic structure of central Eurasia. China’s trade and investment initiatives supply the new dynamism for integration, readers are told in a laudatory interpretation of the Silk Road Economic Belt that perceives an autonomous growth belt emerging in Siberia, Kazakhstan, the western parts of China, and the countries of Central Asia. Capitals of Eurasia will no longer be bridges and objects of foreign power games, but will have their own significance in one of the most important geo-economic and geopolitical processes of the first half of this century, Bordachev explains. Russia needs labor and China needs space to expand its investments, while they have no antagonistic contradictions in “Greater Eurasia.” Without help, Russia risks losing the “moment of Eurasia” due to inter-office competition and inertia. It must separate this project, concentrate expertise and bureaucratic resources on it, and include interested private partners. Already, readers are told, China has assigned a deputy minister of foreign affairs to Eurasian matters. Bordachev calls for a big treaty uniting states in this project, pointing to China’s role in developing the transport corridors. His focus is on institutionalizing inter-governmental coordination. Arguing that China needs this as much as Russia because its competition with the United States, which seeks to contain it, will keep intensifying, he concedes that progress will be slower than is sought by Moscow, given Asian mentality and lack of experience with large-scale geostrategic plans. The greatest danger to Eurasian integration is fragmentation of coordination with China; so the remedy is for the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) to join together, presumably under the leadership of Russia. This is the message, Bordachev asserts, Russians are telling the Chinese, insisting that, in most cases, it will be most comfortable for China too, while explaining to the others that, as small and weak countries, the format serves their needs too. Standing in the way is the passive and rather powerless role of the EEC, he says. Much is said about harmonization and standardization, as well as protection for Chinese investments, which is lacking and holding up action. Mention is made too of problems in resolving Sino-Russian disputes through international arbitrage, which might be handled through a port such as Singapore with its English law tradition and independent judiciary, in a new free port of Vladivostok, or in Hong Kong, where the SCO could establish a court.

Bordachev identifies various clashes in Sino-Russian proposals. One example is the Chinese plan to build a high-speed railroad between Moscow and Kazan’, drawing on Chinese loans, providing China with new markets for its technology and work force. Bordachev insists that this route would greatly increase Russia’s debt, while having a negative economic effect. Instead, Russia seeks capital and technology for Siberia and the Russia Far East, leading to production for markets to the south. In serving China’s interests, active lobbying for investment projects may not be in the interest of Russia’s economy, readers are warned. With the ruble weakened, export of Russian non-natural resources to China is more competitive, leading firms not just to protect their markets inside Russia. Yet, Russian firms face infrastructure issues and delays and excessive costs in transportation. Companies are trying to export goods to China—dumping—at prices below those in Russia, drawing fines that are needed, argues Bordachev, but he urges more propaganda to “sell in China,” for the firms. Also, Russia needs more migration to where new projects will appear, finding a way to attract the right mix, not just the low-qualified workers migrating now. It is suggested that Russia vary its policy by sector, seeking more engineers, investors, and entrepreneurs from China and other Asian countries, reexamining strict quotas and time limitations. One target is Chinese students in the countries of the EEC, who could receive visas to work without having to return home. If Russia accentuates investment and infrastructure, naturally, readers are told, China will soon begin to seek negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and China. Although the devaluation of the ruble gives Russian companies in some areas an edge, Russia is not ready for a full-fledged FTA, while China considers it to be the next stage in the drawing together of the EEC and the Silk Road Economic Belt. Indeed, Bordachev is in favor of talks with South Korea and Singapore on non-preferential trade deals and with India, Vietnam, and others on free trade zones to attract investment into Russia and to reduce the disproportion between Russia and China. He finds it paradoxical that the EEU has a mandate for negotiations with Beijing, but lacks coordination and has yet to reconcile the interests of its members—it just wants to draw in billions. It is urgent for the “five” to close ranks. This is the thrust of his conclusions, casting doubt on the prospects for smoothly working with China on economic integration.

In Novoe vremia, Nos. 35-36, the conclusion of a seminar at Chatham House on the “Force of Siberia” pipeline between Russia and China was that it would not be ready before 2025. Conducted at the time of Xi Jinping’s visit to Great Britain, the idea that it would be finished in three to five years, as the two countries seek, seems unrealistic. China wants to rush this since the gas is very cheap, it was asserted. The initial 2014 plan was for construction in 2018 of a 4000-kilometer segment and much later for work on the Kovytynskie fields in the Irkutsk area and on fields in Yakutiia. The fact that nothing has been said about the price paid for the gas raises skepticism, readers are warned, and Russia cannot rely on protestations of friendship and promises of investment when the USD 25 billion cited at the outset as an advance payment seems, by now, to have dropped from the picture. Complaining that China fulfills few of its promises to invest in Russia, e.g., the USD 33 billion promised at September’s Vladivostok economic forum has yielded no contracts two months later, the article concludes that China does not consider Russia its most important partner, as it invests more elsewhere and prefers cheaper Central Asian gas supplies. Behind the scenes tensions appear significant in this article’s coverage, as the level of bilateral trade drops in 2015 and the two sides struggle to mesh their national interests in Central Asia. The rosy view of Sino-Russian harmony in looking to a joint Eurasian future is altogether missing.

Looking ahead to the APEC and G20 summits later in the month, Iurii Paniev wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on November 2 about meetings between Putin and Obama and Putin and Erdogan rather than about meeting with leaders in East or South Asia. Even as Syria and Ukraine were mentioned, Paniev stressed efforts to achieve balanced economic growth. Three years after Putin declared Russia’s turn to the East and two months after the Vladivostok economic forum where he announced that within 5-10 years the Asia-Pacific region would be Russia’s main economic partner, Paniev repeated the optimistic claim that the Russian Far East and Siberia offer a unique chance to the countries of the region with tremendous potential, adding that Russia is planning to establish a network of development points with tax breaks and simplified administrative procedures in the Far East. Given its strategic direction, Paniev concludes that Russia should put relations with the overwhelming majority of countries in the region on a positive, constructive foundation. No mention of China is made. No further hint is offered about tensions in relations with neighboring states, such as Japan and South Korea. Also omitted is any reference to low commodity prices that diminish interest in Russia’s resources.

In Nezavisimaya Gazeta of October 16, Iurii Tavrovskii asks how to defend China’s “One Road, One Belt” project. This geo-economic strategy has resulted in both a new structure within China’s bureaucracy and solid financial footing through the Silk Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It is designed to resolve some internal and external economic problems of Chin and unite many configurations—the EEC, the SCO, ASEAN, the FTA of the Asia-Pacific, and the European Union. Unavoidably, it would become a competitor as well as an obstacle to TPP and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). As for the Maritime Silk Road, Tavrovskii sees the formation of an anti-Chinese coalition around the South China Sea issue with Japan playing an increasing role in support of the United States. This coalition threatens China’s shipping on the Maritime Silk Road and the development of trade between China and the countries of this region. This strategic vulnerability increases the significance of China’s other superproject—one land route of five crosses Russia to Belarus. All the way along this vast route to Eastern and Western Europe, the United States has no military allies and no permanent bases, which means that it cannot threaten the planned infrastructure. Strategic contradictions could arise from the destabilization of Afghanistan, the spread of ISIS into Central Asia, and also “color revolutions” in countries of the region. Terrorism could hit areas in China and Russia too. The cause could be US strategy to use “some barbarians in the battle with other barbarians.” It was no accident, readers learn, that after announcement of the “One Belt, One Road” Obama decided to stop the full pullout from Afghanistan in favor of leaving military bases there, where intelligence can be collected and even terrorists in nearby countries be supplied. Overland routes are more secure, but they need a backup, which is what the Trans-Siberian Railway and Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM) provide, as do the pipelines across Russia, which China has discussed helping to modernize. The northern sea route, likewise, serves as a backup to the Maritime Silk Road. In short, China is vulnerable without Russia and should make economic and infrastructure decisions counting on a reliable security partner to counter vulnerability elsewhere.

Tavrovskii proposes more security cooperation to protect the overland silk road; if the SCO anti-terrorist activities have diminished since they were launched as more focus has been put on bilateral actions, this is the time to reverse that, he argues, as has already been agreed to some degree. Yet, barriers to becoming a military bloc stand in the way, and he calls for removing them for Russia, China, and Central Asian states, while warning that the entry of India and Pakistan into the SCO will interfere with forging a security structure. Both Moscow and Beijing, he adds, should abandon illusions of closer ties to the West, which stand in the way of forging such a structure. Iran and Mongolia are also mentioned as possible participants. With the superproject of “One Belt, One Road,” going forward (there is no qualification here of unifying two roughly equal projects including the Eurasian Economic Union), this article concludes that it requires a parallel security architecture, which, presumably, would boost Russia’s role. No mention is made of likely Central Asian reservations.

Compared to earlier Russian articles in 2015, coverage of Sino-Russian relations is split in two directions: one, recognition of overdependence and lack of much benefit from China and need for more Asian partners; and two, insistence that China really needs Russia and a stronger case must be made for tightening relations. Little is said about other states in Asia despite confusing messages about India and Vietnam. Japan is treated more negatively. The Korean Peninsula seems to be set aside. Russia’s “turn to the East” is in trouble, but there is scant direct mention of that.