Multilateralism in Northeast Asia – 2

No one has profited more from the decline of multilateralism in East Asia than North Korea. Russia’s international isolation and China’s simmering confrontation with Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have given Kim Jong-un much greater breathing space than his father and grandfather had had at any time since the late 1980s. In recent weeks Pyongyang has made an effort to shift closer towards Moscow. Kim has publically praised Putin’s efforts to “protect the dignity and interests of Russia,” and the North Korean state media has gleefully written of the recent Sino-Russian summit in Shanghai as “a heavy blow at the US foreign policy for world domination.” Kim has concluded, rightfully, that his interests are best served by polarization of East Asia. The alternative—multilateralism—would be bad news, because if there is one issue that has the potential of uniting all regional players against North Korea, it is the intractable problem of nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula. Yet, the prospect of China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States all coming together to put pressure on Pyongyang in the Six-Party Talks format appears more remote today than it has been for many years. Is it time, then, to pronounce multilateralism dead and explain what has come to replace it?

On the one hand, it is tempting to say that we are witnessing the rebirth of a Cold War-style division in Asia, with two rival camps vying for influence and power. This is what Pyongyang has counted on, and this is one way of interpreting the outcome of the May 2014 summit between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. On the other hand, such interpretation overlooks multiple currents that work against polarization, which I address below.

What is the underlying reason for the seemingly ever closer relationship between Moscow and Beijing? Rozman argues that the two countries share elements of national identity as great powers; this is convincing, for it allows one to link foreign policy aspirations with elite perceptions and the domestic identity discourses, so that China and Russia drawing together no longer appears as just realist “re-balancing.” I agree with Rozman that the notion of “greatness” is central to the foreign policy actions of both countries; this notion—as the antithesis of real or perceived “humiliation” by the West—lies at the very core of Xi Jinping’s “China dream” and Vladimir Putin’s increasing international assertiveness. I would go further than Rozman, however, in seeing both China and Russia as being motivated by common apprehension of “color revolutions,” especially in the wake of the Ukrainian drama. The Kremlin’s obsession (to use a strong word) with the prospect of revolutionary unrest—a Russian “maidan”—was on full display at the recent Shangri La Dialogue meeting in Singapore. Several observers have already highlighted the highly bizarre presentation by the Russian participant in the conference, Deputy Minister of Defense Anatolii Antonov, who spoke about the threat of “color revolutions” as one of the key issues facing Asia. Yet these very fears also preoccupy China, all the more so in recent months, as the new government tackles an ambitious reform program amid rising public discontent with a host of issues ranging from widening income gaps to terrorism to the environment.

Despite a certain commonality of interests, overlapping identities, and shared fears, and despite claims by both sides that Sino-Russian relations today are at their historic best, China and Russia are far from entering into an alliance of any kind. The problem areas in this relationship are well known. Briefly, there is a certain level of tension over Central Asia, where Putin’s vision for a Eurasian Union has so far failed to find traction with Xi Jinping’s plans for a “new silk road.” Moscow is also unhappy about the unequal structure of Sino-Russian trade, that is—Russia’s overreliance on the export of natural resources. The supreme irony of the recent gas deal is that, while it was hailed as a major breakthrough for Sino-Russian relations, it will irredeemably deepen the structural deficiencies of bilateral trade. Finally, on the international stage, Russia and China have acted in parallel but not always in unison. Beijing has offered very cautious support to Russia over the question of Ukraine—so cautious, in fact, that observers disagree whether it strengthens or weakens Sino-Russian relations. Russia, in turn, has engaged in regional hedging by selling weapons to India and Vietnam, and while Beijing pretends not to care, everyone can see that it does. There are of course hidden or obvious tensions to every relationship, so Sino-Russian frictions need not imply that that their strategic partnership will become undone in great acrimony. But what this does suggest is that despite tendencies towards polarization in Asia, both Beijing and Moscow have multiple agendas, which leave plenty of scope for acting outside the framework of their bilateral relationship.

Russo-Japanese relations offer some of the most interesting possibilities in this respect, a fact already discussed at length in this exchange. In particular, the question is to what extent there is still ground for breakthrough between Moscow and Tokyo in spite of Moscow’s fallout with the West. I would contend that this depends on what we mean by a breakthrough. Putin’s “hikiwake” approach remains in place but it probably means less today than it did just a year ago. It may be unrealistic now to expect Moscow to make concessions in the territorial dispute, and the reason for this is not so much the nationalist sentiment in Russia (for Putin has enough “patriotic” capital after Crimea to countenance a territorial compromise with Japan), as the Kremlin’s perception that Japan needs better relations with Russia more than the other way around. Such thinking has always been at the basis of Russia’s Japan policy, but the mounting tensions between China and Japan have confirmed the impression in Moscow that Tokyo is in dire need of Russia’s benevolent neutrality. In this sense, a “draw” in the Russo-Japanese relationship would mean that Russia would refuse to support China’s claims in the East China Sea, not that it would consider a compromise in its own territorial dispute with Japan in the form of a two plus alpha combination.

What Japanese policymakers need to decide is whether they are in fact willing to work towards this goal: a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with Russia, without any obvious hopes for the resolution of the territorial dispute. The benefits of this scenario are self-evident: in addition to countering China, it would also give Japan greater leverage as a broker between Russia and the West, something that Togo refers to. The drawback is that Japan will face US pressure to toe a common line on Russia, as it has already experienced in connection with the Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin’s recent trip to Tokyo, and will certainly experience as we move closer to the date of Putin’s planned visit to Japan in the fall. However, if the bottom line for Abe’s post-Crimea engagement with Russia is to win back the “northern territories,” his chances of success are very, very slim. Rather, Putin will attempt to compensate for his inability to make headway with Abe by putting greater emphasis on developing relations with South Korea.

This brings me to the future of the Russia-South Korean relationship. In many respects, the dynamic of this relationship will be the key indicator of the kind of international system that is currently taking shape in East Asia. Putin has high hopes for Russia’s dialogue with South Korea, because of Seoul’s economic importance to Russia’s Asian trade, because Russia and South Korea (unlike Russia and Japan) have no serious conflicts of interest, and because further development of this relationship, while it indirectly lessens Russia’s reliance on China, does not irritate Beijing to the same extent as the Kremlin’s dealings with Japan, Vietnam, or India. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Moscow can make headway with the key projects that matter for Putin: the trans-Korean transport and energy corridors. The chief obstacle to success here remains Pyongyang’s obstinacy. The best way to overcome this obstinacy is for Moscow to develop closer relations with North Korea. The irony of the situation is that while Russia’s engagement with Pyongyang is very much a consequence of growing polarization of East Asia, such engagement may actually strengthen the prospects for escaping such polarization.

What we are likely to see in East Asia, then, is Russia and China working hand-in-hand but without forming a solid front. Prospects for multilateralism survive, though they are unlikely to lead to a common endeavor by all regional powers to solve problems like that of denuclearization of North Korea. Instead, we will witness regional efforts to cross division lines in a series of disjointed bilateral dialogues on questions that matter to each player but not to all of them. These efforts will certainly fall short of genuine multilateralism but also will bear no resemblance to Cold War-type polarization.


Elizabeth Wishnick

Discussing Russia and multilateralism in Northeast Asia is a quixotic task. This is not a criticism of the participants in the discussion who have highlighted the much more dynamic developments in bilateral relationships, but an observation of conditions in the region where multilateralism is weakly developed due to Cold War legacies. Thus far, Russian participation has been limited to the moribund Six-Party Talks. The only other options in the region for non-US allies are regional free trade agreements (FTAs)—Russia has yet to engage Northeast Asian partners in such arrangements, though it has been discussing cooperation between the Eurasian Customs Union and Vietnam and has held bilateral free trade talks with several states in the Asia-Pacific region.

When the Sino-Russian partnership was established in 1996, Russian officials hoped that this relationship would ease Russia’s way into the diplomatic life of Asia. Although China has supported Russian membership in Asia-wide organizations like APEC and the East Asian Summit, ironically Russia’s deepening ties with China have stymied Russian multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific region. As Radchenko explains, Western observers are at odds over the direction and substance of the Sino-Russian partnership. In recent years, analysis has emphasized the points of contention over Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and trade, and downplayed sources of agreement. Rozman’s latest work on Russian and Chinese identities is an important reminder that shared perceptions and beliefs about great powers status and their common understanding of the nature of the world order create long-term bonds between the two countries, despite tensions over current policy issues. Radchenko further notes that China and Russia share a common threat perception in their preoccupation with foreign intervention in their domestic affairs leading to “color revolutions” and undesired democratic political change. I would add that China and Russia share political values—the need for an authoritarian political system, a rejection of Western liberal political norms, and a high priority on sovereignty as they define it—as well as a shared perception of mounting US pressure on their peripheries and common positions on key international crises, such as the civil war in Syria.

For this reason it is not surprising to hear more discussion lately in Russia and China about an alliance between the two countries, and we should pay more attention it. Although Radchenko discounts the likelihood of a Sino-Russian alliance in his recent comment, in his May 23 post he noted the increasing rhetoric of unity and alliance on the Russian side. There are similar trends in China. On May 7, 2014 the Chinese government issued its first Blue Book on National Security. In the report, Feng Zhongping, Deputy Director of the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, stated that China should unite with Russia (联俄) and consider a political alliance with Russia, which he claimed originated in a proposal by President Putin.1

Radchenko argues that disunity over Ukraine and Russian hedging behavior show limits to any partnership and make the prospect of an alliance even less likely. There is no question that China has had to walk a tight-rope in its response to the Ukrainian crisis. Not long after abstaining from the UN Security Council vote on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, China condemned an “illegal referendum” in Hong Kong that advocated democratic procedures in nominating candidates for the territory’s chief executive. But Russian officials understand Chinese concerns about separatism and appeared satisfied with China’s statements on Ukraine and rejection of Western sanctions.

Chinese officials also believe that Russia’s longstanding energy and defense relationships with India and Vietnam are not directed against China, even though some aspects of Russian policies—Russian submarine sales to Vietnam, for example—may have adverse consequences for Chinese interests. As Radchenko asserts, Russia’s Asia policy involves multiple agendas. This is not the same as hedging, which implies a coordinated effort by Russian officials to offset a potential challenge from a rising China by engaging with its opponents.

China’s boldness in asserting its maritime claims in Asia has led states in the region to seek counterweights to Chinese power. If Russia were indeed hedging against China, one might expect to see Russia take advantage of the situation and seek to play a greater role in Asian multilateral institutions or play the China card in its bilateral dealings with other Asian states. To the contrary, no Russian president has attended the East Asian Summit since Russia was invited to join in 2010, leading some Russian commentators to suggest that shunning controversy over Chinese policies might be a motive. Although the Russian government appears interested in improving relations with Japan, Russian officials attending an unprecedented 2+2 meeting on foreign policy and defense in Japan in November 2013 flatly refused to discuss their strategic partner, China.2 In this respect, the growing Sino-Russian partnership has had the effect of stifling Russia’s multilateral political role in Asia.

Elizabeth Wishnick is an Associate Professor of Political Science, Montclair State University, and a Senior Research Scholar, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University.

1. In Feng’s analysis the political alliance with Russia is conceived as one part of a three-pronged security strategy for China also involving stable relations with the United States and improved ties with Europe. In Feng’s analysis the political alliance with Russia is conceived as one part of a three-pronged security strategy for China also involving stable relations with the United States and improved ties with Europe. In Feng’s analysis the political alliance with Russia is conceived as one part of a three-pronged security strategy for China also involving stable relations with the United States and improved ties with Europe.

2. James D.J. Brown, “Hajime!—The Causes and Prospects of the New Start in Russian-Japanese Relations,” Asia Policy, No. 18 (2014), p. 106.

Gilbert Rozman

The most recent Radchenko statement makes eight statements that this reader finds in need of clarification: 1) what about Russia and China’s policies gives North Korea space and space to do what? 2) what is meant by protecting the dignity and interests of Russia, and how do these concepts relate to national identity? 3) how is Russia’s standing as a great power or “greatness” driving its behavior? 4) what is meant by an obsession about “color revolutions”? 5) do Sino-Russian differences over Central Asia and their trade imbalance matter a lot? 6) do China’s rather cautious words on Ukraine and Russia’s arms sales to India and Vietnam suggest important restraints on bilateral relations? 7) is there any prospect of Japan agreeing to a territorial deal with Putin after he has hardened his position, and even an offer of two islands is in doubt as Putin assumes that Japan needs Russia much more due to pressure from China? and 8) what is the basis for increased new Russian hopes for closer ties with South Korea? Below, I anticipate how I think these questions could be answered in anticipation of the final Radchenko statement in this round of Topics of the Month.

1) In the 35-year Cold War on the Korean Peninsula, Moscow and Beijing gave Pyongyang space to make outrageous threats, to launch terrorist attacks, and to build a military machine capable of wreaking horrendous damage—conventional and based on WMD. In the 25 years since the end of the Cold War elsewhere, the prevailing assumption has been that Moscow and Beijing are too interested in the stability of Northeast Asia to give Pyongyang space, both seeking a denuclearized North Korea and agreeing on sanctions to support negotiations. One interpretation of Radchenko’s statement as well as of recent Russia and, perhaps, Chinese policy is that the Cold War approach is returning, making North Korea a pawn in opposing US policy. Is that what is meant by giving it “space”? Strengthening the North so that it feels more secure to engage in reform, Russia may actually embolden it to be more reckless, implying that a dangerous, destabilized region is in Russia’s interest.

2) The concept of national “dignity” appears to be the opposite of “respect” and “trust.” For years we were told that Russia must win the trust of other states, e.g., to encourage investment in the Russian Far East. Moscow appeared to be doing well as recently as 2012 in building mutual trust with new leaders in Tokyo and Seoul. How will Russian “dignity” contribute to that endeavor? Instead, this concept involves national identity in ways that hark back to the Cold War. It may mean overturning some historical injustice, standing behind some civilizational imperative, and rejecting pragmatic compromise.

3) When one adds the notion of “greatness” to that of “dignity,” we are drawn back to Russian or Soviet imperialism when countries such as Japan and South Korea, supposedly lacking this quality, did not merit diplomatic attention. This is suggestive of Russocentrism, calling at least for a sphere of influence if not something more substantial on the grounds of the old Soviet Union. Again, national identity is invoked with unclear interest to national interests, perhaps used in the same sense as during the Cold War.

4) When one asks what is troublesome about a “color revolution,” the answer given may conceal a more accurate response. The usual claim is that this is a Western contrived effort to undermine one regime in favor a pro-Western government. This argument could, alternatively, be construed as a version of the “Brezhnev Doctrine.” No matter how unpopular, corrupt, or repressive a regime is, if it is presumed to belong to the camp led by Moscow—the Soviet Union, the wider socialist bloc, or a projected Eurasian Union--, Moscow has the right to decide if the regime will continue and, if not, what regime will take its place. No matter how social strife begins or how strong the desire of civil society to emerge, outside powers should defer to Moscow to decide the future of the country. The very idea of free elections based on freedom of speech and assembly is rejected in critiques of “color revolutions.”

5) China and Russia have major differences over Central Asia, and Russia has long complained of unbalanced trade relations, but these issues have rarely been raised in a manner with much impact on relations. The SCO has kept advancing if not nearly as much as China desires, and Sino-Russia trade has expanded rapidly, if not with the balance Russia has sought. If these issues have caused little trouble before, why raise them as if they are consequential at a time when Moscow and Beijing are forging much closer ties? Indeed, the acceptance by Russia of the new gas deal takes trade discontent off the table, and the recent large increase in Chinese spending in Central Asia shows the weakness of Russia’s position.

6) Yes, China has shown caution about Ukraine, but it has given Russia enough support to meet the needs of their relationship. Likewise, as China presses Vietnam with a show of force, Russia’s impotence as a military and energy partner of Vietnam is exposed. Under a new, vigorous leader, India may also put Russia’s willingness to challenge China to a test. Multipolarity in Russian Asian policy appears to be an illusion.

7) The idea that Abe would or could reach agreement on the territorial dispute and a peace treaty based on the return of zero islands seems inconceivable to me. That some in Russia think that Japan’s position is weakened and Russia’s is strengthened reminds me of decades of Soviet illusions about the balance of this relationship.

8) Finally, how can Moscow be hopeful that more support for Pyongyang will draw Seoul closer? The argument appears to be that North Korea’s economy will revive, South Korea will feel even more left out than it does today when China dominates trade with North Korea, North Korea will downplay further aggressive moves, and South Korea will see a need to cooperate with Russia on big projects. This is worthy of discussion, but it seems quite unlikely.