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Russia’s Strategic Forays in Asia Pacific in November 2013

Paper No. 5620                                        Dated 20-Dec-2013

Dr Subhash Kapila

Russia’s Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific declared a year back seems to be fleshed out with remarkable alacrity. In the last month or so Russia has made strategic and political reach-outs to Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

This is a welcome departure from Russia’s erstwhile policy fixations on China’s strategic utility to furtherance of Russian strategic interests. Russia’s hopes of its China-fixated policy formulations, for strategic leverages accruing to it when dealing with the United States, never materialised. In the process this Russian strategy impeded Russia’s strategic reachout to the dynamic nations of Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

Noticeable visibly in Russia’s strategic forays in Asia Pacific are two major vital factors. The first noticeable factor is that in terms of comparative analysis with the United States’ Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific is that in terms of initiatives, Russia has embarked on strategically pro-active initiatives towards appreciable strategic gains in the Asia Pacific. The United States is only in a reactive mode and can be said to be losing strategic space in the Asia Pacific by its ‘China Appeasement Policies”

The second noticeable factor is that while the United States in pursuit of its ‘China Hedging Strategy’ and to placate China is permissive on China’s strategic delinquencies against Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, comparatively and in sharp contest, Russia’s strategic forays in the Asia Pacific in recent weeks have focussed on the very same countries that China has inflicted its military brinkmanship.

Should the United States mot reading some messages in these developments?

Russia’s strategic masterstroke and game-changer in the Asia Pacific, if fully consummated, and the strong potential is there, was of its political and security reach-out to Japan in the Russia-Japan 2+2 Talks held in Tokyo recently on November2 2013. Russia’s strategic move in its policy formulations promising new and substantial strategic relationship far outweighs the strategic forays made to South Korea and Vietnam.

The above stands analysed in my SAAG Paper entitled “Russia and Japan in a Historical, Political and Strategic Reachout” (Paper No. 5591 dated 4 November 2013)

China perceives Japan as its main and strongest military regional adversary not prone to Chinese political and military coercion. The United States is as Japan’s military ally can be said to be not strong in reining-in China’s military adventurism against Japan.

Russia’s strategic and political reach-out to Japan at such a juncture holds strategic promise for Japan in a China-troubled strategic environment and provides alternatives to Japanese policy-makers.

Russia’s strategic foray to South Korea materialised in the form of a personal visit by President Putin to Seoul on November 13 2013.. The focus was on trade and technical cooperation between the two countries but also accompanied by an under-pinning of security discussions in the context of the regional security environment.

The Russian President expressed support for Korean Reunification which would have gladdened his South Korean hosts. Russia was open to a seabed energy pipeline from Russia to South Korea.

The United States is South Korea’s major military ally where US Forces have a sizeable military presence on the Korean Peninsula and therefore the only substantial foothold on the Asian mainland in this region. South Korea lives in the shadow of the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missiles threat and can be said to be China’s proxy and China-sponsored spoiler-state in North East Asia.

Contextually against this background the visit of the Russian President carries rich symbolic significance.

Russia’s strategic and political reach-out to Japan and South Korea also needs to be read in the economic field too where Russia providing energy security to Japan and South Korea can be exchanged for substantial Japanese and South Korean involvement and investments in development of Russia’s resources-rich but underdeveloped Far East Region.

The Russian strategic community is not in favour of China’s involvement and investments in the strategic and militarily vital Russian Far East for obvious regions.

The Russian President’s visit to Vietnam on November12 2013 amounts to regaining of lost ground in a decade of an overly Russian tilt towards China as a reactive posture towards United States not resetting its policy buttons on Russia.

Russia in the recent past has contracted to supply six submarines to Vietnam and a squadron of fighter aircraft. Both would add to Vietnam’s military capabilities to deter China’s conflict escalation on the South China Sea disputes.

The Russian President’s visit to Vietnam can expectedly lead to more substantial Russian contributions to China’s capacity-building of Vietnam’s Armed Forces which may or may not spill out into the public domain.

Russia also was open to assisting Vietnam in setting up a nuclear power station. Russia is already engaged in a big way in offshore oil exploration and oil refinery projects in Vietnam.

Concluding, the following major observations are made on the subject of Russia’s strategic forays in the Asia Pacific:

  • Russia’s Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific though late in coming is yet a welcome step in terms of overall security and stability of the Asia Pacific, lately troubled by China’s military adventurism.
  • The overall balance of power in the Asia Pacific stood distorted because the United States as the predominant power in the Asia Pacific in the pursuit of its ‘China Hedging Strategy’ and ‘Risk Aversion Strategy’ permissively allowed China military brinkmanship against its smaller neighbours.
  • Russia’s significant Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific would hopefully redress this distorted strategic imbalance.
  • Russia’s strategic forays focussing on Japan, South Korea and Vietnam lately need to be welcomed in terms of providing strategic alternatives to Asia Pacific nations rather than relying on the United States only and its China tilt.