The Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), Russia’s economic outreach to the world, was held from September 11-13, 2018 and attracted participants from 60 countries. The most notable ones were China (whose President Xi Jinping attended the EEF for the first time in its history) and Japan (whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had recently held a high profile bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin). The EEF was held for three years continuously in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.
Due to Western sanctions over the Russian annexation of Crimea; long-lasting tensions over Russian support for pro-independence fighters in eastern Ukraine; Russian anger over the promotion of Color Revolutions in its backyard, especially Georgia; and Russian weapons that were allegedly involved in the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines jetliner that had killed all onboard; Russo-EU ties are strained. Russo-US ties are also strained for the same reason but the US under the Trump administration is keen to reach rapprochement with the Russians. In fact, in his meeting with NATO allies, President Trump pushed hard for the revival of the G-8 (the G-7 plus Russia). President Trump is trying very hard to reboot American relations with the Russians, something of great significance between the world’s top two nuclear powers armed with enough ICBMs to destroy the world many times over. President Trump’s overtures are resisted by many: his Democrat colleagues, European leaders and his own intelligence services. This is a complicated situation.
Due to Western hostile attitudes towards Russia, Moscow has turned to the East, especially Northeast Asia, to overcome the sanctions and encirclement, promoting both diversification of economic partners while trying to be as self-sufficient as possible at the same time. Here, in this region, instead of hostilities, it finds willing partners. South Korea is keen to work with the Russians. Russia remains an influential six-party talk constituent over the fate of the Korean Peninsula, and Russia represents an under-tapped market for South Korean manufacturing industries.
North Korea has always been a good friend of the Russians since the days of the Soviet Union. Russia has spoken up on behalf of Pyongyang on numerous occasions, asking the US, the West and the UN to de-escalate tensions and negotiate at the table to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. During the recent Russo-Japanese bilateral summit, Putin asked Abe to help lower the temperatures on the Korean Peninsula.
Mongolia attended the EEF for the first time as it seeked to work with Russia economically. Mongolia is a land-locked country bordered by Russia and China. Thus, any maritime trade has to be conducted through these two countries. Mongolia also has natural resources like rare earths that are universally useful for any economies with electronics or computer hardware manufacturing industries. Mongolia also serves as a buffer between China and Russia, able to maintain useful contact with both and tapping into their economic potentialities.
All evidence points towards a Sino-Russo alignment but they still need to get over longstanding distrust to truly become allies.
Japan and Russia are keen to move ahead with their island (known as the “Northern Territories” to the Japanese and “Southern Kurils” to the Russians) dispute. At the end of WWII in 1945, the Soviet Union occupied those islands and ejected 17,000 Japanese residents. Since then, Japan has been trying to get the islands back. The most concerted attempts were made during Abe’s meeting with Putin at their bilateral meeting in St Petersburg. This time round, Abe made the same proposal for joint development of the islands while Putin promised to make it easier for Japanese to visit the islands. The islands are one of the issues that have prevented the two countries from signing a formal peace treaty after the end of WWII. While skirting around the issue of the islands’ sovereignty, the armed forces of Japan and Russia agreed to have exchanges. This may help contribute to confidence building measures in the region. They also signed 11 bilateral agreements related to trade and commerce.
All in all, it was a cordial and friendly meeting that further thawed ice between the two countries. Helping this process is probably the longevity of Abe’s tenure and hold on power. Some believe that he is going for an unprecedented third term in office and has already been re-elected as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (one of the longest reigning parties in the world). It helps to have a strong leader in power in order to deal with a powerful strongman like Putin who skirted around the constitution by temporarily stepping down from Prime Minister-ship only to return to power as the President.
For the Russians, the most important player in the room was probably the Chinese. President Xi attended the EEF for the very first time. He brought to the table a slew of treaties and agreements related to commerce, trade, and people-to-people and cultural exchanges. The Chinese and the Russians have never been so close than now, at least in terms of imageries, symbolisms and perceptions. Both of them have closely aligned objectives, including the wish to see a multipolar world instead of a unipolar one and the need to manage tensions with the West.
Russian support is crucial for China given its railway lines running through the Russian backyard like Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Russia is also the leader of the Eurasian Economic Union which has some overlapping features with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese and the Russians have started the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alignment for promoting trade and commerce. Iran, Pakistan and India were present at the latest SCO meeting. The Russians had at points of time in the past persuaded the Chinese to convert it into a strategic, political and military organization. Beijing is so far resistant to the idea for fear of antagonizing the West.
Beijing is facing pushback from the West, especially over its ambitious BRI project. The US’ Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is seen as an alignment to counter China and the BRI, while the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy is seen as a way for the US to “contain” China. China wants to look for partners to hedge against the might of the West but, at the same time, China has no conceptual idea of forming alliances. China shuns alliances. Russian interests are aligned with the Chinese interest. They see eye to eye on North Korea, often urging the West to go easier on Pyongyang to prevent a nuclear conflict, including an accidental one. They were supportive of the Trump-Kim summit held in Singapore and have urged both parties to stick to the agreement. Both Russia and China are also on the same page in broad strokes on Iran and its six party talks. Militarily, China and Russia are the largest contributors to Vostok 18, the largest military exercise carried out and hosted by the Russians in three decades since the Cold War, with 300,000 Russian troops in attendance and 3,200 troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army. All evidence points towards a Sino-Russo alignment but they still need to get over longstanding distrust to truly become allies.