Putin seeks to expand Russian influence in Asia-Pacific

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Putin seeks to expand Russian influence in Asia-Pacific

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping deepened bilateral ties at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Tuesday. The conference, hosted by Putin, represents an attempt by Moscow to assert itself more in the Asia-Pacific region in growing partnership with Beijing, with which it has a burgeoning dialogue over key regional and global issues, such as North Korea. 

The theme of the Vladivostok forum — “The Russian Far East: Expanding the Range of Possibilities” — underlines Putin’s ambitions. Not only did the Russian president meet with Xi, he also engaged with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon.

On Monday, for instance, Abe and Putin made further moves toward clearing the way for progress toward a peace treaty settlement on the disputed islands off Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, which were seized by the former Soviet Union at the end of World War II. These islands are now controlled by Moscow, but claimed by Tokyo, and have been a long-running sore in relations. 

A key reason Putin is putting renewed emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region is that his relations with Western powers are generally so strained. This follows years of sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea; concerns over Moscow’s alleged extensive meddling in a suite of Western elections; plus the attempted murder in England of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which has been widely blamed, internationally, on Moscow. 

While Putin is seeking strengthened relations with a host of Asia-Pacific powers, it is Xi with whom he has formed the strongest relationship. The Chinese president asserted in June that bilateral relations are at “the highest level… the most profound and strategically most significant relationship between major countries in the world” and also praised Putin by stating that he “is my best, most intimate friend.”

Perhaps the most cited area of warmer ties is on the political and security front. For instance, war games are taking place this week in the Transbaikal region in Russia’s Far East involving 300,000 troops, including 3,000 from China. 

However, outside of the political and security domain, China and Russia also enjoy an extensive economic dialogue. Russia has, for instance, announced plans for numerous cooperation projects with China, including a new method of inter-bank transfers and a joint credit agency that seeks to create a shared financial and economic infrastructure that will allow them to function independently of Western-dominated financial institutions. 

A key reason Putin is putting renewed emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region is that his relations with Western powers are generally so strained

Andrew Hammond

China and Russia are also among the states involved in creating alternative forums to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, including the New Development Bank. This will finance infrastructure and other projects in the BRICS states, and a related $100 billion special currency reserve fund.

Moreover, in the energy sector, the two states have signed a $400 billion natural gas supply deal, which will see an approximately 2,000-mile gas pipeline built to connect eastern Siberia to northeast China. And they have agreed to construct a second major gas pipeline from western Siberia to China’s Xinjiang province. 

Moscow has also opened parts of its upstream oil and gas sector to direct investment from Beijing. Moreover, Chinese firms have stepped in to provide Russian counterparts with technology, and Chinese banks have become an important source of loans for Russian businesses in the wake of Western sanctions.

These boosts to the bilateral cooperation agenda have helped enable work toward stronger common positions on key regional and global issues. This includes North Korea, with which both Russia and China have land borders, and who were its allies in the Korean conflict of the early 1950s. 

In the context of next week’s third summit this year between Seoul and Pyongyang, North Korea was a significant theme of the Vladivostok meeting, discussed not just by Xi and Putin, but also Abe and Lee. Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo all cautiously welcomed June’s Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, but are concerned that they don’t become passive bystanders, wanting instead to reinforce their interests as key players in the grand geopolitical game that is now potentially being played out on the peninsula, as long as the peace process does not unravel.

To this end, Putin hopes to meet with Kim in the coming months after he met with Moon Jae-in Moscow in June — the first such visit by a sitting South Korean president since 1999 — in a bid to stamp his own influence. A key part of this discussion was Moon’s promotion of his “New Northern Policy,” under which Seoul is seeking to improve ties with Eurasian neighbors that could, for instance, see it seeking to persuade Pyongyang to link transport networks along the western and eastern corridors of the peninsula, and potentially then be extended to China and Russia.

Taken overall, with Western-Russia rapprochement looking increasing uncertain, Putin is placing increasing emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, as shown by Vladivostok. While his ambition is warmer ties with a range of regional powers, including Japan, the super-priority remains China, with Putin’s closeness with Xi underpinning a significant warming of the bilateral relationship.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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