Few prospects worry Moscow more than a potential reduction of tensions between the United States and China.
Such a development, even if half-hearted and temporary, would threaten a curtailment of Beijing’s support for Russia in the international arena — at least from Moscow’s perspective.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit set to take place in San Francisco this week starting on November 15 will serve as a testing ground for the Kremlin’s fears.
The planned meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping will likely constitute the summit’s main event.
Russia decided to keep its representation for the summit rather low profile in dispatching Alexey Overchuk, a deputy to the prime minister in charge of matters of Eurasian integration (Rossiiskaya gazeta, November 10).
Russia’s own “pivot to the East” started with the APEC summit in Vladivostok in 2012. This year’s summit has gone largely unnoticed in Russia, because mainstream outlets have published only a few skeptical comments about the event’s proceedings (Izvestiya, November 7).
The Kremlin’s “unfriendly countries”
Moscow’s war against Ukraine has brought increased international scrutiny of Russian dealings in Europe and elsewhere. In addition to the United States and many European countries, Japan, South Korea, and even Singapore have been designated as “unfriendly countries” by the Kremlin due to stringent sanctions (The Straits Times, March 7, 2022; The Mainichi, March 8, 2022). Moreover, the agreement with Japan on decommissioning nuclear weapons has been canceled (RBC.ru, November 9). Russia’s primary position in Asia has now been centered around the deal to acquire millions of artillery shells from North Korea (see EDM, November 3).
Russian policymakers tend to focus on the mounting geopolitical competition between the United States and China. Their approach misses important nuances in failing to fully comprehend the depth to which the two countries’ economies are intertwined (Republic.ru, November 10).
The Kremlin has found some relief from Western sanctions in expanding economic ties with China, which has become Russia’s primary trade partner. Only about 2 percent of Chinese exports go to Russia, however, and Moscow finds it difficult to accept that it is not as important of a partner to Beijing as China is to Russia (The Insider, November 8; Ridl.io, November 3).
Official attempts to feign a solid and balanced foundation in the strategic partnership between Russia and China look increasingly dubious. The fact remains that the Kremlin’s travails in Ukraine and growing economic problems in both Russia and China have eroded that foundation (Russian International Affairs Council, November 1). The Russian government attempts to suppress inflation by simultaneously increasing interest rates and pumping more money into the defense industry, though arms production continues to struggle (Kommersant, November 9; Re-Russia.net, November 1). In China, economic performance has been hurt by Xi’s approach to tightening party control over key sectors. It is clear to Beijing that Russia cannot be a part of the solution for its economic slowdown (Kommersant, November 7).
Global energy supplies
China also seeks stability in global energy supplies. That outlook greatly influences its position on the turmoil in the Middle East. Beijing has few military instruments for projecting power and protecting its oil interests, but it hopes to use a policy of non-intervention to balance against Washington’s readiness to actively deter escalation by deploying aircraft carriers to the region (Nezavisimaoe voennoe obozrenie, November 9). Beijing remains hopeful of achieving success in its approach as benchmark oil prices are trending down despite the high risk of destabilization resonating from the war in Gaza. Russia, in contrast, is disappointed by a reduction in desperately needed oil revenues to fund its war effort (The Moscow Times, November 9).
Preventing destabilization in the Middle East
Biden and Xi may find some points of agreement on preventing self-reinforcing destabilization in the wider Middle East. Moscow pundits, nevertheless, prefer to speculate on the role of the Israel-Hamas conflict in a potential “World War III” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, November 8). Russian President Vladimir Putin has abandoned his trademark geopolitical maneuvering and has voiced Moscow’s support for Hamas. Putin seemingly assumes that military ties with Iran are more profitable than ambivalent relations with Israel (Svoboda.org, October 28). This choice may lead to stronger ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has positioned Türkiye as a champion of the Palestinian cause (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 8). Erdogan has, however, left himself space for bargaining with the West, while Putin none (Meduza.io, November 2).
Putin will avoid the San Francisco summit and opted instead to make his fifth trip to Kazakhstan this year. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev obliged, mentioning the need to discuss important economic matters (Novayagazeta.eu, November 9). Kazakhstan has taken care to plug breaches in circumventing the Western sanctions regime, and French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Astana on November 1, was given every possible reassurance that Kazakhstan is tightening its compliance (RBC.ru, November 2). Putin may not be worried about Western influence in Central Asia, but Beijing’s steady efforts to strengthen its position in the region pushes the Russian president to emphasize that Moscow maintains strong influence in the region (Forbes.ru, November 10).
Gas exports to Central Asia
The Kremlin has publicly advertised plans for expanding gas exports to Central Asia. Gazprom’s sharply reduced revenues, however, have made such projects far-fetched (TASS, November 1; Kommersant, November 7). Equally fanciful are the recycled propositions to expand maritime traffic along the Northern Sea Route and turn it into a major asset in Russia’s Asia-Pacific policy (Newdaynews.ru, November 9). China’s commercial interests in the Arctic are not wholly compatible with the Russian obsession of protecting these icy waters against hostile submarines (Izvestiya, November 2).
The most significant event that has drawn international attention to the Arctic in recent weeks has been the investigation of the origins of the leak on the Balticconnector gas pipeline (EurAsia Daily, October 30; see EDM, October 31). The anchor from the Chinese vessel under scrutiny, Newnew Polar Bear, was reportedly found at the site of the damage. This coupled with the ship’s rushed voyage back to Russian-controlled waters and refusal to cooperate with the investigation has heightened suspicions of Beijing’s culpability in the matter (RBC.ru, October 24). The Russian Foreign Ministry tellingly found it necessary to declare that any measures against Russian shipping would result in a complete closure of the Baltic Sea to commercial traffic (RBC.ru, November 3).
Russia’s aggressive stance toward the West hurts its interests in the Asia-Pacific. Even traditional partners such as Vietnam are finding it disagreeable to ally with Russia. Moscow’s fixation on re-asserting Russia’s great-power status has disrupted its prospects in the region. The country’s stagnant economy, declining population, and degraded military casts doubts on such efforts. Realistic prospects for cooperation bring the APEC member states together, and Russia’s propensity for manipulating and fomenting conflicts is not welcome.
- Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at PRIO
- This text is also published by Eurasia Daily Monitor 13 November 2023