The Russian Far East is certainly the trump card for Russia– exploitation of its resources has been a significant factor in regenerating Russian power after the post-Soviet slump. Geographically, however, the RFE is closer to Beijing than Moscow, and despite their protestations of friendship, economic cooperation and (window-dressing) IGO initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the border with China actually represents a Russian weakness, not an opportunity.
This is because Russian strategists have for generations shared a sense of insecurity that is almost pathological. The invasions of Mongolian Khans, of Tamerlane, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler all acted to scar and re-scar the Russian mind – making the pursuit of geographic security all but paramount in Muscovite strategy, whether through direct control (as with Russia’s sprawl eastward to the Pacific), or through proxies and buffer states, as occurred with Russia’s southern and western expansion. This insecurity has been a motive of Russian strategy under successive leaders and regimes. There’s a direct link between this search for security and the Crimean War, the Cold War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan– and nine separate wars with Turkey. The point is that Russia is very prickly about its place in the world.
Regarding Russia/China relations, the border between these giants has been a source of dispute for generations. Even when Russia and China were the closest of Communist allies (with far more in common than today) the border was still the source of some fairly intense conflict. Ultimately, it was the relative strength of the USSR, and China’s search for a counter-balance, that created the opportunity for President Nixon’s great foreign policy triumph, the ‘opening of China.’ China’s search for a far-off, powerful friend to counterbalance a neighbouring threat was far more influential in the US/China rapprochement than anything America could have come up with on its own.
Looking at the current situation, while Russia and China do make friendly noises about bilateral cooperation, regional stability and global multi-polarity, ultimately Russia is, and will continue to be the weaker of the two nations (nuclear arsenal notwithstanding). Therefore, as China continues to reform its polity and economy, and regenerate its relative power, Russia will become increasingly uneasy – far from being a bridge between East and West, Russia (because of it’s pathological insecurity) will feel increasingly threatened by the Sino Giant, neighbouring as it does Russia’s sparsely-populated, strategically-awkward, resource-rich Far East. In this context, Russia will have two objectives. Economically, Russia (like so many countries) will pursue the lucrative benefits of closer engagement and integration with China. Geo-strategically, however, the Russian government will want to hedge its bets – and search for an alternative force to counter-balance its powerful neighbour (a strategy Ben mentions, but ultimately rejects).
In contrast to Ben, I argue that while many Western strategists and economists are advocating the ‘Pivot to Asia’ (P2A) the longer-term Russian objective, like that of Australia and many regional Chinese neighbours, will actually be a closer, more cooperative relationship with the more distant (and therefore safer) bet-hedging power-node called the United States of America.
Guy Roberts, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne.