Tuesday, December 13, 2011

If Putin becomes president (again): implications for Asia

Still months out from Russia’s March 2012 presidential election and it is virtually certain that Vladimir Putin will return to the presidency.

Significantly for Asia, Putin called for the creation of a Eurasian Union shortly after announcing his intention to run. The plan, unveiled in a newspaper article on 4 October, is to achieve EU-style economic integration based on Russia’s customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus that would eventually encompass the whole Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

But it must be noted that Russia is currently experiencing conflict, mistrust or friction in its relations with Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Moldova. Georgia withdrew from the CIS after fighting a war against Russia; Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are increasingly taking independent stances from Russia. Putin’s recent remarks, which suggest his intention to annex South Ossetia and establish a Soviet-style alliance with Belarus, provoked a local backlash. Given the current state of affairs, Putin’s plan for the Eurasian Union should be taken more as a reflection of his political ambition to re-establish Russia’s leadership in the former Soviet Union region than as a realistic economic objective. It is also an expression of his wish to revive the Russian-led CIS as a potential rival to the EU and China. That is why Russia’s move is being criticised as imperialistic both within and outside the country.

How will all this affect Putin’s policy toward Asia, particularly Japan and the rest of the Far East? The most pressing issues facing Russia’s Asia policy are the following: first, restoring Russia’s political, economic and military presence in the Asia Pacific, which was lost after the collapse the Soviet Union; second, building cooperative relations with China while hedging against future threats; and third, making effective use of a ‘US card’ to play against China’s military build-up and aggressive maritime moves, while countering the deployment of US missile defence systems. Stemming from these strategic calculations is a cautious view within Russia about America’s declining presence in the Asia Pacific region.

Also notable is Medvedev’s effort to improve economic and military relations with North Korea. Through a trilateral project to construct a gas pipeline that would pass through North Korea to South Korea, Russia is determined to reinforce its presence on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia on the back of energy resources. The project also serves Russia’s efforts to manipulate China, where talks on gas prices are stalled. But whether the project will come to fruition remains to be seen, given that it entails similar risks to those exposed in the Russia–Ukraine gas disputes. North Korea is counting on the Russian-led project to reduce dependence on China — thus the project is a way for North Korea to manipulate China as well.

Putin tried to redress the balance against China by emphasising the progress made in bilateral political and economic cooperation when he visited Beijing on 11–12 October. It was his way of using the ‘China card’ against the West. But neither does Moscow conceal its vigilance against China, as was demonstrated by Russia’s announcement several days prior to Putin’s visit that a Chinese spy had been arrested. Russia’s military build-up in Asia is evidently targeted at the US, but it has increasingly taken on a counter-China aspect in recent years as well. If China continues its expansionism and military build-up, there will come a time when Japan and the US seriously consider making use of the ‘Russia card’.

As for relations with Japan, Medvedev has taken a hardline stance on the Northern Territories despite reputedly being on the liberal side of the political spectrum. The Japanese government was baffled when its optimistic expectations were betrayed. In an effort to erase his negative image as a ‘weak leader’, Medvedev sometimes resorts to tough measures to court the Silovik (politicians from the security or military services). This has given rise to an optimistic view within Japan that the dispute over the Northern Territories will develop to Japan’s advantage if Putin replaces Medvedev.

This is nonsense.

It should not be forgotten that Putin rejected traditional peace treaty negotiations in 2005 by stating that the Southern Kuril Islands had become Russian territories as a result of World War II and that this was recognised under international law. When it comes to dealing with issues pertaining to national sovereignty, Japan needs to be prepared to fight a long battle. But it is still highly likely that Putin will choose to visit Japan soon after the presidential election next spring, in order to turn around soured Japanese public opinion for the sake of advancing bilateral economic cooperation. Author: Shigeki Hakamada, Aoyama Gakuin University
Shigeki Hakamada is Professor of Russian Studies at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo

A version of this article first appeared on the Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies website.

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