Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip this week to Vietnam and South Korea, which follows last week’s unprecedented foreign and defense ministerial meeting in Japan, testifies to Moscow’s continuing efforts to raise its profile in Asia. Last year, Russia hosted its first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference; the previous year, it joined the East Asian Summit. Half of Russia’s arms exports flow to Asian countries, which also buy Russia’s oil and gas as well as its civil nuclear technologies. Like their Western counterparts, Russian analysts consider that demographic, economic and other trends will make the Asia-Pacific the world’s most important region in coming decades.
Nonetheless, Russia is often treated as an afterthought in Asian-centered initiatives, or as China’s junior ally, as in the Korean nuclear negotiations. Despite its location, with much of its territory in Asia, Russia is poorly integrated into East Asia’s dynamic economies. Although Putin can cite record bilateral trade figures with each country, Russia’s trade relations with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam fall far behind these three countries’ economic interactions with each other. Moscow’s diplomatic flexibility is also constrained by its territorial conflict with Tokyo over the Kuril Islands, the mutual Russian-U.S. failure to extend their reset to Asia and Russia’s inability to either align with a rising China or develop a means to manage the consequences of China’s re-emergence as a regional power.
China and Russia have established a pragmatic relationship based on their shared national interests in maintaining regional stability, limiting Western influence and strengthening mutually beneficial economic ties. Their defense relationship has become better institutionalized and integrated. Meanwhile, Sino-Russian economic ties are growing rapidly: China, which has been Russia’s leading trade partner since 2008, has become its gateway to other East Asian markets and will probably soon become its main source of foreign direct investment.