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Face off

The Russian policy of active participation in affairs in the East is shaking Asia

Face off

For several years now, Russia and China have been testing each other’s strength in different areas, which each country considers to be part of its own zone of influence.

The Russian approach is more direct and relies on military force and energy supplies. China acts thinner and, taking advantage of its economic power and legendary patience, it persistently puts pressure in the east and south, at the same time playing on the nerves of its main opponent in the region - Japan.

Russian diplomacy

Western democracies all this time have been preoccupied with the problems of the recession, the "Arab Spring" and in the last year the threat from Russia on the eastern border - in Ukraine. Although Western countries often let this out of their sight, Russia is a serious force in the Asia-Pacific region (APR), albeit dormant for the last quarter of the last century. It has borders with China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, North Korea, Japan and the United States, from which it is separated by about four kilometers of water between the Bering Strait islands. Moscow played a significant role in both the Korean War (1950-53) and the Vietnam War (1965-75), and recently began to pursue a policy of active participation in Asian affairs in order to re-establish itself as an important power in the region.

Coupled with China's continued strengthening, the return of Russia as an active participant in politics in Asia, given its anti-Western rhetoric, can create a problematic mix of the two forces that are eager to change the status quo in the region.

The most reasonable way to resist Russia is through economic integration, which, by and large, was the basis of the success of the APR countries. However, this turns out to be a daunting task.

“The region appeals to a sense of community,” says Shinooko Goto of the Woodrow Wilson Center Asia Program. - The problem of economic integration is that it is not deep enough. In Europe, apart from trade ties, countries are united by a common system of values, which does not yet exist here. "

Instead of using economic successes to create a common idea, two trade organizations are being built in the region, led by leaders of opposing camps. The Trans-Pacific partnership is sponsored by the United States, while China dominates the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership. They should start functioning this year. Russia is not their member. The question of how it will interact with them remains on the agenda, and this opportunity should be used by the West and its allies.

Moscow’s policy combines diplomatic, economic and military elements. Joint military exercises with China have become commonplace. In August of last year, in the East China Sea, Russian and Chinese units for the first time worked side by side; the next exercises are planned to be held in the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

Russia is also trying to balance between hotbeds of tension and to be on good terms with everyone. Japan, China's main rival in the region, is proposing negotiations over the disputed Kuril Islands, which the Japanese call the "Northern Territories." It also empowers Vietnam's navy with offensive submarines, lowers energy prices for any country willing to buy, and rebuilds influence in North Korea, from where China happily retreats, finding Pyongyang a difficult ally.

“Sooner or later, North Korea will have missiles that will not only damage neighbors but also much more distant countries,” said Christopher Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.

Second turn

When US President Barack Obama announced a "reorientation" of policy towards Asia in 2011, he aimed to soften Chinese aggression in the region. He did not think about a "second reorientation" on the part of Russia, a serious force in Europe, which showed a willingness to use the conflict to achieve its own goals.

If Russia decides to act in the region as harshly as it did in Ukraine, China will have to decide what to do. Should he take one side with the US for economic pragmatism or support Russia, because at some stage, authoritarian states will unite against the leaders of Western democracies?

After the wars in Korea and Vietnam, Southeast Asia withdrew from the Cold War. The American security umbrella allowed the creation of the economic “tigers,” or the four small dragons of Asia — Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea — but out of this arose a new ideology that China and Russia are developing today. Known as Asian values, this ideology combines authoritarian governance with a strong focus on economic growth, where human rights are subordinated to the good of society in the understanding of power.

Taiwan and South Korea left this path to become democratic countries, as Japan did earlier, and these three countries are currently the main regional allies of the United States. Most other countries in East and Southeast Asia remain authoritarian or not fully democratic, although there are exceptions, such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Despite serious cultural differences and a history of relations, full of differences, China and Russia share the fiery belief that Western-style democracy will be detrimental to them. China did not long try to apply this model before the 1989 events of the year on Tiananmen Square. Russia is still licking its wounds after the democratic experiments of the 1990s.

Richer and more self-confident than during the Cold War, China realizes that its success has been achieved not through fighting the democracies of the West, but through skillful economic integration with them. At this point, they are so connected that human rights abuses in China and the undemocratic system of government are hardly topics of discussion. Only a fool would give it up for the sake of ideological differences, especially if Russia turns out to be the example that is better not to follow. And China's leaders are not fools.

One of the options for the development of events - the United States and China, working as partners, will create new regional trade organizations in order to make them less politicized and contradictory. The devil is, of course, in the details, especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose charter is very complex.

An example of friction that could escalate is the recent objection from the United States to Britain, which plans to become one of the founding states of the China-controlled new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, seen as a rival to the World Bank, where the United States in turn has great influence. ...

However, if differences can be ironed out and bylaws standardized, it is from this process that the unified structure that Asia-Pacific is looking for will grow. If the United States finds opportunities to work with China, Russia will have a choice to join or not.

History repeats itself, not least because in the course of a confrontation with Russia, Washington needs Beijing as an ally, not an adversary. In this respect, today's situation is reminiscent of the first half of the 1970s, shortly before US President Richard Nixon made a surprise visit to China and laid the foundation for the actions that ended the Cold War.

By: Humphrey Hawksley - Asian specialist, BBC correspondent, author of "The Third World War" - a book-hypothesis about the conflict between Russia, China, India and the United States.

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