RD Interview: Sergey Lousianin from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences sheds light on relations between Moscow and Beijing and explains what problems might be on the agenda during Putin’s visit to China.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second left, arrives for a meeting with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, April 28, 2016. Photo: AP

Russia’s much-touted pivot to China is once again under scrutiny, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to China this month. One major talking point will likely be new economic partnership opportunities between Russia and China, especially given the launch of the U.S.-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), of which neither is a signatory.

Moscow and Beijing should come up with a more democratic alternative to the TPP and invite other South Asian countries to counterbalance the increasing economic influence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the May 30-31 international conference “Russia and China: Taking on a New Quality of Bilateral Relations,” organized by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

But will Moscow and Beijing be able to succeed? In order to answer this question, Russia Direct sat down with Sergey Lousianin, the acting director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences, on the sidelines of the RIAC conference. He also discussed Russia-China relations, Putin’s upcoming visit to Beijing and the first results of the Kremlin’s turn to the East.

Russia Direct: What will the South Asian countries prefer – the TPP, rigorously promoted by an economic superpower, the U.S., with no possibility to participate in creating the rules of the game, or a possible regional agreement, initiated by economically weaker Russia and China, with the possibility for other members to contribute to determining its future agenda?     

Sergey Lousianin: Today the TPP has become a matter of fact, as it was signed in February 2016. It includes the U.S., Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Vietnam and other countries. But it is based on very tough American standards. The rules of trade and service exchange are regulated in accordance with American standards, which obviously go beyond the framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO). In fact, it is a zone of rigid U.S. economic control and promotion of its economic interests. Most importantly, neither Russia nor China is included in the TPP.

What can they offer [to counterbalance it]? Well, China has already launched an alternative: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It seeks to attract TPP members under Chinese requirements, which are vague, but less tough than the American rules. Some of the countries seem to be ready to straddle between the TPP and the RCEP.

RD: Is it possible?         

S.L.: Yes, it is possible. The TPP doesn’t forbid legally participating in other regional economic agreements. It would be weird if it did forbid this activity.

RD: I mean politically, is it really possible without certain implications?

S.L.: The TPP members are not military and political allies. They are economic allies. The TPP is just an economic project and, again, doesn’t forbid participation in an alternative project. After all, Sochi’s recent summit between Russia and the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) resulted in an agreement on cooperation and the creation of free trade zones with the ASEAN countries, most of which are the members of both the TPP and China’s new regional project [RCEP]. So, we are witnessing cutthroat economic and political rivalry, a tug of war between China and the U.S.

However, Russia doesn’t participate in this competition for objective economic reasons, because its share in the economy of the Asia-Pacific region is miniscule. That’s why we are just watching from the sidelines. We just have a very specific macroeconomic interest in this region, which is related to the development of Siberia and Russia’s Far East.      

However, Russia may support China politically or take the position of friendly neutrality. Yet the rivalry with the U.S. is rather the problem of China, because it is one of the world’s economic leaders. U.S. President Barack Obama tries to promote the TPP and this is the reason why he officially said [in his recent column for The Washington Post] that the U.S. has been and remains the leader of global trade and China should not overshadow it. His message is that the U.S. is reinvigorating its economy and retaining its position as a global trade leader that creates the rules of the game. Russia should shy away this collision of these two global economic giants. We just don’t have enough resources.

RD: There is a great deal of buzz about Russia’s turn to the East. What are its real results?

S.L.: The turn to the East is a sort of slogan, used artificially by politicians for their own purposes. In fact, this turn is interpreted in an absolutely wrong way, because Russia has always tried to pin its hopes on Asia. But due to economic sanctions, the crisis in relations with the EU and the NATO threat, the importance of the Asian vector has been significantly increasing.

This is where the thesis of Russia turning to the East came from. However, again, I see it as artificial, because if you take the economic aspect of Russia-China relations, the turn hasn’t already taken place as such. What we have is insignificant trade turnover, which, in fact, decreased from $89 billion to about $68 billion in just the past three years.

However, politically, the turn to the East took place and has already strengthened, because there is the peaceful rise of China, as the Chinese claim. Russia also sees this rise as peaceful, but the West looks at this trend in an alarmist perspective.

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Likewise, the Southeast Asia countries – including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and others – see China’s rise as a potential threat, given increasing tensions around territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas. Similarly, India is prudent. So, the world is very cautious about the growing influence of China. In such an environment, China urgently needs Russia’s political support and welcomes its turn to the East.

We are strategic partners and are not going to attack China. Beijing needs Russia, primarily, because of one simple reason: Russia is geographically protecting China’s northern border – 4,000 kilometers (approximately 2,500 miles). It means that the Chinese won’t worry about the stability of their northern border for decades. They seek confidence that they have a reliable friend on their northern border.

Russia’s motive behind its turn to China is more pragmatic: It is related to the fact that China became the world’s second economy and it would be reckless for Moscow to ignore this fact and not to benefit from it. Of course, China’s economy has been slowing down (the annual growth is not 10 percent per year, but about 6.5-7 percent), but nevertheless, it remains the world’s second-largest economy.

It might be a future superpower. So, economically, it would be reckless to ignore China. So, it is necessary to avail the opportunity and persuade China to invest in Russia and the advanced development of its territories more. So far, we are neither good nor bad in attracting Chinese investment.

RD: What are the chances of Russia becoming a junior partner of China, as some warn?

S.L.: You know, in geopolitics there is no equal partnership in general. Officially, stakeholders always talk about equality and mutual benefits – it is just the rules of the game. But, in reality, bilateral partnership between countries is always asymmetrical.

For example, in the Soviet era, there was the asymmetry in Moscow-Beijing relations in favor of the Soviet Union, with China as the junior partner. Today this asymmetry shifted in favor of Beijing: it is obvious that, economically, China is stronger than Russia. However, Russia has a very powerful military counterbalance to China’s economic dominance. That’s why this asymmetry is alleviated. If you take the cumulative national heft of China and Russia, they would be equal, with China dominating economically and Russia militarily. This has become clear, especially after Russia’s military campaign in Syria, which China observed with a great deal of interest.

RD: Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to pay a visit to China in late June. What is your expectation from this visit?

S.L.: The Chinese are looking forward to his visit. He is likely to discuss the economic agenda, with his core ministers accompanying him. The agenda of Putin’s visit may deal with energy cooperation with China, trade turnover and investment, as indicated by speeches of some participants of the RIAC’s conference on China-Russia relations.

Sergey Lousianin, the acting director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences. Photo: Sergey Akulich / EastRussia

For example, the head of Renova Group, Viktor Vekselberg, said that 52 new agreements were expected to be signed between Moscow and Beijing. He is likely to be included in the Russian delegation, which will visit China together with Putin. Probably, Russia will discuss the format of these 52 projects. It might include attracting China’s investment for the advanced development of Russia’s territories or cooperation in cyber-security. It might also deal with the Northern Sea Route or something else.    

RD: With Russia pinning its hopes on China and waiting for a miracle from it, what are the risks from the deep cooperation with Beijing, in your view?

S.L.: Hypothetically, Russia (and the world, in general) should be attentive to the revival of China’s patriotism spurred by its “economic renaissance,” which, in turn, might reinvigorate nationalistic sentiments among nearly one and half billion Chinese people. After all, it is very difficult to find a fine line between nationalism and patriotism in China, as in any other country. Given the scale and scope of China as well as its pervasive national pride (which is common for both ordinary taxi drivers and high-profile officials) this patriotism might theoretically turn into nationalism.

Although China’s leadership tries to alleviate these sentiments and take the situation under control, any superficial pretext or spark might kindle this nationalism. The cultural revolution of then Chairman of the Communist Party Mao Zedong is a good example, when the country’s nationalism was channeled inside the country to deal with domestic agenda and fight those who disagree [Initiated by Mao Zedong, China’s cultural revolution took place in 1966-1976 as the attempt to preserve “true” Communist ideology within the country by purging capitalists – Editor’s note].

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But if this nationalism will be funneled outside, it could be dangerous. Fortunately, the current Chinese leadership does understand this (its leader Xi Jinping will remain at the helm until 2025) and such understanding would help to avoid the escalation and the flare-up of nationalism. However, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be separate, local cases of nationalism. But this nationalism won’t target Russia. It will be directed to other South Asian countries.

For example, the exacerbation of tensions between China and Vietnam amidst territorial disputes in the South China Sea fueled Chinese nationalism and anti-Vietnamese sentiments. Likewise, any conflict with Japan will provoke the surge of anti-Japanese feelings.

RD: What are the opportunities for China involving Russia in its geopolitical agenda in the South China Sea where it has territorial claims?

S.L.: In fact, China has already tried to find [political] support from Russia in its disputes with Vietnam or Japan. But Russia is not ready and won’t involve itself in these disputes. It would be a big political mistake: When two are fighting, a third party should not interfere.

After all, if Moscow supported China in this dispute, the problems would remain, because of the different historic interpretation by two confronting sides. Russia shouldn’t meddle in it. These problems should be resolved only on a bilateral level. The best way of coping with them is to freeze these disputes, because they are currently impossible to resolve.

RD: How do you see Russia-China relations in Central Asia – are they rivals or partners in this region?

S.L.: Well, they are of course rivals, but this competition is hidden. On the other hand, Russia is not seen as China’s rival in this region, because China has been already dominating [in Central Asia] in the fields of hydrocarbons, investment and transportation. We have a certain influence, but cannot outpace China now. On the other hand, we have a counterbalance, which deals with providing security in this region.

What we have in the Central Asia is the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as well as military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Given the instability in Afghanistan and the threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and Taliban, China might even choose to take part in joint military operation with Russia if terrorists come to Central Asia.