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On December 24, 2020 the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) held a webinar “Russia and the Asia Pacific region in 2021”.

At the final event of the year dedicated to the Asia Pacific, leading Russian researchers of the field shared their assessments of the most significant trends of 2020 and tried to forecast regional developments in the upcoming year. They also highlighted chances and challenges for Russian foreign policy in the region.

On December 24, 2020 the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) held a webinar “Russia and the Asia Pacific region in 2021”.

At the final event of the year dedicated to the Asia Pacific, leading Russian researchers of the field shared their assessments of the most significant trends of 2020 and tried to forecast regional developments in the upcoming year. They also highlighted chances and challenges for Russian foreign policy in the region.

Ivan Timofeev, RIAC Director of Programs, spoke about the role of sanctions in contemporary world, particularly stressing the increasingly acute U.S.–China rivalry. He noted that although the COVID-19 might have been expected to unite the nations, it only exacerbated the divide between them. Despite the UN calls for at least partial lifting of sanctions amidst the pandemic, they remained in place with few exemptions. Moreover, not only did the US continue to economically suppress China, as well as Russia and Iran, but also Beijing switched from previously reactive sanctions policy to a rather proactive one. While the U.S. uses technologies and financial sector as leverage, China relies on the market mechanisms to exert pressure on its rivals.

Vasily Kashin, RIAC Member, Head of the International Military-Political and Military-Economic Problems at the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies, Higher School of Economics, and Leading Research Fellow at the RAS Institute of Far Eastern Studies, continued with the analysis of China’s changing role in international politics. Since the U.S.–China rivalry seems to have replaced the U.S.–Russia axis of confrontation, China is likely to seek greater autonomy in all crucial economic sectors, especially in civilian electronics, as well as diversify its foreign policy using various multilateral formats. We already see it starting to fight back, e.g. in relations with Australia, imposing anti-dumping and new customs legislation, or with the U.S., introducing sanctions for arms supplies to Taiwan. Beijing is also looking for new partnerships with scientific centers and laboratories instead of American ones, which creates an opportunity for Russia. With the EU–China and Japan–China relations being also somewhat in jeopardy, small and medium powers in Asia and other regions may attempt to cooperate with the latter.

Alexander Gabuev, Chair of the Russia in the Asia Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, supported the view that China was becoming increasingly fierce in its sanctions policy, which should not be overlooked in Russia. Apart from this, he warned against excessive expectations from the Chinese “green agenda”, since reducing of coal sector in the overall energy balance provides only short-term benefits for Russian energy companies and may lead to dangerous vulnerabilities in the future. Another format that requires attentive analysis is the finally signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that may only strengthen Chinese positions in Asia Pacific and worldwide, especially given the U.S.’s limited opportunities for resuming participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Anna Kireeva, Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and African Studies and Research Fellow at the Center for Comprehensive Chinese Studies and Regional Projects, MGIMO University, reviewed political developments in Japan, where a new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga came to power in 2020. While analyzing Shinzo Abe’s political legacy, she highlighted stable cooperation with the U.S. and flexibility on other foreign policy tracks, revival of Quad and Quad+ projects, as well as further engagement with the EU and ASEAN to secure positions in the South China Sea. There was also a visible breakthrough in relations with China as political dialogue was normalized and economic cooperation widened. At the same time Abe’s foreign policy lacked progress on Russian and South Korean tracks. Today, as Japan is suffering significant value chains disruptions and declining exports due to the pandemic and has little chance to balance its economic loss with the revenues from the postponed Tokyo Olympics, there is also little probability of the change in its foreign policy strategy.

Alexey Kupriyanov, Senior Research Fellow at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, presented his understanding of recent developments in India. According to the expert, New Delhi faces two major challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic and the rivalry with China. The former leaves the country with deteriorating service sector, rising unemployment and exacerbating inequality, which creates additional economic and social pressure on the country. On the other hand, the conflict with China pushes India to increase its military spending and look for new arms contracts. Firm in the position to safeguard its zone of influence in the Pacific Ocean, India will inevitably seek for help to contain and deter China, which automatically navigates it away from Russia and closer to Quad countries.

Ekaterina Koldunova, Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and African Studies and Leading Research Fellow at the ASEAN Centre, MGIMO University, analyzed the results of 2020 for ASEAN countries. Although Vietnam, traditional Russia’s partner, presided over the organization and several anniversaries were expected to boost Russian relations with Southeast Asian countries, e.g. Indonesia and Laos, not all expectations were met. On the one hand, there were some positive attempts to use multilateral interaction in the form of online summits and meetings. Vladimir Putin managed to finally take part in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and a number of feasibility study groups were created to examine the prospects of establishing free trade areas with Russia on bilateral basis. On the other hand, strategic partnership with Indonesia was not signed and there could be more progress in terms of multilateral cooperation per se. Today, while the U.S. hardly sees a solid role for ASEAN as a collective actor in its Indo-Pacific concept, pushing the countries to choose between itself and China and relying on limited economic cooperation with them, the block might look for a counterweight. It is for Russia to access both the previous and current dynamics in relations with ASEAN and the necessity of becoming such a counterbalance in the region.

The discussion was moderated by Ksenia Kuzmina, RIAC Program Manager.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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