Russia Joins the Asian Club (Opinion)

Written by Parag Khanna, founder and managing partner of FutureMap. 

We can imagine an end state to the Ukraine invasion: a territorial settlement in which Russian President Vladimir Putin cements his control over parts of eastern Ukraine, including a land bridge to Crimea, which Russia has not let go of for nearly a decade, while Ukraine retains control of the rest of the country. Ukrainian refugees may return en masse from European shelters to rebuild what remains of their broken but proud nation after this latest of history’s invasions of their motherland.

But if Putin survives, so does Putinism and the tradition of authoritarian strongmen violently settling disputes according to their whims. Although this is an abhorrent affront to the postwar European order, it is not without precedent in Asia, where Putin increasingly seeks inspiration and support.

Even if Putin had never invaded Ukraine, Russia was tilting ever more toward embedding itself in the Asian system. This decade will feature Russia becoming an anchor of it.

Russia has announced its exit from the Council of Europe, but at the United Nations, it has received either backing or abstentions from Asia’s most powerful nations, such as China and India, though liberal democracies Australia and Japan have been as forceful in condemning Russia’s actions as NATO members have. Although China and India are rivals with numerous outstanding border disputes among them, they share a de facto—and even de jure—support for Russia in their refusal to condemn the Ukraine invasion. They have their own reasons for doing so.

China has been suppressing Tibetans and Uyghurs for decades and may well invade and occupy Taiwan in the coming years, which is nothing less than Chinese President Xi Jinping’s overriding national vision, his analog to what Ukraine means to Putin. In 2006, I began compiling a list of all the so-called rogue regimes that China was providing military, financial, or diplomatic lifelines to despite U.S. efforts to contain them: Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Myanmar were already present.

Now, we can safely add Russia to the list—even though China risks engaging in a hot proxy war with Western forces.

In recent weeks, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with China’s senior diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in Rome and U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Xi, both seeking to compel China to withhold support from Russia. Despite official Chinese statements that it is not taking sides in the Ukraine war and social media campaigns censoring pro-Russian content, China is nothing if not opportunistic and benefits from both a bogged down West and a weakened Russia.

For his part, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been relentless in stifling his aspirations over the restive province of Kashmir while pursuing anti-Muslim policies at the federal level. India’s posture has surprised many in the West who view the country as increasingly U.S.-leaning—especially with its membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of anti-China powers, including the United States, Japan, and Australia.

But India’s ties to the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia remain robust and sympathetic. The countries have just struck a deal to sell Russian oil to India at a 20 percent discount and receive payment in rupees. India is not nonaligned anymore, but it certainly multi-aligns in all

Isolating states is all but impossible in a multipolar world, certainly not large ones with many borders and powerful friends. While Russia’s actions have brought undesired scrutiny and pressure on Beijing and New Delhi, China and India are not alone in viewing Russia’s Ukraine invasion as more of an inconvenience than a cause for a rift in their relations.

Saudi Arabia’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, hasn’t taken calls from Biden but has spoken to Putin several times and tentatively agreed to begin pricing oil exports to China in yuan. Both China and Russia will continue their trade with Iran despite sanctions, further cementing its membership in the Asian club.

Before the invasion, Russia’s trade with Asia was growing while it still received more investment from Europe. With the latter evaporating, Russia will become an Asian economic vassal. As the ruble is reduced to rubble and neither Russian money nor citizens are welcome in the West, bilateral trade with China has surged, and Russia will depend more on Chinese imports—including weapons systems it has already requested to support its war in Ukraine.

Given their relatively balanced trade, Russia’s energy exports to China generate sufficient yuan to cover payments to China for goods no longer sold to it by the West. UnionPay ATM cards and integration of the Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System and Russian Mir payment system will accelerate. Huawei and ZTE will provide internet and 5G telecommunications equipment no longer offered by Nokia and Ericsson.

In the energy domain, we are witnessing Crimea redux. After Russia’s 2014 seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, Russia compensated by turning to China to boost energy exports. Rather than build pipelines to the Sea of Japan (also called the East Sea) for the open market, Russia agreed for the first time to build pipelines directly to China, effectively ceding to its largest customer’s price-setting power.

Gazprom’s “Power of Siberia” pipeline opened in 2019. With the Germany-bound Nord Stream 2 pipeline suspended, Russia and China have just agreed to speed up completion of two more direct Russo-Chinese pipelines. Meanwhile, this year, China also agreed to ramp up purchases of Russian oil from Rosneft.

It’s difficult to look at Russia’s future in Asia absent the demographic lens. Russia’s vast eastern flank is rich in every conceivable resource: water and food, oil and gas, timber and metals. But it is almost entirely depopulated.

Yet Chinese and domestic Russian investments in railways, industry, and agriculture require workers to modernize what has become over the past three decades a dilapidated hinterland. Not only have Chinese seasonal workers been essential to this effort, but last year, Russia signed a skills partnership agreement with India to recruit more farmers and food processing workers to manage its surging wheat output.

More than a decade ago, I suggested that the grand Yuan dynasty of Emperor Kublai Khan, successor to the vast Mongol Empire, would be reconstituted as Asians march northward in search of a more stable climate. That Sino-Siberian future is ever more likely now.

For more than a decade, Western strategists have hoped they could diplomatically engineer a “reverse Nixon”: Extract Russia from China’s orbit much as former U.S. President Richard Nixon split China from the Soviet Union a half century ago. Maintaining Russia’s own great-power status may eventually require this stratagem, but the West has lost its appetite to pursue it.

When children learn geography, they find it hard to locate any boundary between Asia and Europe, and Russia remains an enigma. For better or worse, the debate is now resolved. Russian people may consider themselves European, but their state acts like an Asian power and their geography belongs very much to Asia’s future.

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