By Bolor Lkhaajav (Institute of Geopolitical Studies of Mongolia)
April 15, 2018
The political apparatus is quickly changing in East Asia. There is a number of existing and emerging political and security issues, all carry geopolitical implications that marks a broad spectrum of changes. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the international arbitration between the Philippines and China in 2016, North Korea’s ongoing nuclear crisis, and lastly, Russia’s expelling of British diplomats followed by 27 other nations (including the US, Germany, Netherlands, Hungary, Georgia, and Montenegro and more) all a sign of a stranded relationships, that may neglect Russia in the East Asia, leaning more towards China, Mongolia, and other Russia-friendly countries. While there are some existing narratives on this prognosis, it is an important perspective that foreign policy decision makers and experts must pay attention to. By carefully looking at the past and developing events, one can speculate that there is an emergence of a new Eastern bloc, that is modernized and geopolitically driven, maneuvered by Russia and China’s political, economic, and security interests.
New Eastern Bloc Economics and Security
The switch in US foreign policy, from the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” to Trump’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” and withdrawal from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic initiative left a big gap for Russia and China to step in as a major player in the region. Beijing through extensive bilateral agreements, economic aids, and foreign direct investments (FDIs) gaining more access, trade routes, usage of ports in the Asia-Pacific. According to the Asia Focus report published by the Institut Relations Internationales Et Strategiques, China’s economic initiative One Belt One Road (OBOR) is targeting infrastructure, construction, high-speed rail projects, and developing energy sectors to funnel its state-funded cash. For example, the state-owned enterprises have funded high-speed rail project in Jakarta ($5.1bn), China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline, China-Turkmenistan gas pipeline, and China-Kyrgyzstan rail work. Moscow, on the other hand, targets bigger bits by strengthening its bilateral relations with OPEC nations and its neighbors, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan and many more through import-export deals, tariff negotiations, and development of energy sectors to promote its Eurasia Economic Union (EEU.) It was reported in Reuters that “Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Reuters last month that Saudi Arabia and Russia are working on a historic long-term pact, possibly 10 to 20 years long, that could extend controls over world crude supplies by major exporters.” This will have a great impact on Russia-China relations as well as countries that are depend on Russia for oil.
From a security standpoint, both Russia and China share territorial disputes with Japan. China has ongoing maritime territorial disputes with a number of nations including Japan, on the Senkaku Islands (尖閣諸島), Diaoyu (釣魚台列嶼) in Chinese. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) is part of the Center for Strategic Studies and International Studies (CSIS) based in Washington DC, closely observes the maritime security issues. According to the AMTI report on “Number of Chinese Government Vessels in Senkakus’ Contiguous Zone/Territorial Sea (2009-Present,)” ships illegally entering territorial sea of Japan continues and Chinese Government Vessels (CGV) reached 200 in 4 days. Moscow, on the other hand, warned Japan that if there were any ambition on the Kuril Islands (Кури́льские острова́ in Russian), Russia will send the military to protect its territory and its national interest. In 2017, Putin and Shinzo Abe agreed to sign a “Peace Treaty” for the benefits of both countries, however, no treaty has been signed just yet.
Emergence of Regional Hegemony?
Russia, despite international condemnation, is making positive efforts in strengthening bilateral relations through economic agreements and cooperating on developmental projects with its neighbor countries, such as Mongolia and China. On February 28, 2018, the 21st Mongolia-Russia Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation meeting took place in Moscow. During the meeting, Nuclear Energy Commission of Mongolia and ROSATOM, the State Atomic Energy Corporation of Russian Federation signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to establish a Nuclear Science and Technology Center (CNST) in Mongolia. Moreover, in early February, with the authorization of the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the President of Mongolia, Battulga Khaltmaa, Russia-Mongolia Railway Transit Agreement was signed. The significance of this agreement is that Mongolia will receive 25 years of tariff flexibility, which allows a stable flow of exports and opportunities for furthered economic bilateralism.
While Russia continues its good-neighbor policy with Mongolia, it’s relations with China takes a greater importance in Russia’s oil industry, as it is the leading importer. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Russia’s crude oil exports to China has grown steadily since 2002.
The strengthening of Russia-China relations almost seems as though their foreign policies complement each other and do not disparage one another unless their national interests collide. On a number of security issues, Crimea, Syria, and the latest UN Security Council Resolution for North Korea, S/RES/2407, both Russia and China used veto power, despite their different reasons. In July 2017, the Chinese President Xi Jinping stated: “China-Russia ties are at their “best time in history and the two countries are each other’s most trustworthy strategic partners.” Beyond the discernable friendly relations between the Russian government and its Chinese counterpart, the new “Eastern bloc” is perhaps being strengthened through economic trilateralism, via Russia-China-Mongolia trilateral economic corridor.
Russia-Mongolia-China Economic Corridor
On January 23, 2018, Mongolia hosted the “The Eastern Railway Corridor,” which is part of the
Russia-Mongolia-China trilateral strategy to augment geopolitical and economic significance in Northeast Asia. The Russia-Mongolia-China economic corridor creates an international transport niche from Tianjin(China)-Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)-Ulan-Ude (Russia) to transport oil cargoes, coal, and other 32 projects that are implemented within the trilateral agreements. According to the Russian Transport Minister, Maxim Sokolov, “Russia’s transport policy has taken priority within the framework of trilateral cooperation with Russia, Mongolia, and China.” This very agreement boosts Mongolia’s economic routes as well as augments Russia-China influence in the geopolitical realm of Northeast Asia.
In a brief discussion with the Edoardo Camilli, CEO and Co-Founder at Hozint – Horizon Intelligence based in Brussels, Belgium, he stated: “I don’t think Russia and China have an unwritten alliance, but mostly a case-to-case cooperation based on convenience. Their rapprochement few years ago is mostly driven by their complicated relations with the West and the necessity to find alternative foreign and economic policy options. This means Russia needed to rebalance her foreign trade following the sanctions after the Crimean crisis, China has always had hard time with complying with EU trade policy (copyright and intellectual property etc). Moreover, they supported each other against Western claims on violations on human rights. As for the future, I see this trend continuing given the fact that diplomatic relations between Russia and the West are getting even more tense on multiple fronts (Syria, rigging in elections, poisoning of the former Russian Spy in Salisbury etc.) While for China, the main issue will be the upcoming trade war, the South China Sea and Taiwan of course.”
As the world politics change per presidential elections, from Trump’s victory to Putin and Xi for the next five to ten years, constitutions are prone to manipulations, foreign policy and security apparatus may shift in gear to the benefit of two powerful regional hegemonic nations, Russia and China. While this is only a speculation, past and developing events keenly illustrate a strong tie between the two authoritative governments that are countering the international law and order which the United States and Great Britain and Europe have led since the World War II. Therefore, it is wise for security observers and foreign policy decision-makers to be open-minded, keen on judgements, and be realistic on the developing relationship.
 Asia Focus, No 36. Institut Relations Internationales Et Strategiques. June 2017, http://www.iris-france.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Asia-Focus-36.pdf.