HONG KONG – Boxed in by the U.S. and its allies, faced with an uneasy relationship with China and needing new friends and income, Russia is popping up everywhere in Asia.
A new strategic agreement with Pakistan. A visit by President Vladimir Putin to India. Helping search for a plane that crashed off Indonesia. Coaxing Kim Jong Un to venture out of North Korea. In a region where some governments may be less squeamish about events in Ukraine, Putin is surprisingly welcome.
Russia’s forays reflect a dual strategy: To find new markets as its economy is crushed by sanctions and last year’s tumble in oil prices, and to diversify from its one big ally in Asia — China. Putin is concerned that his relationship with President Xi Jinping is becoming increasingly tilted in China’s favor.
“The Russians are wary of becoming overleveraged to China and so they are very keen to try to diversify their portfolio and improve ties with a multitude of Asian powers,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The Ukraine crisis has prompted them to try to accelerate their Asian pivot.”
While Russia cannot ignore China — it was Russia’s biggest trading partner in 2013, the two hold regular military drills and China is buying Russian gas — the government in Moscow is renewing efforts to find other nations in Asia to act as a hedge.
In recent months it has reached out to middle powers like India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Pakistan.
“Russia has changed the pace of looking east and what it sees is a complicated scenario,” said W.P.S. Sidhu, a senior fellow at Brookings India in New Delhi. “There is a sense of trying to balance China. Everybody is concerned about China’s growing capability and more importantly its intentions.”
Putin’s accelerated Asian focus is a mix of military engagement and efforts to promote trade, the latter starting from a low base. Russia is only the 14th largest trading partner of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with two-way trade worth $19.9 billion in 2013, up 10 percent on the prior year, according to ASEAN. Russia ranked as China’s ninth most important commercial relationship in 2013.
“Russia’s priority is relations with China, however it doesn’t want to put all of its eggs in that basket,” said James Brown, who specializes in ties between Russia and Japan at Temple University in Tokyo. “That is why it is also pursuing relations with India, Vietnam — two countries with difficult relations with China — and Japan can fit into that box as well.”
While Russia’s focus on Asia predates the Ukraine crisis, including hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vladivostok in 2012, it took sanctions and an oil-price collapse to spur progress.
“Particular attention has been paid to Russia’s integration in the Asia-Pacific,” Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told lawmakers in Russia’s upper house on Jan. 26. “We have gradually developed our broad-spectrum ties with India, Vietnam and other Asia-Pacific states.”
In May, Putin will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow. Xi is signed up to go, along with North Korea’s Kim — which could set the stage for their first meeting. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye have also been invited.
While Russia faces pariah status in Europe, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Putin in December that India opposed sanctions. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has refrained from denouncing Russia for the downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine, pending a final investigation.
“The local political elites of Asian nations and the populations don’t view Russia in the context of the crisis in Ukraine,” said Alexey Muraviev, a Russia defense specialist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. “Russia is seeking strategic alternatives in response to the deterioration of its relations with western nations.”
In November Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Beijing and met with his counterpart, Chang Wanquan. Russia and China arranged to hold joint naval drills in the Pacific and Mediterranean.
Shoigu’s next stop was Islamabad, the first visit by a Russian defense minister since the collapse of the Soviet Union and coming five months after Russia lifted an embargo on arms sales to Pakistan. There he signed a military cooperation agreement, another first.
The same month that Shoigu visited China and Pakistan, Putin met Vietnam Communist Party General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in Sochi. Nguyen agreed to allow the Russian Navy coveted access to the Cam Ranh deep-water port.
Free passage will allow Russia to better protect OAO Gazprom’s exploration blocks off Vietnam’s coast and could irritate China, which last year fanned tensions by parking an exploration rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam and surrounding it with a flotilla of vessels.
Russia supplies Vietnam with aircraft and submarines — the third of six kilo-class submarines was delivered last month — and is helping build a nuclear power station.
Putin capped the year with a visit to New Delhi, where India and Russia pledged to develop their relationship to a “qualitatively new level.” Putin promised to supply oil, weapons and nuclear-power reactors to India. Modi asked Putin to build factories in the country and to supply spare parts and components for Russian military equipment.
Russia said it was ready to lease more nuclear-powered submarines to India, which would help India thwart China’s efforts to extend influence in the Indian Ocean. India inducted its first nuclear attack submarine from Russia for $1 billion in 2012 under a 10-year contract.
One of the biggest prizes for Putin would be detente with Japan to help as a hedge against China. Japan, a U.S. ally that also imposed sanctions on Moscow, is embroiled in territorial disputes with China, and would welcome better relations with Russia for the same reason, according to Kuchins of the CSIS.
Abe told the Diet on Thursday that he wants Putin to visit Japan this year to deepen economic ties and resolve a territorial dispute over islands east and north of Hokkaido that’s kept them from signing a peace treaty since the end of World War II. Deputy foreign ministers from each country met in Moscow the same day and discussed details of the visit, according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry.
“The signal from Abe is ‘We are going to wait until Ukraine simmers down and then we are ready to do business,’ ” said Matthew Sussex, head of politics and international relations at the University of Tasmania.
For all of Russia’s efforts to break into Asia, its scope is limited in a competitive region, according to Robin Niblett, director of London’s Chatham House research institute. Its weapons compete with those of India, the U.S., Europe, China and Japan, and it is unable to provide security guarantees in the way that the U.S. can.
“The South Koreans will always look more to America or to China than they do to Russia,” he said in an interview in Hong Kong. “The Japanese as well.”
Last May’s $400 billion deal to supply China with natural gas from Russia’s as-yet-undeveloped gas fields in eastern Siberia appears to have stalled and little headway has been made on possible pipelines to Japan, South Korea or India.
“Russia’s geo-strategic eyes are bigger than its stomach,” said Brad Williams, a specialist in East Asia relations at the City University of Hong Kong. “Simply put, Russia doesn’t have the economy to support a sustained presence in Asia.”