By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
The Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) was held in Vladivostok, Russia, on 2 September 2016, a day before the G-20 Summit Meet in Hangzhou, China It was attended by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the South Korean President Park Geun-hye and the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. On the sidelines of the EEF, a bilateral meeting between the leaders of Russia and South Korea was also held. During this meeting, the Russian leader surprised his South Korean counterpart by giving her a special gift. It was a work of calligraphy, written in Chinese, by Park’s father, the late former President Park Chung-hee in 1979 (the year he was assassinated), which read, “with strong teamwork, let’s move forward together.” It was indeed a special gesture from Putin. Ahead of the bilateral talks, South Korea was concerned that its consent for the US-led THAAD battery on the peninsula meant that Russia-South Korea relations would be strained beyond repair. It was a pleasant surprise for the South Korean leader that even though Russia had gone along with China in its criticism of the THAAD installation on the Peninsula, it wanted to continue economic and other cooperation with South Korea.
Putin stressed after the meeting that he “had in-depth discussions about the current situation on the Korean Peninsula and reached an agreement that the two nations do not accept the self-proclaimed nuclear status of Pyongyang.” Furthermore, both the leaders also agreed to begin negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) between South Korea and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which consists of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The feasibility study on this has already been concluded and the process of negotiations may begin in October 2016. In addition to this Russia and South Korea signed 24 MoUs, thereby expanding the range of their bilateral cooperation.
Japanese leader Shinzo Abe was also bold in proposing an annual summit meet with Russia’s top leader and appealed him ‘to act as a visionary’. This proposal by Japan was encouraging for Russia as most of the G-7 nations have shunned Putin since imposing sanctions over the Ukraine crisis in 2014. It is also interesting to note that the two leaders had a summit meeting in May 2016 and Putin has planned to have another summit meet with Japan on 15 December 2016 in Yamaguchi, Japan. The upcoming visit is going to be special as Yamaguchi prefecture is Shinzo Abe’s home. There are definite positive vibes between Japan and Russia in recent times and it may lead to the resolution of their long-running dispute over a group of islands, which Russia calls the Kuriles and Japan, the Northern Territories. After a resolution of the island dispute, it would be easier for both countries to sign a peace treaty. The Russian leader, however, did not commit on the Japanese proposal of an annual summit meet.
The EEF was attended by the current as well as former Prime Ministers of Australia and this means that Russia is willing to get involved and engaged with Australia at least through economic exchanges. It is obvious that Putin has been working on an economic and political strategy to foster economic ties with South Korea, Japan and Australia and appears to be ready to provide an alternative to China’s economic dominance, while increasing trade in sanction-hit Russia.
In various scholarly speculations, it has been presented that Russia is ready to go along with China and be part of the China-Russia-North Korea-Pakistan nexus. However, the pictures and pronouncements of the EEF, just one day before the G-20 Summit, weaken this proposition. Russia appears to be distancing itself from a confrontational and assertive China. It seems that Russia may have an uncompromising stand in its western neighbourhood though it is ready to work with US allies in the eastern theatre. It is important to note that Putin’s deliberations with President Barack Obama over the Syrian issue on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting did not produce any substantial results.
Although it is still premature to say that the new phase in the Russian overtures in East Asia is a permanent shift in its foreign policy, the continuation is definitely going to worry China, which would get more isolated in the regional politics. During his meeting with President Xi Jinping at the G-20, Putin tried to reassure China with all the right gestures but a gap between Russian and Chinese policies in the East Asian region is quite visible. Although China wants to have Russia on its side, Putin seeks an independent approach for Russia. For example, in an awkward move, China announced just few days before the G-20 summit that the Russian President would be the “number one guest”. However, it was not able to dissuade Russia to not discuss geopolitical issues at the Summit against the Chinese wish and to discuss only economy and environment. In this context, it should be keenly watched how both the countries calibrate their foreign policies as most of the countries of East Asia would try to take advantage of this gap.
* Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU & Visiting Fellow, IPCS