Watch Out for Russian Wild Card in Asia-Pacific

By John Lee

Just before we were tucking into Christmas turkey and plum pudding, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi to reaffirm what the Russian leader called a "privileged partnership" between the two countries.

By contrast, Australia sees little role for Moscow in the future Asian balance of power, where the former superpower was mentioned in passing only twice in the 2009 defence white paper.

But other countries are not making the same mistake.

If India is the "swing state" in Asia's future balance of power, as a prominent CIA 2005 report put it, New Delhi is well aware that Russia remains the wild card in the region.

Medvedev and Singh signed more than 20 agreements ranging from agreements to supply India with natural gas, reaffirming a commitment for a third Indian nuclear power plant to be built by Russian engineers, and the signing of a contract for the joint development of between 250-300 fifth generation fighter aircraft.

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Over the next 15 years, it is estimated that every second overseas nuclear reactor built by the Russians will be in India, while New Delhi could be the destination for more than half of all Russian arms exports in the next five years.

It is no surprise that Russia is pulling out all the stops to court India.

After all, its two main exports - energy and arms - are exactly what India needs.

There is a long economic and strategic history of partnership between the two countries that began in the 1950s when the former Soviet Union and India became allies.

But just as Moscow sees new opportunities in a rising India, New Delhi still sees value in a declining Russia.

The problem for Russia is not just the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a patchy commitment to economic reform after the Boris Yeltsin era, but a declining population.

Russia has experienced periods of dramatic population decline before, from 1917-23, 1933-34 and 1941-46.

Since 1992, and despite the absence of famine or war, Russian deaths have exceeded births by a staggering 13 million.

With 141 million people now, numbers could be as low as 120 million by 2030.

Nevertheless, there are strong reasons to believe that Russia can play the wildcard role in Asia's future balance of power.

First, the common wisdom that Russia is moving closer to China in order to counterbalance America and its European and Asian allies and partners is incorrect, meaning that the Russian wild card is still very much in play.

While Russia is preoccupied with regaining its influence in parts of eastern Europe, Moscow is also warily watching China's unauthorised movements into Siberia and the Far East.

Beijing is about six times closer to the port city of Vladivostok than is Moscow, which has very weak administrative control over its eastern territories.

Already, an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Chinese nationals have illegally settled in these oil, gas and timber-rich areas.

Beijing is also tempted by Siberia's freshwater supply, given that China already has severe shortages throughout the country.

The Russian Far East is inhabited by only six million people, while the three provinces in northeast China have about 110 million Chinese inhabitants. By 2020, more than 100 million Chinese will live less than 100km to the south of these Russian territories, whose population will then number between five million and 10 million.

As Medvedev recently admitted, if Russia does not secure its presence in the Far East, it could eventually "lose everything" to the Chinese.

The point is that Russia will have as much reason to balance against China's rise as encouraging it. As the godfather of geopolitics, Nicholas Spykman, put it, the key is to control the Rimland (Western, Southern and Eastern) Eurasia.

A small handful of long-sighted strategists in Washington, Tokyo, Moscow and New Delhi see potential for a grand alliance of convenience that can effectively constrain Chinese influence in Central, South and East Asia. How Russia plays its strategic cards in this context will go a long way in shaping Eurasia.

That Russia may choose to tilt the balance against China in the future is also backed by diverging world views of these two countries.

Should China continue its rise, Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi and Moscow will seek a favourable multipolar balance of power in Asia, even if it remains under American leadership.

By contrast, China sees the coming regional and world order as a bipolar one defined by US-China competition, with powers such as the EU countries, Japan, India and Russia relegated to the second tier, something that is very difficult for a proud "Asian" power such as Russia to accept.

Second, a declining Russia retains significant national and institutional strengths. For example, Russia will remain a legitimate nuclear military power with a large and pre-existing nuclear arsenal. It is also a genuine energy superpower and a global leader in advanced weaponry technologies.

These factors all but guarantee Moscow a prominent position in the future strategic-military balance.

Furthermore, Russia will retain its veto as a permanent member of the Security Council.

Given the difficulty of reforming the council, Moscow will continue to exercise a disproportionate influence through the UN, even if it continues to decline as a country.

Finally, Russia has that indefinable quality of seeing itself as a natural great power. This all adds up to Russia remaining a big player in Asia, with significant ability to influence, disrupt and complicate the plans of other great powers, even if it can no longer be dominant.

New Delhi and Beijing believe that Moscow is well position to remain Asia's wild card.

Australia should prepare for this as well.

John Lee is a foreign policy fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

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