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Russia eyes stronger ties with Asia in 2017

Sergei Blagov January 5, 2017 1:46 PM (UTC+8)
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MOSCOW—This year, Russia is expected to focus on expanding multilateral ties within Asia-centered groupings, as well as special partnerships with China and India.

There was no shortage of Russian official pronouncements to strengthen relations with Asia. In late December, the Russian Foreign Ministry pledged to keep prioritizing strategic partnership with China as a “key element of global and regional stability.” The ministry also noted strategic partnership with India as well as the RIC (Russia, India, China) trilateral forum.

This year, relations with Asia-centered groupings is due to remain Moscow’s priority. Russia’s new foreign policy blueprint, approved in November 2016, prioritizes multilateral ties within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS, RIC, as well as ties with ASEAN.

Last year, SCO finalized entry of India and Pakistan into the grouping that included Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Moscow has long argued that the SCO expansion would serve to strengthen the international status of the organization. Russia and other SCO member states also approved a mid-term vision of the organization’s development. At the summit meeting of the SCO in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on June 23-24, the grouping adopted a plan of action for 2016-2021, as well as the SCO development blueprint till 2025.

In 2017, Russia is due to start implementing yet another mid-term plan to forge stronger ties with the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Last May, the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi hosted the Russia-ASEAN summit. The gathering adopted a 5-year plan of action aimed at strengthening their strategic partnership.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether Russia could keep holding surprising military exercises in Asia later this year. Last September-October, Russian troops landed in Pakistan for the first-ever joint military exercises. The Russia-Pakistan joint drill raised questions whether it could adversely affect Moscow-Delhi traditional ties.

The Kremlin held other surprising military exercises in Asia. Last September, Russian and Chinese naval forces held the first-ever joint military drill in the South China Sea, the single largest joint maritime military exercise between Russia and China ever. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, but ASEAN countries, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, disagree with these claims. The Joint Sea-2016 drill was held not in a contested part of the South China Sea. Nonetheless, Russia appeared backing China’s claim to the disputed islands there, despite possible adverse repercussions for relations with ASEAN.

This year, Russia is also due to pursue its “Greater Eurasia” initiative. Last year, the Kremlin outlined plans of a new global integration grouping, a “Greater Eurasia.” Last June, President Vladimir Putin announced this Greater Eurasian partnership could include Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran, former Soviet states and other interested parties.

The “Greater Eurasia” grouping is supposed to become a major global power. However, it is far from certain how the proposed grouping could be reconciled with the existing multilateral organizations and agreements in Eurasia. It remains to be seen whether the “Greater Eurasia” vision have chances to take shape in 2017.

In recent years, Moscow’s international policy focus appeared shifting towards Asia. But in 2017, Russia’s strategic drift toward the East is set to face new challenges.

US President-elect Donald Trump is understood to aim to improve relations with Russia so as counterbalance China’s rise. Moscow already expressed interest in detente with the new US administration, apparently seeking to ease Western pressures on Russia following disagreements on Syria and Ukraine.

Therefore, this year Moscow is due to face a difficult foreign policy choice: whether to accept Trump’s policies to contain China with Russia’s help, or keep countering Western pressures in strategic partnership with China.

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