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Northeast Asia after the Ukrainian Crisis: Threat to Regional Security

2 сентября 2016

Northeast Asia after the Ukrainian Crisis: Threat to Regional Security

Evgenii Vyacheslavovich Gamerman


Researchers have yet to understand the reasons behind the background and characteristics of the driving forces of the Ukrainian crisis. The key feature of what is happening in Ukraine is that the conflict is transpiring almost completely in the period of globalization, where everything is interconnected and interdependent, and it is impossible to predict all the consequences of an event since the information weapon has become much more important than the ballistic one. The Ukrainian crisis has already greatly changed the system of international relations, the agenda of global and regional security, and it has echoed in different regions of the globe with Northeast Asia being no exception. In this article I will look at the existing trends in the changes of regional security in Northeast Asia in the military and non-military planes (both traditional and non-traditional security threats).

The security system in Northeast Asia has its own distinctive features; chief among them is the lack of a clear institutional environment (this also applies to the wider Asia-Pacific region). After the Second World War (due to objective and subjective reasons) an organization that would unite all the countries in the region and whose responsibilities would include, inter alia, the issue of regional security was not created. Therefore bilateral relations, contracts and agreements, and alliances between state actors of the Northeast Asia are foundation of the latter.[1]

Countries of the sub region are involved in the Ukrainian crisis - Russia is directly involved, and China indirectly. The first comes out of it with liabilities (at least, with economic liabilities and, to a lesser extent, with policy liabilities), the second comes out with a major asset. The transformations in the region will depend mainly on the changes of the two countries (though not only them). So, with what “baggage” will Russia eventually come out of the crisis? The first, and one of the most important consequences of the crisis and the “war of sanctions”, is the reduction of investment appeal and, as a direct consequence, the significant decrease in the volume of foreign investments. This is a very serious problem facing Russia today.[2]

The second consequence is the enhanced outflow of capital from Russia. These circumstances have a significant effect on the economic and national security of Russia. As for the Russian Far East, which, itself, is part of Northeast Asia (and, in one way or another, affects regional security), the Ukrainian crisis has had effects here also, since it is the most socio-economically underdeveloped region of Russia. It has already referred to winding up or freezing indefinitely a number of infrastructure projects in the region.[3] Presumably, this will be a long-term trend (the exception is the cosmodrome “Vostochniy”, which has not so much economic importance as it has military-strategic importance). The trends that have emerged after the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok on the integration of the region into the Asia-Pacific region have resulted in a number of programs and projects that will remain in the medium term only. These are very difficult and narrow possibilities of interaction between Russia and the countries of the region, and in the near future this will lead to a reduction of the impact of the system in Pacifica.

China, which is taking a neutral position and not supporting any side of the conflict, gets its political and economic dividends from the intensification of economic cooperation with the Russian Federation, and from the preservation and expansion of cooperation with the EU and the United States. In addition, China has economic interests in Ukraine itself, in agriculture and in the energy sector (Russian Crimea).[4] From a political point of view, the diversion of United States resources and attention away from East Asia and the Greater Middle East to the crisis in Ukraine is extremely beneficial for China. As well as the weakening position of Russia in its confrontation with the West allowing Beijing to dominate in bilateral relations with Moscow, China prospers too in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The important role of the crisis in Ukraine is that China (and not only) sees an example of how it is possible to solve territorial disputes in modern conditions in compliance with apparent democratic procedures and without the approval of the Western states. And if for the islands of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) and the Paracel Islands it is not applicable because they are simply uninhabited, the island of Taiwan may surely become the subject for attempts by Beijing to reunite the island with the mainland. In the short term this is unlikely and it is not even because of the United States military presence. Instead, the rather negative attitude towards such a scenario from the public (inhabitants) of Taiwan and South-East Asia will play a key role, since economic linkages and integration with these nations is strategically important for Beijing. However, in the medium term, with increasing economic dependence of China on the Southeast Asian countries, as well as the interdependence of the economies of the United States and China, and in the case of increasing the percentage of American foreign debt owned by China from 24% (in 2014)[5] to 33-35% and above (i.e., one third of the total volume of debt), in 10-15 years the “civilized” entry of Taiwan into the PRC (with the same special status as in Hong Kong, and perhaps with even greater levels of authority) is possible. And, unlike  “Crimea – 2014,” sanctions will not be used against China to such an extent, as in terms of the Russian Federation input (even if there is the conviction on the part of leaders in the West).

In the very short-term, Beijing will increase its military presence in Xinjiang, and continue its “sinification” of the region, making it even easier to respond to any manifestations of separatism in Xinjiang and Tibet (because in these provinces any attempts will lead to referendums, to undesirable consequences for Beijing) and other parts of the country. Moreover, China has strengthened its military presence in Central Asia in the form of bilateral military training exercises within the framework of the SCO, as well as in the long-term with the expected creation of their own military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.[6]

This comes at odds with the interests of Russia. However, Moscow will not be able to counter this trend, inter alia, because currently the Russian economy is much weaker than the Chinese. However, Moscow has also decided to increase its military presence in Central Asia, a measures that is directed against the US and China. In the beginning of April 2015 China became aware of Moscow’s plans to increase the contingent of the 201st base in Tajikistan from 5.9 thousand up to 9 thousand people. Moreover, Russia plans to deliver weapons to the Tajik army worth 1.2 billion dollars. Turkmenistan has also asked Moscow to help in the protection of its state border with Afghanistan, which last year was exposed to frequent attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Russian military experts visited the Turkmen-Afghan frontier on 24 March 2015 to assess threats and the situation. Similar actions are being undertaken by Russia in Kyrgyzstan. In the fall of 2014 Moscow began the delivery of 1.2 billion dollars-worth of Russian equipment and weapons to rearm the Kyrgyz army according to agreements made in 2012. The contingent of the CSTO airbase in Kant was increased, and the new Su-25SM aircraft was transferred to the aerodrome. Previously, four older versions of the Su-25 had been housed at the base, but now 9 Su-25SM are placed in the facility. By the end of 2015 five storm troopers will be transferred to Kant, bringing the total number to 14 units. In addition, units of UAV “Orlan” and “Outpost” will be airlifted to the air base. These measures together provide a significant increase in contingent and power base. The official reason for transfer of new Russian troops to Central Asia is the growing threat posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, this threat is minimal because there were not serious clashes with large groups of Taliban on the borders of the Central Asian countries. The real reason for strengthening Russia’s military presence in Central Asia is Moscow’s growing concern regarding the expanding influence of Europe, the US and China in the region.[7] China had taken the initiative of the Economic Belt of the Silk Road, and has taken a more aggressive, expansionist position in Central Asia. The project involves the creation of infrastructure in the region, and hence its protection (large amounts are involved, and potentially large financial losses). Therefore, in the future, there will inevitably be a building up of the military and political potential of China, which is likely to include the practice of military bases and facilities in different regions of the world, including in Central Asia, in order to protect their economic interests.

A new stage of China’s economic “offensive” in Central Asia could be the implementation of Beijings ambitious “Economic Belt Silk Road” project, nominated (suggested) by Xi Jinping. In the expert Chinese interpretation of the “Economic Zone Silk Road” project – “it is an attempt to connect the Central, East, South and West Asia in various ways of economic cooperation.”[8] And the idea of its major advantages compared to other integration projects, including the Customs Union, is actively pressed. In fact, China is ready to enter into direct competition with Russia in Central Asia, since the Chinese project is most likely to be mutually exclusive rather than complementarity of the Russian integration project in the region. This is especially so at this stage, when the Chinese project bypasses Russia. All this leads to contradictions and even confrontation between Moscow and Beijing.

Thus, returning to the question to be explored in this comment, what are the prospects of Russian-Chinese relations in the sphere of security in Northeast Asia, taking into account the events in Ukraine? In the field of military security the parties’ positions are very close. There is a general approach to the construction of a multipolar world, the rejection of American intervention in the affairs of other countries, and a common vision of the problem of international terrorism through the prism of the south of Russia and west of China between the two countries. But the prospects of this interaction are not so optimistic. Russia will not be able to resist the capacity of China’s military presence in Central Asia, and China will increase its military capabilities and improve the military-industrial complex, and gradually the cooperation between China and Russia in the military sphere will also be minimized. In general, however, despite a number of contradictions, cooperation in the field of military security between the two countries will not be interrupted and will continue to grow (albeit not as rapidly and in minimal volume). And, perhaps, the main reason for this is the lack of alternatives for both countries.

Now, let us consider, through the prism of the Ukrainian crisis, the non-military aspects of security in the bilateral relations between Russia and China in Northeast Asia. Here, the most topical, relevant, and discussed topic is energy. China is the country with the world’s highest level of energy imports, with stable trends of annual growth (mainly on imports of oil and gas). Complementarily, Russia is one of the largest exporters of oil and gas. Under the conditions of the Ukrainian crisis and the serious and long-term deterioration of relations between the EU and the Russian Federation, energy supplies from Russia to Europe are expected to reduce (by increasing supplies to the EU from the Middle East, Norway, and probably from Iran), and possibly cease to exist altogether, in case of deterioration of the situation in Ukraine and agreements made between the United States and the EU on shale gas. All this reduces the differentiation of Russian energy exports and not in the interests of energy security of the country. It will also increase Russia’s dependence on exports to China. In May 2014, at the climax of mutual Russian-European antagonism, an agreement between Russia and China on the supply of natural gas was concluded, which in the mass media was immediately called the “deal of the century.”[9] The negotiation process has been very hard on this issue for a long time, and that it became possible for an agreement right now, in 2014, testifies to the fact that the Kremlin went on to make serious concessions in the price. The actual numbers were not disclosed, but they are certainly much lower than the market price. There are some expert judgments that the gas price in the contract is in the range of 290-350 dollars per thousand cubic meters, with the price in the European market at 400.[10] This agreement is truly in the interest of Russia’s national security, and it poses many significant questions vis-à-vis their relationship with China, despite the ongoing crisis in the European direction. It can be argued that China waited for a convenient political moment in order to “sell” on it’s own terms, in which case it becomes difficult to talk about a strategic partnership between the two countries. China received the diversification of energy supplies, at below market prices, and thus ensured its energy security in the medium term. However, if we are talking about energy security in a regional, i.e. in Northeast Asia, and global context, then energy security should be above all the needs of importers at prices that would satisfy both sides (and importers and exporters), i.e. there should be a compromise on the price. And in this case we can see a blatant dumping caused by political motives, which is the necessary measure. At the same time, it is worth noting that the natural territory of Far Eastern Russia has not yet been supplied with gas (in 12 regions of the Siberian and Far Eastern Federal Districts there are non-existent gas mains to natural gas).[11] In the future, if this negative scenario continues, and in the absence of alternatives, Russia will be forced to cut prices further (perhaps even below cost) and give Chinese companies favorable terms on oil and gas fields, as well as provide an opportunity to engage in mining in the Arctic.[12] In such a difficult situation the only option would be to seek new partners and customers in order to diversify supply. The most likely and predictable candidate for this role is Japan, which is the world’s largest importer of natural gas. The current Japanese government, headed by S. Abe, is indeed ready for full-fledged dialogue on greater economic cooperation with Russia (with preservation of the territorial conflicts). In the last two years relations between Japan and China have become seriously strained, and while their American ally is busy with other international issues, Tokyo needs to solve problems of their own economy, including energy development. But the main obstacle to the intensification of Russian-Japanese cooperation is the US-Japanese alliance, and the consequent need on the part of Japan to support American action against Russia and introduce their own restrictive sanctions against Russia. Recent Japanese sanctions and the cancellation of the invitation of the Russian President to Tokyo in autumn 2014 make it clear that this obstacle may be insurmountable.[13] The Russian diplomatic agency, in this situation, should take into account all the details of “Oriental (Eastern) diplomacy,” and should not “slam” shut this “window of opportunity” on efforts to also organize negotiations in other areas, in particular, at the APEC summit in Beijing.

In addition to energy contracts, which can be much more profitable than similar arrangements with China, and which will neutralize Russia’s dependence on a single customer, and will ensure energy security for this country and the wider region, they are likely to increase the volume of direct Japanese investment in the Russian economy as well as the beginning of technical cooperation in the field of agriculture. In general, we can say that Russia’s interaction with Japan is almost the only positive interaction Russia has with the West at the moment, and Russia must use all diplomatic options in order to prosper during such a backlash. Without Japan, Russian economic and energy interests, and security of the Russian Far East, will not be ensured, which will also significantly increase the threat to regional security in Northeast Asia (in the non-military sphere). In the field of military security, the main destabilizing factor will be the territorial dispute between Japan and Russia, which can increase dramatically in the case of intervention by the United States.

Another non-military sphere, which dramatically came to the fore during the “sanctions war” surrounding the Ukraine crisis, is food security. After the ban on the import of a number of food products from the EU, North America and Australia, the Russian leadership has increasingly discussed the issue of food self-sufficiency and the need to import their own products.[14] However, in accordance with the events mentioned above, food self-sufficiency cannot be achieved in the current environment, as the market does not work. Russia needs to create the appropriate conditions (from the actual tax benefits to non-interest subsidies), and this will take a fairly long period of time. At present, Russia is simply changing suppliers, i.e. countries - importers of products. Brazil, Argentina, China, Belarus will replace traditional suppliers.[15] However, at the same time, given the lack of alternatives, the crisis in agriculture in Russia as well as fears of large retailers and the usual speculation of market participants, there is now a serious increase in the price of products that fall under the sanctions (in some regions the markup (price) for meat over 2 months was 30-40%).[16] A lack of economic opportunities on the part of consumers to purchase food of necessary quantity and quality highlights the lack of food security. In August 2014 Russia lifted the ban on meat supply from China and Brazil, which was in force for 10 years. However, the quality of this product is dubious, because of the use of genetically modified food, growth hormones and frequent outbreaks of FMD.[17] However, to ensure food security it will be necessary for the Russian Far East to cooperate with China. Today, the most careful quality control of imported products is required. In the future it is necessary to come to the establishment of joint breeding complexes (Sino-Russian, Russian-Japanese) in the Far East, in addition to prohibition on the use of genetically modified products and hormonal drugs. It is worth repeating that to improve the efficiency of agriculture in the Far East Russia needs Japanese agricultural production lines, which could in turn become one of the planes to intensifying cooperation between the two countries.

The next most important threat to regional security in Northeast Asia is the so-called “Korean question.” The Ukrainian crisis could be a major catalyst for the revitalization of the conflict. The United States, in the wake of the success of the post-Soviet space and the lack of opposition from the international community, will step up its military presence in East Asia. It is expected in the near future to increase the military contingent of American bases in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore.[18] This cannot but arouse opposition from China, which will continue and accelerate the pace of building up military units in the southern provinces in the West, in Central Asia and on the border with the Korean Peninsula. All this risks leading to increased tension in the region. The chance of a direct military confrontation between north and south (or to be more precise - the resumption of the Korean War, after a long truce) is minimal. Although it is unlikely that the parties will want to change the status quo on the peninsula, the situation could spiral out of control due to a number of random events.

Another important factor that could destabilize the situation in Northeast Asia is the program of the United States to deploy a missile defense system.[19] Most likely, in the near future, it will be implemented in South Korea and the Philippines, and possibly in Japan. In response, China and Russia will begin the implementation of their own missile defense programs, and it is quite possible that they will conduct these programs in tandem (to create a single system). All this has a negative impact on regional security, as it will lead to an escalation of tension, to an increase in the number of military units of the Russian Federation in the Far East, China’s armed forces, defense forces of Japan, the two Koreas, the number of American troops in the region, possibly acquiring nuclear status of de facto both Korean States, and even Japan (in the case of amendments to the Constitution of national consensus on the issue and the political will of the United States).

In this situation, a high probability of increasing tension in Northeast Asia should be a natural enhancement of the role of multilateral institutions and organizations active in the region. This should be the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the summits of the East Asian Community (EAC).

In the SCO, in which Russia’s role will steadily decrease, the region will be perceived as “a Chinese project.” However, organizations will need to pay more attention to the region of Northeast Asia, taking an increasingly active part in preventing and minimizing threats. It would be quite natural to take part in the organization of one of the countries in the region – for example, Mongolia – further strengthening and improving position of organization in the East Asia. The Russian Federation, in any case, cannot be removed from participation in the SCO, despite the strengthening of China’s role in it.

Summits of the EAC, by the countries of Southeast Asia and China, Japan and South Korea (ASEAN + 3), currently include, in addition to the above-mentioned countries, the Russian Federation, the United States, as well as Australia, New Zealand and India. This organization runs the risk of becoming the central security issue in the region. In this case, it is likely that the United States or its allies will try to create a situation of collapse. In parallel, a process of creating a new structure or an attempt to improve the effectiveness of existing ones will be the same, however, with a more dominant role and influence of the United States.

So, summing up all that has been mentioned above, we can say that the situation in Northeast Asia will deteriorating, and that the seriousness and manageability of this process depends only on the main actors - the United States, China, Russia and Japan. In the short-term, we should expect increase in a number of threats to military and non-military security. Among the most important and most difficult to solve are the possible deployment of a missile defense system in the countries of Northeast Asia, nuclearization of the sub-region, and “the Korean question.” These threats come from a regional security framework, and they are an integral part of international security. Therefore, their resolution will have to connect most of the international community through the United Nations, EAC, SCO or other structures. Besides security threats, the importance of which have increased due to and after the Ukrainian crisis, is the energy security of the region, as well as the food component of regional security. The Ukrainian crisis has now led to the deterioration of relative strategic stability in Northeast Asia, and the growth of tension is expected to continue.



[1] Alexei D. Bogaturov, The Great Powers in the Pacific. History and Theory of International Relations in East Asia after World War II (1945-1995) (in Russian), (Moscow: Konvert - MONF, 1997), 10-11.

[2]«The stagnation of the Russian economy caused not only by developments in Ukraine – experts» (in Russian) http://www.profi-forex.org/novosti-rossii/entry1008209638.html

[3] “Construction of the Port ‘Taman’ and the Bridge across the Lena River in Yakutia Frozen” (in Russian), Infox, http: //www.infox.ru/authority/state/2014/05/14/Stroityelstvo_porta__print.phtml. 

[4]Alexander Orlov, “Ukraine sells Crimea - but not to Russia” (in Russian), http://www.gazeta.ru/business/2013/12/09/5796029.shtml

[5] US Treasury, Major Foreign Holders of Treasury Securities, http://treasury.ticdata.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/Publish/mfh.txt.

[6] Michael Kalishevsky, “‘Russian’ Central Asia is Becoming the ‘Near abroad of China’?”, http://www.gundogar.org/?02340515032000000000000011000000; Victoria Panfilova, “In Uzbekistan China is taking the niche of the USA,” http://www.ng.ru/cis/2014-08-20/6_uzbekistan.html.

[7] “Russia reinforces its military presence in Central Asia because of the growing influence of Western countries and China,” http://kyrtag.kg/standpoint/rossiya-usilivaet-voennoe-prisutstvie-v-tsentralnoy-azii-iz-za-rastushchego-vliyaniya-zapadnykh-stra/.

[8]«China is paving the new Silk Road in Asia» (in Russian), October 22, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/russian/international/2013/10/131022_china_central_asia_silk_road

[9] “‘Deal of the Century’ in the Western media: ‘China and Russia - in deep isolation. Both’” (in Russian), http://www.odnako.org/blogs/o-predskazuemoy-reakcii-zapada-na-geopoliticheskie-peremeni-i-gazovuyu-sdelku-veka-mezhdu-rossiey-i-kitaem/; “Deal of the century. Russia and China have signed a gas contract for 30 years” (in Russian), http://smartnews.ru/business/companies/17802.html#ixzz3FMA0DmEG; “Russia and China have signed the ‘deal of the century’” (in Russian), http://russian.rt.com/article/33520.

[10] “USA: Gas contracts between Russia and China is not associated with the situation in Ukraine” (in Russian), http://vz.ru/news/2014/5/22/687854.html; “Gas supply agreement between Russia and China is beneficial to both countries” (in Russian), http://penzanews.ru/opinion/79620-2014.

[11] Gasification program of “Gazprom” has a direct impact on the socio-economic development of regions and people’s living standards. Therefore, they should be regarded as special social significance. (http://investinnoprom.ru/gazificaciya.php).

[12] Vladislav Zhukovsky, “Independent economist Vladislav Zhukovsky: Russia without technology and money - all hope the authorities for loans of China” (in Russian), http://kprf.ru/roscrisis/134933.html.


[13] “Japan introduced a new package of sanctions against Russia, they touched a number of banks” (in Russian), Expert Online, September 24, 2014, http://expert.ru/2014/09/24/yaponiya-vvela-novyij-paket-sanktsij-protiv-rf-kotoryie-kosnulis-ryada-bankov/.

[14] “Vaccination against imports. Our industries have the motivation for the new development, the foreign partners at risk of losing market” (in Russian), http://www.rg.ru/2014/08/04/import.html.

[15] “Argentina will replace the EU as a major supplier of meat to Russia” (in Russian), August 20, 2014, http://www.advertology.ru/article125220.htm; “Latin America as a substitute for the EU and the US” (in Russian), August 7, 2014, http://www.dni.ru/economy/2014/8/7/277288.html.

[16] “In many regions of Russia food prices are growing” (in Russian), http://referendum.tomsk.ru/topic.phtml?id=3903&view=news; “In some regions, accelerated growth of prices for meat and fish” (in Russian), August 28, 2014, http://www.finmarket.ru/news/3800017.

[17] ”European pork is replaced with Chinese” (in Russian), April 4, 2014, http://www.gazeta.ru/business/2014/04/03/5979757.shtml; “Sanctions cured Chinese pigs” (in Russian), August 15, 2014, http://www.fontanka.ru/2014/08/15/170/.

[18] Vladimir Skosyrev, “The US revives military bases in Asia” (in Russian), http://www.ng.ru/world/2012-06-25/1_usa.html.

[19] “United States reaffirmed their intention to continue the deployment of a missile defense system in Europe” (in Russian),  http://ipress.ua/ru/news/ssha_podtverdyly_namerenye_prodolzhat_razvertivanye_systemi_pro_v_evrope_46949.html


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