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What exactly is Russia up to in the East?

What exactly is Russia up to in the East?
Published 4 Feb 2016   Follow @EmmaMConnors

Speaking in Washington last week, Julie Bishop noted Russia was 'talking up its so called pivot to Asia'. In her speech to The Center for a New American Security, the Australian foreign minister referred to speculation of an arms race in Asia. This has been driven, in part, by the military build up that Russia, along with China, India and Vietnam, is undertaking in the region. Ms Bishop said:

On current planning, a large-scale revamp of its Pacific Fleet will see it grow from Russia’s smallest to its largest naval deployment over the next decade.

As part of an overall military build-up, to cost about US$600 billion, this fleet will have new ballistic-missile submarines, attack submarines and upgrades to its surface fleet.

A month earlier, in an analysis that concentrated on the economic aspects of the pivot, The Economist talked down what it referred to as Russia's 'much ballyooed turn towards China'. The report noted that while China is Russia’s largest trading partner, Russia does not crack China’s top five. Among the various reasons cited for the slower-than-expected push is Russia's fear of being exploited, according to an expert quoted by the magazine:

The desire to get closer to China is offset by a fear of becoming dependent, says Victor Larin of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok. Russia imposes tough restrictions on businesses because of unfounded fears that the Chinese will take over its sparsely-populated Far East.

In the same month, in a Lowy Institute research paper, Russia's Asian Rebalance, Lowy non-resident fellow Dr Matthew Sussex gave three reasons why we should resist the temptation to dismiss the pivot as 'another unworkable grand promise'.

First, an Asian pivot has become an imperative for Russia rather than a choice. Just as the US Department of Defense announced in 2012 that it would 'of necessity' rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, Russia sees the need to do so as central to its future power, prosperity, and prestige. Second, Russia is clearly calculating that the twenty-first century will be Asian in character, with a centre of gravity located around Beijing. Third, even a rudimentary strategic projection reveals that Moscow has only a
relatively brief window of opportunity to cement itself as a major regional player. 

One of those most qualified to offer an opinion on the various aspects of the pivot and how they have progressed — or not — is Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform. Tomorrow, Friday 5 February, Mr Bond will join Dr Sussex in a discussion of Russia's global ambitions at the Lowy Institute's new digs at Level 3, 1 Bligh St, Sydney. At the time of writing, there are still tickets available for the event, the first in the 2016 Lowy Lecture Series.

Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

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