Tensions are flaring on Russia’s western borders as pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine battle government forces loyal to Kyiv.
On the opposite side of Russia, its Asian neighbors are watching with concern. Beijing, in particular, is rattled, according to Professor Arne Westad, director of the IDEAS policy group at the London School of Economics.
“I think the Russians, in part, got the Chinese views on this wrong. I mean, China’s policy is still emphasizing non-intervention and sovereignty. So this has been a difficult one for China,” said Westad.
Chinese President Xi Jinping chose Moscow for his first foreign trip last year, signing a raft of energy deals.
Russia aims to triple oil exports to China, and analysts say growing tensions over Ukraine are forcing Moscow to look for gas markets outside Europe — with Putin aiming to sign off on building a pipeline to China. But it’s far from a done deal, said Natasha Kuhrt of Kings College London.
“It’s going to have a hard time doing that because China also likes to ensure that it has a diversity of supply,” she said.
Kuhrt said Moscow also will find it difficult to gain support from Beijing over its stance on Ukraine. “They’ll be much more cautious. I think one always has to beware of the kind of rhetoric that’s wheeled out for domestic consumption within Russia. Essentially, China will not really cozy up to Russia.”
China is wary of upsetting relations with other global powers, said Westad. “Not least in terms of China’s own economic interests, it’s Washington that counts. So you can’t go too far in supporting a policy that not just the Americans, but the Europeans too – very important for the Chinese, too, in terms of their economic development – see as completely outrageous.”
East Asia’s other economic power – Japan – has imposed visa restrictions on some Russian officials. Visiting Brussels this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated his country’s alliance with Europe. Abe said Ukraine shows that the world is getting less predictable, and Japan and the European Union are responsible for taking a very proactive role together toward world peace.
Japan disputes the ownership of the northern Kuril Islands, controlled since 1945 by the Soviet Union and then Russia. Tokyo may seek to draw parallels with Ukraine, said Westad.
“There are some similarities, seen from a Japanese perspective, in terms of Russian behavior when it comes to these kinds of possessions,” said Westad.
As its relations with the West turn sour, analysts say Moscow will find it difficult to build alliances in the East amid the continuing unrest in Ukraine.