The US’ demand that Russia allow it to use the Northern Sea Route hints at future Hybrid War aggression in the Arctic that could prompt Moscow to increase its strategic dependency on China in response, a less than desirable scenario that could be avoided if Russia “balances” friend and foe alike by facilitating the Indo-Japanese “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’s” expansion to Europe via its maritime transit territory.
Commandant of the US Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft recently demanded that Russia allow the US to make use of its Northern Sea Route on the basis of so-called “freedom of navigation” principles, and while he reassured the world that his country doesn’t intend to carry out South China Sea-like “patrols” here, he ominously warned last summer that the Arctic Ocean “looks eerily familiar to what we’re seeing in the East and South China Sea”. It’s clear by this combination of remarks that the US is signaling its future Hybrid War intentions in the Arctic but that it has thus far refrained from carrying out the type of overt aggression that it does against China’s maritime interests because the Russian Navy is much more powerful than its East Asian counterpart. In fact, Russia is regarded as having the most powerful military force in the Arctic Ocean, and the US isn’t ready to confront it unless it can asymmetrically change the balance of strategic power in the region first.
In the meantime, the US is planning to put multifaceted pressure on Russia’s Arctic interests in order to tighten the dual containment-destabilization noose around it and the rest of Eurasia more generally. Washington is furious that Moscow passed a law late last year mandating that only Russian-built ships flying the Russian flag will be allowed to use the Northern Sea Route, which it rightly believes will lead to a boom in the Russian shipbuilding industry and the strengthening of Moscow’s maritime sovereignty. America’s resistance to this initiative is especially ironic under the current Trump Administration given its preference for “protectionist” and “nationalist” economic legislation, but ideological double standards are a given when dealing with geopolitics. Other than a concerted bullying effort to get UN bodies to refuse to recognize Russia’s claims that its continental shelf and attendant Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) should be extended, there’s really not much else that it can do at this time because Moscow will probably proceed “unilaterally” in pursuit of its national interests regardless of the ruling.
Debunking The Bering Strait Scenario
There’s indeed the possibility of resorting to provocations in order to engineer brinksmanship scenarios in the Bering Strait chokepoint, but this would not only be ineffective for geographic reasons (ships can just traverse the bottleneck through the Russian-controlled side) but could also backfire if the US dramatically flexes its muscles but ends up backing down in the face of Russian resilience. In addition, there’s the future possibility of connecting modernized infrastructure in the Russian Arctic port of Tiksi to Vladivostok or potentially even as far south as the Korean Peninsula via a theoretical “Korean Corridor” as per the “Tikhi to Tiksi” scenario outlined in the author’s October 2016 forecast. If actualized with the help of Chinese and other investments such as those from the “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’s” (AAGC) Indo-Japanese founders (and which will later be elaborated upon), then it could potentially even make the Bering Strait redundant with time, which means that the US’ present options are extremely limited when it comes to pressuring Russia in this region.
Whatever asymmetrical means that it ultimately resorts to and regardless of their actual effectiveness, the US will only be pushing Russia closer to China in response, which would intensify the existing trend of privileged strategic relations between these two Great Powers and eventually make it more difficult for the US to achieve its divide-and-rule objectives in Eurasia. That said, while there’s no serious chance that the US will ever split the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership, it must be said that Moscow doesn’t want to play “junior partner” to Beijing either, meaning that it can be expected to do whatever it needs in order to “equalize” the relationship and prevent China from gaining the “upper hand”. All talk about “win-win” or “all-win” rhetoric aside, Russia’s decision makers and strategists follow the Neo-Realist paradigm of the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard” and are reluctant to “trust” any one country to the point of putting their civilization-state’s future totally in its hands.
“Security dilemmas” have been part and parcel of International Relations for millennia but they aren’t inevitable. There’s no realistic risk that the US will succeed in engineering one between Russia and China under those or any other conditions because the members of their permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep states”) are already well aware of this plan anyhow and have undertaken a wide array of trust-building measures over the past couple of years that prove the impossibility of this happening for as long as America remains their shared unipolar foe. Even in the event that the US gets what it wants from Russia by “convincing” its leadership to forestall further cooperation with China (which is extremely unlikely), it wouldn’t put an end to the New Silk Road nor provoke the “security dilemma” that the Pentagon is hoping for. Even so, Russia has lately embarked on an ambitious “balancing” policy in Eurasia that has even seen it reach out to China’s Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indian rivals, though for pragmatic and peaceful reasons.
The AAGC “Balancing” Act
It’s in this interesting context of actual military pressure from the US Navy in the north and its speculative strategic equivalent from China in the south that Russia could “balance” between both of them by seeking a “pressure valve” from the Indo-Japanese “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor” (AAGC). To be clear, the US and China are not “conspiring” against Russia, but the Neo-Realist paradigm that guides Moscow’s strategists and decision makers is such that they may feel compelled to equally “balance” both by deepening relations with China to relieve American pressure and then correspondingly strengthening trading ties with India & Japan’s AAGC to do the same vis-à-vis China. The author already wrote about how “Russia’s Diplomatic Balancing Act In Asia Is To The Benefit Of Its Chinese Ally” when discussing its relations with both of them and advanced an AAGC angle in his piece about how “India Could Cordially Compete With China Through BRICS+”, so the reader should review them in relation with this analysis if they have the time.
Expanding on this “balancing” concept, the AAGC’s Indo-Japanese pillars endeavor to expand their trade with Europe, to which end they’re incentivized to use Russia’s Northern Sea Route “shortcut” and follow the country’s legislation mandating that only Russian-built and -flagged ships can traverse it. The same legal principle also holds true when it comes to energy extraction as well, meaning that the products of India’s joint investments with Russia in the Arctic would have to be shipped to the subcontinent via this method. The Russian Far East stands to experience hyper-economic development in the future as it becomes the transshipment point for Indo-Japanese AAGC goods transiting through the Northern Sea Route on the way to the European marketplace, and an assortment of warehouses and free trade zones could soon pop up in Vladivostok, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands to facilitate this, thus transforming foreign investment into something tangible for the local Russian workers there. Like was mentioned earlier in the analysis, both countries could also fund a railway connecting the Pacific and Arctic Oceans too.
Deterring “Dark Scenarios”
None of this can or will take place without China’s participation either, but it’s just that the role of Chinese capital, workers, products, and overall influence in the country’s Far East is a very sensitive issue in Russia because of the perception (key word) that the People’s Republic might be turning this vast region into a raw resource appendage as a possible prelude to de-facto “annexing” it by proxy. These fears are of course totally overblown and Beijing has never signaled that it has any intent to do that, but this overly simplistic and misleading narrative could be easily manipulated from abroad in provoking “populist” “demagogues” to stir up trouble for geostrategic divide-and-rule reasons. It’s the Kremlin’s worry that this might resultantly turn into a hot-button domestic political issue with time that Moscow is proactively taking steps to offset this troubling scenario through its newfound Great Power “balancing” approach. Introducing Indo-Japanese AAGC investments and the influence that comes with it is expected to “counterbalance” China’s role and therefore discredit this speculative storyline.
Apart from the optics of “diluting” rising Chinese influence in the Russian Far East with its Indian & Japanese rivals, President Putin expects that the developing competition between their New Silk Road and AAGC connective projects could be leveraged by his country in order to bring the most benefits to his people. The Russian leader plans to focus his fourth and final term in office on advancing his domestic agenda of far-reaching socio-economic reforms in order to ensure his lasting legacy, and it’s therefore vital that he actually delivers to his people so that they can have a solid basis on which to continue building the country after his tenure ends. Basic economic theory suggests that a lack of competition usually leads to eventual “monopolization”, and the failure to diversify investment partners in the Russian Far East could see the fear mongered scenarios about China’s “creeping dominance” becoming a fait accompli with time, or at the very least being used to provoke political unrest in the region and future distrust between these two Great Powers.
Neo-NAM + AAGC = Russia’s 21st-Century “Balancing” Strategy
Russia doesn’t want to become a combination of the most critical caricatures of Mongolia and Pakistan by being reduced to a “raw materials reserve” and “international highway” respectively along China’s “Eurasian Land Bridge” Silk Road project to Europe, which is why it has a grand strategic interest in joining forces with those two countries and others in order to “balance” against this scenario through friendly means and lay the basis for a new Non-Aligned Movement (Neo-NAM) that’s neither militarily pro-American nor economically-strategically dependent on China. None of these three countries and their prospective multilateral Neo-NAM partners have to “choose sides” in the New Cold War but can instead strike a “middle ground” through their “Third Way” approach in retaining constructive relations with both the US and China so long as they adroitly “balance” between them during this period of profound global systemic transition. This can take a multitude of forms and will flexibly change as circumstances necessitate, but one of the constants for Russia will probably be its outreaches to the Indo-Japanese AAGC.
It doesn’t matter that those two Great Powers are the US’ chief “Lead From Behind” allies in “containing” China because all three countries have overlapping win-win interests in cooperating with one another in the Russian Far East in a peaceful manner that isn’t “against” China. President Xi recognized “the trend of the times, namely, peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit” that’s “gaining momentum” in today’s world when he spoke earlier this week at the Boao Forum, so his country surely wouldn’t be taken off guard by Russia deepening its economic connectivity with China’s Indo-Japanese rivals when the People’s Republic is doing the same with Moscow’s in the US, EU, and even Ukraine. Beijing regularly rails against the West’s “zero-sum” mentality when defending its New Silk Road investments, so it’s expected that it would apply the same standards to itself when evaluating Russia’s prospectively developing relations with the Indo-Japanese AAGC in the country’s Far East and along the northeastern border of the People’s Republic.
It might still take some time to happen, but the US has already made clear that it intends to challenge Russia’s sovereign control of its Arctic Ocean territory on the basis of so-called “freedom of navigation” principles that are driven by its desire to cash in on the Northern Sea Route. In addition, the presence of US spy ships disguised as “civilian” merchants or fishing trawlers (a tactic that it often accuses China of employing) and lurking along Russia’s expansive northern borderland would allow Washington to keep tabs on Moscow’s military activity in the region, which might have been another reason for Russia’s pro-sovereignty legislation in decreeing that only vessels made in the country and flying its flag will be allowed to traverse its Arctic waters. The end result of any sustained campaign by the US to pressure Russia in this theater or anywhere else for that matter, regardless of its ultimate success, will inevitably draw Moscow closer to Beijing, though the emerging concern is that it might eventually become “too close for comfort”.
All responsible representatives of any country’s permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”) must prepare for any possible scenarios and preemptively take steps to counter the “dark” ones before they transpire, which in this context relates to the long-term fear that Russia might become strategically dependent on China, a position that could eventually make it Beijing’s “junior partner” instead of Moscow’s hoped-for equal one whenever the shared unipolar threat that’s driving them together is overcome. Looking ahead to that possible time which could foreseeably arrive in the next couple of decades, it makes sense for Russia to deepen its engagement with the Indo-Japanese “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor” through the facilitation of its expansion to the European marketplace via the country’s Northern Sea Route as the most peaceful but “effective” means of “counterbalancing” any future Silk Road “dominance” by China. If Russia pairs its AAGC “rebalancing” strategy with the creation of a new Non-Alignment Movement, then Moscow can finally fulfill its 21st-century grand ambition in becoming the center of multipolarity in the emerging world order.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.