A BRIEF review of the geopolitical, economic and military developments in the Asia-Pacific region this past decade indicates that the renewed Russian penetration of the Southeast Asian region indicates the direction of the superpowers’ competition for political-economic-military influence in this area maybe heading toward the less violent arena—the trade or economic field.
Last week, I said the Russians could be the counterweight for the Chinese economic-military offensive here since the late 1970s.
Beijing has been offering financial and technical help to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in an undisguised effort to prevent the total integration of the Asean 10 into a unified socio-cultural-economic-political bloc almost after the Vietnam War.
But at the same time, Chinese troops have attacked Vietnam on their common land border and rammed Vietnamese fishing boats, killing 18 fishermen off Ho Chi Ming’s territorial waters near Hainan Island – part of its campaign for territorial sovereignty of the entire South China Sea.
Naturally, the Vietnamese, who had beaten the better-armed French and American military forces in 1954 and 1975, respectively, fought back. They forced the retreat of their northwestern invaders in1979. The Chinese prime minister, a couple of years back, had to negotiate with Vietnam and pulled back Beijing’s giant oil rig from the Vietnamese coast to Hainan—after Chinese residences and business establishments accidentally caught fire in the Vietnamese capital.
For the past decade, China has also continuously built military bases and facilities on the Spratly Islands and on the atolls and reefs within the waters, 200 nautical miles from the Philippines western Palawan province. Its navy had also barred Filipino fishermen from the Scarborough Shoal within our internationally recognized sovereign territory off Zambales province.
Beijing even succeeded in its diplomatic backdoor efforts to withdraw any collective criticism of the Chinese South China Sea military buildups in the Asean summit meetings in Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos for the past three years. The Chinese weapon: its official pledges of financial assistance to massive infrastructure construction to connect Asean 10 to Beijing by railway networks.
All these from China despite the friendly Philippine foreign policy pronouncements of the new Duterte administration, and the amicable statements (compared to the last Obama administration) from newly elected US President Donald Trump,
China has been consistent in its military aggression, increased “defense” expenditures (estimated to have been upped to $500 billion last year and to be increased to $600 billion this year). On the other hand, the US and Russia, the two other superpowers, have adhered to their international commitments/treaties limiting military expansion and nuclear weaponry—to nip off the any world war.
Clearly, this is Beijing’s policy: talk diplomacy and act with military aggression. Anyway, although this is a direct violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China signed with the UN members, the world organization has no police powers over any sovereign state.
China has even gone into the Philippine northeastern territorial waters with the resource-rich Benham Rise facing the Pacific Ocean, sending its naval and coast guard ships for days in the area off the provinces of Tuguegarao, Isabela and Quezon. Beijing waved off unconcernedly Philippine warnings to keep its military vessels off the Benham Rise, which the United Nations recognizes as part of our sovereign territory.
That mentality of the aggressors—and eventually the vanquished—in the last two world wars led to their downfall and world changes in military alliances, geopolitical and economic policies and even environmental degradation–at a very expensive cost of human lives and extreme poverty in the less developed countries.
Observers and students of geopolitics and regional security are of course forced to compare the different approaches and foreign policies of China and Russia–both communist regimes and very close allies against the Free World at the peak of the Cold War.
The Russians are back in the Philippines—and Asean 10 now—mainly for increased economic bonding, and also political and defense cooperation.
By the time you read this column, the Russian business delegation would have already met with the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations (PCFR), and would be holding their scheduled Philippine-Russian business forum at the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P) campus in Ortigas Center, and already met with officials of the New Era University (NEU).
The forum, in general terms, is expected to explore the areas of cooperation both countries can work on for mutual development, contribute to peace and stability of the region.
In other words, as Russian Ambassador Igor Anatolyevich Khovavev said before the Management Association of the Philippines last week, Philippine-Russian “cooperation” is in “politics, trade and investments, security and defense, science and technology, education and culture, energy and transport infrastructure.”
The Russians are interested in investments in the National Capital Region, Subic Bay and Clark Field special economic zones. Today’s scheduled forum should come up with some definite recommendations both Moscow and Manila can consider—and hopefully finalize into a formal document—preparatory to the state visit of President Rodrigo Duterte to Russia on May 25.
This latest Russian diplomatic move is not surprising, considering that Russia is a member of the US-led 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) which also includes China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and most of the Asean members, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Papua New Guinea.
The APEC has its summit meetings annually, towards the regular yearly conferences usually held in November.
Eastern Russia is in Asia. History tells us the US under President Abraham Lincoln bought Alaska from Russia. It relies on northern Japan for most of its fresh food supplies daily.
According to the latest Russian data released by Tass (Russia’s official news agency) from Moscow’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, the country is increasing its grain exports to the world market at 38 million tons next year (including 35 million tons harvest from this year—mostly wheat, and sunflower seeds).
To the Asean market, Russia has delivered 587,000 tons of grain, including 467,000 tons of wheat, but Tass did not specify the country deliveries.
Top Russian exports, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, include natural gas, rolled steel, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, minerals from the Ural Mountain range, timber from the cold Siberian region, fertilizer, machinery and capital equipment, arms and military equipment, in that order.
The Russians who integrated into their system Western free market economic principles in the mid-1980s before the Chinese did—although the strategic industries and businesses remain in the state’s control—have obviously come to realize the value of economic progress.
They have a population under 290 million and a per capita income estimated to be $10,000 due to their level of industrialization and use of modern systems and devices, including communication and information technologies.
I am not saying that the widening ideological cleavage between Russia and China, which started after Stalin’s death, cannot be healed. And when it comes to a world showdown, Russia will swing towards the democracies’ side against China. Peeking into the future is not that easy and simple because in geopolitics and economic relations, all factors must be considered in solving international issues. And each solution spins off resultant issues or compounded problems.
Even national interests—just like international alliances—in this age of modern information and communication technologies are viewed in relation to the state’s needs at a particular time and as the total physical environment—which is actually borderless—dictates.
My point is simply this: our people, leaders and negotiators in foreign relations and policies, must be better informed so we can get the best for our people at all times. So, don’t stop our critical thinking and remember while politics move national leaders to rule, economics is still the driver of survival.
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Gil H. A. Santos is a veteran international wire service correspondent, teaches geopolitics and journalism in the Lyceum of the Philippines University and president/trustee, Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management.