CHINA’s aggressive stance in the Asia-Pacific region actually began in October 1949 when Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong won the national leadership struggle against American-supported Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party, or the Kuomintang.
The United States effectively aided both Mao and Chiang during the last world war against the Japanese imperial forces and occupation. But Mao opted to join the Soviet Russian ideological camp of Marshal Joseph Stalin in 1945 towards the end of the war in the Pacific.
Russia, along with the US, United Kingdom, France and China, were the biggest military powers which allied against the Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan) in World War II which started with Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. It ended in Europe in 1944; in Asia it was over when Japan surrendered in 1945 after Russia joined the Allies in Asia and two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Stalin saw Mao’s move as a tool to expand Soviet influence in Asia, considering China’s military manpower, geographical and demographical sizes, its market and economic potentials. Mao threw out Chiang and his American advisers to Taiwan in October 1949.
Stalin launched his Asian aggressions, actually after the Bolshevik Revolution successfully literally ended the lives of the Russian Tsars—specifically the entire Romanov family which was massacred in the basement of the royal palace in St. Petersberg in 1917. Outer Mongolia was Russia’s first satellite or client state in Asia.
Stalin’s assistance to Mao, and the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung encouraged Kim to invade Syngman Rhee’s US-backed South Korea in the early 1950s. It was the first shooting war in the “Cold War”—the ideological battle by proxies between the communists and democracies—also known as the East and the West. MIG-15 jet fighters based in Vladivostok, Eastern Russia (opposite Japan’s Hokkaido island) engaged the Allies in dogfights in the “MIG alley”.
The MIG-15s would safely scramble back to Soviet Russia’s sovereign territory in Asia when outclassed and chased by the Allies’ Saberjets.
China and Russia were united against the US and Allies during the Korean War which ended in a truce. A small Filipino combat patrol led by former President Fidel V. Ramos, as a young military officer under the UN forces in Korea, won against an overwhelming number of Chinese soldiers in an encounter—which cemented Philippine-South Korean relations thereafter.
The American President Harry S. Truman even fired the Allied Forces in Korea commander, General Douglas MacArthur, when he insisted to Truman that the Allies could beat the Russians and the Chinese in North Korea if Truman allowed him to bomb the North. Truman was worried World War III would start if MacArthur was allowed to carry out his plan.
After the Korean War, several other small bush wars in the Middle East punctuated the Cold War years. The Vietnam War was another one in Southeast Asia.
Stalin tried to strengthen Russsian-Chinese bonds with financial and technical aids to Peking (later to be changed to Beijing) and the Chinese Communist Party. Russian technical assistance to the Chinese search for hydroelectric power for state industrialization, railway networks, manufacturing of military weaponry, and basic nuclear technology was given by Moscow.
However, Mao criticized and branded Stalin’s successors as “revisionists” (of the original Lenin-Stalin communism)—enemies of world communism in the early 1960s. The Chinese began pirating Russian communication technologies. Peking-Moscow relations soured. In the mid-1960s, Russia withdrew all its financial aid and technicians who took all their blueprints and project studies back to Moscow.
Reading biographies of both Mao and Stalin show they never really trusted each other. It appears Stalin started distrusting Mao and the Chinese in the Korean War. Mao and his numerically bigger population would a formidable rival for global communist leadership. The emerging split would widen over the next decade.
This was further deepened later after Stalin’s death (in 1953) when China launched border attacks on North Vietnam (in 1979) and confronted Vietnam’s naval ships near the Spratlys in the South China Sea (in 1987) after the communist North Vietnamese defeated the US in the Vietnam war (in 1975).
World geopolitical and economic developments since then brought changes worldwide. Decolonization movements surged. More independent nation-states emerged as members of the United Nations.
Successors of Stalin and Mao altered their rigid communist regimes and adopted the principles of democratic free market economy to industrialize and became exporters. They used nuclear power as generators of electric power, and adopted and even improved on Western technologies (such as the GS1, the bar-coding system used by retailers around the world).
In the mid-1980s Russia obviously stopped pursuing the Stalin dream of world dominance under Moscow. In fact, Russian Premier and Communist Party Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev dismantled the Soviet Union, and gave up East Germany. The Berlin Wall, the symbol of communist Soviet Russian aggression in Europe was torn down in 1991.
The Warsaw Pact, the military counterpart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was dismantled earlier. Much earlier, Moscow allowed the US to win the space and armaments derby. Russia realized that winning a military armament race without economic benefits to its people would be fueling a bloody internal revolution again.
While Russia has downgraded its military expenditures, Beijing has increased its “defense” expenses by $50 billion to $500 billion yearly (in 2014) after it replaced Japan as the world’s second biggest economic power—next to the US a couple of years ago. It built its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, with a Russian-made hull.
China intensified its military buildup in the reefs and atolls in the South China Sea that it claims part of its sovereign territory although these are more than 1,000 nautical miles from its farthest land area, the Hainan island near Vietnam. This caused the territorial disputes between Beijing and four Asean members—Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines—and Taiwan.
Both Russia and China are now major players in the global economic race. Russia has become the prime source of natural gas for fuel and energy in Europe. The US is China’s biggest trading partner and foreign investor. China is the biggest importer of the Asean 10 while Moscow’s dealings with any Asean member is comparatively very small. Last year, Filipinos in Moscow remitted home less than $50 million.
The Russians started their incursion in Southeast Asia with Dutch-colonized Indonesia in the 1920s. It intensified when President-for-Life Sukarno aspired to be the leader of the non-aligned nations in the 1950s. Moscow gave Sukarno a cruiser for his naval flagship (he named it “Irian” after Irian Barat, Indonesia’s western half of the island of New Guinea; the eastern half is the independent state of Papua New Guinea).
Seemingly apprehensive of China’s ongoing economic offensive and military bullying in the Asia Pacific region and financial assistance to Central Asian countries (former members of the Soviet Union), Russia has now entered the Asean 10 as an economic player, starting with the Philippines these last two weeks.
The government and private businessmen delegation came and went after looking into the probable areas of cooperation between Moscow and Manila, prior to President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s official visit to Russia on May 25. They visited the free trade zones in Subic and Clark Field and they liked what they saw. They met with the Management Association of the Philippines.
The areas of cooperation where the Russians want to “strengthen ties” with the Philippines are: “politics, trade and investments, security and defense, science and technology, education and culture, tourism, energy, transport infrastructure”.
This reminds me of a group of Russian cardiology experts who tried to bring here through some members of the Philippine Military Academy Class 1962 during the Macapagal-Arroyo presidency, a technology they called “chelation”. It was claimed to be 50 percent cheaper than the cheapest heart bypass operation. That was more than 10 years ago and the Class 1962 member died three years ago.
This newspaper quoted Russian Ambassador Igor Anatolyevich Khovavev: “Russian businesses are actively penetrating regional markets…and the Philippines as a major promising partner of Russia in the Asia-Pacific region…the partnership will contribute to the development of both our nations and also to regional peace, stability and sustainable development. We have no hidden agenda.”
Asean negotiators, particularly ours, should do more homework when it comes to direct and backroom meetings to arrive at actual agreements or treaties.
The Russian transportation technology, particularly in railways, are far superior and more advanced than the Chinese, although China is more efficient in using the world’s mass media for publicity purposes, a.k.a. public affairs internationally, and controlled domestic press in China.
Definitely, Moscow’s entry into the fastest growing Asean 10 region can neutralize the Chinese moves and Beijing’s agenda to be the dominant Asia-Pacific hegemon. More major economic players will even be better for the entire Asia-Pacific for inclusive growth.
Comments and reactions to email@example.com. Gil H. A. Santos teaches at the Lyceum of the Philippines University and is president of the Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management; and an international news service Southeast Asian correspondent and editor/publisher.