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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Primakov Turning Russia's Policy Toward Asia

When Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov arrived in China on Sunday he chose to visit Shanghai, China's biggest commercial and industrial center, before going on to the capital Beijing -- a choice that aptly highlights the basis for Russia's future relations with the Far East.

Russia's foreign policy is in a state of flux, say analysts, and Primakov is formulating a new policy for an emerging economic power that enjoys an ability to look, like the two-headed Russian eagle, simultaneously to the East and West.

In Beijing on Tuesday, Primakov winds up an Asian tour that has taken him in nine days to Turkmenistan, Mongolia, Japan and China. While ties with such countries as Turkmenistan, Mongolia and China once rested on ideology and great power strategy, the foreign minister on this tour was deep in discussions of oil, pipelines and trade.

When Primakov took over as foreign minister from Andrei Kozyrev in January this year, he announced that Russia's foreign policy would be more "balanced," focusing less exclusively on relations with the West.

The current Asian tour should be seen in this context, as "a reconnaissance flight to look around and see what possibilities there are for Russia in the Far East," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA/Canada Institute in Moscow.

While in Shanghai, Primakov visited a free-trade zone producing goods for export that is being built with foreign investment. Russia wants to profit from China's booming economy, and is offering its resources and technological expertise in such projects as a pipeline to carry Siberian gas to China and the massive Three Gorges hydro-electric development.

While Russian-Chinese trade has grown from its 1995 figure of $5.5 billion, President Boris Yeltsin and the Chinese president Jiang Zemin announced after their meeting in China in April this year that they aimed to boost this trade to $20 billion in the next decade.

It is sometimes heard in Moscow that China could become Russia's major trading partner in the next century. Whether the Kremlin really sees Beijing as key to its economic future is doubtful, but Moscow clearly sees China as key to the development of its Asian interests.

China's interests in Russia are military hardware and energy. Glimpsing its future as a potential world power in the next century, China is building up its military as well as economic power. And since China's armed forces use Soviet equipment, Beijing has a built-in appetite that Russian arms manufacturers are keen to feed. China's main priorities are to the south and east -- Taiwan, Hong Kong and the markets of southeast Asia. For China, it is useful to have a friendly Russia at its back, especially if this friendship can be used to counter the alliance of Japan and the United States.

Both Russia and China, with a common border of 4,300 kilometers, prefer not to have to maintain large border forces. The two countries are currently negotiating a scaled-down military presence along their borders, as well as along China's Russian-patrolled borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Japan is a less straightforward issue for Primakov.

Russia and Japan still eye one another suspiciously due to their drawn-out territorial dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands -- or Northern Territories as the Japanese call them. The tiny islands just north of mainland Japan were seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II. Japan wants Russia to return the islands, and an impasse in the dispute has prevented the signing of a post-war treaty by the two countries for half a century.

Japan accepts the Russian government's argument that it cannot return the islands yet since any move to do so would provide ammunition for its nationalist opponents, says the head of the Japanese Embassy's information center in Moscow, Yoshitaka Akimoto. But during his four days in Japan, Primakov offered an olive branch by suggesting joint economic development of the islands. Japan cautiously accepted and announced the release of $500 million of loans that were pledged in 1991.

Primakov's meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Yukihiko Ikeda, was their fifth this year, marking a significant upturn in the two countries' contacts, notes Akimoto. Moscow wants to attract Japanese investment in the Russian Far East, especially in infrastructure projects aimed at developing the Vladivostok region as a future Pacific trade hub.

Japan is interested in Russia's natural resources -- coal, oil, gas, timber, and non-ferrous metals -- although, Akimoto said, "the market in Siberia is not as attractive as in China and the Far East."

Primakov spent two days in Mongolia -- the first such high-level visit in a decade. Coming after the overthrow of Mongolia's former Communist Party in elections this summer, the visit offered a chance to meet the new administration and rebuild ties dating back to the days when Mongolia was a Soviet satellite.

Moscow's main interest has been settling Mongolia's debt to Russia, which has spiralled to $1.2 billion. Mongolia wants ties with Russia to counter its other neighbors, the Chinese, whom the Mongols traditionally distrust.

In building ties with Asia, Russia is following economic logic since the world's fastest-growing markets are there. Analysts, however, believe the search for new economic allies is also partly in response to the Russia's loss of influence in eastern Europe.

Primakov wants to show the West that Russia has other foreign policy options, said Kremenyuk.

"Russia always has a choice. It can behave as a European power or an oriental power," he said. "Once it feels it has been abused it can demonstrate its foreign policy reserves and avoid being pressed into a corner."