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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Moscow Looks East

Washington, 8 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Even as the Russian government works to limit the expansion of NATO and the European Union in Europe, Moscow is seeking to improve and expand its ties with India, China and Japan, the three major powers in Asia.

By expanding its relationships with these countries, Russia gains both economically and geopolitically. On the one hand, it gains markets for both its natural resources and its industrial products. And on the other, it restores Russian influence in India and dramatically increases it in China and Japan, thus tilting the geopolitics of the Pacific rim in Moscow's favor.

Russian efforts in this direction have been going on for some time, but the past week has brought some dramatic results in all three countries.

On Tuesday, Russian officials announced that Moscow would supply 16 Russian X-35 anti-ship missiles to India. India will also begin early next year to produce under license the Russian Su-30 jet fighter after New Delhi takes delivery of still more of the planes that it as already purchased from Russian firms.

These missiles and planes will allow India to project power across the Indian Ocean, a goal that Indian leaders have long pursued despite the concerns of its neighbors. But more than that, these latest arrangements in effect reconfirm the long-standing strategic relationship between New Delhi and Moscow.

Also on Tuesday, there was a breakthrough in Russian relations with China. The two sides announced that they had agreed to cooperate in promoting navigation along the rivers that form the borders between them. And they agreed to step up efforts to promote crossborder ties.

To appreciate how dramatic these steps are, one need only remember that during the Sino-Soviet conflict, these same rivers had been the site of military confrontation between the two communist giants and even battles between their troops.

In a signal that China recognizes just how important this new warming trend is, the Xinhua news agency last Friday issued a statement noting that cross-border ties between China and Russia had improved considerably in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But the most remarkable shift has been in the relationship between Moscow and Tokyo, a warming that has been somewhat obscured this week by two developments:

Russian President Boris Yeltsin decided to delay his summit with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto one week to April 18-19 in order to remain in Moscow until the Duma confirms his new prime minister.

Both Russian and Japanese media have noted that Yeltsin does not seem likely to be willing to make concessions on the territorial dispute between the two countries that some had expected as a necessary step toward a broader peace agreement between Moscow and Tokyo.

As a result, some commentators in both countries have begun to speak of a shadow over the upcoming summit. But to do so is to miss what has been happening in bilateral relationship between Russia and Japan.

Following the Yeltsin-Hashimoto meeting in the Russian Far East last year, Russian-Japanese ties have expanded but never more than during the last ten days. In that period, and as part of the run-up to the summit in Japan, the two countries have agreed to cooperate in the exploitation of space and on the issue of global warming.

They have indicated plans to expand bilateral trade and Japanese investment in Russia. But the most politically significant accord may be the one that calls for Russia to supply Japan with processed uranium for its nuclear power industry.

Both individually and collectively, these expanded bilateral relationships will simultaneously give Russia a larger voice on the Pacific rim, challenge American influence in a region already unhappy with many of the demands of Western financial and political institutions, and increase the freedom of action of these states by allowing them to play off Russia against the West.

To the extent that this week marks a watershed in Russia's move to reclaim and expand its influence in Asia, it is also likely to mean that Moscow will have an important new resource in its geopolitical efforts elsewhere as well, one that countries focused only on European events are almost certain to miss.