The other permanent source of friction in East Asia is Washington’s active involvement in territorial conflicts in the South and East China Seas. In October 2015, the destroyer USS Lassen started its patrol within twelve nautical miles of artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea, and in December, American bombers flew close to the Spratly Islands. Beijing’s response to such actions may be very harsh. Demonstrating the seriousness of Beijing’s intentions, on December 17, 2015, a Chinese submarine conducted a simulated attack on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. If the two sides continue this kind of dangerous military behavior, the risk of a collision is high. They had a similar experience in 2001, when a Chinese jet crashed into a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane. Apart from that, in 2016 there is a growing possibility of mutual hostilities between China and the United States in cyberspace.
Another frustration for Beijing comes from Australia and Japan’s actions in the South and East China Seas. Tokyo intends to station artillery batteries and ships along two hundred islands on a 1,400-kilometer expanse, which will impede movement of Chinese military ship towards the western Pacific. In August 2015, Japan approved the largest military budget in post–World War II history ($27 billion). And during the APEC Summit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that his country is ready to consider participating in patrols of disputed territories in the South China Sea. At the same time, Australian flights over the disputed islands are not so much disturbing to China as they are irritating. And yet the possibility of an armed collision with Japanese or Australian military ship is high. Beijing is convinced that Washington is not ready to be pulled into all-out conflict with China, even for their key allies’ sake, while Japan’s image as a historical enemy of China may stimulate escalation.
Key Risks for Russia in 2016
Our perspective on the future of anti-Russia sanctions in 2016 is negative. Sanctions will not be lifted because this will require fulfillment of several conditions: the Minsk-2 Agreement has to be fully implemented, military provocations in the Donbass have to stop, opponents of sanctions in the EU have to win over proponents of sanctions and the EU itself has to be ready to reject solidarity with the United States in the issue of sanctions—or else, President Obama has to support the EU and lift sanctions half a year before the end of his presidency. All this cannot be achieved in 2016. Therefore, sanctions will remain, and Russia must get used to the unfavorable state of its external affairs.
Despite western Europe’s fatigue with Ukraine and the freezing of the Donbass conflict, U.S. support for the Kyiv regime in 2016 will not subside, and in the worst case scenario, we will see U.S. arms deliveries to Ukraine.
On the Syrian front, there are short-term risks of Russia getting giddy with its success, which may cause uncontrollable escalation of Russian-Turkish relations and the possibility of direct collision with Ankara. As a result, Russia has already found itself in a trap, set by those who want to see Russia stuck in the Middle East and relations with its neighbors to further deteriorate. Despite Moscow’s desire to demonstrate its power on every occasion, Russia may not afford to fall into such traps in the future: Syria is not Russia’s key front line.
In 2016, the waves of destruction from the Middle East will increase the risk of escalation of conflicts in the Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh and in Central Asia, especially with growing instability in Tajikistan. Popular unrest within Russia’s CIS allies may raise the question of Moscow’s involvement.
The world’s largest economies will continue failing to make headway, keeping oil prices at a record low. But the expanding zone of military action in the Middle East, the exacerbation of Saudi-Iranian tensions or destabilization within Saudi Arabia may change these calculations entirely.
China, India, Brazil and South Africa will be consumed with their own domestic problems. And despite their sympathies with Russia’s positions in Asia and Latin America, their banks and businesses will not do anything that could cause problems in their relations with the United States.
Choosing Between Two Evils
It is obvious that in 2016 Russia will have to choose between bad and very bad alternatives. Positive change may be expected no sooner than seven or eight years from now, when a new generation of elites will come to power in the United States and Europe, and may again consider Russia a strategic ally and a business partner.
What can Moscow do to make this possibility come true and to increase its own chances?
First, it should be prudent, preserve its power and avoid getting dragged into full-scale wars and lengthy confrontations. It has succeeded in doing so up until now.
Second, it has to keep patiently building its relations with western Europe, which is gradually growing to realize the importance of maintaining political dialogue and economic ties with Russia. Upcoming elections in key European countries and the United States leave hope that transatlantic solidarity will cease to be an axiom and Europe will finally regain its own voice.
Third, Russia cannot afford friction and misunderstandings with its closest neighbors and allies—namely, China, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. It is not a question of interstate relations, but the necessity to deepen mutual understanding between elites, be they business, military or youth.
Lastly, Russia’s priorities for 2016 include the strategic goal of stabilizing greater Eurasia as a guarantee of Russia’s survival and prosperity. Cooperation with China, India, Iran, SCO partners and ASEAN countries will help create a system of collective security, build a pan-Asian transport and energy infrastructure and ensure the formation of the rapidly growing $4 billion Eurasian market, which is of critical importance to Russia.
Andrey Bezrukov is a strategy advisor at Rosneft and Associate Professor at MGIMO University (Moscow).
Mikhail Mamonov is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy Analysis Group and advisor with the Russia-China Investment Fund.
Sergey Markedonov is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy Analysis Group and Associate Professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities.
Andrey Sushentsov is an Associate Professor at MGIMO University (Moscow), program director at the Valdai Club and director at the Foreign Policy Analysis Group.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/kremlin.ru.