Major changes in international political paradigms are forcing Russia to join the economic development processes in the Asia-Pacific region.
The increased tensions between countries, and the weakness of regional institutions as guarantors of safety in the region, require an active and relatively neutral arbitrator. Photo: Reuters
Russia’s economic presence in the Asia-Pacific region for a long time has been limited by a number of external and internal factors, such as the presence of U.S. influence in the region, relatively weak level of infrastructural development in Russia’s eastern territories, and Russia’s limited export potential to the countries in the region.
Russia’s lack of concrete strategy towards the region limited Moscow’s actions, and left it to be regarded, at least by experts, as China’s younger brother and as nothing more than an exporter of raw materials.
The Euro-centric outlook of many in Russia’s political circles also hindered progress. Siberia and the Far East were viewed as secondary to cooperation with Europe. The elites did not wish to see that the socio-economic rise of Asia made land beyond the Urals much more relevant in world politics.
Nevertheless, in the near future, Russia has the ability to strengthen multifaceted dialogue with main partners in the region. The increased tensions between countries, and the weakness of regional institutions as guarantors of safety in the region, require an active and relatively neutral arbitrator.
The most prominent examples of competition include the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is promoted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China along with the involvement of India.
However, the direct participation of Russia in these projects is unlikely for a number of reasons.
The success of TPP is not in Russia’s interest. Instead, Russia is focused on the development of Siberia and the Far East. The aim of the TPP is to reformulate trade relations in the Asia-Pacific region under U.S. patronage. This will not lead to strengthening Moscow’s position as an independent actor.
Besides, under the current political climate, any productive multifaceted dialogue that involves Moscow and Washington is unlikely. Under these circumstances, a scenario under which Russia would be involved in talks about participating in the TPP is simply out of the question.
The likelihood of Russia joining the RCEP is also very small. This has to do with the lack of agreement within the project currently, as well as with the fact that Russia does not have a free trade agreement with ASEAN, which is essential for participation in the project.
Considering these challenges, it is more advantageous for Russia to push forward its own initiatives and form a vision of an economic partnership that will meet its national interests. These processes have already begun, which seem to add a sense of optimism to Russia’s “turn to the East.”
So, for the second year in a row, May became a breakthrough month for Moscow’s activity in the Asia-Pacific region. Following the 2015 announcement of cooperation in integrating the two projects of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Silk Road Economic Belt, Russia’s political elite was able to strengthen relations with partners in Southeast Asia.
The recent Russia-ASEAN summit, which was held in Sochi in May 2016, marked the emergence of a strategic partnership between sides that resulted in the cooperation agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and ASEAN.
What is more, another important event was the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to China in June 2016. The joint statement issued as a result of the talks indicates that both China and Russia are willing to work on a completely new joint integration initiative — an all-encompassing Eurasian partnership that would include not only the Eurasian Economic Union and China, but also the countries of ASEAN.
It is also possible that in the future a process of integrating RCEP, EEU and the all-encompassing Eurasian partnership might begin. In this case, the SCO might become an institutional platform for such a project.
The promotion of these flagship initiatives is a symbol of Russia’s turn to the East. It sets the stage for a greater Eurasia with new economic and geo-strategic goals, in which Russia, along with China, India and Iran must play a leading role. This format is universal and serves the interests of all major parties.
The positioning of the SCO as the leader of this “new” Eurasian integration project automatically positions the initiative on a global stage. It consolidates the non-Western world and gives incentive for strengthening the economic cooperation within the organization.
This model would enable India to incorporate the basic elements of the its program “Act East” into the strategy of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which would allow for wider relations with other Asian nations.
At the same time, the joint membership of India and China and their participation in consolidating Eurasia can lead to prospective solutions to previously unresolved issues. In this situation, Russia as another member can act as a mediator between New Delhi and Beijing, using its leverage within the Russia-India-China triangle to increase trust between the nations.
Iran’s release from sanctions will soon enable it to return to international diplomacy, and once again act as a large economic power. It will soon be enabled to conduct dialogue with other major non-Western nations, first and foremost, with Russia and China.
Finally, for Russia, the major challenge in establishing relations with its Asian partners is further development of Siberia and the Far East. It must turn these “far away territories” into the core of these development processes. In such a situation, the territories of advanced development must become Russia’s window to the Asia-Pacific region. This would allow for the development not only of Russia’s export sector, but also diversification and growth in the technological sector, and an improvement to the national economy. The realization of this goal is possible only after continuous dialogue with Asian partners and the understanding of the needs of the Asian markets.
It is vital to note that Russia has every intention to become a true Asia-Pacific nation, it seeks to reevaluate past approaches and its current resources. Practically, it means not becoming a part of economic initiatives, where it would have a weak position. Instead, it means proposing a new consolidating framework to its Asian partners.
How integrated Russia will be into the Asia-Pacific economic region will depend on how productive Russia’s dialogue is with the main decision-makers.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.