Russia wants to remain a major power in the modern world. This implies the ability to be a source of important regional initiatives and projects rather than remain focused on the existing projects. Russia does not have hostile relations with any country in Asia. Russia’s partners in Asia should not doubt the seriousness of its intentions and its resolve to implement them.
Observers in Russia and beyond have mixed feelings as they watch its activity at major regional organizations, an activity that has increased manifold over the recent years. Asia, where Russia was traditionally regarded as European periphery, is particularly ill at ease. We should admit, however, that many Russians are coveting this status as well. Therefore, Russia’s “pivot to Asia,” despite all its achievements in recent years, is still evoking questions, some of them conceptual. Russia’s friends in Asia and beyond have every right to ask these questions, particularly those in Asia, where Russia does not have hostile relations with any country.
Regional partners are occasionally unaware of the full extent of Russia’s aims and principles underlying its policies in Asia and Eurasia. This misunderstanding is thus far the most important obstacle to Russia and its goods and services gaining a foothold on the regional markets. Hostile myths and the bad experience of 20 years ago are seen as an obstacle to investment cooperation in the Russian Far East. Even leading thinkers and politicians in the region are occasionally at a loss as to what Russia wants in Asia and why it has been pushing its large-scale initiatives. Therefore, it seems to be high time we told our friends in Asia and Eurasia that the key word in “Russia’s pivot to the East” is Russia.
This policy is about development. Russia wants to remain a major power in the modern world, which necessarily and inevitably compels it to be an active force in world politics and economy. This implies the ability to be a source of important regional initiatives and projects rather than remain focused on the existing projects. But this does not rule out its active cooperation with the latter, which may take the form of various trade agreements or presence at political, diplomatic and expert venues.
All of this is expected to lead to greater Russian integration in regional ties and diversification of its trade, economic, and political relations. In this context, promoting economic cooperation with Japan or the Republic of Korea is no less important than strengthening the existing partnership with China. It should be recalled at this point that China and the Chinese leaders played an exceptionally important role in the difficult period from 2014 to 2016 by making it easier for Russia to uphold its interests. With this paradigm still in existence, Russia will never be able to take decisions interfering with the Chinese interests.
It is these ideals – an active force, diversification and integration – that, to my mind, can be seen as the goals of the Russian pivot to Asia and Eurasia.
But what is even more important for such a vast country as Russia is to feel an “integral personality.” This self-perception comes to it naturally in the military-political area. I think other countries do not doubt this either. But it takes additional efforts (such as the “pivot to the East” or the Greater Eurasian Partnership initiative) to reach a similar state in the non-military area for a country whose share of the world GDP does not exceed 4 percent. Potentially these initiatives are of much importance and can help Russia and Russians realize their place in the world. The Chinese equivalent is the One Belt, One Road initiative President Xi Jinping unveiled in 2013. Great countries need great ideas.
And now let us look at the history of Russia’s “pivot to the East.” Officially, this policy was announced on December 12, 2012, as part of the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. But actually the pivot got under way several years earlier, propelled by the awareness of three crucial factors. First, there is no alternative to the opening of Siberia and the Russian Far East to the world and regional economy. But this opening should not be exclusively based on raw materials, even though using local resources is also of importance for integration in the regional economy. (Notice the Australian example.) But the Russian Far East needs jobs, territorial development and local taxpayers. Russia knows that with a population of 6.2 million this region cannot be regarded as an independent market. It needs access to foreign markets.
Second, in the latter half of the 2000s, it became obvious that there were new opportunities for Russian exports in Asia, where growing consumption was pushing up the demand. Therefore, the agricultural sector was always seen as crucial in the context of the “pivot to the East.” Having Asian partners remove non-tariff barriers to agricultural products should become – and has become – an important objective for the negotiators.
Third, it became clear that it was abnormal for a country like Russia to have almost 53 percent of its foreign trade with just one partner, the EU. Currently its share does not exceed 46.5 percent, with the rest redistributed in favor of Asian economies. A few years ago, we could not even believe that this was possible. To be sure, the pivot yields the most palpable results in relations with major players. For example, Russia-China trade grew 34 percent in January 2017 by comparison with the same period in 2016.
The above three factors are of importance for Russia’s domestic development. Moreover, Russia has much to offer to its regional partners. The tiny Singapore could offer the world its unique geographic location and economic openness. The great China had huge and still has almost inexhaustible reserves of workforce. Russia has a small population. But it has unique acumen and resources such as land riches, water, energy production, transport, culture, science and certain technologies. But to use all this correctly, it has to be in harmony with its own self, which means knowing its place in the world. Moreover, this knowledge should not be in conflict with its great history, culture and international political status. Russia’s “pivot to the East” is about diversifying foreign economic ties and moving into the regional and global markets. The great Eurasian project is primarily promoting Russia’s new self-vision in the world.
Russia came up with its Greater Eurasian Partnership initiative in the summer of 2016. Thanks to this idea, Russia can position itself both within and without as a leader and integrator. The Eurasian Economic Union project, too, persists as a crucial resource for foreign and foreign economic policies of its participants. And it makes no difference how much time and collective effort it will take to implement both initiatives. Moreover, the existence of large-scale political initiatives is in no way at variance with economic diplomacy and its daily progress. Nor can it hamper or draw out the drafting of specific agreements between Russia and the EAEU countries, on the one hand, and their Asian partners, on the other. These are two different stories.
Making new preferential and non-preferential trade agreements with Asian partners is an important and necessary job. Judging by all appearances, these will be consistently drafted and implemented. For this, Moscow and its EAEU allies have excellent administrative capabilities, outstanding experts and a political will. Strategic ideas are what propels a nation forward. It is only those who don’t see Russia as an independent player that fear to put forward large-scale initiatives. At the same time, Russia’s partners in Asia should not doubt the seriousness of its intentions and its resolve to implement them.