Russia and the Age of Asia: Realizing the Benefits and Finding Identity

12.09.2018

On Tuesday, September 11, 2018, within the framework of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, the Valdai Discussion Club held a session, titled “New Geopolitics and Political Economy of Asia: Opportunities for Russia.” Experts and diplomats from Russia, China, India, Mongolia and South Korea presented their visions of the challenges facing Asia, which transformation from an object into a subject of the world politics is the most important feature of the changing world order.

In some ways their observations turned out to be surprisingly similar, which gives hope for the success of Russia's efforts to greater integration into the Asian political, economic and mental space, expressed in its project of pivot to the East.

A notable feature of the discussion was the perception of Russia as a full-fledged player in the Asian political field. This is to some extent a challenge to the centuries-old Russian intellectual tradition of identity disputes, but also the result of processes that happened in recent years. Samir Saran, president of the Indian Observer Research Foundation, said that the very opposition of Europe against Asia is brought from the Atlantist perspective of the world order understanding. Russian participants in their turn repeatedly pointed out, that Russia in its turn to the East recognizes and accepts the Asian part of its identity, which does not contradict to the European identity, but complements it.

According to Fyodor Lukyanov, research director of the Valdai Discussion Club, all this happens at a very historic moment for Russia. On the one hand, the center of world economic and political influence is increasingly shifting towards Asia: being part of it today is in some sense prestigious. On the other hand, the dynamics of Russia's relations with the West demonstrated their limitations: full integration with the West can occur only on its terms, and in fact this would mean a renunciation of sovereignty. This brings the debate about identity to the background: it is worth taking advantage of the historical chance to realize Russia’s own potential, primarily economic, through strengthening ties with Asia, and not to "argue" about those disputes, when Europe and Asia were completely different.

The views of Russia and key Asian players on the world order largely coincide. The key word here is multilateralism, the policy when interests of many parties are taken into account. Properly multilateralism, according to the participants in the discussion, will characterize the "century of Asia". Although one cannot say, that thinking in the paradigm of multilateralism is something natural for the Asian countries. According to professor Xiang Lanxin, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Director, Center of One Belt, One Road and Eurasian Security, China National Institute for SCO Studies, China historically was inclined to conduct a policy of unilateralism - and this was more large-scale than in case of the modern USA. But experience showed that multilateralism is much more profitable in the long term, and today the understanding of the multilateral paradigm is necessary for young Chinese diplomats, the expert said.

According to the participants of the session, the perception that there cannot be the domination of one single power in Asia (Pax Sinica or Pax Indica, as Kim Jin Hyun, Chairman of the World Peace Forum said) is the key to the successful development of relations between the powers. In recent years there have been significant changes. Perhaps the most important is the establishment of a strong partnership between Russia and China. Xiang Lanxin said, that for the first time these relations have a solid base and contrary to the opinion of many in the West they are not a "marriage of convenience ", but a long-term strategic partnership. The nature of relations between other leading countries of the region is changing - the contradictions between China and India are smoothing, and the admission of India and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization helps to establish a dialogue between the two nuclear powers.

The speech of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia Damdin Tsogtbaatar attracted particular attention of the audience. In a brilliant Russian language (minister is MGIMO graduate), he outlined the foreign policy vision of his country. Mongolia, like no other country, feels the changing role of Asia in the world. If in the 1990s its investment attractiveness was considered low due to its remoteness from the main world markets, from the beginning of the 2000s the situation changed. With the transformation of China into the world's largest economy, "the world market itself came to Mongolia" and in recent years the country took the leading place in Asia in terms of growth. An important role plays the fact that Mongolia is a transit country, and the increase in trade between Russia and China (it should soon reach $ 200 billion) gives it direct economic benefits.

"In the Asian view of the world, the economy is more important than we are used to," Fyodor Lukyanov said, summarizing the speeches of participants from Asian countries.

According to Samir Saran, the rise of Asia will differ from the rise of Europe, because the priority is not the policy of force, but the economic development. The most important goal - and this is recognized by the Asian elite - is to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, which emphasizes the humanitarian aspect of this process.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia formulated the road to economic success very clearly: "to begin working at eight o’clock, to work honestly up to six o’clock - and so in thirty years".

Fyodor Lukyanov noted, that such thinking once again points to the anachronism of disputes about the civilizational choice between conditional Europe and conditional Asia. Nothing prevents the Protestant ethic, which, according to Max Weber, is the basis of the capitalism spirit, to be the guiding principle for such an archetypical Asian society as the Mongolian one. This is also a lesson for Russia, which is gradually realizing the advantages of its status as the Eurasian power.

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