Asia-Pacific Region or Greater Eurasia?

Since the emergence of New Russia, its leaders have declared an intention to implement two integration projects, Eurasian and Asian-Pacific. The former has evolved from the CIS to the Customs Union, the Eurasian Economic Union, and now finally, energized by China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, the Greater Eurasian Partnership idea. This is now the focus of the country’s leadership. Vladimir Putin kept returning to it at various political forums throughout 2016 and reiterated the importance of forming a “multilevel integration model in Eurasia – a greater Eurasian partnership” in his Address to the Federal Assembly on December 1.

But what about “Russia’s integration in the APR?” It made infrequent appearances in the president’s speeches this year. The same December 1 Address mentioned “Russia’s huge potential for cooperation with the Asia-Pacific Region” only in passing and, as I see it, by force of habit, because obviously it remains to be seen how Siberia and the Russian Far East can be incorporated into the Greater Eurasia project. This might be logical because the Greater Eurasian Partnership is the bird in Moscow’s hand that is quite tangible, whereas “integration in the APR” is not even two birds in the bush but rather the sound of them chirping in someone else’s trees. The idea of a Greater Eurasia community seems very attractive to Russia, primarily because Eurasia, unlike the APR, is its historical space.

Unlike Russia’s Eurasian project, its Asia-Pacific plan, for quite objective reasons, has always been largely speculative. The APR construct itself is a Cold War tool created by US political scientists for greater convenience in structuring relations with Pacific neighbors and adjusted to US views and interests. Each Asian or Pacific state that joins the APR on its own free will or is included by fiat has its own vision of this construct, shaped by geography, history, government and business interests, as well as academic fantasies. Moreover, the United States and many Asian countries always looked at Russia through global Euro-Atlantic, rather than local Asian-Pacific, lenses. The Soviet Union, too, was less interested in drawing closer to the region than insulating itself from the region.

Nevertheless, the Russian political and academic elite has sought, for almost three decades, to integrate Russia into the APR in response to the center of political and economic activities shifting to Pacific Asia and in a bid not to fall behind other global players. They hoped that the magic word “integration” would help to develop the Russian Far East, lure investments and technologies from rich and advanced countries, and open Asian markets to natural resources. The latter did work, but not owing to some mythical integration. As demonstrated by the experience of the last few years, it was practically impossible for Russia to join this world or to ensure that its interests are recognized and respected there.

The multiplicity of views on what is known in the world as the APR and the manifold meanings of “integration” contributed to the vagueness of Russia’s own understanding of what its “APR integration policy” was all about. Its 2013 Foreign Policy Concept said only that Russia was “interested” in “active involvement in integration processes” in that region and reserved for itself the odd role of a “key transit area securing trade and economic ties between Europe and the APR.” Since the current integration processes in the region are mostly chaotic, contradictory and largely ineffective, there was more form than substance to Russian integration, being limited to economic and political cooperation with several key Asian partners (China, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) and expanded involvement in regional organizations (APEC, EAS, and others).

In recent years, “integration in the APR” has been closely linked to or even identified with Russia’s “turn” or even “lunge” to the East. The term “turn to the East” doesn’t seem apt. Nor is the current “turn” dependent on the US “rebalancing” towards the Pacific or the European policy of sanctions.

Russia’s turn to the East occurred in the 17th century, when Russian explorers joined Siberia to European Russia and were prospecting in the Amur basin and on the Pacific coast. In the mid-19th century, Russia took over the Amur area and the Primorye (Maritime) Territory and emerged as a Pacific power. However, during most of the 20th century, Russia and the USSR, for a number of reasons, were compelled to put greater emphasis on defending its eastern borders than on raising its economic profile in the Pacific.

Russia returned to the region politically at the turn of the 1990s, when it normalized relations with China and South Korea. During the next two decades, relations with the People’s Republic of China were the “best in history” and visa-free travel was introduced with South Korea. There was an economic spurt between 2007 and 2012, when a number of major economic projects were implemented in the east. It was not “integration in the APR” but government policies that gave a boost, however faint, to regional development.

One of the main aims of “integration in the APR” was to bolster Russia’s great power status. This worked but only in part. Its main partners in Asia – China and India – had never denied this status to Russia. Its acceptance as such was restored thanks to its proactive and independent moves in another part of the world, the Middle East.

Since the Gorbachev period, Moscow has linked “integration in the APR” with developing its eastern regions. By and large, however, this linkage failed. The Greater Eurasia idea now dwarfs the central government’s interest in the Far Eastern development project. Developing Pacific Russia has not been removed from the agenda, of course, but it is no longer a priority. The danger of losing the region, which in 2007 forced the government to launch a number of successful major projects (the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline, Kozmino, the Vostochny space center, the APEC forum) is believed to have receded. The president has declared the Far Eastern development effort a Russian priority for the whole of the 21st century and so there is ample time to get things done.

Some hope remains for “Russia’s huge potential for cooperation with the APR” as a source of its development. There is still interest in joining this process on the part of many Pacific Asian states from Japan to Singapore, which has been whetted by the natural wealth of Siberia and development prospects in the Arctic, including opportunities offered by the use of the Northern Sea Route. The problem is that this interest is still cautious and abstract. Moreover, it is steeped in the 20th-century industrial paradigm focused on extracting the natural resources of the region. But Pacific Russia’s main wealth and resources are not its mineral riches but its clean land, water and air that increasingly attract residents of stuffy Shanghai and dusty Beijing, businessmen from Tokyo and Seoul, and bankers from Hong Kong and Singapore. And the price of this resource grows with each passing year.

I am confident that 20 or 30 years from now Russia will revive the idea of Asia-Pacific integration, albeit on a new basis and with new approaches. The country’s eastern regions will become the core of this integration, with China again serving as a catalyst. By that time, China will have attained its second strategic objective – building a “modern, strong, prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious socialist state” – and the political and economic lineup in the region will be totally different from what it is now.

For now, however, bilateral relations are a more understandable and convenient format for Russia in East Asia. Multilateral efforts are unlikely in the foreseeable future, given the profound ethno-cultural differences and lingering historical antagonisms, which today are determining the substance of relations in this region, not to mention the diverse Asia-Pacific Region. Russia’s main bilateral cooperation partners in eastern Eurasia have been clearly identified: China, India, and Japan. Cooperation with the United States, as before, is primarily about the global and European agendas, whose Pacific component is very weak. Russia is not involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Washington’s main integration project.

Russian priorities in the east are obvious and clearly hinge on the need to secure national interests, including continued mutually beneficial business relations with neighbors, primarily with China (not so much in the economic as in the political and security areas); new projects capable of drawing foreign and Russian investment into the opening up of Siberia and Pacific Russia; and maximal involvement in efforts to reduce political tensions in the Northern Pacific zone and to avert threats to Russia’s security.

But I wouldn’t discard the “Russia’s integration” idea entirely. Closer and more interdependent economies in neighboring border regions of Russia and China is also integration. This kind of integration is already well underway and greatly influences life and economic development trends in these areas. Although it is not part of “high integration” and even frightens some people by reviving the “Chinese threat” syndrome and the “Chinese expansion” scare of the 1990s, there is still plenty of potential for both Russia and China to tap.

Russia, as a global power, does not need to be integrated. It is an integrator in its own right. Time will show whether this works in the Greater Eurasia format. Competing for leadership with China will not be easy.

Viktor Larin is Director, Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East, Russian Academy of Sciences, Far East Branch; Associate Member, RAS; expert, Valdai Discussion Club

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.