The most fundamental question faced by Russia in its new policy toward Asia is how deeply it will need to become involved in international relations within the region. The choices are quite limited, at least so far. Russia can either stick with its policy of supporting “all things good” and opposing division in the region, or it will have to take sides in Southeast Asia’s increasingly confusing military and political landscape. This, in turn, will inevitably affect Russia’s reputation and limit its options for integrating into the regional economy, writes Timofei Bordachev, Program Director at Valdai Discussion Club and moderator of the second session of the Vietnam – Russia Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club titled International Cooperation in a Troubled World.
The most fundamental question faced by Russia in its new policy toward Asia is how deeply it will need to become involved in international relations within the region. The choices are quite limited, at least so far. Russia can either stick with its policy of supporting “all things good” and opposing division in the region, or it will have to take sides in Southeast Asia’s increasingly confusing military and political landscape. This, in turn, will inevitably affect Russia’s reputation and limit its options for integrating into the regional economy. Consequently, the best strategy would be to step up dialogue with middle powers, among which Vietnam plays a prominent role.
This approach would be particularly relevant in terms of Moscow’s relations with countries of Southeast Asia and China. After all, China has already been drawn into regional affairs by objective factors, towering over middle powers and small countries of the region with its population of almost 1.5 billion and the world’s second largest economy. China is countered in its ambitions by the US. This is the essence of the strategic standoff between the US and China since it is driven by objective reasons. As consumption grows in China, it will soon need as many resources as only the US and a group of its closest allies can currently afford.
In fact, middle powers and small countries in Southeast Asia are the ones most interested in seeing Russia refrain from choosing to side with any of the opposing super powers. Moreover, even those Southeast Asian countries that have been traditionally closer to the West oppose how the US is strengthening its regional positions unchecked, and want to avoid greater dependence. Rich and prosperous Europe is a telling example of where this dependence can lead. In fact, Europe’s strategic carelessness and the ensuing missteps have cost it its independence on the international stage. This happened despite the fact that France, a key continental power, has nuclear weapons, which is not the case for any of the countries in Southeast Asia.
At the current stage, Russia has opted for building its relations with Southeast Asian nations using a new foundation that is unlike anything seen before. Moscow undoubtedly retains its vast political influence and authority. However, since decolonization and up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow viewed the region primarily as one of the arenas for its standoff with the US, but now the situation has changed. By the way, this former approach has been replicated by the US, which now views Southeast Asia as one of the key areas in terms of countering China’s power. Looking from Beijing’s perspective the situation becomes more nuanced. For China, Southeast Asia is an area where US attempts to encircle it must be contained, as well as a space for development and economic expansion.
Things look different for Russia. Moscow’s main objectives include promoting economic cooperation and integrating the Far East into the Asian economy. This means that countries of Southeast Asia have intrinsic value for Russia regardless of their relations with Beijing and Washington. This is quite a unique situation in terms of Russia’s foreign relations, since even Europe has almost never been a truly independent partner over the recent past, notwithstanding its closer historical and civilizational ties with Russia. The Europeans have always had the US’s backing, and except for a few limited cases, relations with Europe were just one of the elements of Russia’s strategic relations with the US. Taking into consideration the nuclear factor, it has to be recognized that it was not the key element in these relations by far. The same applies to Iran and other countries in the Middle East. It can be argued that only India has retained its intrinsic value in Russia’s policy as a partner rather than an opponent.
Consequently, there are several factors currently setting the tone in Russia’s relations with countries of Southeast Asia. First, they have a unique role in Russia’s foreign policy, which should probably be maintained, and objective prerequisites are in place to make this happen. These include the fact that stepping up cooperation with these countries is expected to facilitate the development of Russia’s Far East, which is one of the key national development goals.
Second, come what may, the region will increasingly transform into a stage of system-wide clashes between the US and China. This of course is a challenge for Russia’s foreign policy, but also an opportunity. In the current international environment, the best strategy for Russia would be to proactively promote cooperation with regional countries bilaterally and within the existing multilateral structures, instead of waiting to be faced with having to side with China, which will do nothing to improve relations with most countries in Southeast Asia. It is especially important to build an exclusive relationship with Southeast Asia without including into this framework other competing powers that inevitably regard this region as the arena of their struggle.
Third, in view of the latest international developments we need to reconsider the opportunities offered by existing regional organizations and the prospects for working with them. This is primarily about ASEAN. This association has become one of the world’s top success stories in terms of promoting inclusive development. There are reasons to believe, however, that despite all the achievements ASEAN has reached, there is a certain limit in terms of the ability of its member countries to come up with shared responses to foreign policy challenges. This is a problem for ASEAN, for Asia, as well as for Russia. This block could serve as Moscow’s partner in its relations with the countries of Southeast Asia.
As for bilateral relations, efforts to promote business and expert dialogue could breathe new life into multiple intergovernmental commissions. This is an important element of the Valdai Club’s activities. It will host the Vietnam – Russia Conference in Ho Chi Minh City in the next few days, and in November 2018 held the Russia-Asia expert dialogue in Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia. Both events were designed to promote trust-based professional dialogue, filling the niche that was left vacant after Russia’s withdrawal from Asia in the early 1990s. It may be that Russia and regional countries need a permanent Russia-ASEAN format promoting ties at the expert level.
This does not mean however that countries of Southeast Asia should not cooperate or become closer to a format that is bigger and more inclusive. This relates primarily to the Greater Eurasian Partnership, regardless of its future iterations, as well as the SCO, where Russia plays a prominent role. These formats will provide better insight into the various interests and the way they can be coordinated. They also have the potential of binding powerful players such as China, Russia and India into an international cooperation network that would restrain their arbitrary impulses.
Russia’s return to Asia is an important and long-term project that is closely linked to its own development. The key word in the “Russia’s turn to the East” formula is Russia. Instead of depreciating the importance of middle powers and small states as regional partners for Moscow this enhances their importance. This understanding, accompanied by the corresponding practical steps, could make Russia’s return to Asia a positive and most importantly an irreversible process.