The past year and a half may represent a turning point in relations between Russia and Asia. For Moscow, strengthening relations with regional powers and their economies has become not so much a choice as a necessity. The desire of the West to inflict economic and military defeat on Russia has led to a rapid rupture of many ties between it and European states, the curtailment of investment, and a serious slowdown in international trade, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
Vladivostok is about to host the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), a crucial public event and the hallmark of “Russia’s pivot to the East”. This ambitious policy was proclaimed by Moscow a little over 10 years ago, when in one of his addresses, the Russian president proclaimed the development of the country’s Far East and its integration with the world market as a national priority for the 21st century. Since 2015, the forum itself has been gathering Russian and foreign politicians, as well as leaders of business, science, education and civil society. Several times it was attended by the leaders of the largest Asian states — Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and patriarch of the Asian policy Mahathir Mohamad from Malaysia. In other words, both Russia and its key regional partners have always taken a serious attitude in their approach to Moscow’s big plans to integrate the Russian economy with the colossal and diverse political and economic system of Asia.
We must say that for Russia itself, the development of ties with Asian countries and presence in this region has never been a priority or a desirable task. This is due to several reasons, each of which is serious enough to move the east to the second or third place in the list of national foreign policy priorities. First, 500 years ago, Moscow solved the most important of the tasks of that time — liberation from the threat from the steppe nomads in the East; since then this area has never been threatening in terms of security. Russian power rolled to the East “like a stream that holds nothing back,” gradually occupying with its waves of resettlement and administration all new spaces to the east of the Urals.
Here it almost never encountered obstacles or opponents that could threaten its existence. Even the clash with Japan in the early 20th century, which was perceived as a serious and offensive slap to our imperial vanity, was for Russia nothing more than a colonial conflict that could not pose a threat to the territorial integrity of the state. The only period when the threat from Asia was tangible was during a few decades of the 20th century. At first, Japan was a challenge; during its imperial heyday, it threatened Russian possessions in the Far East and even controlled them several times.
This threat has disappeared since the defeat of Japan in World War II. The participation of the USSR in the defeat of Tokyo in August 1945 completely solved the Japanese problem, and now its return has even less than hypothetical probability. In any case, the danger may come not from Japan, but from the United States that controls it. By the way, Russia borders on this country in Asia; however, due to the remoteness of Alaska itself from the contiguous United States, there are no big security problems there, either.
The second time Russia experienced a threat from the East was within a short period, from the mid-1960s until the late 1980s, when China’s growing ambitions came into conflict with Soviet dominance in the world socialist camp. Then the threat from Asia was clear and even forced the feeble, slow-moving Soviet regime to make special efforts to strengthen its eastern borders in case of a big war with Beijing. However, after relations between the two great powers of Eurasia were restored, and became informally allied in recent decades, Asia has finally lost its relevance in terms of security.
Second, in the economic sphere, Russia has always been closely connected with Europe and the West as a whole. There, geography itself contributed to the strengthening of cooperation and trade, so much that even the consistent hostility towards the Russians on the part of the Europeans themselves could not break it. Russia and Europe fought several times, with military forces coming from the West to destroy the Russian state and nation. But even the well-known tragic events were not enough to discourage Russia’s taste for economic, technological and cultural partnership with Europe. In this sense, Europe is the opposite of Asia in the Russian system of external relations: it has always been a threat, but it was easiest to develop close relations during periods following the cessation of bloody wars.
Finally, the regions of Russia itself facing Asia have never been populated or important enough in the economic system of the country. Due to climatic and topographic factors, the eastern edge of Russia has always looked like the tip of a blade, narrowing and losing its special connection with its hilt in the central regions of the European part of the country. A narrow strip of territory suitable for habitation for large masses of the population runs along the Trans-Siberian Railway and ends in one large city — Vladivostok. While, for example, in the United States, the favourable climate of the West Coast allows it to “hold on” to the shores of the Pacific Ocean at once via several large urban centres. All these factors made attention to the eastern direction rather secondary for the Russian state. Only extraordinary political will and the most fundamental changes in Russia’s position in world affairs could reverse such objective contraindications.
The development of ties with Asia is complicated by the fact that, from a geopolitical point of view, Russia is seriously separated from the bulk of Asian states. It is separated from Asia to the south by the vast Islamic belt of Central Asia and Afghanistan, to the southeast by gigantic China, and to the northeast by traditionally hostile Japan.
Thus, the development of ties between Russia and the rest of Asia requires the creation of special logistical capabilities.
Asia itself, until the last 40-50 years, did not represent a significant part of the international system, most of the states located there solved their basic development problems and were focused on integration with the US-led liberal world order. In turn, Washington, as a vigilant hegemon, never contributed to the establishment of horizontal ties between countries which it considered important for its own national interests. Russia was given the role of another gas station in the world order, but it was supposed to serve only Western consumers.
The past year and a half, in fact, may represent a turning point in relations between Russia and Asia. First of all, strengthening relations with regional powers and their economies has become for Moscow itself not so much a choice as a necessity. The desire of the West to inflict economic and military defeat on Russia has led to a rapid rupture of many ties between it and European states, the curtailment of investment, and a serious slowdown in international trade.
Under these conditions, Russia really needs to develop ties with Asia, where only one state — Japan — occupies positions similar to the United States and its NATO allies. In 2022-2023, the scale of trade and economic relations between Russia and Asian countries has increased significantly, and Vladivostok has become one of the main “gates” of Russian goods to world markets.
Moreover, in the context of growing global turbulence, the Asian countries themselves are interested in actively trading with Russia and gradually moving to settlements in national currencies. Asia is still a difficult and often not well-known partner for Moscow, but now, for the first time in Russian history, objective conditions have arisen which compel us to turn to the East.