Asia and Eurasia
Russia’s Turn to the East: Between Choice and Necessity

The coming era will require states to have a much greater degree of de facto sovereignty and, in a sense, a capacity for limited autarky. Therefore, for all the importance of ties outside the West, Russia cannot simply reorient itself from one direction to another while maintaining its historically-formed strategy of dependence on external sources of development, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.

Given Russia’s geopolitical position, it is naturally difficult to determine the geographical priorities of its external relations. Moreover, Russia’s colossal natural wealth and unique ability to fully provide itself with all the necessary resources, in principle deprive it of the need to consider external relations as an important part of its own development strategy.

There is no doubt that all of Moscow’s foreign policy declarations over the past 20 years contain a ritual indication that that the purpose of foreign policy is to ensure the economic development of the country. However, experience, real results and, most importantly, the foundations of Russian statehood lead one to regard the sincerity of these assurances with a very significant degree of doubt. In fact, Russia, like its main geostrategic adversary the United States, is one of only two countries in the world that can live entirely on domestic resources.

Amid such conditions, Moscow (despite assurances of the importance of foreign economic relations), determines the true priorities of its foreign policy not on what opportunities the external environment can give it, but on the danger this environment can pose for its ability to independently manage already available internal resources. The result is a foreign policy focused primarily on repelling threats and only secondarily on exploiting opportunities. We must admit that over the past few years, many of Russia’s foreign policy initiatives have faced precisely this insurmountable problem, among which the “turn to the East” strategy, formulated 10 years ago in the works of domestic researchers and statements at the highest level, is in first place.

From the start, the purely materialistic nature of the “turn” ideology clashed with the traditions of Russian foreign policy, and, more importantly, with the same system of setting priorities. Attempts to convince of the need to intensify relations with Asian countries on the basis of arguments that this would bring significant material benefits, and that you just need to try, ran into a completely objective obstacle. There was no need to try in dealing with the West; material benefits came by themselves, relying on 300 years of relations with the largest European partners. As a result, by 2019, about 80 percent of investments in the Far East were of domestic origin.

It is possible that precisely because of its limited economy, the “turn to the East” strategy in its concrete expression did not go beyond the establishment of really strong ties with China, together with which Russia has now begun to solve the really important problems of the international order. In all other respects, the “turn to the East” remained a rhetorically important but poorly implemented sphere of activity for the Russian state. At the same time, over the past 10 years, Russia has really significantly expanded its presence in various Asian international formats, increased its level of participation in various interstate forums and, in fact, begun to think more about the East, to understand its place in the system of its own foreign policy.

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Feng Shaolei
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In turn, it is also difficult to consider ties with China as an exclusively product of the intensification of interactions with Asian countries over the past 10 years. Relations between Moscow and Beijing are of a strategic nature, they are united by a common vision of a just international order, in which there will be no place for the dominance of a narrow group of states. Russia and China are jointly responsible for the stability of a huge part of Eurasia.

Bilateral trade and economic relations are developing with the understanding that at some point Russia and China will indeed have to complement each other; as Chinese authors put it, “stand back to back” and jointly resist the attempts of the United States and its allies to regain control over the world economy and politics. Thus, in the vast and complex relations between Russia and China, it is actually difficult to find signs of a shared policy regarding the East; they would have developed quite dynamically even without it.

Recognising that it is precisely this interpretation of the nature, content and results of Russia’s “turn to the East” that is closest to reality, we cannot, however, ignore the potential impact on Russian politics amid the on-going military and political conflict in Europe.

Moreover, since its first weeks, most observers have agreed that a virtual break with the West will inevitably lead to increased ties between Russia and non-Western states, among which the most important are Asian countries in terms of economics and development. Against the backdrop the large-scale economic war that the entirety of the Western world launched against Moscow in 2022, it is Asia that looks to us as the most important buyer of traditional Russian exports, a source of technological products and a high-priority trade and economic partner in general. Many have even said that the development of ties with China and Asia should “replace” for Russia so-called traditional partnerships in the West.

In other words, the conflict, which is in fact a hybrid war, between Russia and the US and Europe, can be seen as a condition that will make the “turn to the East” no longer an option, but a necessity, and thus force the Russian state to take it seriously. This is, in fact, a rather new situation and subject for discussion for Russia, since it has never before in its history had to address the issue of the dependence of internal stability on interaction with various external partners. To what extent this is true, we have yet to figure out. But even now, one can make several assumptions that are directly related to what place relations with Asia will occupy for Russia in the coming years.

First, relations with China and, especially, other Asian states are still no way to resolve problems of an existential nature. Even taking into account the fact that cooperation with partners outside Europe in the energy sector will become an important factor in the sustainability of revenues to the Russian budget in the future, trade and economic relations in the East, in the face of attempts at a partial blockade by the West, solve the problem of maintaining the Russian presence in the world economy, despite the United States and its allies attempting to erase it from this global system of connections. Moreover, countries such as Japan and South Korea will be much less subject to pressure from the United States on the issue of trade with Russia. In the context of the growing confrontation with China, Washington does not benefit from the weakening of its Asian allies or their too-strong dependence on American assistance.

Second, Russia will have to solve the key tasks of national development on its own, without relying on external sources of technology, not to mention finances. The coming era will require states to have a much greater degree of de facto sovereignty and, in a sense, a capacity for limited autarky. Therefore, for all the importance of ties outside the West, Russia cannot simply reorient itself from one direction to another while maintaining its historically-formed strategy of dependence on external sources of development.

In other words, long-haul aircraft will have to be made by Russia, in any event.

Third, it must be taken into account that even the most active ties in Asia cannot supplant relations with the states of the Islamic world, neighbouring countries and, in fact, Europe, where not everyone is inclined to build walls on their eastern border. The geopolitical position of Russia cannot be changed simply because of a military-political conflict. Not to mention the fact that from a historical and cultural point of view, it will always be difficult for Russia to build interactions in Asia that are similar in scale and spirit to those that it has in the South and West.

Summing up, we can say that amid modern conditions, relations with the Asian countries are indeed becoming not a choice, but a necessity. However, this does not mean the choice to pursue complete change in the most important guidelines affecting the national foreign and economic policy. Rather, it has an important tactical significance and, with due diligence on our part, can lead in the future to a more adequate Russian presence in world affairs, the centre of which is increasingly shifting to Asia.

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