Russia’s Turn to the East and the New Geopolitical World

This week, Vladivostok, Russia is hosting the 5th Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), an event which is the largest of its kind in terms of attendance, which will attract Russia’s top politicians and their Asian counterparts. This year, the forum will be attended by the heads of state and government of India, Malaysia, Mongolia and Japan, who will participate in a panel discussion alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. The forum is unique in that it is a product of the new Russia, rather than the legacy of Russia’s experience attempting to foster international cooperation during the 1990s, like St. Petersburg’s International Economic Forum. It was created from scratch precisely as an instrument to accelerate openness and integrate Russia into the economic, political and civilizational space of Asia, the world's most densely populated region, where Russia is an important player due to its vast possessions in the Pacific Ocean.

Over the past five years, the EEF has transformed: in it started as a relatively small forum of interested representatives of business and government, now it is one of the most significant events of its kind in the region. In a sense, the forum has become a symbol of the “Russian pivot to the East” - a national policy to integrate the country with the fastest growing markets in the world. Therefore, now is the time to summarize the intermediate results of the “pivot” and, most importantly, to reflect on what adjustments can be made to its strategic development against the background of qualitative changes in the international arena. First among these circumstances in terms of importance have been the destruction of the US-China world economic “axis” and the general collapse of the international governance system, as we’d known or hoped to establish.

“Russia’s pivot to the East” was originally inspired by both geostrategic and practical considerations. In geostrategic terms, the absolute dependence of Russia on trade and other economic ties to Europe became unacceptable immediately after Russia was able to overcome the consequences of the internal shocks which followed the geopolitically catastrophic collapse of the USSR. A priori, there is nothing wrong with developing relations with traditional partners in the West. But after they acquired a critical scale, these relations began to constrain Russia’s foreign policy freedom. Moreover, by the second half of the 2000s, the underdevelopment of relations between Russia and the countries of Asia had become an obvious constraint on its own development and relevance in the modern world.

In principle, the belief that Siberia and the Far East should be considered a “national treasure”, and that their resources should be preserved for future generations, is not an absolute one, and came before the official start of the “turn” policy, in 2012. Russia is fully capable of protecting its sovereign right to these resources, in accordance with exclusive national interests. However, the new international position and strategy of Russia require, to a greater extent, an increase in the degree of openness and international cooperation for these regions.

Moreover, in the East, has a huge population, which is rapidly increase their consumption potential. Developing Siberia, and especially the Far East, is the most reliable way to strengthen the integrity and cohesion of the vast Russian state in its entirety. New opportunities to realise this potential became apparent 10 years ago, when the economic development of Asian countries acquired a new quality, allowing people to talk about the region not only as a "workshop of the world", but also as a "consumer of the world". Utilising this practical opportunity is no less important than the geostrategic basis of the “pivot to the East”. In the phrase “Russia's pivot to the East” the key word is Russia, where internal development through the use of new opportunities in Asia is a national priority.

Russia’s Pivot to the East: Between Wishes and Reality
Leonid Bliakher
Russian society, including the expert community, remains undecided about the country’s pivot to the East and its reorientation from the Euro-Atlantic area to eastern Eurasia, something that was announced more than 10 years ago. For many analysts, this is a forced move resulting from Russia being “squeezed” out of Europe.

Another major component of the new Eastern policy of Russia is the implementation of a “Greater Eurasia” concept and strategy - the gradual building of a community of nations in the Eurasian space, within which the degree of trust and cooperation between the major powers should be higher than their quality of relations with non-regional partners. “Greater Eurasia” is still a hypothetical common space where international relations are based on internal and external openness, and the institutional interaction of countries allows us to systematically cooperate and reduce the suspicions caused by the gap in the balance of power between large, medium and small states.

The "Greater Eurasia" concept is a continuation of the modest and practical idea of ​​combining Eurasian economic integration with the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, which was put forward by the PRC in 2013 and supported by the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), as a single association of sovereign states. In the future, the EAEU can become, if the member countries view the benefits of integration favourably, the core of a large Eurasian space - its most integrated and well-regulated component. The uniqueness of this association is that for the first time in history, it is being carried out not via imperial subjugation, but through the rational summation of the efforts of several states, aimed at strengthening their national sovereignty and solving development problems.

Now let's see how changes of global importance can affect the components of Russia's current Eastern policy, and what related actions should be discussed. From the very beginning, it is necessary to establish a caveat that the new geopolitics, of course, does not make “Russia’s pivot to the East” an easy walk. However, one should not exaggerate the dramatic consequences that a change in the international environment could have for the development of the system of relations between Russia and Asia and Russia’s integration into Asian markets. Ultimately, many of the difficulties that Russia faces when it takes efforts to become a natural part of the Asian space are connected with the fact, that it was the last nation to enter the regional markets for goods, services and ideas.

Therefore, the scrapping, or partial scrapping or  transformation of the system that was developed without our participation may turn out to be even beneficial for Russia. The axis of this system has been the relationship between the USA and China over the past decades. Now that axis is rapidly decaying. Both major players, especially China, do not know how to react to this decay. Both Washington and Beijing so far have turned to adopt  the features of a regional order that are convenient for each of them individually.

Russia’s Turn to the East – Seen From the West
Hans-Joachim Spanger
Russia will never be embraced by Asia as an Asian power. Russia has invariably been perceived as a purely European power there. Bearing in mind the notoriously long memories in Asia and the suffering of Asians at the hands of Europeans, Russia does not make any difference.

For the United States, this has been the openness of international trade, albeit with American domination. For China, it is also openness, but retaining the advantages provided by the colossal domestic market and the opportunity to use non-economic regulatory measures. It is precisely freedom of trade and technological exchange that are increasingly becoming the victim of their trade confrontation. For the development of Russia, this, of course, may result in new barriers that were not anticipated when the “Pivot to the East” began. However, the increased influence of political factors on foreign trade and foreign economic relations between the Asian countries in general should be taken into account as a new opportunity for Russian penetration into the regional market for goods and services. For sure, the desire to diversify and partially localise the system of external economic relations and cooperation will increase. It could be more difficult to achieve a  small goal - a greater variety of external partnerships, at various levels, can make them less vulnerable to guns or trade wars, which are aimed primarily at major players.

A similar influence is being exerted by another major external factor - the decomposition of the entire system of international governance in politics and economics. The environment arising under the influence of the actual erosion of the World Trade Organisation system will be more difficult to analyse than what existed before. But it will also be more flexible, constantly opening up new opportunities. This environment will most likely prove to be more demanding in the building of foreign economic relations of Russia in Asia, and possibly even reduce its strategic component within its framework. However, this exactingness can stimulate efficiency, which is not always characteristic for Russia, in developing current practical tasks and adapting the changing situation to solve the problems of national development.

But even more attention in the context of the prospects of the “pivot to the East” deserves the transformation of relations within the community of Western countries. In many ways, this transformation is a reaction to the gradual disappearance of the centuries-old system of “the West and the rest” and relations which determined politics and economies on a global scale. And this can make individual countries, including the most significant European economies, more ready and interested in diversifying their ties. Until Asia and Eurasia are integrated into the system of national interests of leading European countries, there is no need to talk about partnership with Europe. But now, probably, the movement of Europeans in this direction is of analytical interest.

The level and quality of participation of regional partners in the activities of the Eastern Economic Forum, including at the highest level, is not comparable with the real scale of Russia's involvement in the Asian economy. This, of course, also means that Moscow has resources and   objective advantages, the possession of which can compensate for the low degree of its real presence in the affairs of the region. However, this is also an advance - a sign of the expectation, that for Russia, the “turn to the East” is a serious and long-term affair, regardless of the evolution of external conditions and using the benefits arising from this evolution.

Russia’s Turn to the East: Leaving the Comfort Zone and a Change of Civilizational Choice
Leonid Bliakher
As part of the Eastern Perspective project, Leonid Bliakher, Head of the Department of Philosophy at the Pacific National University in Khabarovsk, told about the premises and limitations of Russia’s “turn to the East.”
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.