Pluralism and Non-Alignment in a Crumbling World: Will Asia Retain Its Unique Features?

On Tuesday, December 13, the 13th Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club opened in St. Petersburg on the theme “Russia and Asia in the Emerging International Order”.

Andrei Rudenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, who is in charge of the Asian sphere of Russian diplomacy, addressed the conference participants with a welcome speech.

He noted that a special culture of relations between states has been formed in Asia, based on the principles of equality and mutual respect among cultures. The region demonstrates multi-vector interconnectedness and economic dynamics that could serve as an example for the whole world. However, the formation of a fairer international system is fraught with many challenges generated by the efforts of the United States and the "collective West". The West is trying to impose bloc thinking on the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, undermining the central role of ASEAN. Increasingly active are such external players as the UK, France, Germany and the EU as a whole. At the same time, the states of Asia soberly assess the origins of turbulence, which has pushed them to eliminate neo-colonial principles.

The first session of the conference was devoted to the dynamics of Asia's development in the context of the restructuring of the international order. Moderator of the session Fyodor Lukyanov, research director of the Valdai Discussion Club, noted that Russia perceives this restructuring as long overdue, leading to the creation of a more just world order. However, is this true for Asian countries, many of which have been the beneficiaries of globalisation in its traditional sense? He addressed this question to the participants of the session.

Pankaj Kumar Jha, Professor and Director of the Centre for Security Studies at O P Jindal Global University (India), stressed in his speech that Asia, despite the desire of its countries for dialogue and the peaceful resolution of disputed issues, is not a zone free from conflicts. This applies both to contradictions between states and to terrorism, which threatens many Asian countries. He pointed to the need to create new security dialogue forums, emphasising the importance of rethinking Russia's role in parts of East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania, because Moscow could potentially become a major player in the region.

According to Viktoria Panova, Vice-Rector of Moscow’s HSE University, the position of Asian countries in the international arena is based not on subordination to the West, but on their own national interests. She expressed her gratitude to Indonesia for the fact that during its presidency of the G20, it has consistently pursued a policy of justice and mutual respect, raising for discussion issues of global importance, and not the agenda that the Western countries were trying to push through.

Panova also urged her fellow participants not to discard the concept of the Indo-Pacific region, which in Russia is perceived almost exclusively in a negative context. Indeed, the American understanding of the IPR is based on the idea of containing China (the same can be said about the EU), but India and ASEAN are talking about establishing complex interaction. Moreover, according to Panova, it makes sense to consider combining the concepts of Greater Eurasia and the IPR.

Andrei Rudenko agreed with her, noting that it was time to stop seeing the concept of the Asia-Pacific region as opposed to the concept of the Indo-Pacific region, since the latter is becoming an objective reality that is difficult to deny. But Russia's position will remain unchanged with regard to the need to preserve the non-aligned nature of Asia and the openness of its existing security systems.

Ti Lan-An Nguyen, Director General of the South China Sea Institute at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, spoke about the role of ASEAN in supporting international development and ensuring the viability of economies. According to her, ASEAN's aim is to promote the idea of peace and security, ensure independent policymaking, observe international law, and promote cooperation in Eurasia. At the same time, the association faces numerous challenges. They are associated with the competition of big powers that use their influence on small and medium-sized countries to force them to choose sides in the global confrontation.

According to Yana Leksyutina, professor at the Department of American Studies at the Faculty of International Relations at St. Petersburg University, the breakdown of the world order, which is taking place against the background of the confrontation between the United States and Russia, affects Asia only tangentially. The real factor influencing the Asia-Pacific region is the increasing involvement of the United States in its affairs, militarisation and rearmament, as well as the rivalry between the United States and China. A new dynamic in the development of the Asia-Pacific region is the expansion of the foreign presence (in particular, the passages of American and European ships through the Taiwan Strait). Asia can remain a zone without dividing lines, but this depends on the ability of its states to withstand pressure from Washington. We are already seeing the formation of an anti-Chinese bloc in the Asia-Pacific region: it includes Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan, and South Korea may join. Moreover, Leksyutina noted, as Russia's special military operation in Ukraine has showed, some Asian countries are taking a more pro-American position than previously thought - and Seoul is a clear example here. Nevertheless, so far most of the countries of the Asia-Pacific region are oriented towards an independent policy in their national interests.

The second open session of the conference was devoted to the future of the energy and food markets. Ram Madhav Varanasi, a Founding Member of the Governing Council of India Foundation, pointed to the close relationship between energy and food issues. India is a country that faces deficits in both areas and sees Russia as a leading partner in resolving energy and food security issues. Ram Madhav recalled that cooperation between the two countries has rich traditions: in particular, the USSR helped India create fertilizer production, without which modern agriculture is unthinkable.

In turn, Shamil Enikeev, professor at the Department of International Relations at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, described the current global energy crisis as more severe than the one that the West faced in the 1970s. According to him, the structure of energy markets is breaking down; the introduction of price restrictions means a departure from market principles, and Western countries are striving to create a cartel of buyers who will dictate their price conditions. If this experience is successful, it will be extended to other areas, such as metals.

Enikeev recalled that the crisis did not begin in February 2022: one of its reasons was insufficient investment in the industry under the influence of the so-called “green agenda” that had influenced the policies of Western countries in previous years. Characteristically, political considerations continue to take precedence over economic ones: how else can one explain the curtailment of energy cooperation between Russia and the EU, which was unthinkable even a year ago? Meanwhile, according to the analyst, 2023-24 will be catastrophic years for Europe, as only 35% of its energy needs will be met. He called on the SCO and BRICS to unite key sellers and consumers of energy resources under their auspices and thus synchronize their efforts to prevent future crises.

The theme of the changing world order was touched upon in a speech by Chen Zhigang, Senior Advisor at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at China’s Renmin University. In his opinion, the special military operation showed that Russia will not abide by the rules that others establish. Such independent behaviour is supported by the country's powerful potential in the energy and food sectors, which will continue to determine its position in the international arena, he noted.