Strategic Behaviour of Asia in an Era of Turbulence: Day 1 of the Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Tsvetnoy Boulevard 16/1, Moscow, Russia

On Monday, December 4, 2023, the 14th Asian Conference of the Valdai Club opened in Moscow with the participation of experts from India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Thailand, Mongolia and Japan. On the first day of the conference, two working sessions took place.

During the first, open session, the broadcast of which is available on the website, experts discussed the most important processes of regional development in Asia. Timofei Bordachev, programme director of the Valdai Club, noted that for a long time Russian policy was predicated on the belief that Asia is a region of peace and sustainable development, that it is not subject to the destructive trends observed in Europe. Today, processes are taking place that raise alarm about how relations between Russia and Asia will develop amid less favourable international political conditions.

The stability of Asia should not be taken for granted, said Mongolian MP Damdin Tsogtbaatar. The unique culture of peaceful coexistence, despite deep contradictions, is closely connected with the traditions of spirituality. In all Asian religions, the component of peace and mutual understanding is one of the central themes, Damdin emphasised. Spirituality moderates the Asian countries' ties to each other.

Igor Makarov, head of the Department of World Economy at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, explained in his speech why the dynamics of Asia's relations with the outside world have changed in recent years. Some countries in Asia have taken full advantage of globalisation as it has developed since the late 1980s, and today we are dealing with the phenomenon of “regional globalisation.” Asia initially had ideal conditions for the international division of labour, which has intensified significantly in recent years. There are regions that specialise in the production of raw materials, on the one hand, and high-tech goods, on the other; they have their own consumption centres. Relations within Asia are developing faster than with the outside world, and Asian countries already conduct 60% of their foreign trade with each other. Finally, the population of Asia today is about the same as the population of the entire world in the 1980s. Most importantly, this population is significantly richer than thirty years ago: Asia has a growing middle class. The cost of labour is also rising: we can say that globalisation according to the old rules ended at the moment when labour in China became more expensive than labour in Mexico, Makarov noted. This means that sooner or later Asia will cease to fulfil the role of the “world factory” assigned to it by the West, and this entails a revision of the entire structure of relations between them. 

A Southeast Asian perspective on regional development issues was presented by Connie Rahakundini Bakrie, a lecturer at General Ahmad Yani University (Indonesia). According to her, Asia must become more integrated, but organisations like ASEAN are demonstrating increasing fragility. The challenges facing Asia in the 21st century are the development of resources, communications and freedom of trade, she emphasised. In turn, Alexander Lomanov, Deputy Director for Research at IMEMO RAS, pointed out that a big problem for Asia is changing the formats of cooperation due to the emergence of new dividing lines that push considerations of economic rationality into the background.

The problem is due to the growing Sino-American confrontation, he noted. The American concept of decoupling boils down to the fact that China is offered selective cooperation - with limited access to technology and markets. The Western message was heard: China has moved to a dual circulation development model, where domestic consumption is more important than participation in the global economy, Lomanov emphasised.

The second, closed-door session was devoted to the potential for easing international tension. During the session, the thesis was expressed that the only conflict in Asia that threatens Russian strategic interests is the conflict between India and China.

At the same time, India and China are, in a sense, ideal enemies for each other. Despite periodic skirmishes on the border, their confrontation is unlikely to escalate into a large-scale war, since neither country can conduct large land offensive operations against the other due to the difficult terrain, and the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region is extremely weak. Meanwhile, the presence of a powerful rival is an important internal political factor that allows one to mobilise the population (this applies primarily to India).

Indian elites understand that the United States seeks to use their country as a counterweight to China and are aware of its lurking presence. In any event, it would be unusual for them not to take advantage of the fact that India is being offered friendship, investment and technology “just for being there.” At the same time, despite all the contradictions, India and China interact in those regions that serve as the arena of their conflicting interests, for example, in East Africa.

Russia (or any other country) would be mistaken to fully support one of the two sides, since these two civilisations have interacted for several thousand years and, one way or another, will find a way to resolve their contradictions. Therefore, Russia's strict neutrality is the only correct position. At the same time, its policies should be more nuanced. Thus, despite the fact that relations with India and China are developing along parallel tracks, it is necessary to understand the negative effect that, for example, Russian-Chinese exercises in the Indian Ocean produce in India.

During the session, there was a call to see behind the big powers the middle and small ones, whose voice in international politics is becoming increasingly significant. Many Asian countries understand the strategic concerns which prompted Moscow to conduct its special military operation. On the contrary, Western clichés about “unprovoked aggression” and “the defence of freedom and democracy” do not find understanding, since in Asia they realise the value of each country having a peaceful periphery and maintaining a balance of power. It is precisely maintaining this balance and preventing anyone else’s hegemony in Asia that is expected from Russia, whose presence in the region is perceived as beneficial, since it is able to act as an honest broker.