Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Russia, ASEAN and Indonesia in the regional context

Not taking Russia into account in discussions about East Asia’s present and future has been a feature of conventional wisdom for the last 20 years. For me, it is a boring sign of traditional, inside the box thinking. An easy way to start thinking outside the box is to dwell on Russia’s fundamental aspirations and on its probable contributions to the region in the process of successfully pursuing them. But how, in the first place, did the former superpower manage to become just barely visible in this part of the world?
In the late 1990s Indonesian analysts coined the term krisis multidimensi to define the state of the nation after the fall of Soeharto’s New Order. This is exactly what Russia had gone through in the first post-Soviet decade — a multidimensional crisis. Since in our case it manifested itself not just in the collapse of the old political structure and repudiation of official values, but in an abrupt and radical overhaul of a socio-economic system, its impact was even more painful than in the case of Indonesia.

Reforms through shock therapy produced depressing results: in the popular mind, the notions of market economy and political democracy became associated with disorder, corruption and yarning social gaps. Suspicions that Russia would follow the path of the Soviet Union and disintegrate spread widely in the midst of war in Chechnya.Introspective at the time when globalization was becoming a household world, abandoned by former satellites and subjected to new geostrategic pressures by the West, Russia looked like a hopeless loser in the post-Cold War world. Rich in natural wealth, but neglected Far Eastern areas of Russia were in a state of disarray.

To say that between 2000 and 2008 president Putin changed the face of Russia beyond recognition would be an exaggeration. But he had certainly done a lot to arrest the trend towards decline and to lay the foundation for reconstruction. During his years in Kremlin, order visibly prevailed over chaos. Improvements in governance went hand in hand with positive economic changes: on the average, annual GDP growth exceeded 6 per cent.

Peace in Chechnya has been restored.

On the international arena, Putin proved to be a versatile and skilful player. He consistently promoted the interests of Russian oil and gas exporters, paid much attention to building stronger political and gas exporters, paid much attention to building stronger political and economic ties with China and India, looked for compromises on strategic issues with the West, but was never afraid to call a spade a spade (like he had done in his famous Munich speech in February 2007), and succeeded in restoring Russia’s great power status to a sufficient degree.

Although the beginning of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency was marked by Georgia’s armed adventure in South Ossetia with all its well-known consequences and the start of the Global Crisis, these trials had not led to anything catastrophic. Yes, industrial production declined in 2008-2009, and declined considerably, but on the whole the situation has been a far cry that of 1992 or 1998. In fact, the crisis has alerted the authorities to the urgency of modernizing the national economy and increasing its innovative component. The Far Eastern regions also get their share of attention fro the authorities: no other part of Russia (with the possible exception of Sochi, the sight of 2010 Winter Olympics) is visited more frequently by former president and now Prime Minister Putin.

Oil and gas development on the island of Sakhalin, construction of pipelines from the oil and gas fields of Eastern Siberia to the Pacific Coast and into China, building of new modern shipyards and automobile assembly plants, revival of aircraft construction, creation of a new launching site for spaceships and Earth satellites — many of these and other projects designed to give new life to the Russian Far East have been brought to various stages of implementation. In Vladivostok where APEC Summit is scheduled for 2010, a whole number of infrastructure projects is under way.On the whole, the Russia of 2010 is clearly different from the Russia of 1992. Nonetheless, its belonging to East Asia is not something that the bulk of regional pundits would easily and happily confirm.

“Although Russia’s trade with the region is consistently growing, it grows much slower than that of China and India.”

Why so? Presumably, because Russia’s progress is eclipsed by other, more crucial developments and challenges — such as the dramatic rise of China and India; the prospect of US — China and China — India rivalries; the possibility of ASEAN’s marginalization as a result of being unable to manage these dangerous trends, as well problems of domestic and bilateral character.Although Russia’s trade with the region is consistently growing, it grows much slower than that of China and India. In the mean-time, economic situation in the Russian Far East is only starting to improve.

Last but not least, Russia’s image in global media remains predominantly gloomy and unattractive. Apparently, signs of our recovery are not good news to everyone — in the arrogant West as well as in the upwardly mobile East Asia.

How about ASEAN’s perception of Russia? The fact that in April 2010 ASEAN spoke in favor of inviting Russia to East Asian Summits seems to be telling in itself. This, by the way, would not be possible without a significant shift in Indonesia’s position: Five years ago Jakarta, along with Canberra, openly objected to Russia’s membership in that forum.Integration with East Asia will be a truly rewarding process if only Russia is able to add to the region’s dynamism — and to help in sustaining it.What Russia does not need under any circumstances is regional conflicts — not to speak of a major war or direct involvement in it.

Too many of Russia’s late 20th century misfortunes are linked to the terrible losses and damage of two World Wars. Even a distant glimpse of such upheavals can ruin East Asia’s dynamism, seriously diminishing the chances of Russia’s modernization. If such a scenario starts to unfold, a country of Russia’s proportions and resources may be drawn into it even against its own wish. Therefore, Russia’s best strategic option is to try to preempt scenarios of this type and to coordinate activities with players who have similar views and intentions.

A recent document of the Russian Foreign Ministry that was slipped to the media and into the web points to the necessity of developing a well-balanced system of bilateral and multilateral partnerships in the Asia Pacific. Excessive dependence on relations with any single partner should be avoided. Among other things, it means that, for the sake of greater freedom of maneuver, progress in relations with one particular partner must be matched by progress in relations with others.

My final observation will be very brief: once you start thinking outside the box, the ties of Russia and ASEAN — just like those of Russia and Indonesia — will look more important and promising than they do to “insiders”. Hopefully, the need to develop both pairs of relations will be equally felt by all the parties.

Victor Sumsky, Moscow | director of the ASEAN Center at MGIMO (the Moscow State Institute for International Relations). This article is based on a paper he presented at the Joint Indonesia–Russia conference held recently in Jakarta to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of bilateral relations.

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