Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Russia looks to the Pacific in 2012
Russia’s foreign ambitions have been directed almost entirely westward throughout its long history.
And while relations with the West continue to dominate Moscow’s foreign policy, recent developments suggest that Russian policy makers are now reassessing the importance of the Asia Pacific region. In the last decade, Russia has actively engaged with its neighbours through multilateral cooperation and efforts at economic integration. This year, Moscow’s new Pacific strategy will be highlighted as Russia hosts the 2012 APEC Summit in its principal Pacific city, Vladivostok.
(Kerry Collison and Suryo Sulisto in Russian military helicopter factory)
Russia has been a major player in the Asia Pacific since the late 19th century, but its engagement with the region has focused mostly on political and military — rather than economic — affairs. And despite having a Pacific coastline of more than 25,000 kilometres, Russia is a relative late-comer to Asia Pacific regionalism.
More recently, both Putin’s and Medvedev’s presidential tenures have seen Russia improve its internal situation, enabling Moscow to embark on more proactive foreign policies. On the political and diplomatic fronts, Russia resuscitated contacts with Pyongyang while keeping good relations with Seoul and, most importantly, established a ‘strategic partnership’ with China. Additionally, the government launched a massive program of state-funded investment in order to foster social and economic development in the Russian Far East. The objective is not only to upgrade the economy and infrastructure of this long-neglected domestic region, but also to reinforce Russia’s geopolitical position in the Pacific.
Russia is now a member of all the Asia Pacific multilateral security-focused and political bodies. In 2003 Russia became a co-sponsor of the Six-Party Talks, and in 2010 it finally secured an invitation to join the East Asia Summit and entered the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus process. Russia’s preferred model for the Asia Pacific political order is a multi-polar concert system in which Moscow is one of the major players, along with Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi, and perhaps Seoul and Jakarta.
Despite this political engagement, Russia’s economic presence in the Asia Pacific is modest at best, with the country accounting for roughly 1 per cent of the region’s total trade. Yet Russia has been stepping up its APEC activities. One reason is, of course, its hosting role at this year’s summit, which means that Russia is obliged to act as the forum’s leader, but there is also reason to believe that Russia’s enhanced involvement with the economic group will outlast the Vladivostok events and continue beyond 2012. For example, Russia seems determined to change the fact that it remains one of the very few economies in the Asia Pacific not to have established any FTAs in the region. In 2010, Russia launched formal negotiations with New Zealand, and FTAs with Vietnam and Singapore are currently being studied. It is also expected that Russia’s accession to the WTO last December will help Moscow advance its trade agenda in the Asia Pacific.
Integration with the Asia Pacific is one of Russia’s three most important regional-integration projects. Moscow’s paramount goal is to secure the economic reintegration of the post-Soviet space, most likely through the Russian-led Eurasian Union. The number two priority is integration with the European Union, which accounts for the bulk of Russia’s foreign trade. At the same time, Moscow aims to turn the Eurasian Union into a link between Europe and the Asia Pacific. Expanded engagement with the Asia Pacific could also serve as a fall-back option, should integration with the European Union fail to meet Moscow’s expectations.
But the success of Russia’s efforts at regional integration depends on whether it has the support of the Asia Pacific’s established powers.
Beijing is, of course, Moscow’s main ‘strategic partner’ in the region. In 2010, for example, China overtook Germany as Russia’s biggest trading partner, yet it is doubtful that China will make it a priority to help Russia become a full-fledged member of the Asia Pacific system of economic cooperation. China is quite content to have Russia as a reliable supplier of raw materials and is interested in keeping this resource base to itself rather than facilitating Russia’s links to other Asia Pacific markets.
Japan — although presumably interested in weaning Russia away from its growing dependence on China — is unlikely to do much to assist Russia’s regional aspirations. This is in large part due to the ill-fated South Kurils/Northern Territories dispute which still poisons Russo-Japanese relations.
This leaves another Asia Pacific power, the US. Could it possibly partner with Russia to help it expand its ties to the region? Moscow’s and Washington’s concerns overlap in that both Russia and the US want to hedge against geopolitical uncertainties stemming from China’s rise. So there may be enough incentive for the two countries to cooperate. As non-Asian powers, both culturally and historically, Russia and the US are naturally interested in preserving the trans-Pacific dimension of Asia Pacific institution building. Russia’s membership in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) should not be ruled out, especially as the Russian economy will gradually become more open. If Moscow decided to ask the TPP for entry and Washington responded positively, it might usher in a new era for Russia’s relations with the Asia Pacific, as well as with the US.
The shape of Russia’s strategic partnerships with Asia Pacific powers, and how its economic integration into the region evolves, is still yet to be determined. But it does seem certain that Russia will increasingly look east, turning a new page in its relations with the Asia Pacific.
Artyom Lukin is Associate Professor of International Relations and Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok. An earlier version of this article was published by The Post-Soviet Post. East Asia Forum