Khabarovsk Bridge over Amur river, near the Russian border with China
Khabarovsk Bridge over Amur river, near the Russian border with China
Fedor Lukyanov*

MOSCOW – Recently, Russian leaders have been meeting more and more frequently with their Asian counterparts - Vladimir Putin visited Vietnam and South Korea last week, and in the past two weeks there have been official meetings with India, China and Japan. Many are starting to talk about a strategic shift in Moscow. What is going on?

Let’s start by making it clear that Russia is a latecomer among Asia’s many suitors. Europe and the Americas have been talking about the Asian century for 10 years already, and we have only noticed the Pacific Ocean in the past two or three years. Even though the Russian Eagle has two heads, it is used to looking out of the one facing West.

In early times - at least 400 years ago - that was OK. Most political events, both pushes towards development and threats to security, came from Europe. After the end of the Cold War, Europe became an example of development that Russia strived to emulate.

Now it is clear that the most important events of the future will come from the shores of the Pacific, not Atlantic. Washington has also spoken of a strategic turn towards Asia, reducing its presence in Europe. And the many old territorial conflicts in the region that have been dormant are now likely to heat up again.

For Russia, this is creating an unusual situation. For the first time in centuries, the country’s cultural and historic orientation (European) does not match the government’s political and economic priorities. One of the consequences of this fact is that although three-quarters of the country’s territory is located in Asia, three quarters of the population actually live in the European part of the country. That’s part of why the problem with ramping up the Russian far east and Siberia, without which Russia can’t even dream of playing a role in Asia’s future, is so important.

Russia needs more than just economic measures if it wants to attract people to make a home in the far east: It needs a public relations campaign to convince people that the region is not a backwoods, but rather one full of opportunities.

Russia's Asia, Asia's Russia

It was in 2009 that some Russians began talking about the need to develop a holistic Asian strategy. That strategy has to include both developing our own Asian regions and positioning ourself in the Pacific region. The two are interconnected. Over the past few years, there have been a number of largely symbolic measures aimed at positioning ourself in the Asian sphere, but there has been little that has actually had a real effect on the situation.

But now, Russia has no time left to waver. The New Asia is already here, and if Russia doesn’t understand how to take its place in it, the opportunity will pass.

Asia is in a confusing situation. It hasn’t played a leading role in world politics for half a millennium. It includes ambitious empires that are full of potential but don’t yet know how to fulfill that potential, especially in the political sphere.

Moreover, to the West’s delight, Asia does not have a strong communal identity. The relationship between the major countries are difficult, but economic interdependence prevents worsening of conflicts. One of the most commonly-discussed subjects is free trade, because Asian countries, and not only China, were the big winners in globalization.

What does this mean for Moscow?

First, it needs a real strategy in Asia. With the kinds of risks and opportunities the area represents, so close to our borders, not having a plan will be absolutely deadly.

Secondly, Russia needs to take advantage of how dynamic the rest of Asia is to develop the Asian part of Russia.

Thirdly, the Kremlin’s pet project on the Eurasian Union needs to be adapted to have a more Asian focus, to be a way to connect the European and Asian markets. There has been much talk about this in general terms, but in reality, the world (rightly) sees the Eurasian Union (also called the Customs Union) as a way for Russia to surround itself in an economic zone that will serve as a counterweight to the European Union. This also means that Russia needs to realize that Asia is more important than Europe now, and that building an international Asian architecture is more important now than bickering with Europe.

Lastly, Moscow could use its (rather limited) political weight in the region to secure an important, although not leading, niche in the region. The situation is so unpredictable at the moment that Russia is needed by nearly all of the players. They each have other political-economic worries, and many are looking toward Russia to be a partner and a source of stability - and a counterweight to China.

Asia has started to take on new contours, and Russia’s natural resources as well as the region’s political and economic needs mean that Moscow has a chance to take its place in the continent's future. But if that is going to happen, we need to start working on it now. Otherwise, the New Asia will be one that does not include us.

* Fedor Lukyanov is a foreign policy expert at the Russian Center for Policy Studies.

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