The Asia-Pacific region is seen by most as the world’s new center of gravity. But with the Eurasian giant’s significant presence in the Far East, the emerging new architecture among Asian powers has prompted questions about Russia’s role in the region.
The mutual threat perceptions between Russia and other Asian nations have certainly altered over the course of 20 years since the collapse of communism, and Russia is now widely recognized as a nonthreatening great power with global significance. However, regional analysts are still skeptical over the degree to which Russia’s vested interests lie in Asia, and whether these interests are compatible with those of other regional players.
For a start, Russian assessments from 1997 suggested that China, not the United States, posed the greatest threat to Russia’s interests and allies. Indeed, leading Russian scholars of international relations such as Alexei Arbatov predicted that over the next five to 20 years, Russia should carefully watch China’s expansionism toward Siberia and the Russian Far East, as well as Central Asia. Such anxieties have, however, largely dissipated in light of increased confidence-building efforts that led to the creation of a formal regional body, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Still, a notable exception to the usually non-threatening views of China emerged in 2009, when Russian Army Gen. Nikolai Makarov suggested that China and NATO “are the most dangerous of our geopolitical rivals.”
After a period of decline, Russia has been fighting to prove that it doesn’t lack the capacity to change its foreign policy focus from the West to the East. One symbolic example – Vladivostok, the former capital of Russia’s Pacific Ocean Fleet, is hosting the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting. Vladivostok had previously experienced protests triggered by collapsing sea-faring and fishing companies, unemployment, poverty, and population decline. In addition, Moscow has extended the federal program for developing the Far East until 2013, raising Vladivostok’s development funds from 7.5 billion rubles ($241.2 million) to 426 billion rubles ($13.7 billion).
The intensive economic and social development of Siberia and Russia’s Far East are part of Russia’s key strategic priorities in the region. Speaking at the Singapore Global Dialogue in September, another prominent Russian scholar, Sergei Karaganov, presented Siberia as the new source to quench Asia’s thirst for resources; Siberia could attract foreign capital from investors as diverse as the United States, China, Indonesia, and Singapore.
Yet commentators the world over have expressed misgivings about the return of Vladimir Putin as presidential candidate next year, with The Economist going so far as to label Putin “Russia’s humiliator-in-chief.” Others, though, don’t find Putin’s comeback surprising. They note that Russia’s foreign policy under Putin was marked by a policy of “Asianization” from the very beginning, and Putin’s Russia increasingly saw NATO’s eastward enlargement as detrimental to its interests in the former USSR’s sphere of influence. The Kremlin thus engaged in a multidirectional foreign policy in order to create partnerships and integrate Russia within various multilateral structures, such as the leading emerging economies in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the SCO.