Features | Security | East Asia

Why Russia Needs Asia Master Plan

If Russia is going to have real influence in the Asia-Pacific it needs to show that it’s interested in working with Asia, not against it. But is it an opportunity or a threat?

By Alica Kizekova for

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.

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).

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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.

In an effort to provide ideas to Russia’s leadership, the Russian Council for Security Cooperation Organisation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) presented to President Dmitry Medvedev a report entitled “Going East: Russia’s Asia-Pacific Strategy” in 2010. The council introduced the slogan “Lean on the West, stabilize the South and go East,” describing Russia as a “Euro-Pacific” country. It suggested that Russia be a flexible player in setting up a new regional architecture, distinguishing itself from countries proposing specific mechanisms such as Japan’s East Asian Community and Australia’s Asia-Pacific Community.

However, Russia risked being sidelined if it weren’t active enough in the region. Another Russian CSCAP paper entitled “Russia in Asia and the Pacific” painted the country as a potential “bridge” between Europe and the Asia-Pacific, and spoke of the prominence of the G-20 within the new Asia-Pacific regional model.

The problem is that Asia doesn’t need a bridge to Europe – Asian nations, particularly ASEAN, have a history of dealing directly with Europe and other extra regional players. Speakers at the recent Singapore Global Dialogue, for example, referred to the centrality of ASEAN in facilitating dialogues and linkages among all key players in the region. In the words of one prominent Singapore scholar, ASEAN is the “silent hero.” Why? Because it’s weak and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone – it’s seen as a trustworthy player, and can facilitate the transition to a new architecture that would balance the competing forces in the region.

All this underscores the need for the creation of an effective “intra-Asian Dialogue,” because Russia’s view of Asia appears significantly different from that of China or Southeast Asia. Russia needs to show that its interests are in line with those of other Asian nations.

It has made a start on this, calling for the intensification of cooperation between the SCO and ASEAN, both of which signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding in 2005. They also share a similar understanding of nontraditional threats.

Clearly, the SCO doesn’t pose a threat to ASEAN’s prominent role in Asia. On the contrary, it could be argued that China’s learning process toward multilateralism took place within ASEAN-led frameworks, and was further advanced within the SCO.

Full-fledged participation by Russia in the East Asia Summit (EAS), meanwhile, should bring a more balanced and stable regional architecture, and elevate the EAS as the main forum for discussing security issues in the region. Of course, Russia will be expected to use its EAS membership to actively support measures to boost free trade in Asia, working to cater to the increasing demand for energy by offering policies that are beneficial to both suppliers and recipients. But Moscow could also make a valuable contribution to the region by preventing and managing conflicts and natural disasters.

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Ultimately, if Russia can define a role for itself in the EAS, it can not only promote inter-regional cooperation, but give a boost to the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region in the process.

Alica Kizekova is a Visiting Associate Fellow at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This is an edited version of an article published by Pacific Forum CSIS here.