The APEC summit has ended without US President attending. There is a certain symbolism in this; opinions on how to improve the economic situation in the megaregion and in the world economy as a whole are mainly being exchanged by Asian states, which have demonstrated high growth rates in the new century, despite waves of crisis which periodically roll in from across the ocean…
In the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, Russia's interests in the Asia-Pacific region look like a developed and fairly clear set of goals. Central among them is the improvement of the socioeconomic status of the population in the eastern part of the country, home to over 25 million people, of which 6 million live in Transbaikal and the Far East. Reaching this goal requires the coordinated use of internal and external resources, including contacts with Asia-Pacific countries. Participation in the high economic performance of Asian countries is one such resource.
Representing various stages of economic development, as well as diverse foreign policy orientations, the Asian countries of the Asia-Pacific region understand Russia's eastern project in different ways. But the «turn to the east» is perceived as a process which is completely natural for Russia and, of course, as an acknowledgement of the growing role of Asia in world affairs as well.
Having opened up its eastern project to the outside world (including at the APEC summit in Vladivostok in 2012), Russia is continuing to determine the most suitable partners, including for participation in the reintegration of its enormous expanses.
It is along these lines that the strategies of key Russian players are currently being built: the large petroleum corporations have connected Siberia and the Pacific coast with a pipeline, gas infrastructure development in the eastern regions of the country remains in Gazprom's plans, Russian Railways is planning the reconstruction of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal-Amur Main Line, and programs for the development of general aviation have been adopted. The development of the Northern Sea Route, the entry of Siberian LNG into Asian markets, and the construction of new gas liquefaction plants on Sakhalin and in Primorye bring great promise. Furthermore, eastern defense industry facilities have received large government contracts. The Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East, created in May 2012 with its headquarters in Khabarovsk, is becoming an increasingly noticeable and influential coordinator of economic activity.
The grounds for relying mainly on Russian state international enterprises in developing the territory of Russia east of the Urals are quite obvious. Only state organizations are capable of competing on an equal basis for new markets with powerful Asian corporations, which are supported in one way or another by national governments. State international enterprises play an exceptionally important role in China, and China is now Russia's most important partner among Asia-Pacific countries. It is sufficient to mention that at the beginning of this decade the total trade volume between China and Russia exceeded the total volume of trade between Russia and its three largest other partners in the megaregion: the United States, Japan and South Korea. Thus, the building of symmetrical relations with Russia's main partner in the Asia-Pacific region requires Russian state enterprises to continue to take a leading role.
Incidentally, in the Asian countries of the Asia-Pacific region, Russia's reliance on the public sector in its eastern project encounters much more understanding than the same Russian organizations do in the markets of Western countries, where they are often subjected to discrimination.
It is no accident that Russia's current eastward movement is accompanied by a gradual restoration of its leading positions in the former Soviet Union. The beginning of implementation of the concept of the Eurasian Economic Union and the creation of the Customs Union gives the eastern project additional weight, making it possible to count on the effect of scale, the replenishment of demographic potential, fresh private initiative and, in the end, on an increase in the density of the area connecting the Pacific coast with Central Eurasia: the Urals, Western Siberia and Kazakhstan.
Consolidation of this area is also seen as diversification of its economic specialization. Among promising fields are the production of food, a shortage of which is rapidly growing in China; modernization of forestry and wood processing; advanced processing of fish and seafood; and the revival of Pacific commercial shipping.
The fact that the continuing outward migration from several northern regions of the Far East has changed somewhat in recent years can also perhaps be considered a favorable sign. Rather than leaving for «the continent», migration to the south of the same region – to Primorye and the Khabarovsk Territory, as well as the Amur region – has become a more popular route.
Russia's policy in the Asia-Pacific region takes into account several power lines which determine the course of most countries in the region. First of all are Chinese-American relations and the particular sensitivity of the U.S. to the PRC becoming a world economic leader. The U.S. is motivated in its relations with Beijing not only by China's growing and apparently inevitable geopolitical ambitions. Two circumstances evoke anxiety in Washington: first, the high interdependence of the economic systems of the two countries, and second, the lack of U.S. means to influence the independent behavior of the PRC, and not only in the Asia-Pacific region.
Thus, the implementation of Russia's eastern project is taking place in conditions where the rise of China – now its main economic partner in the region – has brought about increased alarmism in the U.S. due to its own financial problems and failures in the Middle East. The «reorientation» of the U.S. toward Asia at the turn of the decade was justifiably perceived by many as Washington shifting to the military and political containment of Beijing, although in 2013 Obama tried to smooth over this impression.
The continuing intensification of China's geoeconomic influence in the Asia-Pacific region, active attempts by the U.S. to counteract this trend, and the geoeconomic weakening of Japan due to its internal economic problems and the recent deterioration of its relations with Beijing are further compounding the current situation's similarity with the bloc standoff of the Korean War or Cold War eras.
Thus the solution to this more complex equation of forces in the region must be a maximal increase in the number of active participants in economic and political relations in the Asia-Pacific region, with the end, among others, of making it impossible for one power to dictate to other states making up this transcontinental area.
At the same time, despite the importance of stable ties with Beijing for Russia and its eastern project, its very Eurasian scale excludes the possibility of making China its only partner, and in a certain sense they are a competitor for China's «silk road» project.
Attempts to get past exclusive relations with China can be seen in the operations of Russian fuel corporations which are trying to diversify exports of Siberian petroleum and gas in the region, in similar practices of Russian arms suppliers, and in Moscow's increasingly active policy in ASEAN countries.
While China took a central role in the first stage of Russia's eastern project, which has already been sealed by the signing of important agreements and the preparation of further ones, for Russia to make China its only partner would be a strategic mistake. And here we must make special mention of the role of the Southeast Asian region, which has in recent years become a field for the energetic endeavors of major world powers, including the United States, China and India.
High economic performance and the gradual transformation of ASEAN into a sort of symbol of the peaceful interaction of civilizations make the region of special interest, including from the viewpoint of studying existing practices of interstate integration, so relevant to the Eurasian project. In turn, the countries of Southeast Asia often link their newly-acquired international status with the preservation of individual political sovereignty in the course of economic integration. This is an important distinction between ASEAN and European integration. Damage to national sovereignty is now perceived by many residents of the Old World as a very painful loss, which furthermore borders on a loss of real democracy.
The new role of the Southeast Asian region as an obvious beneficiary and skillful user of the polycentric world which is now taking shape is also worth mentioning. While accepting the «courtship» of more powerful economic centers, the ASEAN countries also demonstrate an ability to preserve their cultural distinctiveness, support weak participants of integration, and skillfully regularize international conflicts.
The eastern orientation of Russian foreign policy objectively increases the role of the countries of Northeast Asia for Russia as well. In the same way, South Korea and Japan's participation in Russia's eastern project can significantly broaden the horizon of their independent existence in the field of foreign policy.
Note, by the way, that Moscow abstained from solidarity with Beijing in its interpretation of the current Japanese cabinet's foreign policy.
Russia's eastern project could also become a platform for inter-Korean dialog. The recruitment of capital from South Korea and workers from North Korea to the project is a practical possibility.
In this difficult period for world economics and trade, the socioeconomic development of Russia's territory east of the Urals is an open program which could make a definite contribution to increasing growth rates, providing project participants with reliable sources of fuel and raw material for the future, and creating a large market and transcontinental logistics in Northern Asia.
Maintaining economic growth in East Asia, albeit not as rapid as before, means a further increase in the share of world resources consumed in this region due to population growth, building of infrastructure, urbanization, consumer revolution, etc. And the shift occurring in the physical consumption of the bulk of world resources in Asia will bring about the gradual reorientation of world export flow. World prices will increasingly be formed in East and Southeast Asia.
Russia's economic establishment on the Pacific, geographically closing the topic of building a Eurasian Economic Union, is returning the Russian state to the historical format familiar to its neighbors.