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Yuriy Kulintsev

Deputy Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies (IFES) Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC expert

In the past few years foreign policies of both Russia and the United States have largely shifted towards the East, with China becoming vital partner for both countries. Still, the economic potential of the Russian Far East remains underestimated. Is Russia interested in China’s role intensifying in this part of the country and what are the US interests at this point? Yury Kulintsev shares his thoughts on the topic, providing a review of “Russia’s Far East. New Dynamics in Asia Pacific and Beyond” by Rensselaer Lee and Artyom Lukin.

In the past few years foreign policies of both Russia and the United States have largely shifted towards the East, with China becoming vital partner for both countries. Still, the economic potential of the Russian Far East remains underestimated. Is Russia interested in China’s role intensifying in this part of the country and what are the US interests at this point? Yury Kulintsev shares his thoughts on the topic, providing a review of “Russia’s Far East. New Dynamics in Asia Pacific and Beyond” by Rensselaer Lee and Artyom Lukin.

The book was written at a time when bilateral Sino-Russian and U.S.-Russian relations reached their peak, however, at opposite ends of the spectrum. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine, along with Western sanctions against Russia, have dramatically altered the former balance between three powers. The authors claim that the aforementioned events are triggering Russia’s rapprochement with China, thus making coordination between the countries on both global and regional issues even more feasible. It is evident that sanctions didn’t serve as the principal reason for Russia’s pivot to Asia as demonstrated by the diversion of geographical trade. Nonetheless, what they did was give an impetus to its qualitative and expansion which in the meantime narrowed the number of trading partners of Moscow. China appeared to benefit most. It gained unlimited access to the diversified sectors of the Russian economy, especially those in the resource-rich Asian part of the country. The West meanwhile deprived itself of an opportunity to make investments and take part in the development of this strategically important region, thereby giving the floor to China which intends to strengthen its positions in Asia.

The book provides a comprehensive overview of the region’s history, beginning with Siberia’s colonization in the 16th century and the ratification of the Nerchinsky agreement in 1689 (p.26). The 350-year period was marked by numerous political and economic threats posed to the Russian Far East (RFE). Should the region develop being primarily backed by private sector? Or will the state become the key driver of the RFE’s development? Will exemptions and concessions attract new waves of migration to the region? Is there sense in converting the Russian Far East into a free economic zone with close collaboration between the neighboring communities or should it be regarded as the bastion standing firm on the eastern borders of Russia – with minimal external contacts and strict control asserted by the central government (p.42)? Asking these questions the authors assume that the long-term trajectory of the RFE’s development will be defined by the politicians’ approaches to answering them.

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The territory of the Far Eastern Federal District amounts to 36% of Russia’s territory, while its population accounts for 4% of the country’s figure. Located significantly far from the country’s industrial centers, the region lags behind in terms of economic indices, taking second to last in GRP rankings. The situation is getting worse due to the demographic crisis. The population’s outflow in 2014 was 23% more than in 1990 (which is being caused by adverse climatic conditions, low life expectancy, high poverty and crime rates, the absence of social infrastructure, etc.). Some Western experts even designated the region as the “sick man of Asia”, rephrasing the words of Nicholas I referred to Turkey.

Despite economic obsolescence, the RFE region is a promising territory from the perspective of strategic exploration. First of all, there are concentrated and vast reserves of mineral resources (oil, natural gas, coal, and various metals, including rare ones) which are in great demand among emerging Asian economies. Moreover, the region has 80% of Russian marine products and contains 25% of national timber reserves. In addition, rich water resources and millions of hectares of unpoisoned and fertile soils flourishing in a relatively mild climate cannot but be mentioned in this context. Pundits believe that rivalry for these particular resources will become central in determining economic and geopolitical relations in East Asia (p.8).

The book’s authors are unanimous in reckoning that 2007 was pivotal for the Russian Far East. In light of rapid economic growth and the sufficient amount of foreign-exchange reserves possessed by the country, it was decided to adopt resolute measures to galvanize the region’s development. The Russian government approved a program for the RFE’s socio-economic development, as a result allocating more than 30 billion dollars for the construction and modernization of transportation infrastructure and the launch of up-to-date industrial complexes in six years. In 2009 the federal policy program “Economic and social development of the Far East and Baikal region: up to 2025” was endorsed, first being elaborated by experts and government officials. The voluminous document underlined the priority of the RFE’s development on the national level. It was supposed that the region would not only be able to deliver raw materials rather than process natural resources into higher-value-added products. The strategy also provided for the realization of transit capacity of the region which is able to bridge Asia and Europe. The demographic challenge was intended to be solved through the improvement of living standards of the native population. In 2013, in his address to the Federal Assembly, President Putin emphasized a commitment to the “Russia’s turn to the Pacific” and claimed that the development of the RFE to be the “national priority of the 21st century”.

The authors dwell on the way cooperation between the most prominent geopolitical actors will influence the region’s future and the latter’s effect on the general balance of power in East and North-East Asia. According to R. Lee and A. Lukin, qualitative changes in the Chinese-Russian relationship in this context will come to the fore. The strategic partnership of Moscow and Beijing rests on the rejection of the USA as the hegemon in the realm of international relations. At the regional level, American hegemony is causing controversies over potential threats to Russian and Chinese dominance in corresponding exclusive spheres of interest (the post-Soviet region for Moscow; East Asia for Beijing) (p.118).

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The possession of nuclear weapons minimizes the chances of an extensive military conflict between the major powers. This is why the essence of “war” has shifted to cyberspace, as well as trade and financial spheres. Economic sanctions, embargoes and exclusion lists have become modern weapons that great powers resort to in the 21st century. And China may probably be confronted with them in case of Sino-American differences becoming aggravated. Under these circumstances, mutual economic support will play a key role in uniting Moscow and Beijing. Through maintaining close contacts with China, Russia manages to mitigate the effects of the Western sanctions. As for China, it acquires a safe and secure channel of access to Russian natural resources. In such a way, even if the Chinese traditional energy delivery routes suffer from a naval blockade, the state’s economy will be able to survive and function properly (p.123).

Until recently the Chinese government didn’t display a keen interest in the Russian Far East. There were no regions in the People's Republic of China that would cling to Russia for the sake of bolstering their local economies. The RFE eventually turned into a Chinese “raw-material-producing appendage”: dependence on some commodities reached 60-70% (p.194).

In 2013-2014 the trend began to reverse. Several big oil and gas deals were concluded, with their resource-bases located in Eastern Siberia and Far East. Chinese state banks started to open multimillion credit lines assigned for RFE-oriented projects. Senior political leaders of China announced the attractiveness of the RFE-track for national business.

Despite absent official statements, experts deem that Beijing was motivated by strategic goals when demonstrating interest in the Russian Far East. This part of Russia is seen as the trustworthy “rearward area”: here the state can exploit mineral and biological resources and energy, whereas land transport channels are not exposed to the US Navy’ and its allies’ activities. Authors estimate that following these conditions, the RFE may end up in a subordinate position in a long-term perspective. Improved performance in the region will have a direct impact on the balance of economic and political powers in East Asia.

Relations between Moscow and Washington in the Asia-Pacific region (APR) are not referred to the most distinguished strategic dialogues, especially in comparison to American-Chinese, Japanese-Chinese, American-Japanese and Chinese-Indian links. The assumption that the authors make is that Russia does not wield substantial regional influence, which reflects the weakness of its positions in the APR, in particular, against the backdrop of the other states.

Today relations between Russia and the United States in the region are characterized by neither broad cooperation nor serious contradictions. But history, nonetheless, has witnessed examples that illustrate the way that Russian-US coordination has determined the development of the Northwestern part of the Asia-Pacific region. The superior demonstration of the countries’ relations dates back to the time of the American Civil War when the two states backed the creation of an anti-British “quasi-alliance”. This scenario looks viable amid the recognition of a common threat posed by the third party (p.203).

There are a number of factors that allow us to speak about Russia and America as partners in the APR. One of them is the current rise of China that entails risks for both states and new long-term threats to global security. On the one hand, Russia is “strapped” for technology, capital and experience, which are strong suits of their American colleagues and alliance partners. On the other hand, American companies are seeking new job opportunities in the RFE, which will not make the Americans happy if they are occupied with their Chinese rivals.

From an economic point of view, the natural resources of the Russian Far East are of little value for Washington, owning to its own massive reserves. But the geopolitical aspect is increasing its importance amid the permanently growing competition in the APR. Many analysts agree with the statement that China will remain the major opponent of the USA in the forthcoming decades, which highlights the imminent necessity for conducting a more assertive policy towards China (p.245). As mentioned before, China is striving to secure its continental borders (the continental part of South Asia, Central Asia, the Russian Far East). The USA is unequivocally interested in ebbing Chinese influence in the region which may be fraught with Beijing’s expansion and a new, more confident style of dialogue with Washington. Weight to the RFE is also being lent by its geographical proximity to the North America. Consequently, the more China penetrates the Russian Far East, the more risks the USA gains.

Russia in its turn may aim for the role of an independent actor in the Asia-Pacific region, a counterbalance to any attempts of establishing hegemonial regime in Asia – a mechanism of “maintaining the equilibrium”. This political stance suits the interests of the USA and returns us back to the initial point – the RFE, economically developed, stable and integrated into the international economy, necessary for allowing Russia to play its primary role in the APR. Vice versa, the economically undeveloped RFE can become a “sitting target” for expansionist China.

In conclusion, it is important to acknowledge that American ambitions are not concentrated on a commercial presence on the Russian Far East, but rather on sustaining a leading position in the international arena. The growing superiority claimed by China in the region arouses certain concerns among some Asia-Pacific nations, which are afraid of changes that will be introduced in the regional balance of power. In order to restore the general balance, the USA intends to prevent the geopolitical rise of China in Asia by coordinating international efforts and thus averting Beijing’s monopolization of the region. The integration of the RFE into the Asia-Pacific economy will attract more people into finance and investment/trade activities in the region – in such a way to thwart China’s dominance in Asia.

The Western approach to the RFE’s development implies empowering China to participate in the region’s activities, though with limited freedom to dictate its own rules and establish self-interested frames of cooperation. It seems that the USA expects Russia to endorse this strategy, the latter being aimed at diversifying the country’s ties in the APR, helping Russia benefit from both economic alternatives to the Chinese initiatives and achieving some practical outcome.

Will Russia follow the suggested path? The answer will depend on Moscow’s long-term priorities. However, right now they are focused on intensifying a large-scale partnership and strategic dialog with China.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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