Staying On Track
No. 3 2015 July/September
Viktor Larin

Director of the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East at the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is Doctor of History and Professor at the Far Eastern Federal University.

Geopolitical Coordinates of Russia’s Eastern Policy

“Go somewhere, I don’t know where …”
(Russian proverb and folk amusement)

Over the past fifteen years, the “Eastern vector” has taken an important place in Russia’s foreign and domestic policy discourse. Integration with the Asia-Pacific region, the so-called “turn to the East,” and socioeconomic development of the Russian Far East and the Trans-Baikal Territory are invariably mentioned, albeit in various forms, among Russia’s top priorities. In the meantime, the political and economic pundits in the West and the East have been working hard to devise acceptable models of regional integration and security in Northeast and East Asia and the whole of the Asia-Pacific region. However, these efforts have so far produced meager or no results: elegant virtual constructs refuse to work; integration processes get stuck; and there are more bumpy roads to a bright future than there are smooth highways.

Difficulties arise not only from the clash of interests and numerous problems in bilateral relations, but also from the obscure system of geopolitical coordinates within which national strategic tasks are set and solved, as well as from ambiguous terminology used to describe the development strategies. Naturally, clear coordinates and terminology are not a panacea from all the troubles, yet they are important ideological and administrative instruments which, if badly tuned, can frustrate the implementation of even substantiated solutions, especially if these are old instruments adjusted to solve Colonial or Cold-War-era tasks.

At present, the term ‘North Pacific’ is generally understood as the northern segment of the Pacific. However, if assigned geopolitical and economic dimension, this territory may help address issues of security and sustainable development in a considerable part of the world at a markedly new level. This article suggests taking the North Pacific as a reference point in Russia’s “turn to the East.” 

Vectors of movement

I have not the slightest intention to present the North Pacific as an alternative to the Asia-Pacific region, East or Northeast Asia. But it is crucial that we have a clear goal and a comprehensible vector of movement. Only then can we expect some result. Otherwise, we will be moving nowhere and getting nothing in the end.

To begin with, Russia failed to formulate a conceptual framework for the latest version of Russia’s “turn to the East.” Besides, it is not clear what exactly the Russian leadership means by the “East.” Geographical or civilizational? Middle, Near or Far? Confucian, Buddhist or Islamic? The East that opposes the West and will never converge with it, or the East that is slowly beating the West demographically and ideologically? A priori it is presumed that Moscow refers to East Asia, but Russia’s political culture has always linked the East with Western and Central Asia rather than with the Far East. Russia’s “Asianness” has been associated not with the fact that it possesses vast territories in Asia, but that its European part is inhabited by Asian ethic groups, and also with its interests and presence in Central Asia. Besides, the term ‘East’ is understood very vaguely, both geographically and politically, by people in the East.

Russia’s “turn to the East” has been slow because of unclear targets – the Asia-Pacific region is too large – and attempts to make it by intensifying bilateral relations with some of the countries in Northeast (China, South Korea), Southeast (Vietnam), and South Asia (India), which have strained relations with each other. The latter factor is definitely not politically conducive to integration.

Obscure targets and twists and turns in Moscow’s policy provoke different interpretations. The most optimistic experts associate the “turn to the East” with Russia’s Asia-Pacific aspirations; some view it as an attempt to “overhaul Russia’s relations with its Asian partners;” others believe it signifies “a return to East Asia” and an intention to play a more active role in Northeast Asia; still others link the “turn” with a pro-active policy towards China; while skeptics see nothing but political rhetoric and claim that Moscow has neither genuine interest nor possibilities “to make this turn a strategic and economic reality.”  But all agree that Moscow is not ready for a “fundamental reorientation” from Europe to Asia, and that its actions are motivated by the desire to “counterbalance its Europe-centered foreign policy.”

East Asia can hardly serve as a target for Russia’s “eastward turn.” Asian states, which still remember the nuances of tsarist Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s policy in the region, view it entirely as a foreign, and often destructive, force. This is also true of China, with which Russia has “the best ever” relations, if the leaders of the two countries are to be believed. Tsarist Russia’s colonial policy in Manchuria, the history of its borders with Japan and China, Soviet plans to export revolution and Communism to Asia, and decades of active anti-Soviet propaganda have created ideological and psychological barriers for the recognition of Russia by people in the region; and not only by them. As American researchers write, the designers of the U.S. foreign policy do not even bother to mention Russia as a player in East Asia. Since the Soviet Union was part of the region not economically but militarily only, the decline of Russia’s military power in the Pacific automatically left it without Washington’s attention. Having no real levers of influence for addressing pan-regional issues, Moscow will inevitably act as Beijing’s junior partner, which is a serious psychological impediment for the Kremlin.

Individual and collective studies of various processes in East Asia mention Russia very rarely. “Asia” is the dominant element in this word combination, and its racial and cultural factors have a crucial meaning. The “Asia for Asians” slogan is gaining popularity again. Former prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad advocated the idea that the East was not so much a geographical as a cultural notion: “To be East Asian a nation must not just be geographically in the right location. It must also be culturally East Asian.” Xi Jinping’s remark made at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), held in Shanghai in May 2014, that “… it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia” is hardly a slip of the tongue.

As for Northeast Asia, its geopolitical concept is based on the idea of accelerated economic growth, idealistic views that its countries are interdependent, and the global importance of the Korean issue. However, contradictions in Northeast Asia have deepened over two and a half decades, despite all the talk about the need to form a regional community. The conceptions of regionalism, which Northeast Asian countries tried to build by mixing up controversial geographical, economic and civilizational factors, are not working. Paradoxically, although it is commonly believed that stable and mutually advantageous relations in the region would serve the interests of all parties concerned, factors of disintegration appear to be stronger.

The region is beset by contradictions, conflicts and political uncertainties. Each of the five Northeast Asian countries has numerous claims, grudges and reasons for conflict with its neighbors. But there are even more of these within the enclave.

The craving of all and every player in the region for self-identity and self-assertion, and the growing competition between themselves and on the global scale caused an unprecedented rise in nation state nationalism and critical deterioration in relations between neighbors. As Korean researcher Kim Taehwan has noted, “Nowhere is the return of geopolitics more present than in today’s Northeast Asia, where politics are now revolving around strategic national rivalries, conflicting territorial claims, naval buildups, and past historical issues.” Regionalism in Europe proved viable mainly because it did not run counter to the interests of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. But this is not so in Northeast Asia where the two powers are considered outsiders and cannot act as mediators in resolving numerous conflicts in the region.

Moreover, Northeast Asia’s inner energy, which was sustained by China’s economic growth, is running out, while destructive forces of mutual suspicion, mistrust, historical contradictions, and offences are running strong. One of the biggest unsolved problems is limited resources for self-development. The situation is further compounded by mounting social problems caused by the economic slowdown in China, the aging of the population in Japan, and an unclear future of North Korea. The latter’s belligerence and unpredictability often pushes its neighbors closer to each other, but regionalism will lose this driver in the foreseeable future.

Francois Gipouloux, Director of Research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research), writes that one of the weak spots in Northeast Asia is that its core is made up of a group of peripheral districts (Russia’s Far East, North Korea, and the inward-looking side of Japan) distanced from the national centers where the states play an equivocal role. The principal economic interests of China, Japan, and South Korea, let alone Russia, are projected not inside this region but kind of above it, globally. Moscow, Washington, and Beijing consider Northeast Asia a territory of secondary importance that requires no special attention. While Washington is bound by allied relations with Tokyo and Seoul and has to watch the situation in the region one way or another, Moscow thinks mainly in terms of East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, and Beijing has left the development of regional cooperation with Northeast Asia to its north-eastern provinces.

An abstract and random construct called Asia-Pacific region, the need for economic integration with which has been widely discussed recently, would be a doubtful beacon for Russia’s “eastward turn.” Russia’s foreign policy is based on the assumption that the country is actually present in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the English version of Wikipedia leaves Russia (as well as the United States and Canada) outside this area, while listing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India as its parts. The White House views Russia exclusively through the prism of its own Euro-Atlantic schemes, and even the U.S. Pacific Fleet Command does not see Russia among the 36 countries that make up the Asia-Pacific region.

Integration processes in the region remain obscure. Suffice it to say that different APR countries interpret the term ‘integration’ differently. In Russia, too, the purpose, goals and objectives of integration are understood quite vaguely. Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept for 2013 just declares that the country “is interested in active participation in APR integration processes.” Since current integration processes in the region are rather chaotic, contradictory and largely futile, Russia’s integration becomes more of the form than content and boils down to broader economic engagement and political influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Security problems are also unlikely to be solved in the region, which, according to American experts, will see “deepening regional bipolarization and militarization, driven by a worsening U.S.-China strategic and economic rivalry,” and will be “beset by social, economic, and political instability,” and “episodic but fairly frequent military conflict in critical hotspots.”

Unclear guidelines produce odd goals. Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept for 2013 aims to secure Russia’s status as “a key transit country providing for trade and economic relations between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.” How Russia can “provide for relations” between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region remains a mystery. Such spatial disorientation will doom both “the eastward turn” and “integration with the Asia-Pacific region” to failure.

North Pacific as a beacon for Russia

The North Pacific is a continental and maritime geopolitical and geoeconomic space in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean, a knot of geopolitical and economic interests of eight countries: Canada, China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan (a virtually unrecognized state), and the United States. Naturally, this space is just as relative as are the boundaries of the Asia-Pacific region, Northeast Asia or even East Asia. But there are several factors that make it more significant in the 21st century than all other constructs. 

First, there is a tangible possibility to lay the groundwork in the North Pacific for a common security system based on cooperation between the United States, China, and Russia, and on an agenda of global issues such as nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, safety of navigation, etc.

Second, the region displays mutual economic attraction of states and territories, and even their interdependence in a chain of bilateral and multilateral ties.

Third, the countries in the region have ethno-cultural and historical commonality, which plays a significant role in several European and Asian associations (EU, ASEAN) but is a hindrance rather than a stimulus for integration in Northeast Asia, is not to be found in the North Pacific.

We will not name here the gross regional product, the volume of external trade, the size of the population, military capabilities, or other parameters, which are usually used in substantiating the choice of a region. They will be more impressive in the North Pacific than those used for identifying Northeast Asia. But numbers alone do not tell much. They are a result of previous developments rather than the basis for the future. The main point is that the North Pacific allows for equal coexistence and cooperation among four global (United States, China, Russia, and Japan) and four regional (Canada, the two Koreas, and Taiwan) powers, each of which has its own interests, ambitions and capabilities to realize. Moreover, former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark believes that “middle powers <…> often have much more flexibility in opening new dialogues, reaching across existing boundaries, and encouraging the skeptical or the constrained to explore new options.” Unlike East Asia or Northeast Asia, the North Pacific should be viewed not as a regional but as part of the global geopolitical and geoeconomic space.

The North Pacific concept is not new. It has already been used by some research centers as a forum for raising and attempting to solve economic problems, specifically for justifying the U.S. presence in the geoeconomic space of Northeast Asia and advancing the idea of Trans-Pacific Partnership. International institutes have been established for solving some common tasks facing countries in the region.

Russia has good reason to play an equal role in building a security system and economic and political cooperation structures in the North Pacific, without looking to the region’s old-timers as it has to do in the Asia-Pacific region, East or Northeast Asia. There are historical, geopolitical, cultural, economic, and other conditions for that. 

History. Because of its European identity, Russia, which has a large territory in Asia, has to prove its “Asianness” and the right to be on equal terms in the Asia-Pacific region, East Asia and even Northeast Asia, spend time, money and effort for that. By contrast, the North Pacific is an area where it has been present for almost four hundred years. In the early 17th century, Russian Cossacks and volunteers started moving eastward “towards the Sun,” reaching Chukotka, Kamchatka, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the River Amur, and made it all the way to the American continent in the 1740s. Confronted by the Manchurian Qing dynasty, they could not settle down on the Amur but actively fished, hunted and traded on the northeastern coast of Eurasia. It was the economic competition between Russians and Americans in the North Pacific that led to the signing of the first-ever treaty between the two countries – Convention Between the United States of America and His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russians, Relative to Navigating, Fishing, Etc., in the Pacific Ocean of April 17, 1824 – which fixed the southern border of the Russian Empire in Alaska to the north of fifty-four degrees and forty minutes of north latitude. Having sold its Fort Ross outpost in California (in 1841) and then Alaska (in 1867), Russia gave up its overseas territories but strengthened positions on the eastern coast of Eurasia. It was the activity of Russians to develop the Amur area, Sakhalin and Kuril Islands in the 1860s-1880s that prompted Chinese and Japanese rulers to start doing the same in Manchuria and Hokkaido that bordered on Russia.

Security. The need for a common security system in the North Pacific was first discussed in the spring of 1990 when the Canadian foreign ministry voiced concern about the future of the country in a rapidly changing world. The government’s appointee David Dewitt, a security and conflict management expert, initiated a three-year project called North Pacific Cooperative Security Dialogue (NPCSD). What made the project, financed by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, special is that it sought to set up an international group of experts and bring politicians and scholars together on one track (so-called second track).

But the initiative was never implemented for several reasons. Firstly, it was conceived at an inopportune time and drew no interest from the three key players in the region: Beijing was going through the post-Tiananmen worsening of relations with the West; Russia was burdened with its own domestic problems; and the United States was euphoric from its status of the world’s only superpower. Secondly, the model was customized to the idea of “cooperative security” co-authored by Dewitt. Thirdly, it was not easy to throw together an international group of qualified experts capable of thinking along the same lines. As a result, the project ended up as a purely academic undertaking, complete with discussions and working publications. The foreign ministry’s interest ebbed away in 1993 and the project was closed. Its authors had used the term ‘North Pacific’ quite relatively since the concept was linked to the whole Asia-Pacific region and more specifically to Northeast Asia. The term was subsequently used in this and other projects technically. Project Co-Director Paul Evans reminisced later that the project had focused on the Asian part of the Pacific Ocean, aimed to link the United States and Canada to Northeast Asia, and was designed not only to increase the number of actors but also to change the format, moving from discussing Cold War-era problems to studying post-war possibilities. So it was quite natural that the relative North Pacific format was soon put away, and the regional community concentrated on pressing issues facing Northeast Asia.

The current national security and military doctrines of the United States, Russia and Japan ignore the North Pacific zone.

Economy. Clearly, economic relations in such a vast area as the Asia-Pacific region fall into many unconnected segments. A variety of attractive concepts can be conceived within it. Statistically, economic ties maintained by Northeast Asian countries with the United States, Canada and Russia are broader and closer than those among themselves. Their trade turnover with the United States, Canada and Russia in 2014 topped $1.2 trillion ($962 billion, $90 billion, and $152 billion, respectively), exceeding the volume of trade (of about $960 billion) among five Asian countries (China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, and Taiwan) by $244 billion. It is not surprising that the United States has been so active in advancing its Trans-Pacific Partnership project. 

Ethno-cultural factor. Despite progressing globalization, Northeast and East Asia are an outside geo-cultural space, an alien territory for Russia and the United States. Russia created its own cultural space in the North Pacific three hundred years ago, in the 17th and 18th centuries, and its existence there is unquestionable today. The Pacific part of Russia has been actively engaged in humanitarian exchanges in the region. In 2013, about 15 million people crossed the borders between the five Northeast Asian countries. Almost two million more people (16.9 million) travelled between them and the United States, Russia and Canada. According to the 2010 census, there are 3.4 million ethnic Chinese, 1.4 million Koreans, and 763,000 Japanese living in the United States, while the Pacific regions of Russia are visited annually by hundreds of thousands of Chinese.

Beacons ahead

Many features of the North Pacific are similar to those found in Northeast Asia: the importance of common security, uncertainties, big differences in levels of economic development, political disagreements, ethno-cultural diversity, etc. And yet the region is quite balanced and provides more opportunities for dialogue than confrontation. Its states can act without constantly watching various provocations and problems that are commonplace in practically all of the abovementioned parts of the world, and focus instead not on solving old problems but on building a positive future.

A trilateral dialogue between Russia, China and the United States can become the core of a new security system in the Pacific, with other countries and territories in the region (Japan, the two Koreas, Canada, and Taiwan) gradually joining in. Multilateral cooperation in the North Pacific is a fundamental objective. It will require a transition from the bloc system and allied relations to a multilateral format. Equal and indivisible security for all is the main principle.

A common task and concern for all states in the region include thrifty development of natural resources, environmental protection and prevention of militarization in the Eastern Arctic. The North Pacific is the eastern gate to the Arctic. With the good will, the North Pacific format can make it easier to guarantee the security of North Korea and the nuclear-free status of the Korean Peninsula.  

The North Pacific will complement the Asia-Europe continental project with a trans-continental one, opening up futuristic but attractive opportunities for building a land bridge between Asia and America, and developing natural resources in Kamchatka, Kolyma, Chukotka, and Alaska on the basis of international cooperation and economic security of countries in the region. 

Finally, it is imperative to shift the focus in Russian-American relations from the European agenda to the Pacific one. European problems have been poisoning these relations for too long, and, on top of it all, the future of the world will not be decided in Europe.

Moscow, Beijing and Washington will most likely view this project with skepticism at present. Moscow and Beijing are busy “connecting regional economic integration projects” such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt, which bypass vast areas in the Pacific part of Russia and Northeast Asia. Washington is used to looking at Russia through the prism of Europe and builds relations with China on a bilateral basis. Nevertheless, approaches cannot but change. The ultimate goal of Russia’s Eastern policy should be the strengthening of its relations in the Pacific, and the North Pacific happens to be the best possible beacon for that.