What Can Russia Give Asia?

5 march 2019

Timofei Bordachev is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University-Higher School of Economics (HSE), Director of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies (CCEIS).

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Resume: Russia is in demand in Asia. But its response should not be a mere mirror reflection of what the Asian countries want. It is generally a rather odd thing in international politics to proceed from partners’ desires or capabilities.

Russia’s pivot to the East has taken place. But regional political and strategic realities are such that Russia will be able to find a foothold there if it offers its own unique agenda to Asian states and arouses their interest in playing the long game. Unless this happens, the Asian vector of national foreign policy will taper off and lose any practical sense. Russian diplomats, experts and even business people will become a familiar sight at Asian venues, but this country will not gain serious influence (and thus conspicuous benefit). Asia must be given what it lacks for historical reasons.

Multilateral cooperation institutions could serve as a tool in this long-term influence. In Asia, Russia should play the same role as France did in Europe at the dawn of European integration, that of the main intellectual engine for reformatting interstate relations. A new agenda must be created and promoted, and Moscow’s Asian partners need to be consistently and firmly persuaded that tactical alliances based on pragmatic interests might not be the best strategy in the 21st century world. A better option is international institutions based on an understanding that a single country’s national interest cannot be regarded in isolation from the interests of other countries. Europe has realized this long ago. But in Asia, this understanding is yet to come and its path is cluttered with many factors related to the regional strategic culture and legacy.

Historically, Asia, and the East in general, have failed to develop a tradition of alliances, primarily military. In Europe, this tradition goes as far back as hoary antiquity, when Greek city-states either jointly repelled outside invasions or formed rather stable groups to engage in infighting. A classic example is the Peloponnesian War between the Athens-led Delian League and the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League. European states have formed alliances throughout their history. The idea of European integration emerged in the mid-20th century, when it became clear that even former continental great powers could no longer count on an independent role in world affairs. But this idea proved so successful precisely because of its deep roots in the strategic culture of the European nations.

The US has a much poorer tradition of alliances, regarding an involvement in institutions only as a tool for promoting its own – rather egoistic – interests and hegemony. As soon as international institutions cease to perform this function, they become redundant, from the US point of view, and should be either dismantled or reformed to regain their usefulness for America. We are observing something of this sort in current relations between the US and its European allies. The panic, in which the Europeans were plunged by US Vice President Mike Pence’s remarks at the Munich Security Conference this February, is indicative of the fact that Europe is aware that reform in the entire system of trans-Atlantic relations is inevitable. They are also aware that they will have to pay for this reform not only with money but also with their freedom.

There is a simple explanation for the Asian strategic culture’s almost total lack of a tradition of stable alliances: it’s all down to geography. Asian states were always located at considerable distances from each other and, in the event of war, an ally would simply arrive late for the fighting. Under these circumstances, stable allied relations made absolutely no sense. Besides, the two Asian giants, China and India, were always so big and distinctive in civilizational terms that they needed no allies. After all, alliances imply, even if formally, that the parties are equal. Another obstacle is the well-known Asian pragmatism. Most authoritative Asia experts agree that the Asian cultures are specific in that international cooperation is only promoted if it promises immediate and tangible benefits. As soon as benefits vanish, so do motives for cooperation. Such motives cannot be based on a strategic “common interest,” an abstract and absolute benefit for all regardless of current losses or gains.

Thus, it is very hard to discern a tradition of stable alliances and institutions in Asia’s strategic culture. It is this factor that makes it difficult for Asian states to see how important multilateral cooperation institutions are. A unique example is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that was established in 1967. But today the majority of analysts share the opinion that despite its achievements ASEAN has reached the limit in its integration. The reason is that the member states are reluctant to accept real restrictions on their sovereignty or, more broadly, to regard other members’ national interests as part of their own national interests. The result is a fairly high vulnerability to the influence of outside players.

Russia is unique in this respect. It is too big and powerful to join other alliances and yet lacks scope to be fully independent and self-reliant. This is why it is creating and promoting international institutions. Russia is also seeking to address security and development problems through multilateral mechanisms. But at the same time, it is capable of regarding stable unions both as tools to achieve the common weal and as more or less effective diplomatic platforms. This is explained by the abovementioned duality of Russia’s strategic scope and foreign policy culture. These unique advantages must be exploited.

Often, this is already being pursued. The India-Pakistan conflict again made people doubt the correctness of the Russian initiative to accept both states as members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Analysts both in Russia and elsewhere believe that the rivals could push the SCO to the verge of disintegration or full loss of functionality. But at the same time, it must be understood that the long-term strategic importance of having both India and Pakistan discuss issues unrelated to their bilateral contacts is much higher that the SCO’s temporary malfunctioning. Sooner or later, these states will be in contact with each other. And Russian involvement is crucial in this context.

Russia’s Asia policy should take into consideration regional specifics, strategic cultures and the current interests of the countries in the region, which is of no less importance. But Russia should not renounce its own unique advantages and not necessarily its global military and strategic edge alone. After all, it is evident from the international debate on the North Korean nuclear and missile issue that Russia has limited potential for being a really active and needed participant in the process.

Russia is in demand in Asia. But its response should not be a mere mirror reflection of what the Asian countries want. It is generally a rather odd thing in international politics to proceed from partners’ desires or capabilities. A few years ago, it was an achievement for the Russian foreign ministry to decide on drafting an agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union and China on aligning the EAEU and the Belt and Road project. This was accomplished despite claims by many respected experts that China would remain committed to bilateral cooperation with EAEU countries. Instead, a different situation took shape and Beijing took a strategic decision to proceed along a multilateral track. So, it is in contributing its ideas and concepts that Russia can become a really important player in Asia.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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