The Rise of Asia, and the Eastern Vector of Russia’s Foreign Policy

12 july 2006

Sergei Lavrov is Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

Resume: There are necessary prerequisites for adding a new quality to Russia’s mutually advantageous partnership with the Asia-Pacific countries. The recognition of Russia’s importance as a constructive factor in the Asia-Pacific region has brought about markedly new opportunities for regional integration and for consolidating the independent role of the regional states in global politics.

© "Russia in Global Affairs". № 3, July - September 2006

Sergei Lavrov is Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation and member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has recently been conducting an increasingly active and productive dialog with domestic political analysts. This dialog meets the fundamental task of involving civil society institutions into various spheres of state activity, and foreign policy cannot be an exception. This is in line with the general tendency in the development of international relations where nongovernmental organizations now play an ever-greater role, often generating forward-looking ideas and initiatives. Thanks to the contribution being made by civil society, Russia’s role in international politics will grow, acquiring new facets and due depth. This is one of priority areas in efforts to bring the resource potential of Russia’s foreign policy into line with requirements of the times.

I would like this article to be viewed as a contribution to the discussion, The Future of Asia and the Policy of Russia, held in early March of this year at the 14th Assembly of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which regrettably I was not able to attend. Judging by pre-Assembly papers, Russia’s political analysts differ greatly in their views on the above subject and other related issues. I believe that open and fair discussions will be useful to all and will promote better and deeper understanding of Russia’s foreign policy inside the country and abroad. Yet several of our analysts hold views on Russia’s Asia policy, as well as on particular aspects concerning the present development of international relations, which I simply cannot agree with.


First, I cannot agree with the idea that there is the possibility of an imminent conflict between the European and Asian vectors of Russian diplomacy. Equally unfounded are statements about “the preservation of a predominantly European orientation of Russia,” which is also seen as a “guarantee” of the country’s modernization in order to prevent its “inevitable return to Asia.” (I guess ‘Asia’ here stands for ‘backward and savage Asia’ – a notion savoring of prejudice and quite out of line with the actual state of affairs.)

This opposition between different aspects of Russia’s foreign policy is artificial and far-fetched. Multifaceted orientation is one of its key characteristics outlined in the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, endorsed by the president in June 2000. Abiding by this principle means only one thing: each vector is valuable per se for us, and any mutually exclusive or ‘compensatory’ patterns are unacceptable. Using some partners in a game against other partners would be, to put it mildly, an unwise line of conduct – quite in line with Big Game politics, however, which no longer meets the nature of international relations in their modern perception: the factors that shape today’s international relations include globalization with all of its contradictory consequences.

The rise of Asia and the rapid involvement of many countries – above all China, India and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – in the international economy and international politics was largely a result of globalization. (Incidentally, ASEAN, a key regional actor, was somehow ignored in the aforementioned pre-Assembly papers.) Both processes are interconnected; hence the phenomenon known as the “Asian face” of globalization. For this and other reasons, I consider an opposition between the two major vectors of Russia’s foreign policy groundless.
Russia can join the integration processes in the vast Asia-Pacific region only through the economic growth of Siberia and the Russian Far East; in other words, the modernization of these regions is an axiom. Therefore, there does not exist any contradiction between the general vector of Russia’s internal development, described as “the European choice,” and the objectives of our policy in Asia.


The opposition between different aspects of Russia's foreign policy is artificial and far-fetched 
 cannot pass over in silence statements to the effect that Russia’s policy in Asia may contain some anti-Western or anti-American implications, or that some people in Moscow’s corridors of power have yielded to the temptation to take advantage of the “weakening of America.” I do not know how such suspicions, characteristic of certain political circles abroad, have made their way into expert opinion in Russia. Each vector of Russia’s foreign policy presupposes the solution of specific tasks. However difficult its relations with the European Union might become, they cannot be substituted by relations with other partners. The same rule applies to all the other vectors, including the Asian and North American ones.

As for the West, any attempts to restore the bygone trans-Atlantic unity as an isolated aspect of international life can have only partial success. The Western Alliance suffered following the end of the Cold War, and the last decade has seen developments that were of momentous importance for it: these included the consensus-based military operation of the North Atlantic Alliance against Serbia, the lack of NATO participation after the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, and, finally, disagreements over Iraq. Most importantly, the very coordinate system of international relations has drastically changed. Additionally, following the disappearance of the ‘Soviet threat,’ there emerged political and philosophical disagreements between the United States and Europe on many issues, among them the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the creation of a Bioconvention verification mechanism, the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and the death penalty. There is also disagreement between the stringent Anglo-Saxon model of economic development and the more socially oriented policy of Continental Europe.

This is only one of the numerous consequences of the “unfreezing” of international relations after the end of the Cold War. This is why Russia’s foreign policy in the West cannot have only one vector; actually, at the present time there are several vectors. In particular, the presence of the North American and the EU aspects in Russia’s foreign policy reflects the difficult reality that it is facing, and is not at all an attempt to “drive a wedge” into what has long ceased to be a monolith. (Formerly, the latter was bonded together by ideology, by an ideological confrontation.)


It would be useless to try to scare us by various kinds of threats from the East. On the international scene we pursue a pro-Russian policy – not more and not less. We are guided by our own interests, as is done – and very effectively – by all of our international partners, which rely on their centuries-old experience. Russia’s existence at the junction of different civilizations, through constant efforts to achieve inter-civilizational accord, in many respects has had a negative effect on its own development. Today, its role – which is not of a shield but of a cultural and civilizational bridge – is needed as never before. It not only organically fits in with the collective needs of the entire international community, but also meets our vital national interests and helps Russia to solve the task of its historical predestination. However, it is important that our partners should not view this only as a possibility to use the bridge to their own benefit, without taking our needs into account. Perhaps, ‘bridge’ is not the best word here. It would be more correct to speak of interfacing the interests of the West and the East for the purpose of solving acute problems of the present.

In the long run, this is the significance of, for example, Russia’s contacts with the Hamas movement. In the situation where this movement has won elections in Palestine, recognized by all as free and democratic, the international community’s policy on the Middle East settlement – without initiatives like those made by Russia – may reach a deadlock, while decisions of the Quartet of international intermediaries may remain on paper. Flexibility, ensured by Russia’s position, gives the Quartet’s efforts a second wind. Democracy is a double-edged weapon and, simultaneously, a remedy for the wounds it inflicts. By bringing the agreed position of the international community to the notice of Hamas, we started the process of involving it into open politics – a process in which the Arab world actively participates. It is worth noting that many West European countries have supported Russia’s efforts, and judging by our partners’ reaction to the results of the Moscow negotiations with Hamas, none of them view it as an attempt to engage in an “independent game” at someone else’s expense.

I think the problems concerning the perception of Russia’s foreign policy are largely rooted in a lack of understanding of the essence of the disagreements over Iraq. If we analyze the events in the UN Security Council prior to the beginning of the war in Iraq (March 2003) from today’s positions, we cannot but come to the conclusion that the role of Russia and China, however important it was, was not at all the only factor. The main factor involved the wish of two major European nations, France and Germany, to uphold their foreign-policy independence and to defend international law and order in accordance with their fundamental national interests. Here our positions coincided, as now do the positions of all members of the international community as regards the need to normalize the situation in Iraq as soon as possible, to stop the spiral of violence, restore the sovereignty of the Iraqis over their country, and prevent its breakup. This is why it has become possible to return to political work on Iraq in the United Nations and within the framework of other forums.

At the same time, however, the initial framework for political settlement in Iraq, set down unilaterally, has not seen any essential changes despite its obvious drawbacks. This explains the abnormal and even tragic situation where an overwhelming majority of the world’s leading countries are unable to actually influence the course of events, however much they wish to improve the situation. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons for the insufficient participation of China and India in the region’s affairs, which was justly pointed out in the materials of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. I am confident that these two great countries will be ready to contribute to truly collective and equitable efforts for achieving a settlement – for example, in the event an international conference on Iraq is convened. The convocation of such a conference is becoming increasingly important.

On this point, it would be appropriate to mention the belief that continuous foreign military presence is ostensibly salutary and serves as an instrument of “social and political engineering.” The very fact that coalition members continue to withdraw their troops from Iraq shows that these countries are drawing opposite conclusions from their practical experience and analysis of the situation. I am convinced that such instruments for pursuing one’s national interests in international affairs are counterproductive. Such a foreign presence distorts the development of internal processes and creates the temptation to use force; ultimately, it underestimates the potential of political and diplomatic settlement.

As regards the situation in Iraq, we have no grounds not to trust the well-known opinion of the representatives of the conservative political elite in the U.S. (Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, etc.). Furthermore, it is correct that the “residual” foreign military presence in the region following the Gulf War of 1991 invited the breakup of the entire former geopolitical structure in the Middle East. The strength and efforts of the UN Security Council, implementing its unique legitimacy, help to remove a significant part of the negative effects of military force. By way of example, one can site Afghanistan where UN-mandated and NATO-led international security forces are deployed. But even in Afghanistan, despite UN support, the internationally agreed strategy of settlement and the absence of disagreements similar to those over Iraq, things have not been developing as planned. Why, then, should anybody be surprised at what is happening in Iraq, where the settlement process began in an absolutely different situation?

In this context, there arises the issue of military bases of outside powers now operating in Central Asia. There is no pressure on Russia’s partners in the antiterrorist coalition. But it is important to remember that the military presence was requested exclusively for the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan. Attempts to use it for other purposes would radically change the situation. The countries that offered their territories for the military bases understand this issue precisely in such a way.


The “old” alliances existing in new conditions are faced with the difficult challenge of transforming themselves. This fully applies to NATO. The former purpose of its existence no longer unites the members of such alliances; they must search for a new purpose. Even more difficult is to come to agreement in assessing and reacting to threats. Previous commitments, which no longer seem unequivocal, often turn into burdens.

Yet, here too, the fact that international relations are now free from the rigid bloc discipline of the Cold War years has a salutary effect on global politics. Old commitments do not prevent countries from finding areas where their interests coincide with the modern realities. It seems that the political analysts underestimate the phenomenon of the fundamentally new relations between Russia and those countries that are tied up by military and political bonds inherited from the Cold War. I am referring to Greece, Turkey, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states. Our interests are successfully combined in each of these respective regions, thereby promoting the creation of a balanced regional architecture, be it the Black Sea region, Northeast Asia, or the Middle East. These are all visible signs of real change.

Former alliances can play a positive role in the modern conditions – in particular, by checking nuclear proliferation and combating terrorism and drug trafficking. In my view, NATO’s survival in the modern conditions lies in its ability to transform itself in order to find answers to unprecedented threats and challenges. Simultaneously, it should establish contacts with new regional security organizations, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, especially since their efforts can be pooled, for example, in Afghanistan. Within the frameworks of the Russia-NATO Council we seek to advance precisely such cooperation, which meets the requirements of the times.

The globalization of the North Atlantic Alliance is a special issue, which encompasses the globalization of tasks (here it can and should act in cooperation with all other states and regional organizations) and the issue of membership in the Alliance. Potential candidates include even countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Is it really necessary in the present-day conditions? Such developments would hardly be welcomed in Asia, which has different traditions, and where even the faint resemblance of another’s superiority, let alone the establishment of an ‘axis,’ is unacceptable.

In Russia’s policy there is no anti-Americanism; this policy could not be otherwise. Russia has once and for all given up confrontational approaches in international affairs. The foreign-policy goals pursued by Russia and the United States, including in Asia, coincide in principle: we want more security and predictability in the world. If there are disagreements between us, they are primarily of a politico-philosophical nature and pertain to views on a new world order. This factor explains why we sometimes have more difficulty understanding each other’s views on certain issues today than we did during the period of the “negative-stable” bipolar world order.

Now that we have learned the lessons from our experience with the Soviet Union, we cannot agree with the logic of “transformation,” according to which the complex processes of building forms of political and economic life in various countries and regions are artificially and rapidly induced from the outside. Also, we do not believe in the possibility of achieving “absolute security” by trying to achieve manifold military superiority over any country in the world. Formerly, these attempts only succeeded in introducing the Cold War. Our national interests will not necessarily coincide in some specific situations, let alone in competition in trade and economy. This is a natural thing, however, which does not stand in the way of our close interaction in a wide range of issues or prevent us from being allies in the antiterrorist coalition.

Another important factor is that the international role of all states is changing. Russia has already passed through this painful process; we had no choice: we were faced with the reality, and our only option was to recognize it. Other countries had more freedom of choice, while the United States probably had even more freedom than the rest. Nevertheless, the role of the American factor in global politics is being essentially modified as well – Henry Kissinger wrote about this in his book, Diplomacy, in 1994. These changes have resulted in the development of conditions for the formation of a global “orchestra” of the leading powers. This orchestra would be able to consolidate the collective principles in global politics and put an end to the practice of creating various kinds of balances of forces in the world. I am sure that collective leadership of this kind would be welcomed by an overwhelming majority of states.

There is yet another peculiarity in the Asia-Pacific region: developments there can be described by China’s return to full-scale participation in regional affairs. For a long time its legitimate place was occupied by other actors, which now have to adapt to the new conditions. But this is an objective process accompanied by the establishment of economic interdependence between China and other countries; therefore it should not be considered a crisis-provoking factor. An overwhelming majority of countries in the region share this view. As everywhere else in the world, the Asia-Pacific architecture is undergoing a correction, which should be viewed not as a threat but as an opportunity to seize.


Asia is justly described as one of the main driving forces of global development, whose importance and role will keep growing in the foreseeable future; hence, the importance of Russia’s Asia policy. Moreover, our domestic and foreign policy interests converge in Asia as in nowhere else, because without economic progress there cannot be a solid foundation for our policy in this region. In turn, this policy directly depends on the social, economic, infrastructural and other development of Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Asia is highly resistant to various kinds of crisis. The economic growth in the region results in a higher demand for marketing outlets and, to an increasing degree, for modern technologies and energy resources. Energy security may well become an increasingly important issue in multilateral and bilateral interaction in Asia. These factors also determine Russia’s contribution to the region’s development, namely the development of manpower resources and the innovation sector of Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Rapid integration processes, both in sub-regional and pan-Asian formats, which often overlap and are mutually complementary, characterize today’s Asia. The enhanced activity of multilateral associations in the region reflects the general tendency toward shared decision-making. By way of example, there are about a dozen authoritative institutions operating in the region, among them the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The tendency toward broader and deeper integration processes in Asia will continue to increase. Unlike Europe, for example, the Asian space is not culturally, historically and politically homogeneous, and each sub-region there has specific features of its own. This factor explains the rapid and steady growth in the number of multilateral associations and the absence of an all-embracing organization like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. There are grounds to believe that the general trend toward multilateral processes in the Asia-Pacific Region will continue to dominate. Respective mechanisms will take upon themselves the ever-growing burden of addressing pressing regional problems, as well as creating effective patterns for cooperation among themselves and with outside actors. Russia took into account this objective tendency two years ago when the Tashkent initiative was put forward at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for establishing a partner network of multilateral associations in the Asia-Pacific region. Efforts to fulfill this initiative have already resulted in the creation of mechanisms for the SCO’s interaction with ASEAN and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Furthermore, documents are being drafted for cooperation with the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

While recognizing the objective nature of globalization, Asian countries hold that the “expenditure burden” of this process should not be borne only by them. For example, the APEC’s activities, which some of its members originally sought to orient toward economic and trade liberalization to their own advantage, have taken forms that better meet Asian ideas and traditions. An overwhelming majority of Asian countries prefer gradual economic modernization, while preserving their social and political stability as a major condition of their national life.

After the Cold War, the security factor has not lost its importance for Asia. Moreover, new threats and challenges have come into the foreground: terrorism, extremism, drug and human trafficking, illegal arms trade, epidemics, natural disasters, and others. Combating these threats requires a joint effort, and the Asian countries justly argue that such interaction must not undermine their sovereignty. If we are against the use of double standards, then the same approach must be displayed toward the countries of Central Asia. In the same way, the Middle East states would also respond to the challenges of modernization on such a basis.

The above peculiarities of the Asian integration processes create an objective basis for Russia’s effective integration into them. Russia has a powerful potential for finding solutions to practical problems in the region. At the same time, we consistently uphold the fundamental norms of international law, the principles of mutual benefit, recognition and respect for legitimate interests, national peculiarities and traditions of all members of the international community, and dialog between religions, cultures and civilizations. The latter acquires special importance in the present conditions. The specific nature of that extensive region, including its cultural and civilizational diversity and unique methods of development, makes it a perfect place for building a comprehensive strategy model for keeping inter-civilizational accord in the world.

Russia’s Asian partners understand that the relationship is a two-way street: Russia needs an economically mobile and politically stable Asia, while Asia is interested in a prosperous Russia. Meanwhile, there is a more pragmatic consideration: without Russia’s energy, scientific, technological and intellectual potential, Asia will find it difficult to achieve its goal of general economic prosperity – the primary objective of Asian integration.

Naturally, foreign-policy efforts must go hand in hand with our own well-planned policies (social, economic, energy, migration, infrastructural and ecological in context) in the regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Such a strategy could become what is justly called a “new dash to the Pacific Ocean.” Yet, there are occasional suppositions that this goal could be achieved only within the framework of a project for multilateral, investment-based development of Siberia and the Russian Far East. However, this internationalization of the country’s internal development bears a strong resemblance to another epoch. And if it implies an attempt to initiate a partition of the “Soviet heritage,” especially now that Russia is on the rise as a sovereign nation, this would sound like something from the domain of political fantasy.

I am convinced that we can fulfill this task on our own, while attracting, of course, investments from all interested countries of the region on a balanced basis. However difficult the task of developing the Asian part of the country may be, we will not renounce our sovereignty, nor share it with others. Only we can see to it that all of the resources of those territories, including manpower resources, are put to use and that the areas are developed, above all, in the interests of those who live or want to live there.

This is a fundamental issue, and no pseudo-geopolitical reasons can override it. We must not play a U.S. or Chinese card with regard to the access to our resources, as some political scientists propose. Instead, we must clearly outline terms for cooperation in developing resources on the basis of Russian laws. It is for this consideration, rather than out of energy egoism, that Russia has chosen global energy security as the priority subject for its chairmanship of the Group of Eight – without giving up its legitimate rights, though.

The above considerations obviously suggest practical conclusions for Russia’s policy in Asia. The main conclusion is that, while continuing to further develop neighborly partnership ties over the last few years, most importantly, with our immediate neighbors (our colleagues in the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Community, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as partners in other associations), we should also step up our participation in promising multilateral organizations within the Asia-Pacific region.

Much has been done of late to fulfill this task. As regards the multilateral nature of our policy in Asia, it would suffice to mention some recent events. First, there is the start of practical cooperation in the fields of security and economic interaction among the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Then, there is the raising of the Russia-ASEAN dialog to the summit level, Russia’s initiative participation in the APEC, Russia’s admission to the Asia Cooperation Dialogue as a member and to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as an observer. Finally, Russia’s head of state will participate in the first East Asia Summit.

To sum up, there are necessary prerequisites for adding a new quality to Russia’s mutually advantageous partnership with the Asia-Pacific countries. The recognition of Russia’s importance as a constructive factor in the Asia-Pacific region has brought about markedly new opportunities for regional integration and for consolidating the independent role of the regional states in global politics. At the same time, this partnership attests to Russia’s genuine deep interest in Asia, which we belong to as well.

Last updated 12 july 2006, 13:20

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