The concept of “the Asian Mediterranean” not only responds to the current concerns about what to do and what not to do, but also suggests, in particular, a wonderful space to help connect the vast space of the Asia-Pacific with that of Eurasia, the rich potential of Russia with the urgent demands of the Asia Pacific, and the present with the future, writes Valdai Club expert Feng Shaolei.
Recently, we Chinese colleagues have been focusing on discussing one thing: in less than two months, Beijing will have the honour of welcoming President Putin, who is planning to attend the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics. This means a lot. For one thing, this indicates that both China and Russia are determined to work with other countries to promote this peaceful Olympic event regardless of any interference stemming from ideological differences or ongoing conflicts. The global pandemic has hindered communications between old friends, and something needs to be done to change the situation. Additionally, due to the fast-changing nature of international affairs, it is imperative for the leaders of both China and Russia to review the development of our bilateral relationship and make comprehensive arrangements in the medium and long-term accordingly, so as to meet the challenges of the future. Therefore, President Putin’s visit will present a very important opportunity for both countries.
In 2014, when Russia faced the Western boycott, President Xi Jinping attended the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics regardless, which greatly boosted the friendly feelings among the elites of the two countries. Likewise, after President Xi put forward the Belt and Road Initiative in September 2013, President Putin expressed strong support well ahead of Russian scholars and policymakers, who at the time were still in the process of studying it. It is the personal communication between the heads of the two countries during the Sochi Olympics that started the bilateral and multilateral pragmatic cooperation which led to the coordination of the Eurasian Economic Union, and the “Greater Eurasian Partnership” with the Belt and Road Initiative. This is very much the beginning of a long process, similar to a marathon. It is no doubt a memorable beginning of a historical period not only for China and Russia, the two super-large-scale cooperating neighbours, but also for other Asian countries.
Why? Because China-Russia cooperation is not only critical for the two major countries themselves, but can also bring opportunities to Asia as a whole.
More than two decades ago, a French academic partner of mine put forward the idea that the Asia-Western Pacific region, where a number of countries are spread from north to south, is actually very similar to the Mediterranean in Europe. The economy here was booming, and the region was very likely to become the birthplace of a new form of civilisation. Later, he wrote a book called The Asian Mediterranean, which was translated into Chinese and attracted extensive attention. Now Chinese scholars are beginning to study how to realise his concept. At present, it is advised to use the establishment and signing of the upcoming RCEP as an opportunity to invite and promote the Western Pacific economic cooperation of the Asian Mediterranean, rather than to use the passageway starting from the Arctic channel in the north to connect Russia, Japan, South Korea, the ASEAN countries, and other parties, including China, by way of the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. The aim is to boost the multilateral and diversified economic cooperation in the Western Pacific region from north to south, while striving to get responses from Europe, the United States and Japan as well.
In my view, first, focusing the attention of the Asian countries on addressing the issue of regional economic cooperation could on the one hand provide more opportunities for Russia to participate in Asia-Pacific economic cooperation. On the other, it could offer sources to help the Asia-Pacific region solve problems related to space, land, agricultural products and ensuring a clean water supply. Therefore, it is a very noteworthy concept. Second, with the imminent signing of the RCEP early next year and the world’s largest free trade zone emerging in Asia, the Asian Mediterranean will become a critical concept in establishing closer ties between the Asia-Pacific region and the core area of Eurasia, eliminating alienation and disconnection. Third, it could also help to avoid the emerging excessive competition in military security.
There are still many other debates to be held on the future changes discussed above. One of the key questions is whether the energy economy will leave us so early or not. More than two decades ago, an economist who was also a senior official of the Yeltsin administration told me in a very prudent way that we need to be very cautious about predicting the prospects of the energy economy. Because the development of the energy economy is truly affected by too many uncertainties. Who knows when the pandemic will come to an end? Who can then conclude that the energy prices will not return to their high levels? Another important question is how we can, through transnational, cross-regional and cross-sectoral cooperation, achieve the most practical and most far-sighted redeployment and construction of the industrial and supply chains damaged as a result of both the pandemic and man-made sabotage. No one can turn a blind eye to the great opportunity brought about by a new shipping lane due to the warming of the Northern Sea area. Also, no one can ignore how the Asia-Pacific economy, which is bound to rocket after the pandemic, will affect the further transformation of the global political economy.
According to me, the concept of “the Asian Mediterranean” represents a more practical agenda which allows for more imagination. Because it not only responds to the current concerns about what to do and what not to do, but also suggests, in particular, a wonderful space to help connect the vast space of the Asia-Pacific with that of Eurasia, the rich potential of Russia with the urgent demands of the Asia Pacific, and the present with the future.