Asia and Eurasia
Pivot to the East at a New Stage: EEF Assesses Relations Between Russia and Asia

The Eastern Economic Forum 2023 was a kind of synchronisation of watches on how the “pivot to Asia” policy responded to the demand and needs that arose last year, what has already been done, and what problems have become the most important. These problems of today form the agenda for tomorrow, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.

The Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) held its seventh meeting in Vladivostok: the event was first held in 2015 and since then it has only been skipped once, in pandemic-hit 2020.
For the second year now, the forum took place in the context of an acute military-political confrontation between Russia and the West, the main consequence of which for the world economy has been the economic war unleashed by the United States and its allies against Russia. The countries of Asia, with which the EEF has traditionally aimed to intensify cooperation, are not participating in this conflict, with rare exceptions. Of all the regional powers, only Japan initiated so-called sanctions against Russia, although it also takes a more moderate approach than the American satellites in Europe.

Even now, Japanese companies continue their cooperation projects in the field, for example, energy. Another close US ally in Asia, South Korea, generally implements Western sanctions with reluctance and as if apologising for every case when it is forced to introduce new restrictions on trade and technological exchange with Russia. None of the other Asian countries have initiated any sanctions at their level, although they do not always share the Russian position regarding problems of European and international security. 

In other words, Asia is now precisely the region that has become Russia’s “gateway” to the global economy; it trades most actively with us and maintains a dialogue at the interstate level. This is also evidenced by the results of the analysis carried out by Valdai Club experts in a recently published report on the dynamics of relations between Russia and Asian countries over the past year and a half.

It is necessary, however, to understand that, by design, the Eastern Economic Forum was not conceived solely as a way of pursuing a more active dialogue with Russia’s external partners. The main task of the forum from the very beginning is the rise of the Far East as such and the coordination of state policy in this area. This goal, as one of the most important ones, was stated in President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly back in 2013. Another thing is that the accelerated development of this part of the country turned out to be very prudent in the context of general changes in the world economy, and the associated shift of its main centre of gravity towards the Pacific Ocean and Asia.

As the President of Russia noted in this regard at this year’s EEF, the policy for the development of the Far East, and in general the “pivot to Asia” were, therefore, very timely. Since the spring of 2022, the West began to pursue a policy of ousting us from world markets, and ties with Asia played a decisive role in the fact that this ultimately did not happen. The Far East and its leading cities, including Vladivostok itself, has become the most important “hub” for trade and economic relations with Asian countries on a new scale. Over the past months, the load on cargo ports has increased manifold.

It is not surprising that one of the most important problems in the development of the region is now recognized as the acute shortage of technical capacities necessary to ensure constantly increasing exports and imports. Much has been done over the years, which is why a significant portion of trade has been rerouted to the Pacific so quickly. However, until the spring of 2022, Europe remained Russia’s main partner. Even with all the growth in capacity, it has not yet caught up with the increased demand. Another historical problem of the region is demography. For historic reasons, very few Russian people live in the Far East, and over the past years it has not been possible to radically solve the problem of increasing the population. While economic activity in the region has increased significantly, new universities have emerged and construction is actively underway.

Now, judging by the discussions at the EEF, the most important areas of work are considered to be improving the quality of life, the ecology, and the state of the urban environment. In general, everything that makes the European part of Russia and the large cities located there attractive for life. These efforts are especially significant in the Far East, where truly favourable climatic conditions exist only in Primorsky Territory.

It is no coincidence that the north-eastern provinces of China, bordering us, are also facing the problem of population decline. This, by the way, should allay all the fashionable fears in the media about the massive influx of Chinese citizens to the Far East. It is not yet possible to even talk about restoring the levels of tourism from the neighbouring country that were achieved before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

In general, fears about openness to external partners contradict the approach formulated at the EEF by Vladimir Putin: “Russia must be self-sufficient, but this does not mean isolation.” 
The main issue is not receiving foreign investment at any cost, but the distribution of investments from both Russian and foreign companies. That is why the EEF, traditionally, has not only been about business cooperation, but also about solving the development problems which face the Far East as a whole. This is achieved through the close coordination of measures taken by the Russian government and the initiatives of the business community.

Like any region that has been deprived of objective competitive advantages for a long time, the Far East cannot develop exclusively by relying on the mechanics of the market economy. A consistent government policy is required. The Eastern Economic Forum 2023 was a kind of synchronisation of watches on how the “pivot to Asia” policy responded to the demand and needs that arose last year, what has already been done, and what problems have become the most important. These problems of today form the agenda for tomorrow. The interim results of the implementation will undoubtedly be discussed at the Eastern Economic Forum in 2024.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.