ASEAN Centre in MGIMO-University the MFA of Russia


E.Koldunova. Can Russia be a leader in East Asian economic integration?

E.Koldunova. Can Russia be a leader in East Asian economic integration?


Until its 2012 APEC chairmanship and APEC Summit in Vladivostok, Russia was not a proactive participant in East Asia. Rather, it was still striving for comprehensive involvement in the network of regional institutions such as APEC, ASEAN dialogue partnership, the Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the East Asia Summit. The third ASEAN–Russia Summit held in Sochi in 2016 represented a new impetus for Russia’s relations with regional multilateral structures. But further engagement in East Asian multilateralism requires more substance and will entail meeting certain challenges both at home and abroad.

Russia has traditionally paid much more attention to its bilateral ties with individual East Asian countries — in the 1990s with Japan and later with China — rather than to multilateral institutions in the region. During the past 15 years, Russia focused mainly on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Russia, China and four Central Asian states established in 2001, as well as the Six-Party Talks, both predominantly security-focused organisations.

As for other East Asian regional institutions, Russia joined the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994, it became an ASEAN dialogue partner in 1996 and a member of APEC in 1997. The year 2010 was the next milestone for Russia’s relations with regional institutions — Russia simultaneously joined ASEM and the East Asia Summit. But despite expectations of Russia’s greater regional role in East Asian multilateral structures after 2010, the Russian presence there remained largely symbolic.

One reason for Russia’s weak involvement in East Asian regional cooperation was that it did not fit very well into East Asian regionalism, which by and large defined the specifics of regional cooperation. During the 1980s and 1990s, the region witnessed the rise of de facto economic integration through the diffusion of production networks and preferential trade agreements, neither of which Russia was a part of.

The Russian leadership saw an easier way to become involved in regional cooperation: by officially joining regional institutions. As a result, Russia’s political involvement in the regional multilateral processes became more visible, but the economic underpinnings of Russia’s presence in the region remained weak. This led a number of regional actors — primarily ASEAN countries — to criticise this drawback in relations with Russia.

The 2012 APEC Summit in Vladivostok was Russia’s first major step to bridge the gap between its political and economic performance in the region. Here, Russia proved its ability to be a game-changer for regional economic cooperation, proposing new approaches at a time when APEC seemed to be suffering from a ‘loss of steam’. Russia’s APEC priorities stressed the idea of increasing regional connectivity through lower barriers, not only to trade but also to physical and business infrastructure. This idea resonated among subsequent APEC chairs, namely Indonesia, China and the Philippines.

The ASEAN–Russia Summit in Sochi in 2016 aimed to strengthen another element of Russia’s relations with regional multilateral institutions. In contrast with the previous ASEAN–Russia Summits, which took place in ASEAN countries — the first one in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 and the second one in Hanoi in 2010 — this time Russia invited the leaders of ASEAN to Russia and assumed a leadership role in the process. The summit adopted the Sochi Declaration and a comprehensive plan of action to promote cooperation between ASEAN and Russia through until 2020.

Russia also proposed the idea of an economic partnership between ASEAN, the SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union, a Russia-led Eurasian integration project. Another recent initiative is the Eastern Economic Forum, a yearly meeting of businessmen from Russia and East Asian countries, which started to take place in Vladivostok since 2015, with the aim of attracting more attention to this part of Russia from East Asian businesses.

Apart from all these developments, Russia is still facing several structural challenges in expanding its stance in regional multilateralism. Some positive measures are already in place. For example in the Russian Far East, a special business and visa-free regime for Vladivostok and territories of advanced socio-economic development in other parts of the Far East are making this underdeveloped Russian region more attractive for domestic and foreign investors. But Russia still has a long way to go to bring the Far Eastern business climate and economic conditions to a level comparable with Russia’s more eastern regional counterparts.

Internationally, Russia has to find a way to reconcile its Eurasian integration project with a Chinese vision of the region’s further development embodied in the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. Russia also needs to find a way of better coordinating with China in regional institutions where China enjoys a stronger economic position without alienating other counterparts, like ASEAN member states.

A far greater challenge for Russia’s role in regional cooperation in East Asia is a US-dominated security system of hubs and spokes and its economic liberalisation projects, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. These leave many regional actors — including Russia — on the outside, and devalue already established regional trade liberalisation structures such as APEC. Russia’s task now is to find truly creative answers to these challenges.

Ekaterina KOLDUNOVA,
East Asia Forum