Reviews Russia turns to East Asia. Geopolitical strategies and projection

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4 2015, 119-120
Published on balticworlds.com on november 19, 2015

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Russia and East Asia is a long-awaited work on Russia’s place in East Asia. Russia’s role in the region and its participation in regional integration are among the less explored yet important themes that can explain certain relational issues between countries in this dynamic region. The editors, Tsuneo Akaha and Anna Vassilieva, should be praised for a good timing since the book came out shortly after Russia had officially announced its turn to Asia.

After having abandoning any serious efforts to engage in Asian politics during its transition from socialist to capitalist system in the 1990’s, throughout first decade of the twenty-first century, Russia slowly increased its presence in East Asia. But Russian leadership did not officially recognize until summit in Vladivostok in 2012. The Asian vector of Russia’s foreign strategy, as it is often called, can be seen in a new light now that the geopolitical situation around Russia has become increasingly complex. After Western sanctions limited Russia’s ability to reach it development goals, cooperation with Asian states became even more important.

The book Russia and East Asia consists of five chapters written and edited by an international group of authors and editors, who are experts in their field of Russian studies. Regrettably Chinese experts did not participate, which would have contributed to a fuller perspective on how Russia is viewed by different East Asian states. Still, the paper by Natasha Kuhrt on Russia-China relations clarifies many issues in how the two countries see each other.

The book deals with various aspects of Russia’s presence in East Asia including strategic and geopolitical competition as well as energy cooperation. However, on close examination one finds that the volume is heavily skewed toward geopolitical and security issues while giving economic problems much less attention. It discusses them only marginally. Such a focus seems to contradict the title of the book, which suggests it contains discussions about integration. It is well known, and occasionally mentioned in the book, that economic cooperation in East Asia has always developed ahead of political dialogue. Therefore, a discussion on economic issues is essential to understanding integration in East Asia.

In Part III, the analysis on the possibilities of energy cooperation partially covers some economic issues. However, given the geopolitical and strategic importance of the energy sector for any country and the generally high politicization of energy deals, Part III provides a perspective only on few aspects of economic cooperation. It leaves some essential questions unanswered, such as structure of bilateral trade flows, Russia’s participation in regional value chains, Russia’s position with respect to multiple free trade agreements in Asia and some others.

As some authors correctly observe, currently, Russian economic cooperation with East Asia significantly lags behind the high intensity of trade and investment links that have developed within the region over recent decades. But, even so, economic issues deserve more attention in order to provide an understanding of fundamental reasons of Russia’s turn to Asia. Considering that Russia’s economic links with the region fail to receive due attention, it is difficult to regard the book as fully realizing its goal, which is formulated as locating Russia into the context of “emerging economic and political realities.” Similarly, the clear lack of discussion about economic aspects of Russia’s turn to Asia makes it hard to agree that integration represents the right theoretical concept for this book.

Russia and East Asia also set itself another ambitious goal — to discuss Russia’s involvement in the region of East Asia. Yet in reality the authors rarely go beyond North-East Asia in their analysis. Therefore, upon reading the book, readers might feel that their expectations were not met. At the same time, given the lack of reliable data on Russia’s economic cooperation with countries of East Asia and the time and amount of work needed to accomplish such a goal there are obvious constraints for a full discussion on cooperation between Russia and all of the East Asia.

Three papers make up the central axis of the book: a discussion on Russia’s global vision by Vitaly Kozyrev, one on Russia-China partnership by Natasha Kuhrt, and one on Russia energy cooperation with East Asia by Kenji Horiuchi. The authors of these papers give excellent analysis of existing intricacies of Russia’s ambivalent strategy in North-East Asia. They show the complicated state of affairs in the region and clearly present the limitations of Russia’s full participation in the region, which is often conditioned by the strategies of other Asian states competing for regional leadership. The last point particularly refers to Japan and China. As the book clearly shows, North-East Asian countries in general do not want Russia’s wider involvement in the region and, for example, regard its role only marginally in the context of the six-party talks on North Korean question.

Two other papers that deserve attention are devoted to the Russian Far East. One written by Russian scholar Pavel Minakir analyzes the state of the industrial development in the remote Asian region of Russia. Minakir extensively explains the reasons for Russia’s limited participation in regional economic networks, which originate in the underdeveloped and deteriorating state of industry in the Russian Far East. The other paper, which is by Hiroshi Takahashi, gives a very detailed account of Japan’s involvement in the Russian Far East. It analyzes early attempts on part of Japan to get involved in the Russian Far East to take advantage of the region’s resources. Thus, Takahashi fills some of the gaps in the analysis of the Russian Far East and the importance of international cooperation for its development.

Despite some very interesting individual papers, the overall structure of the book seems somewhat unbalanced. The scope of discussion on different themes as well as the sophistication of analysis in different papers varies significantly. The chapter on migration seems slightly out of the context considering the general theme. Certainly, it was good that such a serious issue as migration had been included as it contributed to broadening the analysis, which otherwise would have been too h dominated by strategic and political issues. But the chapter clearly lacks links with the other papers and the general theme of Russia’s integration into East Asia. As a result, a reader will have questions about how the demographic situation in the Russian Far East fits into overall dynamics in East Asia and what role it plays in promoting Russia’s integration into the region unanswered.

Overall, this book, which is in Routledge’s Contemporary Russia and Eastern Europe Series, provides excellent insight on some aspects of Russia’s role in Northeast Asia, on how the country sees itself and on how other Northeast Asian states perceive it. There is no doubt that the book can be considered a meaningful addition to the coverage of issues concerning Russia’s strategies in the North-East Asia and can a useful tool for making projections into the future. ≈