Since 2015 Russia has held meetings of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok as the principal window on its “Turn to the East.” The contents and direction of this policy, as before, was the subject of discussion in September, especially considering that its very curators (for example, Igor Shuvalov) are frequently denying the very fact of the priority of the “Turn to the East.” Yet, it is apparent that the complex of decisions involved in activating “Asian policies” actually remains in existence and consists of two blocks: more active cooperation with the countries of East Asia, and measures to improve the socio-economic position of the far eastern periphery of Russia. The EEF serves in current Russian politics as the main discussion platform for both directions.
The EEF, on the one hand, attracts Asian investors and trading partners to Russia’s economy. On the other, it showcases the successes in the development of the Russian Far East and motivates foreigners (and also Russian investors) to work in this area; in any case, this is the ideal. In practice, the EEF forum regularly draws a string of criticisms from both foreigners and Russians. There are even outbursts of voices calling into question the very purpose of convening this expensive and “pathetic” operation in as much as it is incomprehensible what actual results are achieved. A five-year time period seems sufficient in order to analyze the contents, problems, and perspective of the forum. If one does that, then it becomes clear that criticism of the EEF essentially turns into criticism of the “Turn to the East” as such and its lack of quick and concrete results.
Considering the position of the Russian Far East in the international arena and its economic realities, one could hardly expect quick results to be realized. Despite all of its problems, the EEF is a necessary mechanism. Now it finds itself in a sort of “crisis of creativity”; however, reserves exist for raising its effectiveness and finding new niches, which the forum could occupy in the global, international agenda.
Problems of establishment
From its very beginning, the EEF was conceived and realized by the federal center with minimal participation of the local community. Moreover, when we speak of the “local community,” we have in mind only Vladivostok, which from the end of 2018 was granted the status of the capital of the Far Eastern federal region; the rest of the Russian Far East only can send to the EEF official delegations but is left out of the formation of the agenda of the forum, and its local businesses do not receive any income from the EEF, as do the Vladivostok ones. This, in turn arouses envy for Vladivostok on the part of the other Far Eastern centers (Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, Iuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and others), similar to the envy across all of Russia to Moscow, in which are concentrated a large share of resources and personnel.
In Vladivostok itself, the EEF, as before, is seen as a “forum of a colonial aristocracy and local compradors, assembling once a year to discuss how the colony will prosper under their wise leadership” (a citation from Facebook by one of the visitors to the forum).The local population has figured out how to manage on those few days when the EEF is in session: the restaurants and hotels raise their prices; the exhibition stands are constructed by local companies, which hire local builders, loaders, and drivers; stores selling seafood, prostitutes, and bars also earn a fair amount. However, on the whole, the EEF is a forum for large-scale federal business with a federal agenda, on which local participants feel as if they are guests. The moderators and speakers in the sessions are practically always Moscow experts, who often have a very sketchy understanding of the realities in the Russian Far East.
In proceeding in this way, the EEF organizers have not yet decided on whether the forum is aimed, above all, on advancing a foreign policy agenda or discussing the economic development of the Russian Far East. So far, the EEF tries to have it both ways, resulting in the program being divided into two parts, which practically do not intersect. Some participants attend sessions on foreign affairs, others on concrete sectors of the economy. There are many foreign participants (especially if the head of a foreign government is present), but they traditionally are extremely passive in visiting sectoral sessions, having almost no contact with Russian participants and confine themselves to excursions and also to sessions on cooperation between Russia and their countries as well as the plenary session.
In exactly the same way, Moscow has yet to specify what the “Turn to the East” is: Is it more about foreign policy or about the development of Russia’s far east periphery. If one judges by the rhetoric of Russian leaders at the EEF, the latter takes precedence. Vladimir Putin’s speech in 2019, as in all five years, was addressed not only and not so much to international attendees as to the Russian audience, and the nature of the problem could hardly be comprehensible to a foreign observer. Of all Russian offices the one most active in carrying out the agenda of the EEF is the Ministry for the Development of the Far East and Arctic. Among the organizers, Yury Trutnev is de facto at the top, as vice-premier and representative of the president of Russia in the Far Eastern region, co-chair of the Russian-Chinese commission for cooperation and curator of development of the Russian Far East, which in the corridors is equated with Count Murav’ev-Amurskii, who initiated the inclusion of the Far East into the Russian empire in the mid-19th century. In other words, on the surface, the EEF has turned into an exhibition of the achievements of this ministry, which turns into, above all, a report to one visitor—the president of Russia.
International relations in the Asia-Pacific region and the future of the forum
Not only is Putin the primary audience, he is the main performer at the forum. It is precisely his participation that attracts to the EEF a large proportion of the foreign participants and journalists. If he were to skip even one forum, there would be a feeling that nobody would even recall the fact that EEFs had been convened. Considering the program of the forum, this reaction would be somewhat unjust. Indeed, the sectoral sessions of the EEF comprise a mass of interesting factual information about the development of the Russian Far East, which in concentrated form one can encounter only here. However, its development remains a subject of interest of a very narrow circle of experts and businessmen. Therefore, for the majority of observers, the EEF is of interest, above all, as a platform for international dialogue and measures, analysis on the basis of which can make it easier to understand where Moscow’s “Asian policies” will be heading next. To the present, the forum’s initiators have largely disappointed observers who put stress on the economy and an internal agenda.
Possibly, the time has come to change the priorities and put stress on unfolding foreign policy. All the more so, because the international situation in the Asia-Pacific region is taking shape in a manner very suitable for that, and now in many ways, the future configuration of this entire region depends on Russia’s actions. The EEF serves as the most suitable platform for articulating such actions.
The “trade war” between China and the US, which Donald Trump unleashed, objectively works in favor of the strategic partnership of Russia and China, of which Western analysts have spoken with trepidation throughout the past decades, acquiring new shading. In this situation, Russia’s need for China as a global ally is hardly greater than China’s for Russia. This is not only as a partner in geopolitical alignment, but also as a source of products which have become more difficult to procure from the US. This refers, above all, to soybeans, an agricultural product, which, however paradoxical, at this EEF eclipsed on the agenda of talks between Russia and China both oil and gas. It was not accidental that the head of the Chinese delegation Vice Premier Hu Chunhua on the first day of his stay in Russia paid a visit 120 km from Vladivostok to Mikhailovskii region of Primorskii krai to see with his own eyes Russia’s prowess in producing and processing soybeans. Participants at the business-dialogue “Russia-China” and in the sessions on trade and economic cooperation were the ones to talk about this the most.
However, Russia always stresses that for it the “Turn to the East” is not concentrated on China alone. It is divided into five equivalent partners, among which, besides China, there are also the Republic of Korea, Japan, India, and the countries of Southeast Asia. Various possibilities, which the Russian side is ready to put forward, call for natural competition—true, this is still more apparent in words than in deeds. Asian partners proceed with traditional Asian caution and calculation that if they wait, they can manage to economize in the end. Yes, there is a danger of letting the moment pass, about which Yury Trutnev, vice-premier of the Russian government, spoke at one of the sessions with participation of high-level Asian experts. Land and resources for realization of projects in the Russian Far East are not boundless, and interest in them is rising not only abroad but also from the side of Russian capital, attracted by the beneficial conditions for conducting business there. Already, today more than 70 percent of the investments in the Russian Far East are of domestic origin. For example, the biggest Chinese business in agriculture in the Russian Far East, the company Huaxin, in 2016-17 preferred to sale all of its agricultural activities to the Russian giant “Rusagro,” only because it was not in a position to compete with the Russians.
Chinese have the attitude that they will undermine Russia in its tendency to prove to the entire world that the “Turn to the East” is not a “turn to China.” Above all, Beijing, which counts on having a special, privileged position among Moscow’s partners, finds it simply incomprehensible to find itself just one of the equal partners at the forum. For that reason or some other, the PRC leader Xi Jinping has only once visited the EEF, in 2018, preferring to meet Vladimir Putin at those platforms where he does not need to share the Russian president’s attention with the heads of other states. On the other occasions the Chinese delegation has been headed by officials at the level of vice-premier or even deputy speaker of the Chinese parliament. At the 2019 EEF, Hu Chunhua did not even speak at the plenary session.
Traditionally, the main presence at the EEF is the Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo. Of all heads of foreign state, he is the most frequent guest at the forum—this year was already his fourth time. And his presentations are always the clearest and most memorable. The one at the 2016 EEF in its rhetoric touched on the historical gap in Russo-Japanese relations. However, the gap has remained since, despite the positive declarations, Tokyo has shown no readiness to separate itself from under the considerable influence of Washington, and Japanese business has not been as active in investing in the economy of Russia as the heads of state had expected. Moscow, in turn, was traditionally careful in discussions of the problem of to whom the southern part of the Kuril Islands belongs, and it made very clear that it does not consider a final resolution of this question to be the only possible condition for further cooperation. Alas, the recent forum left in place a certain stagnation in the development of Russo-Japanese relations, which could be overcome only when words from the high tribune turn into real actions on the part of business and investors.
It is worth also mentioning that this year at the EEF, delegations from India, Mongolia, and Malaysia, headed by the leaders of these countries, actively participated. The activity of the Republic of Korea was significantly less, and this was well noted, although its presidents in prior years also had participated in the work of the EEF, including in the plenary session. The “highlight of the program” in the coming year, according to the expectations of the workers at “Roskongress” should be participation at the EEF of the leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un.
The attendance of Kim Jong-un would be a brilliant decision for the organizers, enabling them to stir up interest in the program of the forum and again draw the attention of all of world society to it. This is sought because the main problem of the EEF in the results of the first five years of its existence is its predictability and one-sidedness. Annually a feeling of déjà vu lingers from the convening of the EEF. Neither Russians nor Asian partners, as was mentioned, are ready to proceed quickly—especially when there is little “history of success” and the risks are many. Therefore, the forum resembles a lengthy romantic courtship, lasting for five years. From year to year, the very same presenters pronounce the very same words, finalize the very same memoranda about cooperation in the presence of the very same leaders. The very same participants go out in the evening to the very same bars, and even the decision to use in the capacity of a “floating hotel” a cruise liner, which was taken, as a matter of urgency, some time ago prior to the APEC summit in 2012, is repeated from year to year. The result is a continuous “Groundhog Day,” only not in declarations from a wintry Pennsylvania but in the sun and warmth of September on the shore of the Gulf of Peter the Great.
Such, by the way, is the fate of all annual forums which are convened at one or another platform. In the Russian Far East there is simply no other infrastructure capable of being host to such a representative event (and recall, above all, while being used as the campus of the Far Eastern University); therefore, the EEF, if it continues to be convened, will be obliged to return time after time to Vladivostok. However, two decisions could change this “wheel of Samsara”: first, the above-mentioned accent on the foreign policy agenda, which would be necessary to strengthen the breadth of the circle of participants on behalf of the countries of South and Southeast Asia, Oceania, and ahead even North and Central America; second, a transition in the format to biennial meetings could result from a division of the program into two parts, even while preserving the forum as a showcase. For example, in even years, there could be discussions of foreign policy problems with participation of heads of state, and in odd years, of the economic agenda with a more modest contingent of participants and less expense for convening it.
I think that such a reconfiguration could breathe new life into the forum and increase its effectiveness. It is difficult to value it highly on the basis of such categories as the volume of deals or investment projects, as many critics try to consider in assessing it. However, the EEF is not the Canton exhibition, where seller and buyer often become acquainted only on site and right there reach a deal. The task of the EEF is to create political conditions so that deals can be concluded but not necessarily only at the EEF. Therefore, for each investment project that is realized in the Russian Far East, one can and must see the influence of the forum, which, consequently, should be preserved.