Country Report: Russia (July 2017)
The divide over Russia’s Asian policies came into the open and sharpened as hopes for Trump changing US policy have been dashed and Putin’s prominent role at the Belt and Road Initiative summit failed to yield tangible benefits. The mainstream view calls for staying the course, tweaking the label from “Turn to the East” to “Greater Eurasia” while rejecting the notion that China is on the path of regional hegemony or that Russia is failing to diversify. On the other hand, a more emboldened critique asserts that Russia’s plans for joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and building a stronger SCO are pipedreams, as are claims that Russia’s ties to ASEAN, India, and other states should be taken seriously as ways to constrain China’s quest for hegemony without tackling that challenge directly. The critique lacks clarity as to what alternative exists to the current course, while the mainstream blithely predicts triangularity with China and the United States—a balanced Eurasia in which Russia need not defer to China, and continues to lead a geo-economic, geostrategic, and geo-cultural sphere in spite of alarm that Kazakhstan is cutting its own deals with China with corridors bypassing Russia.
The focus has shifted from Sino-Russian bilateral relations, where euphoria in 2014-15 had given way to disappointment by 2016, and development of the Russian Far East, where results have been meager, to “Greater Eurasia” and the SCO. Yet, claims about the promise of those two projects are being questioned more assertively with the former treated as vague and premised on unlikely assumptions, and the latter presumed to have reached a dead-end after its expansion to India and Pakistan. Little is being said about specific partners for Russia, as options fade.
China’s Course and Sino-Russian Relations
The debate over China has intensified, but it remains indirect, lacking calls for a new course. On one side are those who fault authoritarian politics and values standing in the path of China’s reform. On February 28, at a roundtable printed in the March issue of MEiMO on the reactions of various Asian systems to new challenges, speakers discussed recent changes in the region. One response was that political responses have so far fallen short in the face of economic growth. V.V. Mikheev took this further, saying that integration and globalization have lately increased pressure on authoritarianism and “Asiatic values” in the direction toward global standards. This implied that failing to meet those standards could threaten economic growth and make China a less desirable partner for Russia, challenging Russia’s reliance on China.
Another theme is how China has responded to Trump, compared to Russian views.
One commentator, A. Lomanov, compared the “Trumpomania” in China with that in Russia. In China, it spread primarily on the Internet, while neither authorities nor society have expectations of warming bilateral relations after Trump’s victory. The remarks do not discuss the contrast between Trump’s campaign rhetoric extolling Putin and refusing to criticize Russia and his castigation of China, even if both sides could take heart from his rejection of “universal values.” Instead, the author focuses on the demoralization of the Chinese intelligentsia due to recent developments (repressive policies) inside China. Others also cast doubt on China’s capacity to overcome mounting contradictions. They are critical of Russia’s economic dependence on China, blaming Russian policies and recognizing the limits of what China can offer Russia for its economic agenda.
In Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ Andrei Dikarev wrote about Sino-US relations, noting that many political figures in China had preferred Clinton as a more predictable candidate than Trump and more likely to sustain global stability, which China values. While many of Trump’s ideas seemed to serve China’s interests, China’s support for globalization is evident, which makes weakening US interest in Asia secondary for China. In contrast, the Chinese Internet leans toward Trump, Dikarev noted. Interviews demonstrated that many experts expected US hegemonic policies to continue in the South China Sea, even without the term “rebalance.” Some foresaw strong military and economic challenges to China under Trump, but many saw those from Clinton as well. The most important development after the election was the Trump-Xi summit in early April. Dikarev finds it strange: taking place in a private residence rather than with the ceremonial pomp China normally expects; being conducted informally and giving China a chance to shape US policy before it is set; raising the prospect of a trade-off between economics and security; forging a working relationship between the two leaders; and signaling to Russian that there would be no point in anticipating that Trump would lean to Russia (or, left unsaid, that Xi would coordinate with Putin in dealing with Trump). With North Korea in the forefront, Trump and Xi appeared to be finding common ground, despite a lack of clarity over how their cooperation would go forward in a concrete manner. Despite the reaction of China against the US strike on Syria about which Xi was informed while dining with Trump, China was relieved that US policy on Taiwan was clarified and no new tariff on Chinese goods was announced. Yet, Dikarev finds no concrete agreements that would reduce conflict between the two states. The implications for Russia are left unstated, although doubts about Trump are mostly highlighted.
On June 2, in Kommersant’, Alexander Gabuev covered the ongoing Petersburg Economic Forum, comparing the size of delegations and noting the top-ranking US, German, and French numbers. Among Asian delegations, India was well-represented, including Modi and some fifty businessmen in attendance. Japan had seventy delegates, led by Economic Minister Seko and including some major business luminaries. As for Russia’s main trade partner China, it was only represented by 40 delegates and no well-known business figure. Moreover, the Chinese presence was not at all conspicuous in the public portion of the program, and only one session was devoted to China. In 2014-16, the Chinese had made their presence known through high-level personages as well as numerous speakers. Considering that China invested $170 billion abroad in 2016, while scouting international and regional forums in search of investment projects, the tepid participation of the Chinese delegation testifies to their meager interest in Russia, Gabuev concluded.
On June 15, in Kommersant’, Ivan Zuenko discussed the opening of the Harbin Russo-Chinese EXPO. This is the main joint trade and investment exhibition of the year. Having previously been called the Harbin Fair, it consists of three gatherings in Harbin: one was planned for Russia but it failed to prepare the grounds and another took place in Ekaterinburg but since returned to Harbin, which monopolizes cooperation with Russia. Evaluating the promise of this cooperation, Zuenko tells readers that Northeast China is as little developed a periphery of China as the Far East is of Russia. Both peripheries were centers of a disappearing manufacturing civilization. China’s state-owned enterprises adapted poorly to the new market realities, but privatization was slow in strategic sectors, while psychological dependency affected the responses. A decade ago in China, a plan for the revival of the Northeast was issued, but the rate of growth of the local economy has only fallen since then. In 2009, Moscow and Beijing signed a program for cooperation of border regions, which has yet to bring results. These peripheries, oriented to defense production and extraction of resources, are accustomed to receiving money from the national budget, not from abroad. At the Harbin EXPOs, Russians prepare exhibits to attract investments to their regions, as do their Chinese colleagues. Zuenko concludes without suggesting any optimism from such ties.
On June 13, for Carnegie, Alexander Gabuev wrote about how the SCO is losing effectiveness as it expands, turning into a useless bureaucratic organization and weakening any institutional norms in the path of China’s actions in Central Asia. Despite claims that the expansion from 6 to 8 members with the addition of India and Pakistan at the next SCO meeting will add a powerful impulse to the organization, Gabuev sees it differently, dismissing talk of growing international influence. As the driver of expansion, Russia stands to lose. The SCO started by managing territorial disputes and ranged from security to economic development to humanitarian cooperation. In initiating this, China gained a foothold in Central Asia, from which it was excluded in existing organizations. It could not bypass Moscow, the cooperation of which was critical as China strengthened security in Xinjiang and imported energy for its economy. Given overlapping interests, the SCO worked well, but China found that its economic aims, as seen in its initiatives from 2010 for a SCO development bank and FTA, were not successful. The other countries were afraid to tear down their customs barriers, which could result in many sectors of their economies collapsing. Other states were inclined to accept a bank as a source of more lending, but Moscow resisted this. If military moves, such as the removal of US bases, left Moscow ahead due to its own bases, economic ones terrified Moscow as the weaker party. Opposing China, Moscow sought India’s inclusion from 2011, as if that would strengthen the weight of the SCO rather than provide more balance against China. After opposing the entry of India, Beijing reconsidered in 2013 following three developments: 1) Beijing realized that it could get around Moscow’s opposition to an FTA and bank through bilateral loans, which Central Asian states eagerly sought; 2) advancing the Silk Road Economic Belt relieved China of having to satisfy Russia or others through an international body that operated by means of consensus; and 3) by launching its own financial body, the AIIB, as well as the BRICS bank, China no longer needed an SCO bank. Finally, China insisted on Pakistan’s entry along with India, realizing that the SCO would not be effective, but already disappointed by its lack of effectiveness as Russia rejected the idea of a bank, Tajikistan opposed Iran, and Uzbekistan resisted military cooperation.
Russia must be wary of China’s domestic barriers to global standards and reform: it cannot count on cross-border cooperation for its priority programs in the Russian Far East, and the SCO has lost its capacity as a shield against China’s dominance in Central Asia. Such unwelcome news—contrary to high expectations in recent years of Russia’s strategy for the “Turn to the East”—is not accompanied by optimism about Russia’s ties to India (now more opposed to China and drawing closer to the United States), ASEAN (despite the hype, where Russia’s presence is weak), as well as Japan and South Korea (where claims of progress in bilateral relations are never sustained for long). The loss of confidence in the prospects of Russia’s policies toward Asia is on vivid display, but the mainstream continues to perpetuate a different narrative.
Gabuev finds the strategic situation for the main Eurasian powers changing. India, on which Moscow had placed great hope, is veering against China and toward the United States, as Russia draws closer to China. Thus, Moscow undercut the SCO without being conscious of what that would do, freeing China of the need to meet Moscow’s needs in Central Asia. All Moscow can try to do now is to strengthen the leverage of the weaker countries and reflect on the lessons of its mistakes as it seeks to create “Greater Eurasia” from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as Putin said at the SCO.
On June 8, Argumenty i Fakty interviewed Andrei Kazantsev about the danger to the SCO from the qualitatively new step of the allowing India and Pakistan entry into the organization in a compromise between Moscow and Beijing. It is likely that whether in security or economics India and Pakistan will block resolutions that they see as more favorable to the other. This should not interfere with economic projects that are funded by China and need not go through the SCO, he added, but doubts about the SCO are growing amid uncertainty over admission of Iran and Turkey.
In Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, Vladimir Petrovskii discussed the challenges and the promise of “Greater Eurasia,” citing Putin’s December 3, 2015 speech as its origin when he added ASEAN to the EEU and SCO mix, arousing polarized opinions. Critics saw it as an awkward answer to TPP, which would persuade nobody to join. Others saw it as an extension of the EEU, SCO, and SREB with a solid foundation on which to build. As it stands, the EEU comprises just 3.2% of the global GDP and it would be suicidal to try to become a “fortress of Eurasia.” Thus, an expanded range is needed, starting with China and India and building on conjoining the EEU and SREB. Another motive is for Russia to counter the loss of WTO authority as closed regional trade groups spread. Russia is championing inclusivity and equality, as the economic assets do not determine the degree of influence. The article notes that for the present, the first vector is the tie between the EEU and China, for which bi-monthly talks began in August 2016. Behind this quest, the outsider can detect alarm in Russia of its marginalization as regional integration takes shape while its own EEU remains weak. What the author describes as Russia’s advantageous geographical position hides its fear of being at the periphery. The article does, however, recognize many Russian economic weaknesses, its rising alienation from the West and focus on military needs at the expense of economic aims. Yet, it rests its hopes on a stronger SCO as the key to forging “Greater Eurasia.” Insisting that the Greater Eurasian partnership can be the start of a new, just world order based on multipolarity and sovereign equality smacks of desperation. It does not substitute for an economic strategy for Russia and its eastern regions. It does not overcome China’s overwhelming leverage and its moves to bypass Russia through its corridors and the OBOR. It does not suggest how Russia wins over other countries to this concept of regionalism. As in recent years, sober, realist thinking is missing among those who express optimism about the latest slogan in Russia’s foreign policy quest.
In Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, Sergei Karaganov explained the shift from “Turn to the East” to “Greater Eurasia,” as Russia moved from a slogan that had lost its credibility to one that is vaguer but with more room to claim success. He argues that the “turn” has opened unimagined possibilities since 2011-12 as a response to the rise of Asia, transforming Asiatic Russia from a burden to an engine of development and diversifying Russia’s economic ties to reflect the decline of opportunities in the West amid deglobalization and politicization of economic relations, paralleled by the spiritual-ideational emancipation of Asian civilizations. Karaganov states that this has led to two poles: one around the United States, and the other in Eurasia with China as its economic center (if not a hegemon). Despite the decline in Russian foreign trade and devaluation of the ruble, the share of Asia in its trade has risen, signifying diversification that puts Russia in a more favorable position. A rapid rise in investment has begun, if still mainly from China, with which Russia has a de facto alliance, supplemented and balanced with relations with Japan, Vietnam, other ASEAN states, India, South Korea, and Iran. This upbeat account sustains past hopes.
Karaganov blames slow development on the state and its investment climate and calls for the establishment of a third capital on the Pacific. The critical change is that Russia’s elite has shifted its orientation away from Europe, pushed by hostile policy of expansion in the West to territories that Russia sees as essential for its security and for which the Russian empire and the USSR laid down millions of lives. Rather than isolating itself from Europe, as appeared in 2014-15, this approach has shifted to “Greater Eurasia,” integrating its Asian policy with a second direction to Europe and others to the south and north. Karaganov rejects the West, but he sees its opportunities for “Greater Eurasia.”
Karaganov assumes that China will not pursue hegemony, that Russia can become part of a three-sided dialogue with China and the United States (despite Russia’s weak economy), that Russia upholds traditional European and international values (despite its use of force to alter the status quo), that it stands for territorial integrity (despite splitting Ukraine), that it supports the United Nations (despite blocking UN sanctions against North Korea), that it champions economic openness (despite its pronounced barriers to investment and trade), that it stands for human rights (despite its weak rule of law), that it is emerging as the center of a rising continent (despite no clarity about its periphery), that it is a cultural center for a wider area (despite failing to explain its cultural appeal), and that China agrees with the concept of “Greater Eurasia,” seeking it in tandem with Russia. He regards the SCO as the core of the new entity, when others see it as losing its already limited prospects. He even imagines north-south transport routes encompassing Russia’s Far East and central and western regions of Siberia.
The main problem in Asia for Karaganov is US policy to contain China and to play on contradictions in dangerous regional intrigues with no real relation to its neighbors’ concerns about China’s policies and intentions. Russia is in growing demand as an experienced, diplomatically powerful player, friendly to most of the countries. Its appeal to others grows from deepening its strategic ties to China, which Karaganov insists are based on equality, but suffer from insufficient development at middle and lower levels and strategic depth. Somehow, countries eager to balance against China are seen as welcoming Russia’s overtures to China. Somehow, too, Russia has the clout to get China to coordinate on transportation corridors and to agree to organize many bodies to challenge international institutions, as if China is not succeeding by working through them. He even envisions a shared cultural narrative on history in pursuit of a united Eurasian identity contrasting to the dominant Eurocentric one. It is hard to see the reality of China in this feel-good narrative of Russia’s bright future.
Ivan Zuenko was interviewed in the June 18 issue of the Central Asian Analytical Network about integration processes related to Russia’s “Turn to the East.” Asked what had changed in the Russian Far East since this initiative was announced, he said that there is much more talk about it, including at high levels, and budgetary funds have flowed into Vladivostok for infrastructure. Yet, the population outflow has continued, and there are no clear cases of foreign investment, while extreme centralization persists. Asked if eyes are turning toward the East after long concentrating on the West, Zuenko said what experts think matters little for the decisions of authorities, but Asiacentrism is needed among the political elite, not just a shift from pro- to anti-West views. Given the low level of Russian competence on Asia, however, he worries about decisions based on it. While people complain that Russia cannot forge “equal relations,” they somehow think that this is possible with China.
In additin, Zuenko notes that the Silk Road should not be seen as a way to seriously change the economies of China’s neighbors. After all, China is eager to sustain economic growth through its construction projects abroad, after having exhausted most opportunities at home, and exacting a cost from its clients by using its own workers and materials. Whether in the form of credit or concession, this type of arrangement is not beneficial for Russia, as in the cases of Sri Lanka and Kenya, which were left with massive debts. The Silk Road is a mechanism for redistributing resources from inside China with little likelihood of changing the economies of nearby countries much. Asked why Kazakhstan, not Russia, was first to establish a border free trade zone with China, and whether this was because the stress is on security more than trade, Zuenko responded that Russia focuses on risks more than opportunities. Those who sell lumber under the table prefer unofficial methods, while others see no benefit in foreign economic ties, resulting in cross-border projects to fail. In contrast, Khorgos in Kazakhstan accept the risks of such projects, as some earn money and others acquire cheaper goods. Zuenko doubts that a similar zone could open on the Sino-Russian border in the near future, blocked by officials.
Regarding joining the EEU and SREB, Zuenko answered that China’s concept is abstract and will go forward even without adequate Chinese investments in the region or if the SREB concept were left out. When it comes to concrete projects, Russia cannot be satisfied since China invests in raw materials, supplies the technology and equipment, and received the profits. China is content with the status quo with both Russia and its EEU partners, given the small scale of their markets. Zuenko notes that goods destined for Russia are increasingly going through Kyrgyzstan since it is easier to reach agreement with customs officials there than in Kazakhstan or Russia. As a poor region, it way has found a way to cope. Meanwhile, Khorgoz is most competitive for shuttle trade and a straight route to the railroad. Asked how realistic the plan for Greater Eurasia is, Zuenko found it hard to define its boundaries and said that the term is a response to OBOR, abstract and almost meaningless, with which it is impossible to argue or to specify what concrete results will follow. If it fails, others can be blamed.
“One Belt, One Road”
On May 29 in Vedemosti, Vasilii Kashin discussed Russia’s place in OBOR. He observed that reactions among Russia’s political elite ranged from enthusiastic to excited to paranoid to in outright despair. They have ideologically split into OBOR pessimisis and enthusiasts, reflecting worldviews not solely connected to the Chinese project. Russia’s state policy on OBOR has been little elucidated, which disorients the Russian business community, interferes with a productive and transparent dialogue on bilateral economic problems, and leaves an information gap for Sino-Russian relations. Kashin call for separating OBOR and the rapid rise of Chinese foreign investments, insisting that they are not linked chronologically and have different causes and aims. There is a long-standing effort to achieve economic and resource security through diversification and wider access, another factor being vast capital accumulation with gradual worsening of the investment opportunities inside China, plus a desire to make use of surplus production in some sectors and expand export of high-tech production. This is complex. There is no one strategy of expansion. In this context, OBOR lacks details, a timeline, and a list of projects and expenses. It is hard to say which project resulted from the initiative as it serves as a rubric for older projects as well. It is a political superstructure for investments that would have proceeded anyways.
Kashin proceeds to explain that China strives to create a global forum under its leadership to discuss a wide specter of economic, and, later, political problems. As China gained the role of moneybags, OBOR would give it more political capital. It follows that Russia’s position is not determined by investments and economic deals, but how it relates to the new role of China. Of major states, only Russia gives China its full support for this new role. Russia’s OBOR policy has been contradictory from the outset. OBOR is not seen as serious for big economic initiatives, but Russia cannot oppose it given political ties with China, while it could hope for some small benefits—at a minimum, getting China to respect Russian projects for Eurasian integration, as was agreed in May 2015. Yet, Kashin insists that Russia must have a special position among OBOR participants, demanding the advance of its own global initiatives such as “Greater Eurasia,” even if it is more abstract than OBOR. The fact that Putin enjoyed a special place at the Beijing summit indicates that this is respected.
At the Carnegie Center, Aleksandr Zotin asked why China needs the new Silk Road, doubting both geopolitical and economic benefits. He finds export of infrastructure to be the driving force. Under one umbrella concept, about 900 varied infrastructure projects (roads, ports, electric stations, bridges, etc.) in about sixty countries follow six economic corridors from China to Europe and South Asia. Parts of China benefit, especially Xinjiang, which borders eight countries, and sits astride the China-Pakistan corridor. While China avoids some exposed routes, and may gain energy security, it will become dependent on poor and politically unstable states such as Pakistan and lending money to them, the return of which is doubtful. Zotin recalls a year earlier anti-Chinese demonstrations in the biggest cities of Kazakhstan over a change in the land ownership law, which aroused fear that the people who repress Uighurs in China, and reportedly expelled the entire Uighur intelligentsia in one day, would come next to their country. Zotin asserts that it is naive to assume inland routes will pose fewer problems than maritime ones. As for economics, more doubts are raised. Along the main train route to Europe across Kazakhstan, the number of containers sent from China in 2015 was limited. While travel time could be cut in half, that means little for most shipments. They cost more by train, and if speed is needed, they can be transported by airplane; in addition, most exports originate in East China, expediting sea travel. Cold conditions in winter require added expense on trains for some goods. All of this is why local governments must subsidize train travel.
Andrei Deviatkov in Expert Online wrote about the EEU between Europe and China. He argues that drawing closer to China poses serious challenges for many sectors of industry and agriculture in the EEU countries, although a path forward still exists, such as what Moscow sees as a broader, EEU-SCO-ASEAN format, through transport routes useful to all. He doubts, however, an FTA with India, which has many negative tools to keep out production from the EEU and whose meat and dairy products the EEC countries do not want to import. As for an FTA with South Korea, it also would use lower tariffs to export in ways threatening to local producers. In the case of China, the other states of the SCO fear the challenge to many of their industrial and agricultural sectors, but opinions vary in investments and transport infrastructure. Russia is fearful, especially of geo-economic consequences, leading it to press for a wider format inclusive of ASEAN. Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, who get little benefit from the EEU, are holdouts. Kazakhstan counts on serving as a transit hub and decided on a large-scale partnership on a bilateral basis, agreeing to projects that bypass Russia, such as the trans-Caspian route and to investments from China in many sectors of its economy. The article concludes that what works as Kazakhstan’s gain serves as losses for Siberia and the Russian Far East. The SREB via Kazakhstan is dominating the transport scene. Still the EEU states are seeking a common approach to China, readers are told. Russia also seeks investments in large infrastructure and energy projects, so long as mutually satisfactory terms can be found. Since Russia and others are along the same transport routes, they need to coordinate. Also, Kazakhstan understands that defending its national interests collectively in dialogues with China is more effective in light of skepticism about drawing too close to China. Already in June 2016, an agreement was reached to transition to the negotiating phase in economically conjoining the EEU and China, and in early 2017, a list of priority projects was prepared to be included in SREB. Working together on FTAs, the EEU has raised its prestige and competence in international trade; yet, the article finds shortcomings, as in the FTA with Vietnam, which is not seen as greatly increasing mutual trade. Emphasis should not be placed on politics and imagery, but on practical economic results. Such criticisms point to failures to date.
The Korean Peninsula
On June 16, an article depicted the Blue House against the White House, as South Korea prepared for Moon Jae-in’s visit to the United States. It anticipated that the dialogue would center on security in the region, especially the deployment of THAAD—a decision Seoul has postponed for an indefinite time. The article saw a rupture between the two: The Blue House proclaiming a course of drawing close to North Korea and preparing to activate contacts with China and Russia while distancing itself from Washington on security. This poses as the most serious test for Trump’s policies in the Asia-Pacific region, concluded Sergei Strokan. The impression is that there are two approaches to regional security, and Moon’s election is of enormous importance, because Seoul is shifting from one to the other, favoring closeness to Pyongyang, as do Beijing and Moscow, away from Washington. The article exaggerates the US-ROK divide, misstates Moon’s actual policy, and holds out hope for a dramatic shift along lines Russia eagerly has advocated.
A three-day visit to Seoul of Tom Shannon of the State Department is covered in the article. It emphasizes Moon’s opposition to THAAD and sharp shift away from Park Geun-hye’s approach to THAAD, including his alarm that four more launchers had been brought into South Korea without his knowledge, resulting in the suspension of its deployment in accord with the law. The article reports views that this could pose a threat to the health of the local population and to the diversification of Seoul’s relations to China and Russia, which oppose THAAD. Since Moon’s priority is dialogue, avoiding confrontation and China and Russia would benefit his approach, the article notes. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has rejected Moon’s offer of humanitarian assistance, and a sizable part of South Korea’s population sees an existential threat without readiness to restore ties to the North. Accordingly, the article suggests great uncertainty for Moon’s policies and expects strong pushback from Washington as the summit date neared.
In Rossiskaya Gazeta, on June 18, Oleg Kir’ianov posed the choice over North Korea as binary—dialogue or war—while focusing on the new divide between Seoul and Washington. He argues that South Korea joined the camp of China and Russia in favoring as a first step a moratorium on rocket and nuclear test in return for a reduction in the scale of US-ROK naval exercises and a pullback of US aircraft carriers. Suggesting that the North’s agreement to dialogue with the South by reviving joint projects would be the right course, Kir’ianov sees US insistence on preconditions as the real barrier. THAAD is mentioned, too, as a divisive factor in US-ROK relations, another evidence that Seoul has switched to the Sino-Russian camp.
On June 14, Iuliia Mamyrbaeva wrote in the Russian Council’s RSMD about Russia’s relationship with Vietnam as a Eurasian partner, more than half a year after the first FTA by the EEU had taken effect in October 2016. Acknowledging that the effect was modest, she also found it promising—a country of 92 million joining with a bloc of 183 million in search not only of raw materials but also of textiles, automobiles, metals, and other products. Yet, given Vietnam’s eagerness to increase its FTAs, she warns that the EEU has only begun its work to simplify access of exports to more markets. The level of trade between EEU states with Vietnam has been around $4 billion, and the goal in a few years is to reach $8-10 billion. Exports from this belt to Vietnam had dropped from $1.9 to $1.6 billion from 2015 to 2016, as imports from Vietnam rose. Both sides, however, have seen a spurt of exports recently. Despite the small scale of trade, Mamyrbaeva is upbeat about its prospects and the chances of concluding FTAs with other countries, including India. Problems are left unstated.
Another Russian Council report by Ekaterina Koldunova on May 15 surmised that Trump’s lack of interest in Southeast Asia would compel states in the region to pursue balanced relations with other states. Japan, the EU, India, and Russia are mentioned. She found it fully possible that, despite quite weak bilateral ties with Russia (especially economically), a shared desire to maintain a polycentric structure of international relations would draw them closer, without being a function of Sino-US relations. Arguing that in the 2000s Southeast Asia was seen as the second front in the war against terrorism, she blames Obama with his “pivot to Asia” for pressuring countries to join the US military sphere and interfering in territorial disputes as well as calling for TPP as a way to stop the region from falling into China’s orbit. Yet, as bad as that was, the article goes on to say that the US withdrawal has compelled the countries to seek other partners, opening the door to Russia among others. Missing is any critique of China, clarity about US strategic intentions in the region after Obama, and explanation as to how Russia can satisfy the aspirations of the region.