The view from the north
The concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is criticised by some Russian scholars of international relations as one that doesn’t reflect actual civilisational and geographical connections, and ignores historically formed ties within the Asia-Pacific region. The territories included in Indo-Pacific have little in common, they argue, while “this area hardly deserves to be called a 'region' at all”.
From Russia’s perspective, the Indo-Pacific concept attempts to address the expansion of China and rearrange existing geopolitical configurations. Replacing ‘Asia’ with ‘Indo’ prioritises the role of India as a contrasting and competing power to China.
In other words, India is meant to cool down China’s foreign policy ambitions.
The Indo-Pacific concept also reflects the Quad's political objectives and a rivalry of “'ocean democraties' against the totalitarian empire" of China. Lastly, the Indo-Pacific reflects loose maritime connections whilst Asia-Pacific is built upon solid continental bonds.
Realistically however, Russia’s criticism of the new concept is more likely an indication of its concerns not only about the emergence of a new world order but its debatable current and future role in it.
Despite this ambiguity, Russia is not willing to give up and actively tries to keep up the role of an important regional stakeholder. Considering its centuries-long experience and expertise in dealing with states and nations on the Eurasian land mass and beyond, Russia’s strategists and policymakers are attempting to stick to the previous narrative of the Asia-Pacific, and additionally pursuing a renewed concept of Eurasia.
The ‘Asia-Pacific’ as a concept is well suited to Russian interests considering geographical and historical circumstances, and shows the way in which Russia views the outside world. Traditionally, the term ‘Asia’ is associated with an enormous region stretching from Myanmar in the west to Japan in the east, and from Mongolia in the north to Indonesia in the south. This encompasses ‘core Asia’ (Сердцевинная Азия) formed and constructed upon a shared Confucian-Buddhist cultural identity.
For Russia, the term ‘Pacific’ relates to the northern part of the Pacific Ocean where the country’s eastern borders are reached by the Trans-Siberian Railway and secured by its Pacific Fleet. The Far East is the place where Russia’s foreign policy ambitions are naturally held but, at the same time, is viewed as a gateway to other parts of the world. This gateway is also seen a natural foundation for continuous geopolitical ambitions towards the Antarctic (as well as the Arctic), where Russia has been active since the early 1800s, the South Pacific where Russia has established certain interests and, ultimately to the rest of the world.
The concept of Eurasia is also based on geographical preconditions and Russia’s attempts to take advantages of them. Russia extends eastwards from the Ural Mountains to the north Pacific, so in geographical terms this vast region can be defined both as ‘East’ and ‘Asia’, but in Russia it is barely referred to in this way. Quite the opposite: “Russia will never become a part of this East, retaining its territory and its identity. Its Pacific part will remain a European enclave in the Asian world.”
Instead, Russia's concept of Eurasia aims to influence international foreign policy-making by promoting the principles of connectivity between countries and regions within this mega-territory, not integrating them due to the civilisational gulf and existing geopolitical rivalries.
The concept of the Greater Eurasia pre-supposes Russia’s active foreign policy-making based on a balance of powers, as well as fair and beneficial economic cooperation. This relates to the country’s ability to balance and soften sharp angles in various international relationships, and to simultaneously escalate tensions and emphasise controversies between major powers.
The first part of this approach might be reflected in a configuration of the US and Europe on the one hand, and China and India on the other. The second part views the US and India on one side, and Russia and China on the other.
Put another way, Russia would like to see itself as a constructive mediator and skillful diplomat pursuing the first scenario, rather than being a spoiling and intrusive meddler in the Western world, as in the second.
Russia’s economic situation and internal difficulties leave little room to maneuver, but it can count on other leverages and mechanisms of diplomatic influence and military capability.
There are a number of international organisations that were formed with Russia’s active participation and initiative that reflect both the Asia-Pacific and Eurasia concepts.
The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Eurasian Economic Union led by Russia, might be prototypes or constructive elements of a future world order in which Russia is a significant player.
Russia’s analysts and policymakers are considering various scenarios for a future world order be it the Indo-Pacific, Asia-Pacific, or Eurasia. But they stress that substantial geopolitical adjustments are needed, while the common features that glue any future arrangements should be a liberal model based on fair economic cooperation.
Despite controversies in recent years, Russia undoubtedly sees itself as a carrier of the principles of Western civilisation, but it emphasises that a new multipolar world should be led equally by the West and the rising powers of Asia. In this new world order, a fair place for Russia must be found.
As published at ANU APPS Policy Forum on July 16, 2018.