For several centuries, everyone in Russia – from great minds to cooks – has been discussing the same issue: should Russia look to Europe or Asia? The world’s geopolitical structure has changed in this time, and yet we still have not resolved this issue. Xing Guangcheng, an expert on Russia and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who will be attending the upcoming seventh meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, shared his views on this question.
Mr. Xing, in your opinion, does Russia belong to Europe or Asia?
Ethnically, Russia belongs to Europe because Russians, the country’s main ethnic group, have European roots. At one time, the prominent Russian philosopher and thinker Dmitry Likhachyov said that for Russia the main issue is not whether it belongs to the East or the West but its place between the North and the South. Russia is undeniably a European state. Ethnographically, its predominant culture is Russian, which is markedly European in character.
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If we look at this issue from a geopolitical and economic perspective, we will see Russia as a superpower linking Europe and Asia. Russia occupies an extremely important geostrategic position in Eurasia, forming a strategically vital bridge between Europe and Asia.
Russia is located in the zone linking industrialized Europe and rapidly developing Asia. As a result, it has all of the trademarks of belonging to both Europe and Asia. For this reason, Russia should not choose between “Back to Europe!” and “Forward to Asia!” Rather it should help these parts of the world integrate and accumulate the results of their development and prosperity. This is Russia’s strategic and creative mission.
If we look at the issue from the perspective of history and current realities, we will see that the roots of Russia’s soul lie in Europe, whereas the majority of its territory lies in Asia. The vast expanses of Siberia and the Far East form the strategic space for Russia’s future development. Russia should grow not only by modernizing its European part but also by turning Siberia and its Far East into prosperous regions. At the same time, there is a tremendous flow of manpower to the West. Although Russia has already announced plans to develop its Asian regions, their implementation will be extremely difficult.
And how do you see Russia’s role in Asia?
Russia must become one of the leading political, economic and diplomatic players in Asia. This is absolutely natural, especially now. Analyzing the general situation in Europe, we see that Europe is gradually moving toward unity and integration in the hopes of gaining the strategic advantages of an allied structure – through common policies, economy and diplomacy.
At the same time, Asia has rapidly advanced by creating the mechanisms of ASEAN, pan-Pacific cooperation, the tripartite partnership of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and so on. The situation in Asia is unprecedented, and this new reality is forcing Russia to reflect on its role in Asia and the Pacific Rim. What is this role?
Russia has not yet clearly answered this question. Needless to say, at various times, Russian governments and Russia’s political elite have articulated policies Russia should pursue in Asia and the Pacific Rim, but in reality Russia does not play a significant role in the region. Russia has missed its chance several times. The organizations for cooperation in the region cannot determine Russia’s role, and so regional countries cannot engage in fully-fledged economic cooperation with Russia.
At present, Asian economic development and cooperation are not limited to Asia. Asia and Pacific Rim countries have established a fully-fledged network of cooperation, which involves the leading economies of Asia, the United States, ASEAN, Japan, China, the Republic of Korea and Australia. Russia should take an active part in the life of Asia and the Asia Pacific region.
What do you think Russia should do in practical terms?
Russia should pursue three goals in Asia. First, it should take part in security cooperation. The repercussions of the Cold War are still felt in Northeast Asia and the instability and risk factors are still there. China, the United States, Japan, the countries of the Korean peninsula and Russia should conduct negotiations and cooperate to remove the threat there. And Russia should play a special role in ensuring Asian security.
In recent time, Central Asia has also become unstable. Political events in Kyrgyzstan have shown that it is necessary to closely monitor developments in the region. A key role in Central Asia must still be played by Russia because it still retains its traditional influence there. Instability in the region is no good for China and terrible for Russia.
Second, Russia should engage in economic cooperation. Asia and the Pacific Rim are developing rapidly, and Russia could become a catalyst as a participant in this process. In the future, Siberia and the Far East may become a potential “pole of growth” in the development of the Asian economy. Cooperation between Russia’s Siberia and the Far East, on the one hand, and the Asia Pacific region, on the other, could result in tangible economic advancement.
Finally, Russia should promote regional cooperation in Asia and the Pacific Rim. It is not just an APEC member; it should act as a catalyst of regional integration. Of course, Russia can also rely on the SCO in its effort to transform into an active and creative economy. And it can establish close and effective ties with ASEAN. But to achieve all these goals, Russia will need ambition and a great sense of responsibility.