[Analytics] Expansion of the Eastern Economic Forum’s Agenda

5th Eastern Economic Forum (Vladivostok). Photo: TASS. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

In cooperation with the Far Eastern Federal University

The fifth Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) was held in Vladivostok on September 4-7, 2019. Since its inception in 2015, the Forum has become a significant and recognizable international event that gradually changes and transforms along with the political and economic realities of the Asia-Pacific. The Turning to the East Strategy declared by the Russian President fully matches the development strategy of the Russian Far East, a vast territory that incorporates eleven provinces of Eastern Russia. Dmitry Shelest specially for the Pan Pacific Agency.

Before going into the details of the EEF agenda in different years, one should be reminded that the first EEF held in 2015 was preceded by the Summit of the leaders of the member economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) that was held in Vladivostok in September 2012. This Summit, which had a strong economic focus, was also a serious demonstration of the Moscow’s commitment to the Pacific Rim both geographically and politically. The first EEF in 2015 has had more down to earth objectives. The obvious agenda of the first EEF featured a demonstration of the potential of the economy of the Russian Far East for prospective investors. This demonstration was a success as the total investment worth of the deals signed during this Forum has exceeded 1.3 trillion rubles. The EEF has become an important platform for the discussions between both national and international investors with the regional and federal governments of Russia.

The second EEF held in 2016 was marked by the increasing total investment worth of contracts signed, which has exceeded 1.85 trillion rubles. Even more significantly, the Forum was attended by the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, and the President of the Republic of Korea, Park Geun-hye. The Land of the Rising Sun was represented by the largest delegation. Besides, impressive numbers of the Japanese guests suggested new horizons of political and economic cooperation between the two countries. Shinzo Abe has proposed to make Vladivostok a symbolic gate between Europe and Asia. In turn, Park Geun-hye has praised Moscow’s new eastern policy that aimed at cooperation with the Asia-Pacific countries and the development of the provinces of the Russian Far East. During the second EEF it became quite apparent that the scope of its agenda has outgrown its initial intent. EEF was meant to be expanded not only from the perspective of the number of participants, but also from a perspective of their quality. Naturally, upon completion of the second EEF, Vice Chairman of the Russian Government Yury Trutnev has noted that the third EEF should be different.

The third Eastern Economic Forum was held in 2017 under the slogan “The Russian Far East: Creating a New Reality.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Korean President Moon Zhe Ying, Mongolian President Haltmaagiin Battulga, and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang have joined the EEF in 2017. The total worth of investments has grown to 2.5 trillion rubles with an increasing number of investments coming from China and Japan. Besides the national leaders, the third EEF was also attended by the government ministers of India, DPRK, Mongolia, Republic of Korea, and Japan, and by the heads of diplomatic missions of Argentina, Brunei Darussalam, India, Iran, China, Mongolia, Republic of Korea, the Philippines, South Africa, and Japan.

Thus, the third Forum has already become a platform not only for the implementation of business projects, but also a venue of promotion of Russia’s political objectives. The most visible part of this agenda was the peace treaty talks between Moscow and Tokyo. The number of discussion platforms of the Forum has also increased. Discussions now included not only aspects of economic life in the Asia Pacific, but also started to cover political issues. At the same time, Vladimir Putin has paid considerable attention to the issues of the quality of life in the Russian Far East in his presentation at the third EEF. There, the President of Russia said that a comprehensive development of the provinces of the Russian Far East should focus on creating better living conditions for the Russian citizens who live in this part of country.

The fourth EEF in 2018 was marked by signing of the contracts whose total investment worth was over 3.1 trillion rubles breaking the records set at the previous Forums. The largest contracts were signed in energy, mining, agriculture, and other industries. The issues of global development, geopolitical stability, humanitarian aspects of interaction in the Asia Pacific, and other topics of non-economic nature were largely addressed at the sessions of the fourth EEF. Discussions on the issues of economic development were linked with the issues of social and political development. The economy was increasingly viewed as political economy that is a composition of economic interactions, domestic social structure, and international relations of both state and non-state actors.

At the Forum the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, held a meeting of the Presidium of the Russian State Council where he discussed the issues of advanced development of the Russian Far East. The meeting of the Russian leader with the President of China Xi Jinping, who media has awarded the status of the main guest of the EEF-2018, was held successfully. Also, Vladimir Putin held talks with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which resulted in the signing of bilateral agreement on cooperation in various areas of economy and culture. Talks were also held with the leader of Mongolia Khaltmaagiin Battulga and the leader of South Korea Lee Nak Yong. Regional cooperation was discussed as an opportunity for development for all countries of the Asia Pacific during the plenary session titled “The Far East: Expanding the Boundaries of Opportunities”, which was held with participation of all national leaders mentioned above. In his presentation, Xi Jinping has linked the development of the Russian Far East with the importance of creation of a common security space both in Northeast Asia and in Eurasia.

In its scope, the agenda of the fifth Eastern Economic Forum held on September 4-7, 2019 was not inferior to the agendas of the previous forums. The fifth EEF has brought together the largest number of participants: over 8.5 thousand participants from 65 countries. This time, 270 agreements with the total investment worth over 3.4 trillion rubles were signed. Thus, the fifth Forum was a record-breaker in terms of the expansion of the economic cooperation. Heads of governments of India, Malaysia, Mongolia, and Japan have attended this Forum. The invitation of the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, gave the EEF a new meaning and significance as no longer just a discussion platform, but as an instrument that now constitutes a component of Russia’s foreign policy. And when the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin said, “Russia is the largest Eurasian power interested in development of the Asia Pacific”, he meant a certain vision of goals, which could be attained in the next decade.

According to many international observers, in order to continue being a global player, Russia would need to assure its presence in the Asia Pacific. Therefore, the state of affairs in the region and its presence there are critically important for Russia. As Bobo Lo, an expert from the Australia-based Russia / NIS Center put it, “At one time Moscow’s West-centrism came across a betrayal, mistrust and manipulation of international norms” by the European and the American partners. Naturally, this state of affairs has only accelerated the refocusing of Russia’s policy eastwards.

At the same time, East Asia’s geographic position is becoming the vector where everything encourages Russian engagement. Expansion and implementation of the energy projects, interest in the Russian weaponry systems and military equipment: all of this is visible and is being implemented today. Existing and, to a greater extent, future joint investment projects in the development of the Russian Far East are offering multiple opportunities in the nearest future. Among the obvious opportunities for implementation are joint academic projects in the Asia Pacific, naturally with the participation of the Far Eastern Federal University. Steps taken in the field of security cooperation with the states of the region are a real opportunity for cooperation in the next decade. For Russia, a matter of a great importance is the consistency in the agenda that it promotes and also a demonstration of proportional interest to both the provinces of the Russian Far East and to the partners in the Asia Pacific.

Despite the shortcomings in the eastern vector as a whole, the results of all the Eastern Economic Forums held so far are impressive. They include promotion of the Russian economy as a promising partner for the Asian Tigers, and forging of the closest possible relations with Beijing, which possibly have never been so close during the entire 70 years-long history of relations. These results also include taking relations with Vietnam, India, both Koreas, and Japan to a new level, and strengthening of ties with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. All this put together allows Russia to formulate a more flexible strategy of foreign policy and to expect additional support in geographic areas that are located far away from the Asia Pacific, which might help in de-escalation of tensions in Syria and might assist in encouragement of a greater interaction in Central Asia.

Dmitry Shelest is a Deputy Director of the FEFU Center for Expertise and Analysis. English editing by Ivan Pisarev.

A Russian version of this article is available here.

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