In the aftermath of the Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed a new era in north-east Asian cooperation which includes the renaissance of Sino-Russian relations, a coming rapprochement between Japan and Russia and possibly even between Japan and China. Finally, this strategy for a new harmonious era in north-east Asian cooperation also includes the long term goal of reuniting the Korean peninsula on a gradual and economically win-win basis. According to Xi,
“Under new circumstances, we should join hands and strengthen cooperation to promote peace, stability, development and prosperity in the region…
…A harmonious, united and stable Northeast Asia with mutual trust conforms to the interests of all countries and the expectations of the international community, and is also significant for safeguarding multilateralism and promoting a more just and equitable international order…
…The Chinese side is willing to continue to work with all other sides to constantly consolidate unity, build up mutual trust, explore effective ways to maintain lasting peace and stability in Northeast Asia, and make unremitting efforts to achieve peace, stability and development in the region…”.
Along with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which links north-east Asia with south Asia and the wider Afro-Bengal Ocean region, the north-east Asian trading hubs which would ideally include a segment of One Belt–One Road running from South Korea into both China and Russia via the DPRK, before turning west and south into central Asia, western Eurasia and eastern Europe, is of central importance to Beijing. Furthermore, the resource rich and economically untapped Russia Pacific Region (still insulting called Russia’s “far east”) represents a focal point of Beijing’s intention of rapidly increasing bilateral trade and on the ground cooperation with its Russian friend and partner.
The Russian President Vladimir Putin who has a deeply close relationship with President Xi expressed his enthusiasm about Xi’s goal for an ever more united north-east Asian space. The only problem is that a number of Russian politicians and both high and low level civil servants and diplomats have still not grasped the importance of China’s partnership with Russia nor the importance of the Russia Pacific Region and of the city of Vladivostok as this region’s de-facto capital.
To understand why some powerful Russian political players still do not understand how Russia is nothing if not a major Pacific power, one must delve back into the Sino-Soviet split of the Cold War. In spite of having centuries of general warm neighbourly relations except for a brief war in 1929 and another short conflict in 1934, the Sino-Soviet split of 1960 represented a cataclysmic aberration in what was otherwise a long chain of generally warm relations between two large neighbouring powers.
Beyond the geopolitical competition of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and China, the mentality of the period has sadly outlasted the realities on the ground in the minds of some Russian officials. Such officials spend much of their time lamenting the very real US provocations staged on Russia’s western frontiers and its southern frontiers in the Caucasus. But while there is rightly much for Russia to worry about in terms of that which NATO is doing in Kiev, Tbilisi and and even Yerevan, there is a golden opportunity to radically change and forever alter Russia’s economic fortunes by cultivating the Russia Pacific Region and turning it into a dynamic Shanghai or Hong Kong like economic hub that could rival Moscow in terms of geopolitical importance and rival both St. Petersburg and Moscow in terms of cultural importance.
So long as One Belt–One Road remains the artery of the wider global east and south in so far as it feeds prosperity into the places where the belts and roads in question twist and turn, so long will Russia attain a distinct advantage as a military superpower with vast economic aspirations that happens to share a strategically important border with China.
The young generation of Russians increasingly understands the importance of this and likewise understands that in the modern era, Russia’s Pacific characteristics are of much more importance to the economic survival of the Russian state than that of Russia’s Baltic characteristics. The problem therefore lies with a generation of men and women who grew up distrusting China on an ideological basis, misunderstanding China on a cultural basis and making matters worse, some of these individuals still see India as being a more important partner than China, even though Russia still borders China while it no longer borders India, when furthermore, New Delhi is increasingly in the palm of the United States while China remains a robustly independent superpower.
These Soviet fossils masquerading as living and breathing Russians are ready to fight yesterday’s wars until the last drop of blood and wiling to celebrate yesterday’s partnerships with all the bitter-sweet idiocy of a man on his death bed planning for an earthly future. Such people are holding back Russia’s progress and in particular are spitting in the faces of young Russians whose life depends on an economically accelerated Russia Pacific Region. Below is my full proposal to transform the Pacific city of Vladivostok into a second Russian capital.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has just hosted this year’s Eastern Economic Forum in the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok. The meeting was notably successful as China and Russia pledged to work towards breaking the all important $100 billion per annum trading threshold this year while welcoming the China-Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) free trading agreement which will take effect beginning in 2019. While all major parties at the forum reiterated their commitment to a Korean peace process which is inseparable from discussions regarding Korean economic integration, the summit was also notable for the Russian President and Japanese Prime Minister’s commitment to at long last formalise a peace treaty without any preconditions (aka without invoking the Kuril Islands dispute). Finally, Russia and ASEAN representatives reiterated their goals of expanding trade, technological and cultural exchange and long term security cooperation.
Unlike many large summits, one of the great achievements of the Eastern Economic Forum was that all the news to come out of Vladivostok was positive. Some news involved specific positive developments while some of the news to come out of the forum involved statements of more general but still positive long term goals as expressed by the representatives of multiple nations.
But while the annual forum is becoming increasingly important, the elephant in the room is that the forum’s location ought to become a focal point of Russia’s long term developmental and geopolitical strategy. Vladivostok is currently the largest Russian city in what Moscow terms its “far east”. Already, the language employed is rather grim as “far east” implies something remote or peripheral as opposed to a place that is vital to the state and central to the nation’s cultural characteristics. For example, just because most of the important institutions of US government are in Washington D.C., Virginia and New York, this does not mean that US leaders call California and neighbouring states America’s “far western region”. Instead, California and its neighbours are called the “west coast”, a far more inviting name than “far west”.
Because of this, Russia would have nothing to lose by re-branding its “far east” as the Russia Pacific Region or for external marketing purposes the Great Russian Pacific. Beyond this, Vladivostok must be systematically transformed from a de-facto regional capital into a permanent second capital city for the Russian Federation. At present, many Russians think of the north-western city of St. Petersburg as a pseudo second capital. This rationale is easy enough to apprehend as between 1712 and 1918, St. Petersburg was in fact Russia’s capital city. Furthermore, as a St. Petersburg native himself, President Vladimir Putin has pushed for more national institutions and annual summits to be held in the former Russian capital.
But while St. Petersburg represents Russia’s gateway to a historically and contemporarily hostile Europe, Vladivostok represents Russia’s gateway to several friendly countries including China and Korea while it looks likely that unlike Europe, Japan and Russia will move towards increasingly good relations as already the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Shinzō Abe is very friendly.
With a prospect of an economically integrated Korea being a highly likely development over the next decade, Russia has in its Pacific Region, a vast frontier with the most economically dynamic part of the world – north east Asia and the ASEAN block in south east Asia beyond. As China is unquestionably Russia’s closest and most important partner, there is no reason why Vladivostok cannot become the Russian version of Shanghai.
Not only should Russia vastly expand the presence of national governmental offices in Vladivostok but the State Duma should meet in Vladivostok for part of the year, thus serving to demonstrate that Russia is a Pacific power as much as it is an Arctic, Black Sea, Baltic and Caspian power. Furthermore, residents of Russia’s large western cities should be given highly substantial monetary and tax incentives to re-locate to cities of the Russia Pacific Region. Russia already has a programme whereby both Russians and foreigners will be offered free land in parts of Russia, including and especially in the Russia Pacific Region, that are presently underdeveloped if they cultivate the land. Similar schemes should be available as part of the expansion of urban Vladivostok with options for Chinese and Koreans to buy property being a key priority in helping to inject new foreign cash flow into the city.
Finally, cultural institutions must be built in Vladivostok that rival anything available in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Vladivostok ought to have symphony orchestras, ballet and opera companies, museums, pop music venues, scientific institutions, theatre and children’s centres that rival the cultural monuments in Russia’s current capital as well as those in foreign capitals.
One of the problems inherent in Russia’s vast size is that the timezone of Moscow is more readily matched towards the working hours of Europe and Africa than that of much of Asia. Because of this, all Foreign Ministry departments concerned with some of south Asia and all of north east and south east Asia should permanently move from Moscow to Vladivostok. This will not only make working hours for Foreign Ministry officials more convenient but will be a sign of both inwardly and outwardly recognisable good will, in so far as it would clearly demonstrate that Russia is embracing its north-east Asian characteristics as much as it embraces its western Eurasian side.
While politically and economically Russia is already looking east in many respects, far more must be done to solidify Russia as a true Eurasian power that prioritises its Asian partnerships above less fruitful ventures. Making an expanded and ever more modernised Vladivostok a second capital of the Russian Federation would help Russia to more rapidly adopt the eastward and southern looking geostrategic trajectory that will ultimately make Russia a more prosperous and strong state for all of its people.