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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Russia Seeks Influence On Pacific Rim

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 25 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow has launched a new drive to become an integral part of the Pacific rim in order to enter that region's vibrant economy, to obtain assistance for its economically depressed Far East, and to counter what it sees as the recent strengthening of the U.S.-Japanese security alliance.

That is the gist of a message Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin sent on Friday to leaders of the member states of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (APEC) and a speech given the same day by Russia's ambassador to Beijing, Igor Rogachev.

But at present, and as is the case in some other regions of the world as well, Moscow does not appear to have the ability to achieve these goals without undermining its ability to pursue other, broader ones.

In a letter timed for the APEC meeting in Manila this weekend, Chernomyrdin said that Russia sought to promote what he called "open regionalism." He said that such an arrangement on the Pacific rim was important for the economic future of all the states there.

And he suggested that it was especially important for Russia because it would allow for the full-scale development of Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Because of that, the Russian prime minister said, Russia has already joined the Council for Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Pacific Economic Council, and Moscow now seeks membership in both the Asian Development Bank and the 18-member APEC itself.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Rogachev told foreign correspondents in Beijing that Moscow shares China's concerns about the recent strengthening of security ties between Washington and Tokyo.

He was referring to the joint American-Japanese statement issued last week during U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to Japan that called for maintaining the current level of U.S. forces there and for expanding U.S.-Japanese cooperation in "areas around Japan," a formulation Rogachev found particularly disturbing.

Like China, Rogachev said, Moscow opposes "any block, military coalition or military alliance" in the Pacific region. And because of this, he said, Russia has no plans to reestablish with China "the sort of military alliance we had in the 1950s."

He pointedly dismissed suggestions that Russia's recent delivery of military aircraft to China represented a movement toward such an arrangement.

At one level, these statements, either separately or taken together, do not represent a major shift in Russian policy.

But, their appearance now reflects an apparent deepening of Moscow's concerns about developments on the Pacific rim.

Economic conditions in the Russian Far East are the worst they have been since the end of the U.S.S.R. Much of the region lacks reliable electric power, many factories are shut down, and the unemployment rate is high and rising.

One reason for this situation is that Moscow lacks the resources needed and the transportation network to deliver what it does have from the European region of the country. But another and perhaps more important reason is that despite earlier high expectations, relatively few foreign firms have been willing to risk investment there.

In addition to these regional economic concerns, many in Moscow are unhappy that, except for sales of military equipment, Moscow has not been able to penetrate in any major way the dynamic markets of the Pacific rim.

Again, part of the problem is Russia's lack of an adequate transportation network to the far east. But another part is that until very recently, Moscow has looked westward rather than eastward in its attempts to find markets.

Just as President Clinton suggested during his current visit to Asia that the United States must for both economic and political reasons look to the east in the future, so too Russia is doing the same.

And in addition to its economic concerns, Rogachev's statement shows that Moscow is also worried about any expansion in the American security presence there. But just as in the economic sphere, Moscow has few options available to change the situation.

Unless it is prepared to make additional concessions to Tokyo on the disputed Kurile islands -- something that virtually all Russian politicians would oppose -- Moscow is unlikely to be able to counter American influence there.

And unless it is willing to reform an alliance with Beijing -- something that would disturb many in the West -- Moscow is unlikely to be able to reform any real alliance with China.

But by sending these messages now, the Russian government apparently hopes to win support from the countries of the Pacific rim, including the United States, precisely because of its current difficulties rather than because of its possible future power.