Accessibility links

Russia: Analysis from Washington -- Far East And U.S. West Coast Expand Pacific Rim Trade

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A dramatic expansion in trade between the Russian Far East and the west coast of the United States is increasingly tying those Pacific rim regions together, an economic development likely to have significant political consequences.

The authorities in Russia's Maritime Territory announced on Thursday that the trade turnover between that region and the United States rose from 1 million dollars in 1992 to 360 million dollars in 1997. During the same period, the number of U.S.-Russian joint ventures there increased from 19 to 74.

U.S. investment in that region has increased as well, the territorial government said. Prior to 1995, U.S. firms had invested only 10.1 million dollars there. At present, the local authorities said, the total American investment in the region has reached 107.4 million dollars, some 44.1 percent of all foreign investment there.

In making this announcement, the authorities in Vladivostok noted that the Maritime Territory's key trading and investment partners are located along the American west coast.

As is so often the case, political interests follow economic ones. So far, the expanded American political interest in the Russian Far East has been the more obvious: There is now a U.S. consulate general in Vladivostok, and more than 20 American non-profit educational and technical assistance groups are now based in that Russian region.

But the Maritime Territory's political interest in such ties is also expanding. So far, this increasing political interest in ties with the Pacific rim countries in general and with the U.S. west coast in particular takes three forms.

First, local officials pointedly note that it is far easier for them to trade with the Pacific rim than with European Russia. With the Pacific rim states, they can use extensive shipping facilities; with European Russia, they must rely on an overburdened and increasingly expensive and unreliable rail system.

Second, they have taken the lead in pushing for expanded shipping and air routes between Vladivostok and the west coast of the United States from Alaska to California. The Maritime authorities have taken advantage of the fact that those two states are closer to Vladivostok than parts of European Russia.

And third, they have used their trade with the U.S. and other Pacific rim states in order to chart an increasingly independent path from Moscow.

On the one hand, the regional authorities view the income from their territory's trade with the west coast of the United States as ever more important relative to what they may receive from Moscow and European Russia.

And on the other, the Maritime regional government in Vladivostok has been able to exploit the fact that trade between the Russian Far East and the U.S. has expanded far more rapidly than trade between Russia as a whole and the United States in order to gain influence directly in Moscow and indirectly in Washington.

This development does not mean that the Russian Far East is set to begin a drive toward independence. Not only do most of the leaders of the region appear to believe that they already have as much independence as they need, but the looming power of China acts as a constraint to any thought of a renewal of the Far Eastern Republic of the 1920's.

But the increasing attention the leaders of the Russian Far East are giving to the American west coast is likely to have some important consequences in both regions and in the capitals of their respective countries.

In each of these Pacific rim regions, the attention of local elites to their economic links with those of the other is likely to create an expanding community of interests between them.

And in the capitals of both countries, this linkage across the Pacific, from Vladivostok to Seattle and San Francisco is likely to force both Moscow and Washington to focus more on the Pacific than they ever had in the past.

To the extent that happens, the ultimate political consequences of the expansion in trade between the Russian Far East and the American Far West seem certain to be far greater than any of those engaged in this trade can possibly foresee.