Don't just wait for Russia to look East

Peter Gordon considers the potential, and challenges, of vast Siberia

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2012, 11:51pm

Russia's head lies in Europe while its feet paddle in the Pacific. It is the only European country that is also a Pacific nation, an attribute reflected in its former imperial, and now resurrected, emblem. "The Russian eagle has two heads, looking in two directions at once," the late Arkady Volsky, leading Soviet and post-Soviet industrialist, told me in the late 1990s. "It is just as important for Russia to look East to Asia, as West to Europe and the United States."

If Asian Russia - Siberia - were a country, it would be the continent's largest, one-third larger than China. Siberia has the abundant surplus energy, metals and other natural resources, from timber to fish, necessary for its neighbours' continued growth.

Yet Russia has seemed curiously detached from the rest of Asia. "Asia stops at the Amur River," a Hong Kong investment banker once informed me.

While trade and investment figures show progress, Russia is nonetheless far less integrated with its Asian neighbours than Canada or even Mexico is with the United States. The eagle, it seems, has generally been content just to look at Asia rather than build much of a nest here.

It was not always thus. A branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway originally took a shortcut via Harbin, Heilongjiang. Less happily, imperial Russia ruled what is now Dalian, in Liaoning. Anton Chekhov, the great Russian writer, visited Hong Kong in 1890 on his way back from Sakhalin (he was most impressed, writing: "A wonderful bay, such movement on the sea as I have never seen even in pictures...").

The Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, with exquisite timing, opened a branch in Vladivostok in 1917. It closed a few years later, but the Tsarist-era building - considerably more modest than the one on the Shanghai Bund - is still there, or at least was when I was asked to scope it out soon after Vladivostok opened up. Yul Brynner was born in Vladivostok.

The turmoil of the 20th century - the Russian revolution, the brief interregnum in which the region was the nominally independent Far Eastern Republic, the second world war and border skirmishes with China, brought an end to this. Vladivostok became home to the Soviet Union's Pacific fleet and was closed to foreigners.

The legacy of this period is still being unwound; the Russian far east is suffering from a significant decline in population, and - overall good relations with China notwithstanding - concerns are still expressed about Chinese immigration, including comments just last month by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Perhaps these worries are not entirely specious. A thinly populated and dormant Siberia tucked up hard against not just a populous and dynamic China but also Korea and Japan seems untenable in the long run. Healthy Russo-Asian relationships need a healthy Russian Asia, and Siberia has been distinctly unhealthy.

Russia is not Germany or Britain: surely the first signs of Russia's renewed engagement with Asia would be a reinvigorated Russian Asia. New shoots have been visible from time to time, but it is taking a disconcertingly long time.

Some of this is understandable, of course. The example of Shenzhen notwithstanding, economies don't get turned on by the flip of a switch; Shenzhen, after all, had Hong Kong a stone's throw away while Siberian cities had, at best, Manchurian versions of pre-special-economic-zone Shenzhen. Several of the latter have boomed; their Russian counterparts, in general, less so.

Are Vladivostok's hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit and the city's refurbishment signs of the Russian eagle's belated nest-building? If the past two decades are any indication, it's still too soon to tell.

That being said, Hong Kong probably shouldn't wait to find out for certain. Economic integration seems inevitable even if the timing remains uncertain. Siberia and Russia's far east, being part of our region, may well be of more direct importance to Hong Kong than the capital, Moscow. Any Asia of which Hong Kong aspires to be a hub will ultimately include Russia's Asian territories.

Peter Gordon, editor of the Asian Review of Books, was active in Hong Kong-Russian relations in the 1980s and 1990s