The web page for Russia's joint SCO/BRICS summits next year in Ufa..
Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, gave a tour d'horizon of his country's rapidly evolving foreign policy, including some of the most explicit hints to date that the country is reorienting away from Europe and toward Asia -- especially China.
In an October 20 speech to members of the country's ruling party, United Russia, Lavrov addressed familiar topics like the need for a multipolar world and perfidy of the West. But in the past Russian officials tend to elide the details of what an alternative to the Western-led world would look like.
Particularly striking in Lavrov's speech was the attention given to China. This was in his introduction:
The realignment, or, I would even say, the deconcentration of the global balance of forces, is a hallmark of our time. Most clearly, this can be seen in the greater economic power and increasing political clout of the Asia-Pacific Region. These countries have largely assumed the role of a driver of global economic growth, a role which was traditionally performed by the United States,Western Europe and Japan. As we can see, China achieved the greatest success on this path and, according to the latest report issued by the International Monetary Fund, has for the first time become the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity Based on the findings of the IMF experts, the seven largest so-called “emerging economies,” including our country, outdid the seven industrialized Western countries in terms of combined GDP. That’s a totally new picture of the world that does not fit into the centuries-old notion of Western dominance in the global economy, finance and politics.
And later, he expanded on Russia's growing ties with Asia and particularly China, though he emphasizes that this is not a reaction to the fallout with Europe and the United States, but a longer-term strategy:
We have recently done a great deal to develop partner relations with the Asia-Pacific countries. In this context, some said that Russia was reorienting its foreign relations from the West to the East, under the influence of US and EU sanctions. In reality, deeper cooperation with the Asia-Pacific countries, including in the interests of boosting the development of our eastern regions, has been a long-standing priority of Russia’s multi-vectoral foreign policy, which is sealed in a concept that was approved by President Vladimir Putin. The policy of developing relations with Asia-Pacific and the area’s regional integration organisations will be implemented despite the possible changes in other parts of the world. Of course, the recent restrictive measures have provided an impetus for more actively developing relations with our partners in the East, although we would rather do this simultaneously with developing our traditional cooperation with the West than instead of it.
We have made a breakthrough in the development of our strategic partnership with China. The relevant facts and figures have been provided in the context of a recent meeting of the heads of government of Russia and China in Moscow, during which we signed approximately 40 agreements. This cooperation is very important not only for promoting bilateral relations and economic cooperation, addressing social issues and strengthening cultural cooperation between our nations, but also for strengthening the stability of international relations. Our cooperation has become a fact of international life, and its role has been growing. We are actively cooperating with China within the SCO, BRICS and other multilateral organisations, not to mention the UN Security Council.
Despite what Lavrov says, the shift in attention paid by Russia to BRICS and the SCO since the Ukraine crisis started has been unmistakeable. In a non-scientific but illustrative example, on RIA Novosti over the last six months the Russian acronym for the SCO has appeared 310 times, and for BRICS 371 times. In the same six months of 2013, "SCO" appeared 164 times, and "BRICS" 132 times.
Many in Russia, however, question these increasing ties to China, wondering if Beijing is taking advantage of Moscow's moment of weakness. Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, for example, has said that Russia is at risk of becoming a "raw materials colony" of China, noting a variety of (to his view) one-sided deals that China and Russia have recently agreed. In an interview with website Svobodnaya Pressa, an expert on Russia-China relations, Andrey Ostrovskiy of the Far East Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, gave a curious retort to that criticism:
I've heard many times that Russia is becoming a raw materials colony of China. And so I have a question: is Russia not a raw materials appendage of the European Union? And if we are a raw materials appendage of the European Union, why can't we become a raw materials province of China? Why does Saudi Arabia, which is a raw materials province of the entire world, prosper, and we can't do the same? All the more so since the situation in Ukraine vividly illustrates that delivering raw materials in only one direction -- to Europe -- is fraught with consequences...
Russians tend to have a deep distrust of the Chinese, so it will be fascinating to watch how the government tries to sell its population on the notion that China is now their best friend in the world. Especially interesting is that Russia will be hosting simultaneous summits of BRICS and the SCO in Ufa next year, for which the preparations are already pretty elaborate. So that promises to be a real showcase for Russia's new turn to the East.