The establishment of the All-Russian Association of the South Pacific Researchers is a remarkable event for the Russian regional studies community and the state agencies involved in the developing and implementation of Russia’s foreign policy. The Association’s activity will give an added impetus to the Russian research on the South Pacific, which will result in developing the globally-competitive Russian analytical school in the mid-term perspective. In its turn, this will increase the efficiency of Russia’s foreign policy not only in the South Pacific, but also in other regions, as well as strengthen Russia’s international political and economic positions, raise its status as a top-rank global power.
The international situation in the Asia-Pacific region, to which the South Pacific geographically belongs, is becoming increasingly competitive and volatile. The downward trends in relations between the United States and the States of the South Pacific are intensifying. Major initiatives with the global dimension – the US-led Indo-Pacific Region and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative – compete for influence in the South Pacific. Apart from China, other influential Asian players – Japan, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – are advancing their interests in the South Pacific.
A demanding task for the Russian Federation, a country redefining its international role, is to expand its capabilities not only in the geographically close regions, but also in the distant ones. A major part of this approach is developing relations with regions like the South Pacific on a long-term and sustainable basis to the extent it is possible in the present-day international milieu.
At present, a fully-fledged coordination of prospective planning between the Russian Federation and its South Pacific partners is problematic. The implementation of large-scale joint projects in the South Pacific with China, India and the ASEAN countries does not appear realistic either. At this complicated crossroads, the contribution of academic diplomacy to performing the tasks Russia is encountering is all the more significant. A timely step is to undertake an in-depth and detailed research on the South Pacific, to trace its evolution along with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to identify areas appropriate for a dialogue with experts and decision-makers in government agencies and the corporate sector in those countries. Notably, the Australian researchers during discussions in which Russian experts participate carefully avoid the issue of economic pressure on Russia: experts understand that sanctions can be imposed by the UN Security Council or the World Trade Organization. What is happening now is an economic war, in which every party will lose.
As the COVID-19 pandemic goes on, Russia is attracting growing interest. Many countries are on the verge of the third lockdown, there are shortages of vaccines, so that it can take several months to get vaccinated. In the Russian Federation, the authorities and medical professionals strongly recommend that compatriots get vaccinated for free, which can take a few days. Russia’s “vaccine diplomacy” has very good prospects. This naturally encourages interest in cooperation with Russia in other areas as well. And as the next international détente takes place, detailed recommendations on cooperation, carefully and comprehensively elaborated on, will be required. In light of this, Russia will be able to shape the agenda of the dialogue with those countries, defining its topics and directions, premising this cooperation upon its competitive advantages. But under any scenario, this cooperation will be based on equality, unacceptance of pressure and of double standards.
As partners in academic diplomacy, specialists from the South Pacific countries are of strong interest. Australia can boast of one of the most advanced analytical school in the Asia-Pacific Region. The top Australian universities present themselves as exporters of high-quality Western education to the Asia-Pacific countries. The Australian experts support large-scale multilateral projects and initiatives in the Asia-Pacific Region. Australia and New Zealand are major producers of agricultural products, while Papua New Guinea and small countries of the South Pacific are rich in mineral and biological resources. All of these are promising areas for coordinating prospective planning between Russia and the South Pacific countries, and practical recommendations on what specifically should be done to re-energize mutual ties should be elaborated on in advance.
The South Pacific matters from the Russian internal policy perspective, specifically, concerning the improvement of the Russian education. It makes sense to integrate the South Pacific and Southeast Asia into a unified research and educational module. The main reason stems not only from the geographical proximity of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. More importantly, the South Pacific international milieu largely shapes the key security challenges of Southeast Asia. These include environmental issues, climate change, and, most importantly, the controversy over the South China Sea. Thus, the focus upon the South Pacific becomes part of a comprehensive training of the regional studies specialists who can analytically support large-scale projects and initiatives. This will be appreciated by the government agencies, the corporate sector and the academic community of the Russian Federation.
Concerning the prospective plans of the Association three main priorities can be distinguished.
First of all, the Association members should establish academic exchanges in Russia. The Association will act as a dialogue venue between researchers and practitioners, organizing discussions and establishing people-to-people ties. As President of the Association has invaluable practical experience in organizing such events, as well as has got extensive people-to-people contacts, this practice can further developed by the Association.
Another important priority for the Association is providing young researchers who focus upon the South Pacific with professional support. The Association members are aware that in order to develop a competitive Russian analytical school, ensuring the continuity of the profession, transferring experience from top-level professionals to beginners, academic mentoring etc. are very important. For this reason, the journal “South Pacific World”, published by the Association, will include the section entitled “The Young Researcher’s Tribune”.
Secondly, for the Association, as well as for its individual members, should establish connections with similar dialogue venues, discussion clubs and other sorts of foreign intellectual platforms. Russia will not be able to pursue a competitive policy in the South Pacific if its specialists do not know the substance and the nuances of discussions focusing on the pivotal regional processes, as well as it they fail to maintain stable and long-term professional contacts with their foreign colleagues.
Thirdly, the Association can launch training courses, master classes and online discussions with the participation of Russian and foreign specialists. As a result, training of a new generation of the South Pacific studies specialists will gain sustainability. The Association has already started to perform this task. Specifically, it coordinates its activity with the Orientalia Rossica website developed at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the National Research University Higher School of Economics.
In sum, the South Pacific is a promising area of Russian academic diplomacy, a remarkable example of the global dimension of Russia’s interests and capabilities. At the same time, positioning oneself as an influential actor in a geographically distant region is a challenging task that requires, among other things, historical legitimacy. The Association has a valuable asset here: the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation, headed by President of the Association, has unique materials that convincingly justify Russia’s legitimacy to participate in the affairs of the South Pacific. The main competitive advantage of Russia is an entirely positive perception of the history of its relations with the region by the countries of the South Pacific, which have not the legacy of colonial expansion: the takeover of territories, unequal treaties, etc. The favorable image of Russia was not been tarnished even by the economic war unleashed against our country. Instead, this image has become more attractive due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a valuable asset that can and should be used in the implementation of academic diplomacy by the Association.
As high-level analysts, the Association’s members are perfectly aware that progress in each of the afore-discussed areas is unlikely to be swift and dramatic. Arguably, to achieve even relatively modest success, many tasks will need to be addressed and eventually resolved. How to raise awareness of Russian specialists abroad as long as the Russian school of the South Pacific studies is in its infancy? How can Russia strengthen ties with the countries of this region since the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced prospects for the Russian physical presence, be it of specialists, politicians or business figures, in those countries? Which directions, measures and mechanisms can and should be used to coordinate the prospective planning of the Russian Federation with third actors, for example, with China, as even the process of synergizing the Eurasian Economic Union and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is not progressing smoothly? Stating its readiness to give convincing answers to these and many other questions, the Association members expect to form a partnership between researchers, government officials and business leaders. This will become an important prerequisite for substantiating Russia’s global ambitions, as well as the efficiency of its foreign policy, with practical actions and eventual results.