SPEF-2021 and Russia’s Policy in the South Pacific

Amidst the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, the Saint Petersburg Economic Forum which took place on 2-5 June 2021 (SPEF-2021) was a remarkable event in the international economy and politics. The fact that the Forum took place, considering the depth of the global crisis and uncertain prospects for decreasing its implications, strongly suggests that Russia’s claim for the status of the great power which shapes the global development is convincingly substantiated by its policy.

The Forum was attended by 13 thousand participants from 140 countries. During the Forum, more than 800 contracts for 3.86 trillion dollars were signed[1]. The spectrum of the topics discussed ranged from a shift from the anti-crisis agenda to the sustainable development of the Russian economy and stimulating e-commerce exchanges between the EAEU countries, to inclusive startups and trends in fashion and style[2].

Although a special session focusing on relations between Russia and the South Pacific  states, as well as on the key issues of cooperation and development in the South Pacific, was not held, the necessity to organize it is strong due to a number of reasons.

First, in order to make Russia’s “Turn to the East” truly comprehensive, additional resources should be mobilized. To date, the limitations of the on-going measures are evident. The prerequisite for success is not the implementation of relatively “narrow-focused” projects aimed to develop one of Russia’s federal districts. Another reason is more important: Russia’s “Turn to the East” “… is a strategic choice in favor of the rising part of the world”[3]. Cooperation with the South Pacific countries should be seen in this specific context. The Australian academic and expert school is among the best in the Asia-Pacific region. Australian specialists play a prominent role in providing large-scale projects and initiatives of multilateral cooperation with expert support. Australia and New Zealand are major global producers and suppliers of agriculture and food products, the economic policy directions to which Russia pays close attention. Possibilities for Russia and the South Pacific small states to implement joint foreign policy measures are also in place.

Second, for the Russian Federation, the task to coorditate its policy towards Southeast Asia and the South Pacific is increasing in importance. Owing to the factor of geographic proximity, those countries encounter similar tasks, ranging from responding to maritime security challenges to decreasing the impact of ecological and climate change issues. Furthermore, Russia has to add practical substance to its Strategic Partnerships in Southeast Asia, specifically, Russia-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and Russia-ASEAN Strategic Partnership, as well as to lay foundations for Russia-Indonesia Strategic Partnership. An important component of the Strategic Partnership is the coordination of policies towards the third partners. From the perspective of Russia’s Strategic Partnerships in Southeast Asia, the South Pacific countries ideally respond to this priority.

Third, Russia needs to use to its best advantage an important reputational asset of its policy in the South Pacific region. This accounts for the legacy of the famous explorer and humanist Nicolay Miklouho-Maclay, whose name is on a par with the names of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan or Fridtjof Nansen. As SPEF and similar events perform a representative function, highlighting Russia and its possibilities in a favourable light, a special session on the South Pacific will contribute to this task.

The session could focus on a wide range of topics, from directions on which Russia and its South Pacific partners may coordinate efforts in responding to regional security challenges to joint research and educational projects. Even partial success in discussing these issues and putting the results into practice will produce a strong cumulative effect with positive implications for Russia and the South Pacific states.

But the most important expected result of the session on Russia and the South Pacific countries account for the support for the emerging trend towards the de-politicization of economic cooperation, and eventually for the improvement of the international situation. Experts emphasized a crucial role of political factors in re-vitalizing the global economy, including the intensification of trade and investment flows, technological exchanges or other forms of cooperation[4]. In the years to come this factor is likely to remain relevant and include a steady increase of Sino-American contradictions, as well as continuing instability in many regions and other examples. Nevertheless, the results of the recent Putin-Biden summit demonstrated Russia’s and the US’ readiness, while not for a decrease of confrontation, but at least for making it more manageable[5]. As a result, mutual “give-and-take” actions and reactions can be expected. Presumably, Washington will not object to some directions of economic cooperation between its allies and Moscow, as well as insist upon their support for new packages of anti-Russian sanctions. Similar assessments can be made with regard to the SPEF-2021 results. The central topic of many of its sections, as exemplified by the “Russia and Japan” round-table discussion, focused on the economic cooperation between the companies of the two countries in circumvention of the political barriers. A session on the South Pacific region, with prospects for deep and insightful discussions, would strengthen the repeatedly emphasized point: Russia is open to cooperation with all partners that are ready for it.

But are the South Pacific countries, many of which supported anti-Russian sanctions, ready for this cooperation? Arguably, they are, since expanded economic ties with Russia allows them to diversify their instruments for the response, both collective and individual, to the global challenges. The South Pacific region is rapidly globalizing, and the challenges that its countries are facing range from marine pollution and the sea level rise to the conflicting visions of China and the US regarding the Asia-Pacific multilateral economic initiatives and the global mega-projects. The situation is aggravated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the South Pacific small states, whose healthcare and social welfare systems cannot be described as highly competitive, and whose response to the pandemic has not beeen timely and relevant to the exceptional degree of the threat. Also, the implications of the China-US contradictions for Australia and to a lesser extent for New Zealand deserve mentioning. If so, for the South Pacific countries to diversity their foreign policy directions and instruments is among the major and urgent tasks. Cooperation with Russia can contribute to resolving it.

As the conflict potential of the South Pacific international milieu is increasing, Russia needs to intensify cooperation with those countries both determinately and at the same time cautiously. Nevertheless, this intensification makes sense owing to the current priorities of Moscow’s foreign policy and the interim results of its “Turn to the East”. A session on relations between Russia and the South Pacific countries, organized at major international summits and forums, will substantiate this vision by practical actions, to the advantage of Russia and its regional partners.

[1] Участие в ПМЭФ-2021 приняли 13 000 человек. Ведомости. 05 июня 2021. (Thirteen Thousand People Participated in SBEF-2021. Vedomosti. June 5, 2021) (In Russian) URL: // https://www.vedomosti.ru/economics/news/2021/06/05/873076-uchastie-v-pmef-2021-prinyali-13-000-chelovek


[2] Business Programme. St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. URL: // https://forumspb.com/en/programme/business-programme/


[3] Караганов С., Лихачева А. Почему буксует “поворот на Восток” и как это исправить. Россия в глобальной политике. 16.10.2020. (Karaganov S., Likhacheva A. Why the “Turn to the East” Is Stalled, and How to Make Things Right. Russia in Global Affairs. October 16, 2020.) (in Russian) URL: // https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/pochemu-buksuet-povorot/


[4] Афонцев С. Мировая экономика перед лицом коронавирусного кризиса. // Год планеты: ежегодник. Вып. 2020 г.: экономика, политика, безопасность / под ред. В.Г. Барановского, Э.Г. Соловьева. – М.: Идея-Пресс, 2021. С. 9-21. (Afontsev S. The World Economy Is Facing the Coronavirus Crisis. Year of the Planet: Yearbook / Yearbook 2020 / Ed. by V. Baranovsky, E. Solovyev. Moscow: Idea-Press, 2021. P. 9-21.) (In Russian).


[5] See: Lukyanov F. Biden’s Summitry Was Reassuring for the West. Now Comes the Hard Part. Russia in Global Affairs. 23.06.2021. URL: // https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/bidens-summitry-now-comes/


Evgeny Kanaev

Vice President for Science All-Russian Association of the South Pacific Researchers