Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov’s interview with the newspaper Izvestia, published May 4, 2018
Question: You and many of your colleagues often say that Russia aims to establish a system of Asian collective security in the foreseeable future. What problems exist in this area? For example, how can this common system involve China and India that don’t trust each other very much? And how serious is the threat posed to Russia by the Japan-United States-Australia-India alliance that so far lacks any clear structure but which prioritises military-political issues?
Igor Morgulov: Indeed, over the past few years, Russia and other like-minded partner countries, including China and India, have been working actively to advance multilateral dialogue on the issue of improving the Asia Pacific region’s security architecture.
We are confident that this dialogue comes at the right time. The Asia Pacific region, which is marked by relative economic stability, still has a serious potential for conflicts that could undermine the region’s sustained and dynamic development. No less dangerous is the reduction of mutual trust, the degradation of a culture in which compromises are sought and the opinions and interests of partners are heeded. It is common knowledge that the Asia Pacific region lacks any reliable mechanisms for maintaining security.
Considering these circumstances, consultations on the regional security system were launched in 2013, as part of East Asia summits, on the initiative of Russia and with the support of China and Brunei. We see this format as a useful tool allowing numerous Asia Pacific countries to take part in formulating a common vision for the configuration of the regional system of interstate relations.
To be honest, not everyone agrees with this assessment. Some partners believe that the Asia Pacific region now has an optimal security system. At the same time, they are talking about a system based solely on narrow military political alliances. But what should be done by countries which are not affiliated with these alliances and which are not planning to join them? It’s a good question.
More active attempts are currently being made to advance “improved” concepts for such narrow blocs under the pretext of new cooperation plans. Such concepts are only designed with a select few countries in mind. It is unclear who determines the specific criteria and grounds for choosing bloc members, as well as the goals of such blocs. Take the concept of the Indo-Pacific region. Although the United States and Japan, the concept’s authors, have only started filling it with real content, it is already clear that there are plans to impose, rather than discuss, this concept. These countries are highly unlikely to establish an equitable regional mechanism that would heed the legitimate interests of all players. The concept’s advocates see the “rectangle” you mentioned in your question as its pillar, and it appears that the “great democracies” are to approve the list of prospective members. Obviously, this understanding of the Asia Pacific region threatens to cause further fragmentation of this shared space and might serve to entrench existing dividing lines.
Instead of tailoring regional alliances to its own needs, Russia invariably seeks to establish an indivisible and interlinked security system. It is impossible to improve one’s positions in this sphere at the expense of other partners. On the contrary, it is precisely such a system that would guarantee stability and universal prosperity, while also helping to effectively respond to all common challenges and threats. It is telling that our approaches meet with growing understanding and support on the part of regional states, especially the countries of ASEAN, the central element of regional integration and cooperation processes.
As to your question on how we can involve India and China in our collective efforts, I can say that, in addition to specialised bilateral contacts, we continue to cooperate in the trilateral Russia-India-China format. In 2017, India became a full-fledged SCO member, and it is determined to join the entire range of SCO activities. And so we are quite confident about the prospects of our joint efforts to establish a new regional security system along with Beijing and New Delhi.
Question: Since late 2016, Moscow and Tokyo have been discussing joint activities in the South Kuril Islands with optimism, albeit somewhat restrained. However, everyone realises that they are putting a brave face on a sorry business. The Japanese will always prioritise the return of the so-called Northern Territories. Naturally, Russia will never give them back. There is also the serious security issue to consider because Japan is backed by the US Armed Forces. How many generations of politicians will we see before we manage to finalise a peace treaty with Japan? And does Russia really need it?
Igor Morgulov: The two sides are discussing ways of launching joint economic activities in the South Kuril Islands under an agreement set out in the joint statement by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe of December 16, 2016.
Several rounds of talks have been held to date. Two Japanese business missions consisting of state officials and business leaders have visited the South Kuril Islands. As a result of this work, the leaders of our countries have approved five high-priority areas of joint economic activities. Two working groups held their meetings in April to review various consular and logistics issues, as well as and practical aspects of implementing the projects.
Russian approaches during talks on joint economic activities hinge on the following three principles:
– the legality of Russia’s ownership of the South Kuril Islands as a result of World War II must not be disputed;
– the projects must be commercially viable;
– these activities should promote the socioeconomic development of the Sakhalin Region.
The President of the Russian Federation has repeatedly made detailed statements on security issues, including in the context of the strengthened Japanese-US military and political alliance. We openly inform Tokyo about our concerns, including via national security councils, and state candidly that it will be impossible to avoid a discussion of this issue.
I can say only one thing about the prospects for concluding a peace treaty: real progress in resolving this issue is only possible in conditions of a comprehensive development of Russian-Japanese ties and the creation of an atmosphere of genuine mutual trust and partnership in our relations. We are just starting out on this path.
Question: China is Russia’s main ally and partner in the world. Today, the PRC is one of the leading economic powers and is actively implementing infrastructure, transport, logistical industrial and other projects all over the world. Are there regions or economic spheres, where our interests do not coincide or even clash with Chinese interests?
Igor Morgulov: Primarily, let me note that we and China are not creating, nor plan to create, any alliances because this is at variance with our common vision of the nature of bilateral interaction on a broad range of issues, which is based on similarity or closeness of views. The PRC, incidentally, strictly follows a policy of not joining any blocs. At the same time, you are right that in practice we often take a similar approach as like-minded people in global and regional affairs.
It is only natural that each of the sides has economic interests of its own that are not always identical in every way. In some cases, competition can develop, direct competition between both countries’ economic operators. Probably the question is not how to avoid this but how to work with these situations. I think we have found the right answer to this question.
Over the last two and a half decades, a unique multi-level mechanism for coordinating interaction has been created, which includes five intergovernmental commissions, dozens of sub-commissions and working groups, and dialogue formats on the entire range of practical cooperation. Owing to its effective operation, we manage to determine in a constructive manner the points of possible conjunction of joint efforts in various areas, find compromise solutions in cases of intersection of interests, and reach agreements with consideration for the mutual complementarity of the national economies and the strong points of Russian and Chinese companies.
But your question, as far as I understand, is wider in scope. In recent years, China has actively promoted its infrastructure project known as One Belt, One Road. Here we have also found an opportunity to avoid rivalry with this initiative and, based on the available points of contact, channel it towards an alignment with our own Eurasian Economic Union project. This is already bearing fruit. Specifically, the parties have coordinated a trade and economic agreement between the EAEU and the PRC, which is due to be signed shortly.
The Eurasian Economic Commission is forming a list of EAEU-PRC integratory project proposals for subsequent implementation, which includes what Russia regards as priority infrastructure projects that have already been coordinated with China, such as a highway corridor from West China to Europe.
Another important direction in our interaction is the start of cooperation between Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development and China’s Ministry of Commerce on a feasibility study for a bilateral agreement on a Eurasian economic partnership, which would provide an additional impetus to integration processes in the region and the emergence of new opportunities for creating an open, equitable and mutually beneficial pattern of partnership in Greater Eurasia in the spirit of the relevant initiative put forward by President Vladimir Putin in December 2015. In a word, much is being done in this area but even more will be done in the future.
Question: Are there any economic opportunities for Russia in the Chinese market in light of a developing trade war between China and the US? Russian business circles, for example, already speak about openings for Russian pork, soy beans and wine.
Igor Morgulov: Trade and economic cooperation with China, our chief partner in this sphere for years, is a value in itself and is not subject to foreign policy fluctuations.
Basically, we are against trade wars and the brandishing of the sanctions club, but naturally we will not ignore opportunities if they present themselves. You mentioned agricultural products. The trend towards the growth of bilateral trade in this area appeared even before the exacerbation of Chinese-American trade differences. Now, conditions are taking shape for this cooperation to reach a higher level.
Question: Falling within your purview is such a remote country as Australia. It would seem that for reasons of geographical remoteness Moscow and Canberra have nothing particular to share. But as soon as the Skripal case gained notoriety, the Australian authorities immediately sided with London: they expelled Russian diplomats and seem ready to boycott the World Cup. Do you have any logical explanation for Australia’s anti-Russia sentiment?
Igor Morgulov: We have no bilateral problems in our relations with Australia. Last year, we marked the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which were established during the difficult years of our joint fight against Nazism.
I find it hard to answer for my Australian colleagues and analyse what their current attitude towards Russia is – the fear of dropping off Western radar or anxiety about finding themselves on the sidelines of, or, more precisely, far from the events of world politics. But it is still a fact that Australia is the only APR country that decided to take an unfriendly step – to expel two Russian embassy employees – out of a notorious “solidarity” with Britain. In fact, it has declared that it might reconsider sending its officials to the World Cup in Russia.
Luckily, far from everyone on the Green Continent shares the Canberra authorities’ sentiments. Our embassy receives a lot of letters from ordinary Australians, who express support for Russia and even apologise for the anti-Russia rhetoric of their leaders. That the realistically thinking part of the business community is ready to work with Russia is confirmed by the expected arrival of a large group of Australian businessmen at the upcoming St Petersburg International Economic Forum in May. Also, as far as I know, several thousand Australian fans plan to come to Russia for the World Cup. We will be sincerely happy to greet them.
I would like to think that these are positive signs that will help bring Russian-Australian ties back to the trajectory of normal development. But, as the saying goes, the ball is in the Australian court.