Beijing, Briefly, Part II: What’s Russia Got To Do With It?

My second day in Beijing dawned overcast, and the skyscrapers that had been sparklingly visible from my hotel window on the previous, sunny day disappeared in a murky funk of smog. Fortunately this was the day I would spend entirely inside the hotel/convention center, attending the seminar that had brought me to Beijing in the first place.

The seminar was convened on the 20th of June by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and hosted by China Agricultural University in Beijing; the topic was East and North-East Asian Development Cooperation in Post 2015. Recognizing the growing importance of East and Northeast Asian countries as a source of funding for development cooperation, the organizers of the seminar hoped to explore shared principles and common goals among representatives of the region, seeking opportunities for cooperation. The focus was on China, Korea, Japan and Russia.

The global political economy is continually morphing, and the changes we are currently experiencing are causing a widespread perception that something fundamentally different is afoot. Frankly, I don’t think this is the case, and I think the perception has more to do with unexamined expectations about which regions of the world should dominate the global political economy and which regions should play the role as either beneficiary of the latter’s largess or eager trainee following the dominant lead.

In any case, the current moment has a certain delicious quality for me, because of its topsy-turvy potential. Only such a moment could see an American living in debt-crisis-ridden Ireland being invited to Beijing to enlighten an Asian audience about Russian development cooperation, in a session in which all the other presenters were representing their own countries. Things will surely catch up with themselves soon enough, and I will happily defer to my more-than-capable Russian colleagues, but this is awfully fun right now.

And the seminar was a blast; the tone was set by the local host, Li Xiaoyun, Dean of the College of Humanities and Development Studies at China Agriculture University, who cheerfully debunked the by-now-almost-ritual denunciations of China’s role in international development cooperation. The discussions throughout the day were lively and insightful, and all the fascinating threads were masterfully brought together in a closing session chaired by Mr. Kilaparti Ramakrishna of UNESCAP. Details can be downloaded from the seminar website.

But what does Russia have to do with East-Northeast Asia? If you generally move about on the Europe side of the world, as I do, on first blush it might strike you as a bit strange. But although Russia might seem to have its “face” to Europe, just as the U.S. seems to have its “face” to the Atlantic, Russia also has an east coast with thriving and vibrant cities like Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-na-Amure, much as the U.S. has a west coast with cities like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.[1] Russia also shares much more of its border with Asian countries than it does with European ones, and it shares compelling development cooperation interests in Central Asia with China, Japan, Korea.

Some of the Asian participants were quite eager to find partners in Russia to begin discussing cooperation. Dr. Naohiro Kitano, Deputy Director of the Japan International Cooperation Agency Research Institute, spoke of past efforts to foster development cooperation with Russia that did not flourish, and wondered if now might be the right time to try again. Mr. Chuluunbat Ochirbat, Deputy Minister of the Mongolian Ministry of Economic Development gave a tangible sense of Mongolia’s position, caught between Russia and China and waiting for both to cooperate on projects that would benefit all three countries. Russia clearly has a role to play in the region.

So next time, Russia needs to be there, and not this intrepid American ex-pat. Right? But I surely won’t mind tagging along.

[1] Forget about mega-cities like Los Angeles and San Diego; Russia doesn’t have them on its east coast – but don’t forget that Russia’s largest city, Moscow, exceeds the population of the largest US city, New York, by over 3 million inhabitants.

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