Asia’s last investment frontier?

Russia’s Far East has become, last week, the topic of lively discussions on investments there. That happened at the annual Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, attended by 61 foreign delegations — South Korea, Japan and Mongolia represented by top leaders.

My own summing up of the event is as follows: The Korean nuclear crisis is, strange it may seem, spurring business activities in those Russian areas from where you may walk to the North Korean border. And, another thing, Asian investors start to see that the Russian government’s efforts to turn the Far East into an economic miracle is dead serious.

There is that Russian tradition of signing contracts on the margins of such conferences, so as to demonstrate their importance, though you may well imagine a very serious business forum without such ceremonies. Anyway, this year has set a record.

Some 194 papers have been inked in Vladivostok, with a general view to a figure of US$41 billion (RM172.54 billion). The deals are between Russian and other Russian companies, and also with Korean, Vietnamese, German and Japanese entities. We are talking about airports, milk and dairy products, car engines, power stations, etc.

Not all of these US$41 billion are actual investments, in most cases we talk about LoIs (letter of intents) on projects that will need some more years to finalise. And not all of them are about the Russian Far East as such. But the trend is obviously there.

Speaking about trends, while the previous EEF was dominated by the Japanese, it was the Koreans who became the stars of this year’s gathering, led by President Moon Jae-in. Russo-Korean trade has jumped 50% during his presidency, which started in May, and the plans span from Russian liquified natural gas deliveries from the island of Sakhalin and Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic down to agricultural ventures.

But isn’t it a bit strange, talking about investments in an area bordering North Korea? How about the possibility of a nuclear war starting right there, due to North Korean nuclear tests or missile launches and American threats to retaliate? But still, there they were, the Russian and South Korean presidents, Japanese prime minister and a lot of business people, discussing plans to infuse money into one of the world’s most dangerous places.

There may be several answers to that riddle. One is that the people who gathered in Vladivostok knew some- thing about the real value of threats coming from the US and North Korea, not for a moment believing that it may come to real military strikes. Another answer is that both South Korea and Japan feel the need to hedge their bets on economic and other kind of traditional partnerships with the US.

All partnerships seem to be dubious in today’s world. Look at Korea and the US: Seoul is supposed to be a frontline city in the US-Korea alliance, and the partners should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder awaiting a showdown. But the US could impose economic sanctions on its ally, South Korea, writes an analyst of the Foreign Policy, a US publication.

It would be a deliberate case of friendly fire in the looming conflict, the article goes on. This might sound utterly absurd, but it is reportedly the policy under consideration by the Trump administration. The US president is contemplating a withdrawal from the 2012 free trade agreement between the two countries (known as KORUS) and may act this week.

You cannot blame Korean or Japanese authorities for favouring more deals with China or Russia or any- body else in such times, just to be on the safer side, when nothing can be taken for granted anymore.

Besides, the Russian Far East is interesting. It might be an exaggeration calling it “the last remaining Asian investment frontier” — there will always be new areas to put money into. But what’s obvious is the resolve with which the Russian government itself is developing that part of the country.

The speeches at the EEF often sound excessively optimistic, as it always is in such cases. But there were several big, purely Russian meetings

on its eve, attended by President Vladimir Putin and dedicated to the same problem: The development of the Far East. The mood of these was grim determination.

What to do with the region’s biggest problem — lack of people (no more than 10 million Russian inhabit these vast territories)? Why the local authorities often do not know how to use the huge Russian government’s investments into the infrastructure? And, when things go well, why don’t they go faster?

That mood might be the best thing that could have been observed in Vladivostok last week. It would even be wise to let some investors sneak into these closed Russian gatherings and witness the mentioned grim determination and blistering criticism with which Moscow is really turning its Eastern frontier into a possible future economic miracle.

  • Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia.