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New Multiple Vectors as Resilience Factor of Small and Medium-Sized Countries in Post-Pandemic World

A comparative analysis of the outcomes of two international events held in November 2020 and March 2021 prompted a return to the multiple vectors despite the clear and unambiguous emphasis placed by the head of state on this issue at the 6th All-Belarusian People's Assembly. Moreover, the multi-vector framework was addressed through the prism of these events, as well as the pandemic factor that permeates modern international relations from top down.

It is about signing of the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership Agreement (hereinafter referred to as the RCEP) by the ten ASEAN members and the partner countries – China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the first-ever (since 2007) high-level virtual summit of the informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (of the United States, Japan, Australia and India) – the so-called Quad.

Prior to proceeding to the RCEP analysis, it is important to note the coincidence of the absolute majority of recent expert assessments which recognize the Asia-Pacific region (APR) as the engine of global growth in the 21st century and reformatting the global order architecture, though remaining a source of threats due to conflicting interests of global and regional players.

According to estimates of Euler Hermes, the global leader in trade political risks insurance, the global economic gravity center turned east in 2002, although had been moving towards the U.S. before. In 2020-2021, this center will move east 1.8 times faster than the average for 2015-2019, and 1.4 times faster in 2020–2024.

Unlike the U.S. and the EU, the APR has largely been enabled to keep the coronavirus pandemic under control and gradually recover the economy, with rates different from the Western vis-a-vis (not in their favor). Asia accounts for 38% of the world's GD.

Despite the remaining challenges, including territorial debates, the APR clearly recreates the multi-polar regional architecture typical of the today's world.

ПAccording to the McKinsey Global Institute, as of September 2019, Asia accounted for 33% of global trade, 23% of investment, 65% of patents, 62% of container trade, 29% of energy production, and 43% of energy consumption.

China already rates first in the world in terms of GDP on purchasing power parity (the same picture is expected at par by 2028), India can reach the third (after the United States) place on this indicator as early as 2023. Based on dynamic industrialization and urbanization, the growth in labor productivity, and the corporate sector development, India already hosts the half of the global middle class.

The APR success in regionalization is facilitated by mutual trade accounting for 60% of the total world output, 71% of investments in start-ups and 59% of foreign direct investment, more than 70% of air passengers travel within the region.

The growing self-sufficiency and complementarity of the economies spurs the process of regional integration and establishing powerful trade, economic and logistics networks.

An important catalyst for the APR transformation into a hub of regionalization, trade and growth of the world economy will be the launch of the RCEP, whose ratification (in 2 years) will result in creation of the world's largest free trade zone covering approximately 30% of the world GDP and 30% of the world's population (2.3 billion people).

Creating the RCEP in acute coronacrisis period demonstrates the crucial role of regionalism as opposed to protectionism and economic downturn. The project promises to be an important platform for post-pandemic recovery of the Asia-Pacific region, especially from the standpoint of the growing competition between the U.S. and China models of mega-regional integration projects.

Unlike the previously created Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the forerunner of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (before the U.S. withdrawal), the RCEP does not invade the vulnerable areas of the member-states' economies, nor does it establish common standards in labor and environmental regulation. Due to the more inclusive and open, as opposed to CPTPP, model of economic integration, the RCEP could become in the future a focal point for other regional integration mechanisms, which is of particular importance in addressing effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, the RCEP is a "unifier" of the 28 agreements in this area already in force between its participants, which more than compensates for rather modest framework conditions of the agreement.

It is quite obvious that signing of the RСEP, which was seen in China as "a victory for multilateralism and free trade", is a success of Chinese diplomacy, although officially the initiative to launch the project in 2012 came from ASEAN, which plays a systematic role in all regional processes.

The signing of the RCEP makes China a driver of regionalism and multilateralism in the global economy, but beyond bilateral agreements within the Belt and Road framework, which have been strongly criticized recently by opponents, as well as free trade agreements.

In fact, the RCEP is becoming a gravity point for China's friends and allies at the level of bilateral and regional agreements, as well as on international platforms, to reach the goal of a "community of common destiny".

The coronacrisis factor has catalyzed and improved international and domestic political processes. An important effect of this dynamic is a leadership vacuum to overcome global challenges, an increased competition and conflict between major players. As the logical outcome, a significant part of them turned out to be disoriented and unable to provide an immediate and concerted action within the global force majeure.

The RCEP has become a kind of rubicon in the minds of countries awaiting for a "strong hand" during crisis, and enabled Beijing to informally "ride" an important international initiative – a kind of "game changer" – less than a year after.

However, as Aristotle said, "Nature abhors a vacuum". Victoria Panova, Vice-rector for International Relations of the Far Eastern Federal University of the Russian Federation, says, the lack of a global leader has contributed to the crystallization of a certain new multi-vector dimension. It became obvious that a number of medium-sized and small economies were not ready to sacrifice their interests in the face of progressive turbulence in favor of any of the major actors, and in their desire to hedge national risks selectively, cross-interact, with everyone including the antagonistic superpowers.

This is clearly illustrated by the fact that the United Kingdom, the immediate U.S. ally, supports the China-promoted Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative. Also of interest was the fact that America's allies (Japan and South Korea) decided to sign the RCEP, without waiting for Biden to officially take office as the new U.S. president.

With some degree of conventionality this can include the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) signed in December 2020, again without regard to the legal maneuvering in the White House. Although a critical marker of the Brussels real attitude to Beijing, despite the formal transatlantic solidarity, will be signing of a bilateral trade agreement in spite of the recent "Uighur" European sanctions, as well as investment agreement ratifying.

No less interesting amid escalating struggle for the world leadership between the U.S. and China are India's efforts to formalize trilateral formats, where it is a key partner. Starting from 2015, the Russia-India-China, India-Japan-Australia and India-USA-Japan "troikas" added three more: India-Australia-France, India-Australia-Indonesia, and India-Japan-France. So far, the India-Russia-Japan format, which seemed unrealistic, is working at the expert level. Promising are such tracks with the ASEAN countries, first of all, Russia-India-Vietnam, which represent the design of an architecture of influence, mutual support and risk hedging comfortable for participants.

As Iran and China converge, the informal geopolitical axis of the like-minded opposing the United States in the face of Turkey, Iran, China, Pakistan and Russia, becomes noticeable.

In this context, the theses of Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, who recently assessed the Russia-India relations in the framework of the Quad summit, are very logical.

The essence of the theses is that amid the tectonic shifts taking place in the world and affecting the specific countries relations, the former partnerships cannot remain unchanged. The new reality puts them in need of expanding the circle of partners to increase maneuverability and flexibility. Tough alliances are a thing of the past due to the discrepancy with the national interests of the vast majority of their participants. The regional (and global) situation is more stable the more players are involved into stability ensurance.

This phenomenon raises the issue of the importance of small and medium-sized economies in the context of the ongoing world reconfiguring, as well as the ability of national leaders to assess new realities in a timely and competent manner, to present with benefit their attractiveness within the new multi-vector framework, and to effectively manage the current dynamics.

For the EEU in general and Belarus in particular, staying beyond such a mega-market as the RCEP is potentially related to the lost profits, therefore building collaboration is seen inevitable and a matter of time (in any case, the two years that will take to ratify the agreement is quite enough to assess the situation and make necessary decisions). Who knows, maybe, as events flow, the centripetal pull of the RCEP could make the EEU a sort of mediator in the growing economic interaction between the EU and the Asia-Pacific region?

We should not also disregard the synergy potential of Russia's Greater Eurasia initiative, including through integrating the EEU and the Belt and Road initiative, as well as FTA with individual APT countries and ASEAN as a whole, provided that stakeholders elaborate a collective consensus (especially those claiming to be leaders) and have the necessary and sufficient resources.

However, assessing the situation objectively and pragmatically, it is obvious that the RCEP is still blurry and loose platform. But one thing is clear – the overal capacity of its current and future members leaves no doubt that they will develop the rules and standards for the future development of the world's economy.

In concluding the RCEP theme, it is logical to assume that debates and discussions on making a choice between particular formats of strategic partnership, given the current intensity of passions in the world, are unlikely to subside. That is why a deep and comprehensive understanding of the nature of new and emerging strategic alliances in the world is very critical to effectively promote and protect national interests.

The proportionate involvement of Belarus in such mechanisms for sound participation in constructing a common post-crisis future seems to be no-alternative and inevitable. With the Russian Federation, China and the United States being the main APR players, the alignment and balance of power are largely determined by the strategies of regional states (e.g., ASEAN), which makes it important to have an appropriate national action plan aimed at domestic development ensurance through new opportunities in Asia.

Rector of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry Alexander Yakovenko, reflecting on the eastern vector of Russia's foreign policy has expressed himself very clearly in this regard saying, "Russia did not stand aside when the world development trends pointed to the West. We cannot fail to be part of the global pendulum's movement in the opposite direction", obviously referring to the" Russia's turn to the East" in the context of the global trend of shifting the world gravity center in the Asia-Pacific region. No less convincing is the message that a narrow focus on relations with the United States/EU and the post-Soviet space will result in "inadequate, distorted picture of Russian diplomacy, whose multi-vector is one of the basic principles".

For Belarus, the expansion of its national presence in Asia is an adequate response to the attempts of isolation and sanctions pressure from the West and a resource base for the modernization and development of the country. If before the West was almost a non-alternative technological and investment donor (despite the sanctions), now all this is becoming available in Asia.

At this stage, Belarus has obviously reached the limit of its convergence with the EU and the U.S., and received the maximum possible from them. At the same time, the turn to Asia does not imply an anti-Western course or a final and irrevocable rejection of the European (American) vector, but the real content of a multi-vector foreign policy that pragmatically takes into consideration the existing global trends in the national interests.

It seems that the task of the expert and analytical community in the present situation should be to "pack" the new geopolitical reality into a clear semantic construct of the future, which, probably, would eventually assist to formulate the conceptual foundations of the Asian roadmap of Belarus. A good reason for that is creating new foreign policy and national security concepts. Obviously, such an integrated approach would make it possible to conceptualize the letter and spirit of the new Belarusian multi-vector approach…