Analysis

Russia’s imperial dream and Apec’s debacle

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(First of two parts)

Vladivostok, the enchanting venue of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum and leaders’ summit last weekend, is the main Russian port city fronting the Pacific Ocean. In 1959, after a visit to the United States, the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev dreamed of making Vladivostok Russia’s San Francisco.

In hosting the summit of 20 Pacific Basin nations, Russia came close to realizing its dream. In modernizing Vladivostok as preparation for the meetings, Russia is reported to have spent $22 billion—50 percent more than Britain spent on the Summer Olympic Games. Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports that after the summit, Russia is hoping that Vladivostok, once closed to foreigners and notorious for Mafia crime, “will become its window and open new markets just as Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg to be a window on Europe.”

Vladivostok means to “rule the east,” and it was pointed out by AFP that, from the czarist times to Soviet times, it served as a fortress city, beating back invasions launched from other parts of Asia. From Russky (Russian) Island, which is surrounded by the Sea of Japan and was the site of the Apec summit, the delegates could not escape the sight of six forts and 27 coastal batteries guarding the city. As host of the Apec conference, Russia’s “biggest outreach to Asia in memory,” Vladivostok had the role of, not repelling those arriving from abroad, but welcoming them as trading partners.

Vladivostok is the home base of the Russian Pacific Fleet, and during Soviet times it was closed to foreign visitors. It was opened in 1992 to foreign visits under the glasnost (opening) and perestroika (restructuring) policy of Mikhail Gorbachev in the course of his dismantling of the Soviet Union.

The Apec summit was a triumphal event for the host country. It heralded the reentry of Russia as a Pacific power. It was a great leap forward for the ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin to project his country as one of the triumvirate of great powers on the Pacific Rim, along with the United States and China. But for certain Southeast Asian countries that have come under the heel of Chinese pressure, the summit was a disaster.

To many of the Southeast Asian leaders, the conference was a debacle for Apec. The territorial disputes with China, which had caused tensions, were papered over. The leaders of Japan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia had hoped that dialogues on the margins of the summit meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao would help reduce tensions over the territorial claims. Many of them returned home disappointed and empty-handed, with hopes for a peaceful resolution of the disputes shattered.

Of all the Asean leaders, President Aquino of the Philippines was the most frustrated. Mr. Aquino had cooled his heels in Vladivostok up to the last hour, only to be told that arrangements for bilateral talks with Hu over the standoffs at the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal had gone awry because Hu had no time for him. The most decent thing the President did to keep his self-respect and protest the humiliation of national honor was that he stormed out of the summit and took the first flight home before the closing ceremony.

Despite these disappointing results, we cannot discount the significance of the repivoting of the center of gravity of Russia’s foreign policy to the Pacific region.

The massive construction drive for the makeover of Vladivostok was undertaken on a scale incomparable to previous Apec summits, in defiance of the current global belt-tightening at a time of economic crisis, according to the AFP report. It has seen the building of what is claimed to be the world’s highest suspension bridge to connect Vladivostok with the summit venue on Russky Island at the height of 1,872 meters. An estimated $1.1 billion was spent on the bridge alone. Officials had hoped that the construction projects would transform the city into Russia’s answer to San Francisco or Istanbul.

Russky Island is the site of a new university, the Far Eastern Federal University. Prof. Artyon Lukin, director of international research at the university, sees the Apec summit as “a coming-out party confirming Russia’s status as a modern Pacific power,” according to a Voice of America (VOA) report. “Russia wants to be a great Pacific power—not just a great Eurasian power, but a great Asian Pacific power as well,” Lukin said. “If you want to be a great power in the Pacific, you need a developed Pacific coast … the Russian Far East.”

In opening the summit last Saturday, President Putin called for unity in tackling economic challenges in the region and for a renewed joint commitment to open up regional trade. He cautioned against “excessive use of protectionism and said the world economy’s center of gravity was shifting away from Europe and the United States and toward Asia-Pacific countries such as China and Russia.

“The world is moving into a new economic and technological era … and it is up to us to meet these changes… We want to create a regional economic engine. Russia will be part of it,” he said.

VOA reports that Putin is seeking to position Russia as a vital partner of Asia. He also offered Russia’s century-old Trans-Siberian railway as a land-bridge between Asia and Europe, explaining that the railway, which has its eastern terminus in Vladivostok, is breaking Soviet-era records this year for hauling cargo.

(On Friday: the Apec breakdown)

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