Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 22

In what the Kremlin and a number of foreign observers have described as a new and more vigorous effort by Russia to raise its profile in Asia, President Vladimir Putin traveled east on November 15 to participate in the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. In a series of newspaper articles published on the eve of the Asian summit meeting, the Russian president suggested that Moscow intends to make relations with Asian countries a priority of its foreign policy. He attempted also to make the case that Russia is something of an indispensable country in the region, capable of serving as a bridge between East and West while simultaneously providing a range of natural resources and technical know-how which could help power economic growth in Asia.

In this context, Putin pointed to Moscow’s expanding economic links with Indonesia and Vietnam, and to its hopes of boosting trade relations with Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. He likewise argued that Russia’s trans-Siberian railroad could ultimately serve as a cheaper and faster alternative route for Asian countries marketing their goods in Europe, and said his country’s air corridors could help bring the Euro-Atlantic and Asia Pacific regions closer together. “Russia’s full-scale involvement in economic collaboration on the vast expanses of Asia and the Pacific Ocean is logical and inevitable,” he claimed.

And while Putin’s accent both before and during the APEC forum appeared to be on Russia’s possible role as a trade partner in Asia, he also made it clear that Moscow sees itself as a key player on regional political and security issues. Against this background the Russian president pointed to Moscow’s ever-closer ties to Beijing, as well as to what he said is its improving relations with Japan. He also said that Moscow has an important role to play in bringing a peace settlement to the Korean Peninsula. More generally, Putin appeared to be suggesting that Moscow intends to reassume its role as a power broker in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition, he argued that the Asia-Pacific has become a “breeding ground for terrorism, religious extremism, separatism and transnational crime.” Putin offered assurances that Moscow brings “no secret agenda” to its dealings in the Asia-Pacific, and he stated that the “region will always need Russia… both to maintain stability and security and to ensure a balance of interests of all sides.”

Whether Putin was able to advance any of these ambitious goals during his stay in Brunei is unclear. The Russian president met with his U.S. counterpart–in what was likely their final encounter in Bill Clinton’s presidency–and discussed a host of arms control and bilateral issues. Putin also held talks on the summit’s margins with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. In addition, he addressed a gathering of businessmen, during which he pledged to make the Russian economy more attractive to foreign investment and expressed Moscow’s desire to improve relations with the World Trade Organization.