. . . Russia has much to offer. We are already building modern ports in the Russian Far East, modernizing the transportation and shipment infrastructure, and improving national customs and administrative procedures.According to assessments by experts of the APEC Business Advisory Council, the implementation of these projects will increase traffic flow between Europe and the Asian-Pacific region via Russia’s territory no less than fivefold by 2020. Such shipments are cost-competitive with the traditional routes through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal, and offer advantages in terms of speed and safety…Russia has long been an intrinsic part of the Asian-Pacific region. We view this dynamic region as the most important factor for the successful future of the whole country, as well as development of Siberia and the far east. We expect that the upcoming Vladivostok summit will once again demonstrate to the world that Russia is a nation of broad opportunities and ready to join forces with our neighbors to advance our common creative goals.
For Putin, this weekend’s summit is a chance to insert Russia into the political and economic discussion in Asia and also to draw attention to the oft-forgotten Russian Far East. Vladivostok got a $20 billion facelift ahead of the summit, including new highways and the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge. It’s an attempt to impress foreign visitors, reminiscent of the kind of hasty construction projects common to the Soviet era, which themselves reflected old Russian customs dating back to the partnership between Catherine the Great and Grigory Potemkin. Many of Vladivostok’s new buildings still smell of fresh paint.But if some buildings are new, Putin’s interest in Asia reflects old and unfulfilled Russian ambitions. Currently, less than a quarter of Russian trade is with APEC members. Putin aims to change that, as the Washington Post reports:
Russia has the oil and natural gas that Asia needs to fuel its economic expansion. Until recently, though, all of its export pipelines flowed west to Europe.Russia wants to be more than a supplier of natural resources to Asia, however, and is eager to attract the investment it needs to diversify and modernize its economy.The first pipeline to send oil east to China began operation in early 2011. An extension of the pipeline to a port near Vladivostok is scheduled for completion by the end of this year, and Russia wants to build plants there to produce petro-chemicals and fertilizers, adding value to its exports.The eastern regions of the country also have rich deposits of coal and metals, vast forests and plenty of undeveloped land where grain could be grown to meet rising demand in China.
After World War Two, America’s longstanding commitment to a balance of power in the Pacific led the U.S. to work against Soviet power in Asia. Both the Korean and Vietnam wars were part of this effort, as was the Nixon-Kissinger policy of opening relations with Beijing. These days, Russia speaks of cooperation with China, works with China at the UN to block Western initiatives like the one on Syria, and otherwise does its best to annoy Washington and limit its power. Does that mean that the U.S. should interpret Russia’s activism in the Pacific as a threat and see Russia as a dangerous partner for Beijing in the Asian Game of Thrones?Probably not. To begin with, Russia remains a weak power, not a strong one, and that is particularly true in the Pacific. Demographically and economically, Russia is second-rate in Asia and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Compared to the real great powers of the region—China, India, Japan and the United States—Russia is out of the running and unlikely to move up in the standings.Even globally (where Russia is less weak than in the Pacific), its power to frustrate American designs stems less from Russia’s power than from oddities in international law (like its veto power on the Security Council, a relic of the power realities of 1945 rather than those of today) or from the consequences of American indecision and confusion. (If the White House really wanted to intervene militarily in Syria it would not need a UN Security Council resolution given support from the Arab League and important NATO allies.)While the U.S. and Russia have very different views on many global questions and deep differences over political values, objectively speaking (as the Soviets used to say), their interests in Asia are surprisingly closely aligned. Russia is much more worried about Chinese power in Asia than statements of eternal solidarity and love at their frequent summit meetings would imply.But it’s complicated. In Central Asia, Russia and China are sparring for advantage in the former Soviet republics. China wants to connect up with the resources found in those countries and expand its hinterland; Russia wants to regain what it had. That rivalry may sharpen as the U.S. gradually reduces its presence in the region. On the other hand, both Russia and China hate and fear the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia and both see it as connected to the stability of their own regions that have large Islamic populations.In the Far East, Russia cares very little one way or the other about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, nor does anybody else much care what Russia thinks about the issue. Russia would like a bigger voice in Asian security issues and may try to horn in on the debate, but this is not a big subject for Moscow. Russia is likely to find that verbal sympathy for China on various issues connected to Beijing’s rivalry with Washington is the wisest course, simply because it knows that Beijing is likely to appreciate the kind words, while Washington, for the foreseeable future, can manage its Asian portfolio without Russian help.Even so, from an American perspective, a revival of Russian power and economic activity in the Far East would be good in almost every way. There is simply no way that Russia can ever be the main threat to the Asian balance of power—unless, I suppose, China were wiped out in a plague and a tsunami washed Japan into the sea. And given that fact, simply by existing and prospering, Russia makes the Asian balance of power more complex and therefore harder for any one country to dominate.Any development of natural resources that reduces international competition over these resources is also a good thing. The U.S. wants China and other industrial Asian powers to have oil and gas without thinking they need to build huge armies and navies to secure them. It certainly doesn’t want international politics to revolve around desperate struggles over insufficient energy supplies.And if Russia really does manage to build a transit corridor from the Far East to Europe—whether through a thawing Arctic or simply by building the equivalent of the New Jersey Turnpike from Vladivostok to Berlin—that will promote global economic growth and reduce the threat to southern sea lanes.Russia doesn’t like us much, but its Pacific ambitions support our global agenda. Vladivostok is a beautiful city with one of the greatest harbors in the world; Secretary Clinton should enjoy her time there.[Top image: Shutterstock; sidebar image: Shutterstock.]