Putin’s Pivot on Asia

Putin’s Pivot on Asia

Surprisingly, the United States seems pleased that Putin wants to reposition Russia as a major Asian power.


One might assume that Vladimir Putin’s decision to reposition Russia as a major Asian power—as he announced at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok on September 7—would produce anger and dismay among US policymakers. After all, American leaders have been complaining about Russia’s re-emergence as a major geopolitical actor ever since Putin first assumed office as president in 2000. But from my observations as a participant in the summit, the Obama administration was more pleased than dismayed by Putin’s announcement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the top US official present in Vladivostok, went out of her way to congratulate Russia for its recent accession to the World Trade Organization and promised strong administration support for efforts to persuade Congress to eliminate trade restrictions on Russia. Clinton had a private meeting with Putin and, during the final summit banquet, sat next to him for an hour and a half, discussing, as The New York Times reported, wildlife and the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Russia. What explains this sudden rapprochement?

Washington has released no formal statement on the implications of Putin’s move, so it is necessary to engage in a bit of speculation. But first, what is APEC, and what exactly did Putin say?

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is a meeting of senior governmental and corporate officials from the Pacific Rim countries that takes place once a year in a location designated by that year’s host on a rotating basis—last year it was Honolulu, with President Obama presiding; next year it will be Bali, under Indonesian tutelage. APEC’s stated goal is to promote regional economic integration and growth by allowing senior officials to meet in an informal setting, where they can promote mutually beneficially endeavors without being distracted by political disputes. Hence leaders from both China and Taiwan attend and engage in group discussions about the regional economy, although China does not formally accept Taiwan’s political legitimacy.

Supposedly, discussion at the annual summit is limited to economic matters—participants are described as “member economies,” not states, to avoid political irritants—but inevitably, when so many senior officials gather in one place, other issues arise. Unlike in the Euro-Atlantic space, where senior officials have several major fora in which to meet, including the European Union and NATO, in Asia and the Pacific the sole common ground for all major players is APEC, and so it possesses special importance.

Significantly, it was at the last APEC meeting, in November 2011, that President Obama announced what has been called the US “pivot” toward Asia and the Pacific—arguably the most notable American strategic shift since President George W. Bush declared the “War on Terror”—largely focused on the Middle East and North Africa—over a decade ago. “The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay,” Obama told participants in the 2011 summit. “There's no region in the world that we consider more vital than the Asia-Pacific region.”

Although Obama placed the heaviest emphasis on the economic dimensions of America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific, he made it clear that this incorporated a major security aspect as well. In particular, he spoke of Washington’s fresh determination to support its allies in Southeast Asia in the face of intense bullying from China over control of disputed islands in the South China Sea. Without going into details, he spoke of his intention of creating a new “security architecture” in the region and otherwise boosting regional defenses. “When it comes to prioritizing our security posture here in this region,” he said, “this has to continue to remain a top priority.”

From Honolulu, Obama flew to Canberra, Australia, where he elaborated on this new posture in a speech to the Australian Parliament. In what some analysts, including this author, have viewed as a virtual “Obama Doctrine,” the president provided a detailed plan for bolstering US military strength in the Asia-Pacific region. (See my piece from December 2011, “Playing with Fire.”) This included the establishment of a new training facility at Darwin (on Australia’s northern coast), increased military aid to Indonesia and the Philippines, and an expanded naval presence throughout the region.

Although Obama never said that these moves were aimed specifically at China, it has widely been assumed in Washington and Beijing that this was, indeed, the case. Many of the recipients of fresh US military support—including India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—have squabbled with China over those disputed islands or fear China’s rising power. By strengthening military ties with these countries, the Obama administration seeks to create what for all intents and purposes is an anti-Chinese coalition on China’s periphery. Certainly administration officials speak as if this were the case, and the Chinese have been responding in a like manner—beefing up their naval presence in the South China Sea, taking a tougher line on Japanese claims to disputed islands in the East China Sea and warning Washington it keep its nose out of regional affairs.

All of this was beginning to get very heated in the weeks leading up to this year’s APEC summit in Vladivostok. Tensions were high all summer in the South China Sea, with Chinese patrol boats clashing repeatedly with ships belonging to Vietnam and the Philippines. More recently, Beijing has been protesting efforts by Japanese ultranationalists to occupy the Chinese-claimed Diaoyu Islands (called Senkaku by the Japanese) and a recent decision by the Japanese government to buy the islands from their private owner (supposedly to reduce the risk of such provocations). Offers by Secretary Clinton to mediate the various island disputes have been angrily dismissed by Beijing as unwarranted US interference in local affairs. When she arrived in Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders while traveling to the APEC summit, Clinton was met with a barrage of anti-American comments in the Chinese press, much of it focusing on the US “pivot” toward Asia.

This, then, was the geopolitical backdrop to the 2012 APEC summit. Although muted, the antagonism between Washington and Beijing was plainly evident to an informed observer.

President Hu Jintao of China, who preceded Clinton to the podium, spoke only of China’s plans for increased spending on national infrastructure and socioeconomic development. He indicated, however, that China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia could be major beneficiaries of these efforts by supplying raw materials and participating in joint ventures with Chinese companies. “China’s market will be one of the largest in the world,” he declared. “This will create opportunities for the Asia/Pacific countries and business community to share in the benefits of China’s growth.” No caveats were mentioned in his remarks, but hearing these words, I could not help but assume that there was an unspoken message: any country that aligned too closely with Washington would see these benefits disappear.

Hillary Clinton also stuck to a largely economic agenda, but she, too, sought to win over allies among the Southeast Asian countries. Without mentioning Beijing directly, she complained about states that impede free trade by imposing unfair restrictions on foreign investments. “We know there remain significant discriminatory procurement rules and local content requirements—so-called tollbooths that force unfair terms on foreign companies just to enter or expand in a market…[or give] preferential treatment for state-owned or state-supported enterprises.” Few in the room could have doubt as to which country she was referring to.

But it was Putin who had the most interesting things to say. Noting that the Asia-Pacific region has become the “engine” of global economic growth, he affirmed that Russia would now seek to be a major player there. “Our aim is to build a powerful center of regional development,” he declared. “Russia is an in integral part of the Asia-Pacific region. We are investing seriously in developing Siberia and the [Russian] Far East.”

To acquire a significant role in the region, Putin said that Russia would focus on three areas: the production of energy and other raw materials, industrial development and improved logistical capabilities. Whereas now most of Russia’s energy and industrial output is aimed at Europe, he said, in the future an ever-increasing share of it will be directed at customers in Asia. In addition, he promised to expand the capacity of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Baikal Amur Mainline, so as to speed the shipment of goods between Asia and Europe. And without mentioning global warming, he also spoke of the potential of the Northern Sea Route—the maritime passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via Russia’s northern waters that is now being made more navigable by the melting of the Arctic ice cap.

Putin did not say anything about Russia’s military ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region—that would have been precluded by APEC’s focus on economic matters. However, there was no ignoring the fact that the summit took place in Vladivostok—long the homeport of the Russian Pacific Fleet—and that among Putin’s promised initiatives were substantial improvements to the city itself. Clearly, by refurbishing Vladivostok, Putin is laying the groundwork for a more vigorous naval presence in the region.

As I indicated at the outset, these are the sorts of moves that would, at another time or place, have triggered alarm bells in Washington. The fact that they didn’t, but rather seemed to evoke implied consent from Hillary Clinton, suggests to me that a deeper geopolitical game is under way: that Russia’s emergence as a Pacific power is seen by US strategists as a potential asset—as a wild card that can someday be played against China if the opportunity arises.

It is true that Putin spoke effusively of “Hu Jintao, our great friend” and discussed closer Sino-Russian economic cooperation. But nothing he said suggested that such ties extended to strategic cooperation or precluded closer ties with the West. Indeed, he went out of his way to highlight Russia’s improved relations with Japan, using the summit to announce a $7 billion deal between state-controlled Gazprom and a consortium of Japanese companies to build a plant in Vladivostok for liquefying natural gas for shipment to Japan.

I am not suggesting that US leaders believe that Russia will ever become an American ally in Washington’s drive to contain China—the Russians would never agree to such a ploy, knowing they would always be at a disadvantage in any arrangement that left the United States in a dominant position on the geopolitical chessboard. However, Russia’s emergence as a major Pacific player may complicate China’s strategic environment, as it can never be certain how Moscow would behave in any given situation—an uncertainty that can play to Washington’s advantage, if it can maximize Russia’s interest in playing the wild card role. The more China has to worry about its northern flank, this line of reasoning might go, the less attention it can direct to developments on its southern flank, where the United States is seeking to achieve new geopolitical gains. This, at any rate, is one interpretation of the peculiar developments at the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok.

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