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.”