Putin skips APEC meeting – but is Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’ still on track?

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting with Truong Tan Sang, President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, on the sidelines of the APEC Leaders' Meeting.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting with Truong Tan Sang, President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, on the sidelines of the APEC Leaders' Meeting.

Ria Novosti/Dmitry Astakhov
Media observers were quick to note Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his stead to this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Manila – what is the significance of Putin’s absence, and does it send a message about Russia’s changing priorities toward Asia?

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting held this week in Manila added to the ongoing debate on whether the fast-growing economies of the non-Western world, currently passing through a zone of turbulence, remain the locomotive of global growth and whether the concept of the 21st century as the age of “rising Asia” is still valid. It also evoked fresh speculations on the ups and downs of Russia’s “pivot to Asia” policy.

The APEC summit came hard on the heels of the G20 summit in Turkey and was illuminated by an array of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, President Xi Jinping of China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and more than a dozen other national leaders. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to abstain from the APEC summit, raising eyebrows on whether the reason for his absence could have been something more than just a tight schedule.

Although the terrorist attacks in Paris propelled the issue of religion-based terrorism to the forefront, economic issues dominated the essential agenda – and for good reason: The APEC accounts for almost 50 percent of global trade and over 50 percent of world gross domestic product (GDP). To be part of the grouping is not only a matter of prestige but of economic rationale.

Unlike other APEC nations, Russia has little to boast in terms of macroeconomic performance. Inflation in Russia at the beginning of November reached 9 percent compared to the 1.8 percent average for the APEC. Imports in the period from January to October plummeted year on year by 37.9 percent, while the APEC average recorded a growth of 2.4 percent.

Nevertheless, Moscow claims that its focus on integration with the APEC is well on track, citing such examples as granting Vladivostok, the maritime gateway to the Russian Far East, the status of free port and “Territory of Advanced Development”; reserving a big say in managing the BRICS Development Bank and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank; linking up the Chinese concept of the new Silk Road and the Russia-led integration process within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and pointing out that the free trade zone agreement signed between the EAEU and Vietnam is to be complemented with a similar concord with Singapore.

In the meantime, experts in Moscow keep locking horns over whether Russia’s much-talked-about “pivot to Asia” has been a success or a disaster. The APEC meeting invigorated the debate. Troika Report sought the opinion of known Kremlin critiс Georgy Kunadze, who served as deputy foreign minister under President Yeltsin, and was responsible for Asian policy. 

“At the start of the APEC process the USSR, almost at its end, was looking for a definite role to play in the new project of regional integration. Now, two and a half decades later, it is evident that Russia’s search for its Pacific identity has been a failure. Let’s face it, except for its natural gas, crude oil and timber, Russia has nothing to offer the countries of the Pacific in terms of development. With the emergence of the Trans-Pacific Partnership project Russia has drifted to a position of odd man out in the region.”

– Some claim that the decision by Vladimir Putin not to attend the APEC summit was a snub, while others believe that what really matters is substance of the multilateral interaction and not diplomatic protocol, and that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is not merely an errand boy. Where do you stand in this dispute?

“Having become an outcast in Europe as a result of its ‘adventures’ in Ukraine, Russia has announced its ‘move East,’ seeking a strategic alliance with China. So far, this move has not been successful either. Nevertheless, Russia, short of allies and friends as it is, has to be very cautious not to alienate China. Thus constrained, Russia can contribute little if anything at all to regional economy or regional security.

“Under such circumstances, to my mind, President Putin has made a sensible decision not to attend the APEC summit meeting lest he should be relegated to a second-class status. Russian Prime Minister Medvedev will do just fine.”

Does it really matter who of the two top officials, Putin or Medvedev, is better placed to represent Russia at the APEC summit? Gleb Ivashentsov, a former ambassador and now member of the Russian International Affairs Council, discussed the issue with Troika Report.

“There are so many events around the world that it is difficult for the national leader to be present at all of them. Two days ahead of the APEC meeting the G20 summit was held. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, measures should be worked out to protect Russian citizens from the same threat. Besides, Prime Minister Medvedev is visiting countries neighboring the Philippines: Cambodia and Malaysia. Moreover, the APEC summit, unlike the G20 gatherings, is focused on the economy and not on politics plus economics. In Russia, traditionally it is the Prime Minister who deals with economic issues.

“The absence of Vladimir Putin at the APEC summit can hardly be viewed as an offense to the hosts. After all, U.S. President Obama shunned the APEC summit in Vladivostok. A number of world leaders were also missing at the summits held in Jakarta and in Beijing.”

– Critics argue that these summits are nothing more but “photo opportunities” and that they lack substance. How do you assess the APEC and what is your comment on the current summit in Manila?

“We see the mineral resources of Russia and the financial resources of China. If we take into account the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS Development Bank, there is the source of financing such major projects as the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Baikal-Amur Railroad, and the Northern Sea Route. In total, it opens new vistas in developing cooperation in the Asia-Pacific and establishing a direct link with Europe.”

The two Russian diplomats clearly differ in their assessment of the viability and progress achieved by Russia’s “pivot to Asia” and of the engagement between Moscow and Beijing, as well as regarding Vladimir Putin’s possible motives for not attending the APEC summit.

Basically, the divergence of views is testimony to the still unfinished search for Russia’s “Eurasian identity” and the continuous debate within the country between two different schools of thought and policy-making.

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff

Read more from Troika Report:

Russia’s doping scandal: Keeping politics out of the arena

Paris drama leads to double consensus in Vienna and Antalya

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