In the mid-1980s, when much international attention was focused on the booming "tiger economies" of the Far East, and many books and articles predicted the advent of a "Pacific century," the Far Eastern regions of the Soviet Union were usually passed over in the discussions. The authoritative "Far Eastern Economic Review" once commented simply that Russia's Pacific regions were geographically part of the Asian-Pacific area but were not integrated with it "socially" or economically.
That has certainly changed over the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Putin, moreover, now wants to assert Russia's presence in the region all the more as he seeks to reestablish his country's role as a major international player and relies on oil and gas as Moscow's muscle in the way that Soviet leaders once drew power and influence from their military.
Putin had a twofold opportunity to court countries of the region by attending first of all the summit of the 10-member ASEAN in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which included the first-ever Russia-ASEAN summit meeting on 13 December. The following day, he addressed the inaugural 16-member East Asia Summit, albeit as an observer rather than as a full member.
Already on 10 December, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signed Moscow's first cooperation agreement with the ASEAN. He stressed that Russia "considers ASEAN its important partner in creating a multipolar world and a common regional security system, and counteracting new threats and challenges." But he also said that economic cooperation is important and requires "special efforts on both sides" to improve it. "We can't bypass Russia-ASEAN cooperation in the field of development, especially if you consider how pressing the issue is for our own regions of Siberia and the Far East," Lavrov added.
On 13 December, Putin pursued bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy, most notably with Beijing's representatives. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao apologized to him for the recent chemical spill that threatens the water supplies of Khabarovsk. The two men agreed to work together to eliminate damage from the accident and better protect the environment in the region in the future.
Putin and the ASEAN leaders held their summit and signed a four-part declaration that included commitments to fight terrorism and organized crime, as well as a pledge to hold regular top-level meetings and intensify economic links.
Putin's most important appearance was his address to the East Asia Summit, in which he said that Russia does not seek "unilateral advantages" in its dealings with the countries of that region "because our credo is equitable partnership and mutual profit." He noted that "Russia has always had and will have long-term political, economic, and...civilizational interests [there]" and seeks to participate in "integration processes...[to] create a favorable environment for economic development inside Russia itself and [especially] in Siberia and the Far East." Putin spoke of "significant processes" unfolding in the Asia-Pacific region and hailed the East Asia Summit as "a new, powerful association of countries."
But it is not clear if this club will include Russia. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said that Russia "could" become a full member of the summit in 2006, while Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who is widely seen as Washington's leading supporter at the summit, is said to oppose Russian membership, lenta.ru reported.
It remains to be seen exactly what will become of the groups that Russia is seeking to form a partnership with, in the case of ASEAN, or to join outright, as is the case with the East Asia Summit. One reason that ASEAN has managed to last and expand its membership for nearly four decades is that it seeks the lowest common denominator among its members and avoids controversies and grand schemes. It functions primarily through its meetings and summits rather than through institutions and regulations like the EU. There have been calls from within ASEAN recently for more structure and for promoting a common Asian trading bloc to offset those in Europe and North America, but these are, at best, works in progress.
As for the East Asia Summit, it was first proposed in 1991 by Malaysia's outspoken Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as a regional economic grouping that would be a "caucus without Caucasians." Support has been growing in the region for a new trade organization, and the summit seemed for many to fit the bill. Singapore's former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, for example, said recently that "if East Asia does not coalesce, it will lose out to the Americas and Europe. The key question is...how quickly [it will integrate] and [which] form it will assume." For its part, Beijing embraced the new organization as a means of showing that the United States is no longer the dominant power in the region and stressed security cooperation as well as trade.
But things seem to be changing. After India and especially Australia and New Zealand were recently admitted to the summit, Beijing reportedly lost enthusiasm for it as a going concern that would be long on substance. Mahathir said that the organization had become "diluted," even if the three new members continued to be excluded from an inner caucus. The presence of Australia and Japan ensures that Washington's viewpoints will be aired, even if the Americans are not present themselves. And if the summit is further expanded, especially if it comes to include Russia and the United States, it is unclear how it will substantially differ from the long-established if somewhat moribund Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC.
In any event, it would be difficult to envision any new organization that includes not only ASEAN's 10 members of greatly varying political hues, but also major states like China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand, developing in the foreseeable future into an Asian version of the European Community of the 1980s, which was a forerunner of today's much more integrated EU. East Asia, unlike the founding states of what is now the EU, has no common political, cultural, and religious tradition to build on comparable to that of the Greek and Roman world and the Holy Roman Empire.
Second, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once wrote that if today's European and trans-Atlantic worlds are a modern phenomenon linked by a strong network of institutions, the Far East more likely resembles Europe of a century ago, where assertive national states vied with each other for power and influence in a very delicate balance. Japan and India, for example, clearly see themselves as competitors of a rising China and not as its subordinates. Tensions between China and Japan were evident in Kuala Lumpur when Chinese Prime Minister Wen canceled a planned meeting with Japan's Junichiro Koizumi. And history suggests that warm relations between China and Russia are more likely to prove an exception rather than the rule.