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Russia: On The Margins Of The Pacific Rim

Australia's John Howard and Russia's Putin signed a controversial uranium deal in Sydney (ITAR-TASS) September 11, 2007 -- The United States, China, Japan, and host Australia took center stage at the September 8-9 summit of the loosely organized, 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Sydney.

Russia's participation received slight mention outside the domestic media, except for the huge bilateral trade deals that President Vladimir Putin concluded in Indonesia and Australia before the summit began. Commentators noted that Russia's role in the region centers primarily on energy and weapons.

On September 6, Putin and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed agreements in Jakarta worth well over $1 billion for Indonesia to purchase Russian military equipment, including jet fighters and submarines. The two presidents also witnessed the signing of agreements valued at a total of $4 billion between the Indonesian mining company Aneka Tambang and Russia's RusAl, and between the state-owned oil company Pertamina and LUKoil.

Putin has often spoken warmly about expanding ties to China, but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made it clear that the United States and Europe remain Moscow's chief priorities.

In Sydney the following day, Putin and Prime Minister John Howard signed a controversial deal for Australia to supply uranium to Russia for use in civilian nuclear reactors. Critics charged that Russia lacks sufficient transparency for Australia to be sure that the uranium is not being used for military purposes or reexported to countries such as Iran or Syria. Observers also noted that the Australian imports would enable Russia to free up some of its own uranium for export to such countries. But Putin and Howard argued that Russia will observe its international obligations and that there is no cause for concern.

'A Great Dawn'

Putin met with U.S. President George W. Bush on September 7 to discuss major bilateral and world issues and to invite the American leader to go fishing in Siberia. After meeting on September 8 with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Putin said that "a great dawn in Russian-Chinese relations" began recently and that "Russian policy toward China will not change in the coming years."

On September 9, Putin endorsed plans for an Asian-Pacific free-trade zone and thanked APEC leaders who backed Russia's plans to host the 2012 summit in Vladivostok.

In the run-up to the summit, some international and Russian media wrote that "Russia is back" in regional affairs and will be a "formidable Pacific player." Some cited the recent flight of a few ageing Cold War-era bombers in the direction of the western Pacific island of Guam to illustrate their point. Others recalled remarks First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov made in 2006 to the effect that Russia is as much an Asian power as it is a European one. Aleksandr Medvedev, who is Gazprom's deputy CEO in charge of exports, said in Sydney that "it's no secret that we want to be the biggest supplier of natural gas to the Asia-Pacific region."

But even where energy is concerned, Russia's ambitions in the Pacific Rim area might seem a bit fanciful. It has many eager customers for its oil and gas, but also difficulties in developing fields and constructing pipelines in order to satisfy the competing demands of countries like China, Japan, and South Korea. It has timber and other natural resources, as well as plentiful and relatively inexpensive weapons, but lacks the economic dynamism and widespread high-tech culture that have given many APEC countries their high growth rates or grounds for optimism for the future. Most observers agree that strategic transformations are under way in the region, but those changes are driven by economic growth and technology, not by flights of antiquated bombers. China's economy alone is 2 1/2 times the size of Russia's and growing at a much faster pace.

Nor does the Pacific region seem to be at the center of Moscow's attention. Although Putin has often spoken warmly about expanding ties to China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's recent major speech on Russia's external relations made it clear that the United States and Europe remain Moscow's chief priorities. Its economic ties are not particularly impressive by APEC regional standards. For example, the volume of Sino-Russian trade is 2 percent of China's total foreign trade, or one-tenth the amount of China's trade with the United States.

Not Socially Integrated

About 20 years ago, one expert argued that the Soviet Union was geographically part of the Asia-Pacific region but not "socially" integrated into it. Although much has changed since the collapse of the USSR, that comment might still seem valid today. Recent Russian legislation aimed at eliminating foreigners from markets, including those in cities and towns in the Far East, has led to thousands of Chinese traders returning home. This has meant the loss of some of the Chinese businesspeople and their networks that provide much of the driving force for commerce around the Pacific Rim.

In fact, many Russians seem to view the dynamic Pacific region as a threat rather than as a source of opportunity. Concerns about a Chinese demographic menace in the sparsely populated Far East are not difficult to find in the Russian media. About 7 million Russians face 77 million Chinese in the three provinces across the border, and more than one Russian commentator has noted that nature abhors a vacuum. Putin said in the Far East in July 2000 that "if we don't take concerted action, the future local population will speak Japanese, Chinese, or Korean."

Russia's position in the APEC region appears marginal. A glance through recent years of the Hong Kong-based monthly "Far Eastern Economic Review" reveals mention of Russia's role there only in passing in articles dealing with larger issues. Specialized articles on the regional impact of China, India, Japan, or the United States abound, but none on Russia. And even its future as a supplier of weapons seems open to question: of the three once-prized Soviet aircraft carriers that have been sold to China, two are now being used as tourist attractions, and the third may be destined for the same fate.

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