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A tale of two pivots to Asia Pacific
Publication Date : 15-09-2012
Forget about Clint Eastwood's "empty chair" mockery of US President Barack Obama at the Republican Party convention two weeks ago. The absence of Obama at the 20th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vladivostok conveys a multitude of messages to the region.
Perhaps Obama has not "forgiven" Russian President Vladimir Putin for skipping the G8 summit in Camp David, US, which is widely viewed as Putin's snub to Obama after he was elected Russia's president for the third time.
The embattled US president, however, may indeed need every minute at home to campaign for his second term, given the sluggish economy and recently rejuvenated Republican Party which is determined to end the "colour revolution" in the White House with or without Obama's birth certificate.
Besides, Obama's empty chair in Vladivostok is a "nyet" to the coming out party of Russia's new, and old, president, who is determined, as much as Obama, to pivot to Asia-Pacific.
The theme of the Vladivostok APEC meeting was "Integrate to Grow, Innovate to Prosper". By hosting the APEC meeting, Putin hoped to attract foreign investment to Russia's vast Siberian region and Far East, where underdevelopment and depopulation have been the trend in the post-Soviet era.
The Russian government went on a spending spree to make the Vladivostok meeting a success: US$21 billion, that is, $6 billion more than the London Olympics. This represents perhaps the first ever economic-oriented drive to integrate Russia's more advanced European part with its vast but backward Asian part. Beyond that, Russia's "pivot" to Asia-Pacific makes a lot more sense, given a debt-plagued Europe since 2008.
If Russia can be a "bridge" between the West and East, it will be able to take advantage of both parts of the world for money and might.
Moscow's generosity for its Far East is rare in Russian history. It may not bring quick returns, and modernising Russia's Far East needs much more than a facelift of Vladivostok. Russia's tilt to the East this time is nonetheless unique. In fact, almost all Russian (and Soviet) leaders have experimented with ideological and security integration between the West and East.
The Vladivostok meeting is also the most recent effort by Putin to expand Russian economic reach across the Eurasian continent. Before Vladivostok, Putin launched the "Custom Union" in 2010 and its fuller format, the Eurasian Economic Space, in early 2012. The final stage of these steps will be the Eurasian Union by 2015.
During the APEC meeting, Putin and other Russian officials were super-busy in hosting foreign political and business elites. "We will be doing everything to make them comfortable on the entire territory of Russia, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok," Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov promised before the summit. In a matter of a few days, Putin held 12 "full-fledged contacts" with leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, Brunei, Canada, Peru, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. And he still had time, on his way to Vladivostok, to fly a motorised hand glider to guide Siberian white cranes through their migration.
To fill his empty chair, Obama dispatched US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her activities before and in Vladivostok, however, focused more on security and political issues, which is the essence of the US pivot to Asia-Pacific. Her talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov centred on "deep disagreements" on Syria, and her meetings with several Association of Southeast Asia Nations leaders "underscored her interest" in the South China Sea, according to US officials.
She really tried to patch up the "annoying" territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan, which is threatening to torpedo the US' pivot to Asia aimed at China, even though Tokyo's territorial disputes with Seoul and Beijing share the same roots in Japanese imperialism.
Putin only had a "brief conversation" with Clinton, while holding "deep" and formal meetings with most of the AEPC participants. Perhaps Obama's substitute reminded him of four years ago when as a Democrat presidential candidate, Clinton competed with Republican candidate John McCain to be the first to see only "KGB" in Putin's eyes.
Clinton's Vladivostok stopover may well be her last trip to the region as US secretary of state. Despite her enormous capability and higher-than-Obama popularity at home (66 per cent versus 44 per cent), the Asia-Pacific she will be leaving behind is perhaps more tense and even more dangerous than the "good old days" of the George W. Bush administration. It seems that any place the US pivots to becomes more problematic.
It is not clear if Obama anticipated all of this as he apparently "outsourced" not just his APEC seat, but also US foreign policy to his "super" secretary of state.
It remains to be seen how the two "extensions" of the West - Russia through land and the US across oceans - pivot to Asia, which will be different whether they compete, cooperate, collude or collide.
The author is a senior fellow of the Shanghai Association of American Studies.