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AUGUST 4 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 30 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Moscow on the Yangzi
Russia's new push in Asia offers opportunities for growth and peace

ALSO:
Just do it: Two good ideas for narrowing the gap between wired and unwired


President Vladimir Putin of Russia certainly knows how to make an entrance. For the week before he arrived in Naga, Okinawa, as just one of the Group of Eight leaders attending the annual industrial-nations summit, he dominated world headlines. For the "Shanghai Five" meeting in Tajikistan on July 5, Putin joined the leaders of China and central Asia. They concluded with a communique asserting a collective determination to resist aggression. Next stop was Beijing, where he and his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin, easily found common ground in opposing U.S. plans for anti-missile defenses. Then Putin flew to Pyongyang for the first-ever visit by a Kremlin chief to North Korea. The Russian leader announced afterward an offer from his host, Kim Jong Il, to stop missile development -- a big worry for the U.S. and Japan and the avowed rationale for missile defense -- in exchange for space technology.

Little wonder that by the time the charismatic Russian president landed in Okinawa, he had plainly become the star of the summit. And the region will see even more of him. In September he visits Japan again and may also go to South Korea. In October he will be in India, and the following month in Brunei for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Asians have not received so much attention from a Russian leader since Mikhail Gorbachev's seminal speech in Vladivostok in 1985. Several years later, that initiative led to the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan and, indirectly, the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia. But the U.S.S.R.'s breakup curtailed any further moves in Asia. The Russian Pacific Fleet rusting at anchor at its bases in Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk has become a metaphor for Moscow's declining influence in Asia -- until last week.

Putin's diplomatic blitzkrieg, if nothing else, is a way of saying that Russia is still a player, and an important one too. By extracting from Pyongyang a pledge to shelve missile plans, Putin dramatically and effectively grabbed one of the main strategic issues roiling Northeast Asia and ran with it. Never mind that nobody knew North Korea had ever been interested in space know-how. In Okinawa, Moscow's man threw out other proposals like sparklers, including a global monitoring system for rocket proliferation, ideas about solving West Asian conflicts, even having world leaders communicate by e-mail. No question about it: Russia is back.

For now, China and Russia have converging interests in opposing America's planned National Missile Defense for U.S. territory and Theater Missile Defense for its troops and allies in Asia. But it may turn out to be not quite as solid as Beijing and Pyongyang might wish. Moscow has the numbers to overcome NMD and may in fact be willing to trade deeper cuts in warhead strength on both sides in exchange for letting America build an anti-missile shield. Indeed, Moscow has proposed its own missile defense system for Europe. But if nothing else Putin has grabbed the world's attention.

Fifteen years ago Gorbachev focused his vision on developing Russia's vast Far East with capital, business expertise and technology from Asian nations. Given the country's dire straits and Putin's campaign against powerful domestic tycoons, Russia's need for foreign investment and know-how is even greater now. Add to that recent frictions with the West, and Asian business becomes even more of a must-have. In exchange, Russia can offer the region a wealth of energy and mineral resources, advanced weapons and aircraft technology, and, as its economy recovers, a market of 147 million people. Relatively few live in Siberia, and Putin is keenly aware of its vulnerability. Before leaving for Okinawa, he visited the Chinese border, where he warned: "If we don't make a real effort to develop Russia's Far East, then in the next few decades, the Russian population will be speaking mainly Japanese, Chinese and Korean." But that very statement shows that Putin acknowledges the force of economic reality.

Japan would be the biggest source of Asian capital and expertise, and the stumbling block there lies in the bleak islands north of Hokkaido called the Kuriles. The Russians seized them at the end of World War II and the Japanese want them back. In 1997 Japanese prime minister Hashimoto Ryutaro and Boris Yeltsin set a goal of concluding a formal peace treaty, which would also resolve the status of the disputed islands, by the end of this year. Japan and Russia will return to the issue when Putin visits Tokyo again later this year. In pre-summit interviews with Japanese newspapers, he gave little indication that he was prepared to make concessions soon. But his reputation as a nationalist who crushed Chechen separatists would make it easier for him to sell the return of the islands to his country.

On the whole, it is good to have Russia back. It is, after all, a part of Asia, a member of APEC, an ASEAN dialogue partner and a nuclear power. The country harbors a special interest in the eventual peaceful reunification of the two Koreas, in which it would play a valuable role as Pyongyang's old patron and ally. In Asia's drive to boost growth, peace and stability, moreover, a Russia giving and gaining from trade and technological exchange with the region is a big plus.

Now about those pesky islands off Hokkaido . . .

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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