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


Yuri Kadobnov /AFP.
President Putin stole the limelight with his North Korea diplomacy, signalling that Russia was back in Asia in a big way

Talking the Talk
A dapper Putin makes Russia a player in Asia again at an otherwise lackluster G8 meeting
By JONATHAN SPRAGUE

ALSO:
In the Shadow of Giants: Okinawans wish for a little peace and quiet


Thanks for dropping by. Hope you enjoyed your stay. The leaders of eight of the world's richest and most powerful nations gathered in Okinawa, Japan, for their annual summit — and hardly left a footprint on the subtropical island among them. In three days of discussions last weekend on the state of the world, the Group of Eight (G8) chieftains managed to avoid all contentious issues. But if the headline event was a bit of a yawner, it showed that the global powers-that-be are groping toward better understanding of the developing nations and their concerns about the dangers of globalization. And, more significantly, the meeting provided the backdrop for the dazzling debut of a major new player in Asian diplomacy.

"This is the first time, at least in my experience, that there has been such a systematic focus on the developing world — on the problems of disease and the digital divide and education," U.S. President Bill Clinton said at the conclusion of the conference. And well there should have been. The G8's decisive influence on the global agenda has been the target of increasing criticism for ignoring the interests of developing nations. The group was obviously shaken by the huge protests against unchecked globalization that greeted the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle last November. An early sign that this G8 summit would be a bit different came before everyone gathered in Okinawa, when most of the heads of the seven industrialized nations (the G7) — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — met in Tokyo with four representatives of the developing world to discuss their concerns.

The focus of the Tokyo talks was the program announced last year to cancel up to $100 billion in debt owed by the world's 41 poorest countries. Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, attending as the then head of ASEAN and the U.N. Con-ference on Trade and Development, also warned that developing nations are losing confidence in the free-trade system because developed nations kept putting up new barriers to imports. He further called for the G8 to support regional cooperation so that developing countries can protect themselves from financial storms. Not much came of the meeting (Nigerian Pres-ident Olusegun Obasanjo said that the main result was an admission from the G7 that the debt cancellation plan had not performed as well as promised, and that something more was needed), but it was the first time that the rich nations had formally sought input from their poorer cousins prior to their summit.

In Okinawa, joined by eighth member Russia, the G8 signed off on a communiquE that promised to help the developing world reduce debts, fight disease and get onto the information technology bandwagon. The most notable proposal was to bridge the growing digital gap between rich and poor by setting up a public-private Digital Opportunity Task force (or DOT force) that will help developing nations build up their IT systems and personnel. Tokyo also kicked in a pledge to spend $15 billion over the next five years to support IT systems in such countries. The group also made worthy pledges to help reduce the prevalence of diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, improve access to education, control the spread of missiles, try to launch a new round of WTO negotiations before the end of the year, and so on.

But the main focus of attention was not on improving the world. Rather, it was on Vladimir Putin and his polished performance at his first G8. The Russian president scored a diplomatic coup on his way to Okinawa by stopping in North Korea and getting its enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Il, to offer a halt to missile development in return for help on space exploration. He also impressed with his blunt appraisal of Russia's teetering economy, and perhaps for being quite the contrast to the boozy Boris Yeltsin. So much so that some of his fellow leaders said that it was time for Moscow, which until now has had to step aside when the rich G7 held talks on finance and economics, to be promoted from its second-class status. "I think that this summit was above all the summit of Rus-sia's full integration, and that is mainly explained by this debut, confident but not exaggerated, by the Russian president," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Coming after Moscow's announcement earlier this month of a more Asia-focused foreign policy, Putin's G8 performance marked the return of a major player in the regional diplomatic game. High on Moscow's agenda is countering what it sees as Washington's dominance of world affairs, and especially its plans to develop national and theater missile defense systems (NMD and TMD). Mos-cow fears that NMD, which Washington says is meant to protect the U.S. from missile attack by "rogue states" like North Korea, could make its nuclear deterrent obsolete. Pyongyang without missiles would undermine the need for it. And prior to Pyongyang, Putin visited Beijing, which also opposes the U.S. anti-missile programs. "The U.S. and Japanese are conspiring to build TMD, which isn't advantageous to Russia either," says Li Jingjie, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "Hence, [Putin's] improvement of relations with China and his impetus for improving ties with other East Asian neighbors."

Putin's eastward look is also a sign of Russia's weakness and a reaction to its isolation in Europe, where its former satellite states are clamoring to join NATO and the European Union. "Russia has to be more engaged with East Asia for the simple reason that . . . the European Union [doesn't] consider Russia ever to be part of the E.U.," says Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon. "So to balance and to increase its markets, Russia will have to look at Asia." Russia also needs Asian and especially Japanese investment to develop its eastern regions. But there he will have trouble partly due to Russia's occupation of four islands off northern Japan that it invaded in the closing days of World War II. That has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty. Putin will visit Japan in September seeking progress on the issue but no breakthroughs are expected.

But Putin's diplomatic debut also had a somewhat hollow ring to it. After all, no one knew quite what to make of Pyong-yang's gambit. (Clinton said: "It's not clear to me what the offer is [and] what is being requested in return.") A Japanese diplomatic source noted that Kim's prom-ise was never reported in official North Korean media. He also said that while Russia and China share concerns about Washington and NMD/TMD, and could forge an alliance of convenience on that issue, Moscow's policy intelligensia also considers China to be a potential threat given the teeming millions just south of the vacuum of the Russian Far East and Siberia. And Putin did not push talks on NMD/TMD at G8, where many European governments also oppose the systems, showing the limits of his nerve and depriving the discussions of both contention and substance.

Actually, many contentious issues were given kid-glove treatment at G8. Unlike last year's summit in Cologne which was dominated by Kosovo, there was little substantive talk about potential hotspots like South Asia or Taiwan. Despite the pre-summit attention, debt relief for the poorest nations got little more than a promise of more effort. On the growing controversy over genetically modified foods, which pits U.S. desire to go full steam ahead against Euro-pean and Japanese concerns over safety, the leaders only mulled the establishment of a panel to standardize food safety. "It was a little disappointing that the summit ended with no breakthroughs of a kind that can only come out from a meeting of these top leaders," says Masuzoe Yoichi, head of the Masuzoe Institute of Political Economy in Tokyo. "Now that we have the Internet, biotechnology and other new technologies, we need new rules to run them, just as we agreed long ago on traffic lights — red for stop and green for go — when the world acquired cars."

The host, Japanese Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, probably did not mind. Under heavy attack at home for political ineptitude, he was doubtless glad that the summit largely went according to the script of the "sherpas" — the diplomats who drafted the communiquE before the leaders ever arrived. "We were initially worried that Mr. Mori might make another terrible slip of the tongue at the summit, but we needn't have worried," says television commentator Yamafuji Shoji. "He hardly had a chance to speak on his own." Yang Bojiang, a Japan specialist at the China Institute of Contemporary Inter-national Relations, says Mori did not quite deliver on Tokyo's promise to put Asian concerns higher on the agenda, what with Clinton distracted by the then-ongoing Middle East peace talks, and Putin stealing the show. But Siazon applauded the initiative to bridge the digital divide and hoped for more movement on the issue of debt.

So did the $750-million extravaganza make the world a better place? (The high price tag, said to be 50 times that of the previous two summits, has drawn fire from debt cancellation advocates and Japanese opposition politicians.) Not in the near term. But it will have been worthwhile if the G8 lives up to even part of its aims of debt reduction, disease eradication and digital emancipation. "We are satisfied with the words that are coming from them," Nigerian President Obasanjo said at the pre-summit meeting on debt. "What we want to make sure happens is that those words are matched by action." That sentiment could apply as well to all of the G8's worthy promises.

With reporting by Murakami Mutsuko/Tokyo, David Hsieh/Beijing and Alejandro Reyes/Bangkok

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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