Every September Vladimir Putin holds a forum in Vladivostok with at least three goals in mind: 1) to propel the development of the Russian Far East; 2) to assert Russia’s place as a power in East Asia; and 3) to showcase one bilateral relationship having transformative potential. In 2019 the guest of honor was Narendra Modi, confirming that Indo-Russian relations are on the upswing. In previous years it was Xi Jinping, Abe Shinzo, and Moon Jae-in with hopes once raised that Kim Jong-un would join Moon for a Korean extravaganza. Ever since Russky Island in Vladivostok was made into a conference and academic center to suitably host the APEC summit of 2012, meetings at this location have symbolized Russia’s aspirations to “Turn to the East” as a major player in Asia. If the ASEAN-centered East Asian Regional Summit has a broader and more high-powered representation and the Boao Forum for Asia capitalizes on the pulling power of China, the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) serves as the most purposeful platform for regional transformation. Yet, its image has faded, putting its future in doubt.
Since Mikhail Gorbachev traveled to Vladivostok in 1986 to announce Moscow’s decision to open the Russian Far East for business and become part of the dynamism of the Asia-Pacific, one plan after another has been put forward for capitalizing on Russia’s proximity to a rapidly rising region and rebalancing its longstanding tilt toward Europe. Yet, no plan has attracted the kind of investments necessary for a marked economic takeoff, provided the infrastructure essential to give assurance to developers, or overcome the region’s deficit in governance and entrepreneurship. Abe’s economic blandishments at the EEF were conditional on successful negotiation of the territorial dispute, Moon’s grandiose infrastructure plans depended first on North Korea’s cooperation in both security stabilization and economic openness, and high hopes for Xi’s go-ahead for investment stumbled against Russia’s unwillingness to open the border for Chinese traders and laborers in a kind of free-trade agreement. Modi’s role was less to spur growth in the Russian Far East than to give momentum to Eurasianism across continental Asia and to a Sino-Russian-Indian troika. Each time hopes have not been realized.
Even so, Modi’s presence gave the fifth EEF the necessary pizzazz to carry forward its role as the showcase of the “Turn to the East.” Asahi Shimbun even headlined its coverage with “honeymoon” and “rapidly drawing closer.”1 It claimed that in the two staples of relations—arms and energy—cooperation is deepening and that India shares Russia’s alarm over Trump. Ties will expand with Indian imports of Russian natural gas and cooperation in space. Noted was the fact that Russian arms exports to India in 2014-18 were double those to China and that Russia fits into India’s strong interest in multilateral diplomacy. Yomiuri was less effusive about the partnership but noted plans to boost bilateral trade from 11 to 30 billion dollars by 2025 and the importance to India of diversifying energy supplies from the Middle East.2 Meanwhile, Sankei focused on cooperation to develop the Northern Sea Route, symbolized by a joint visit by Modi and Putin to a shipbuilding plant building a nuclear-powered icebreaker.3 Yet, looking back in mid-September, Sankei cast doubt on this relationship and on the results of the EEF, quoting the Russian media. It noted that in defense and nuclear energy India’s ties to Russia are weakening as a recently built Russian reactor has often halted operations, although by signing a contract in 2018 for Russia’s S400 anti-aircraft missiles India aroused consternation in the US. If, overall, Sankei saw bilateral relations turning a new page at the EEF,4 it drew a contrast with the business results of the forum. Russia’s “liberal” press stressed a bad business environment, poor infrastructure, empty contracts signed in record numbers but mostly unfilled, and arrests of foreign investors as rules for the Russian market keep changing and sanctions and corruption undermine confidence in operating here.
Geopolitics overshadowed the 2019 EEF more than previous ones. The Sino-Russian flyby of bombers in late July still rattled nerves in Seoul and Tokyo, Putin’s explicit rejection of talks with Abe on a peace treaty due to Japan’s alliance with the US, and Putin’s dire warnings against deployment of missiles from Aegic Ashore to intermediate-range missiles in the aftermath of the end of the INF treaty, all left a bad aftertaste in Japan, as seen in Yomiuri on September 7. Japan viewed the EEF in a new light, including the Indo-Russian relationship.
Make Vladivostok Russia’s “Window on Asia”
Peter the Great changed the course of Russian history by establishing St. Petersburg as the “Window on Europe.” Three centuries later there was talk of doing something similar in the revitalization of the rundown city of Vladivostok as the “Window on Asia.” Instead, Putin has prioritized, along with showcasing St. Petersburg again, establishing Sochi as the alternative capital after Moscow. Vladivostok has a presence as the fourth node in the national urban network, but excessive centralization has left little room for such a distant and secondary city to flourish, as has the absence of a modernization model to fit into regional dynamics. EEF sessions on the development of the Russian Far East flounder before contradictions in state-society relations, Vladivostok-Russian Far East rivalries, and insularity versus regional openness.
Hopes for Vladivostok rose after Gorbachev’s 1986 speech there, again after various long-term plans for the development of the Russian Far East were announced, and especially in the run-up to the APEC summit of 2012. There was talk of it becoming the locomotive for its region with a first-class university, a cultural center, a tourist mecca, and a visage capable of stimulating excitement on the order of that associated with San Francisco or Hong Kong. Yet, red tape and the heavy presence of the state obviated such hopes despite the EEF summits. By 2019 the image of the EEF was growing tired with no optimism for Vladivostok’s prospects.
Make Russia an integral part of the Asia-Pacific region
Fear of becoming a “junior partner,” of compromising national identity, and of losing control have meant that instead of integration and openness to investment on terms attractive to other states, Russia has used the EEF as a platform for Putin to showcase geopolitics while putting stress on Russia’s military presence in Northeast Asia on other occasions. State-to-state relations far overshadow business networks and market forces. The plenary session hosted by Putin plays a dominant role with scant success in separating economics from geopolitics. Each guest of honor raises expectations briefly. Xi Jinping did not grace the EEF with his presence until 2018, suggesting pique at Putin’s desire to occupy center stage and lack of enthusiasm for Putin’s peak appeals in 2014-16 for Sino-Russian economic endeavors. Bilateral closeness is expressed at many settings but hardly at all at Putin’s prime setting.
More of a supplicant, Abe has done the most to cater to Putin’s EEF obsession. Suggesting when he was guest of honor a breakthrough on history, economics, and politics, Abe comes each year to renew momentum, even as it keeps waning. Increasingly, he arrives not with optimism but in desperation to forestall a Sino-Russian alliance and a Russian tilt toward North Korea. He leaves, however, almost always empty-handed. Clearly, Putin has shifted to making more demands on Abe and pressuring him with little thought of damage inflicted on the EEF.
In 2017 Moon Jae-in was guest of honor, months after he became president of South Korea and amidst his appeals for a new approach to regional diplomacy inclusive of Russia. Again, a degree of excitement could be generated by a leader seeking Putin’s help and promising a new beginning in relations. Yet, a year later after Kim Jong-un declined Putin’s invitation to sustain his new diplomatic push by going to the EEF, Moon also sent his regrets as he was preparing to meet Kim. Vladivostok was left outside the diplomatic caldron in a crucial year. Convened just 150 miles from the North Korean border and barely four months after Putin met Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok, the 2019 EEF was missing both Korean leaders. Not only had the city not achieved economic relevance in the region, it lacked any sign of political centrality.
Make Russian-Indian relations second only to Russian-Chinese relations
With diminishing returns in Northeast Asia, Putin turned to India for his guest of honor in 2019. There served several purposes: to support his shift to Greater Eurasia as the new focus of claims for Russia’s regional relevance beyond Sino-Russian relations; to follow a trilateral Sino-Russia-India summit at the G20 in Osaka with further insistence that India is not tilting toward the US and its allies but joining in great power resistance to US unilateralism; and to engage India in the Northern Sea Route energy development, diversifying its support base.
There was some confusion as to the primary theme of the Putin-Modi summit. Was it economic cooperation, including a $1 billion Indian line of credit to develop the Russian Far East and talk of oil and gas exports from Russia? Was it arms sales and joint production of ships and weapons as Putin accompanied Modi to visit Zvezda, Russia’s largest shipbuilding center? Or was it plans for multipolarity, of which Modi speaks highly, in line with Putin asserting that the two countries are largely in agreement on international issues? The substantive results of their summit did not match the rhetorical claims. India has been diverting more of its arms acquisitions to the US. It is a distant and unlikely partner for the development of the Russian Far East. And Russia and India are at odds in their thinking about the place of the United States and China in prospective multipolarity, although both may want to send a message to Trump at this juncture. For Putin, multipolarity is targeted at weakening the US, for which a more assertive, stronger China has been largely welcome. For Modi, it is targeted mainly at preventing China from taking hegemonic control over the Indo-Pacific, while welcoming greater US activism in this region. Still, Modi gave the EEF new hope.
Modi signed 25 agreements and lauded unparalleled ties and exceptional personal chemistry with Putin. He received the honors associated with a chief guest after meeting in Osaka with Putin barely two months earlier and with prospects for Putin to go to India as the guest for the Republic Day parade roughly four months later. Yet, similar honored meetings and claims of personal chemistry between Putin and Abe did not produce results, as reflected in Abe’s futile presence at the EEF. Clashing geostrategic interests and insufficient economic complementarity overshadowed the territorial issue between Russia and Japan, and they do not bode well for halting the attenuation of Indo-Russian ties already seen in recent years.
India has agreed to develop a maritime corridor to Vladivostok, to make spare parts for Russian military equipment, purchase LNG, and arrange for some joint mining of coal. Yet, its trade with Russia is about one-tenth of China’s, its military ties with Russia are falling far behind China’s even if joint weapons production remains ahead, and Modi’s meeting with Trump later in September overshadowed his time with Putin. The hyperbole about Modi in 2019 repeats the over-optimism about Abe, Moon, and Xi in the recent past. Even if in 2020 talk of Kim Jong-un coming to the EEF should give new life to Putin’s pet project, the EEF cannot sustain illusions of importance against the record of frustrated aspirations year after year.
Make Japan acknowledge Russia’s rejection of Abe’s diplomatic approach
For Japanese the 2019 EEF was marked by one insult after another despite Abe’s refusal to take umbrage and plan to meet for the 28th time with Putin at the November APEC. He was seen as not openly opposed as were other G7 leaders to Trump’s call for the G8 to resume,5 as still eager for multi-sided development of ties with Russia, as keen in showing a video of the success of Japan’s fulfillment of its 8-point economic plan for Russia, and as moving forward with modest joint economic activities discussed in Osaka. Yet, Japan had protested Medvedev’s fourth visit to the disputed islands in August, had been shocked in January when Lavrov revealed a harder line Russian position focused on getting acceptance of the results of WWII,6 and could not have been happy that Putin on September 5 showed a video on a big screen of the ground-breaking for Russia’s largest marine processing plant on Shikotan claimed by Japan.7 While media on the left and far right had long put Putin in a bad light, Yomiuri was not openly editorializing about the shortcomings of his strong-man control, inviting social unrest, and confrontational foreign policy both threatening world peace and isolating Russia to the extent it has turned heavily to China for security cooperation, as each justifies altering the status quo through the use of force. Finally abandoning hope of driving a wedge between Beijing and Moscow, the paper calls for being on guard against this linkage.8
On both the left and the right, a harsh tone was unmistakable in coverage of Russia by the late summer of 2019. Asahi called for Abe to recognize reality and fundamentally change his approach to Putin. Abe’s weakness on joint economic development and in shifting to a two-island approach had only invited Russian attacks.9 Sankei insisted that Japan could not stand by as Russia’s military build-up continues on the islands it illegally occupies.10 A review in Yomiuri of Koizumi Yu’s book on imperial Russia’s geopolitics put it clearly: Russia perceives a world of four great powers—Russia, the US, China, and India—not Japan or Germany. Placed in a secondary role in Russia’s worldview, Japan apparently is not a force to be taken seriously,11 even as it keeps shoring up the EEF.
Over one-third of a century, Vladivostok has come to represent exaggerated promises of what is over the horizon for Russia in Asia. The city has failed to turn into a locomotive pulling a sparsely populated region of just 6 million into a dynamic region. It has not become the San Francisco of Russia despite an attractive harbor and location, let alone rid itself of a run-down appearance. If Chinese tourists come for gambling, their group tours largely deliver money to Chinese business. Above all, market forces have fought a losing battle against red tape and monopolies without the protection of the rule of law. Again, flexing its military might is the main attribute of Russia’s presence in Northeast Asia—seen in its closer relationship with China, its claim to influence in maneuvering over North Korea, its pressure tactics against Japan, and recently its joint fly-over into South Korean airspace with China. An economic forum has few prospects in the face of the realities of Russian policies domestically toward the Far East and regionally toward East Asia.
In the 1990s when Seoul sought to entice North Korea by using nearby Russian areas as a platform for economic cooperation, Russian suspicions and corruption stood in the way. After Abe’s optimism about striking an agreement with Putin peaked at the 2016 EEF, Putin’s visit to Japan in December dashed his hopes, and soon Abe’s economic plan was relegated to oblivion. Xi’s visit to the forum in 2018 came after Russian hopes for a big economic dividend from tilting away from the West to China had peaked in 2014-15, but even as bilateral trade kept growing, it did not signify a qualitative change in economic relations linked to Chinese investment in Russia. Finally, in 2019 despite hosting Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok in April, Putin had nothing to show for his diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula at the EEF. Sino-Russian ties were only a sideshow, Abe’s fourth EEF visit barely drew interest, and the Sino-US trade war far overshadowed anything occurring in Vladivostok. The EEF seemed to have lost relevance. More than that, it was viewed in some circles as a direct, unprovoked challenge to Japan.12
1. Asahi Shimbun, September 5, 2019, p. 9.
2. Yomiuri Shimbun, September 5, 2019, p. 7.
3. Sankei Shimbun, September 5, 2019, p. 2.
4. Sankei Shimbun, September 16, 2019.
5. Sankei Shimbun, September 6, 2019, p. 1.
6. Sankei Shimbun, September 1, 2019, p. 6.
7. Yomiuri Shimbun, September 6, 2019, p. 2.
8. Yomiuri Shimbun, September 17, 2019, p. 3.
9. Asahi Shimbun, August 8, 2019, p. 12.
10. Sankei Shimbun, August 4, 2019, p. 2, August 8, p. 12.
11. Yomiuri Shimbun, September 1, 2019, p. 24.
12. Sankei Shimbun, September 6, 2019, p. 3.