At the Far Eastern end of Eurasia, a worrying détente is in the offing. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin are growing closer, at least judging by the most recent summit between the two men in Vladivostok earlier this month.
Geographically Asian and culturally European, Vladivostok is Russia’s underdeveloped gateway to the Asia-Pacific. As a site for Abe and Putin’s summit, then, the symbolism was clear. In part, the meeting was meant to soothe over a territorial impasse regarding the four Kuril Islands, a legacy of World War II that stands in the way of full Russo-Japanese rapprochement and complicates economic cooperation. But at the most recent summit, there was more in the way of words than deeds. Echoing Putin’s regional development agenda, Abe expressed his vision for Vladivostok as “a model city” for bilateral economic cooperation.
Indeed, Vladivostok is in many ways a microcosm of the Russian Far East and Russia as a whole. Founded as a military outpost in the 1870s, the city is a relic of tsarist imperialism (Vladivostok roughly means “rule the east” in Russian) and Soviet militarism. Despite its advantageous location at the intersection of three of the world’s largest economies—China, Japan, and South Korea—Russia’s outlet to the Pacific suffers systemic neglect. In fact, corruption has plagued the Russian Far East since 1991, with the past three mayors of Vladivostok charged with illicit activities.
It’s not as if Moscow doesn’t want to tap the region’s potential. After centuries of trial and error by his tsarist and Soviet predecessors, Putin rekindled efforts to develop the Far East when he took office in 1999. During his visit to the Far Eastern city of Blagoveshchensk in 2000, the rapid economic modernization he could see just across the border in China astonished the new Russian leader, generating a sense of urgency for regional development. He immediately demonstrated his enthusiasm for Asia more broadly by becoming the first Russian visit North Korea the same year and successfully resolving a more-than-300-year-old territorial dispute with China in 2004. His regional ambitions culminated in his 2012 speech to the Federal Assembly in which he declared that the development of the Russian Far East would be the “vector of Russia’s development” in the twenty-first century. In December 2013, he even elevated the region’s status to “national priority for the entire twenty-first century.”
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