Why Putin attends Apec meets but skips East Asia summits

Next month, world leaders will converge on South-east Asia to attend the two most important events on Asia's multilateral calendar. On Nov 11 and 12, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders' summit will take place in Da Nang, Vietnam, while from Nov 11 to 13, many of the same leaders will meet for Asean's East Asia Summit (EAS) in Angeles near Manila in the Philippines.

Despite United States President Donald Trump's obvious lack of enthusiasm for multilateral forums, he is due to attend both Apec and the EAS, mainly, it seems, to reassure Asian countries of America's continued commitment to the regional economic, political and security architecture at a time when many are questioning the durability of US leadership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will almost certainly attend Apec because the forum fits in with the Kremlin's transactional approach to Asia. Moscow views the summit as an important venue to build trade and investment ties with the largest economies in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia has been a member of the economic forum since 1998, and hosted the 2012 Apec summit in Vladivostok. And this year's host, Vietnam, is Russia's closest partner in South-east Asia.

It is doubtful, however, that Mr Putin will take the two-hour flight across the South China Sea to Manila for the EAS.

Since Russia became a member of the EAS in 2011, President Putin has not attended Asean's annual meeting with its eight dialogue partners. Instead, Mr Putin has sent his marginalised Prime Minister, Mr Dmitry Medvedev.

When it comes to Asian summitry, China's leaders practise the same diplomacy. Chinese President Xi Jinping attends Apec while Premier Li Keqiang represents China at the EAS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his meeting with participants of the 19th World Festival of Youth and Students. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

But unlike for Russia, no one ever questions China's diplomatic division of labour. That is because China has an all-embracing relationship with South-east Asia that is not measured by Mr Xi's attendance at the EAS. After all, China is the largest trade partner of all 10 Asean members, can exert political influence across the region, and increasingly makes its military presence felt, especially in the South China Sea.

But Russia's relationship with South-east Asia is far less substantive. Although Russia sells a lot of defence equipment to South-east Asia, overall its trade relationship with the region is rather feeble. In 2015, 15 per cent of Asean's total trade was with China, at US$346 billion (S$470 billion), while Russia accounted for only 0.6 per cent, at US$13 billion.

Russia has repeatedly told Asean that it is serious about raising its political, economic and security game in South-east Asia. To that end, at the Asean-Russia summit in Sochi in May last year, the two sides pledged to work towards upgrading ties to a strategic partnership and consolidate the EAS as the key platform for a leadership-led dialogue on the major issues facing the region. Yet Mr Putin failed to attend the EAS in Vientiane a few months after the Sochi meeting.

So if Russia says it is committed to building a stronger relationship with Asean, and Mr Putin's participation at the EAS is seen by Asean as a demonstration of its bona fides, why doesn't he attend?

Domestic political exigencies are one reason, at least this year. By next month, Mr Putin will be preparing to declare his candidacy in next March's presidential election, which he will almost certainly win hands down.

But there are other, systemic reasons Mr Putin will likely be a no-show in Manila.

One reason has to do with how the Kremlin views world politics. Due to its size, history and culture, Russia sees itself as a great power. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has resented US hegemony and interference in the post-Soviet space, that is, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which Moscow perceives as its rightful sphere of influence. To erode US primacy, Russia supports a multipolar international order in which power is more or less evenly distributed among the other "poles", including Russia and China.

But multilateralism is not the same as multipolarity. As Russia sees it, in a multipolar system the great powers are the only truly important players. Multilateralism, however, suggests equality among all states, big or small. Russia is interested only in multilateral bodies in which it can wield real influence, such as the United Nations Security Council, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Brics and the Arctic Council. At the EAS, the US and China are the top dogs and Russia, no matter who it sends, lacks influence. So why bother going?

Another reason is that Russia views the EAS as long on symbolism but short on substance. And if, as it is sometimes argued, the value of the EAS is to provide an opportunity for world leaders to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines, Mr Putin can do that at Apec and miss out only on Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and India (and the last is also a member of Brics).

A third reason is consistency. Russia's head of state has not attended the EAS since the country joined the forum in 2011; to do so now might seem like an admission that his non-attendance in the past was a mistake.

It is possible that on the 50th anniversary of Asean's establishment, Mr Putin will make the extra effort and show up at the EAS. But Asean should not count on it.

• The writer is a senior fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

• S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2017, with the headline Why Putin attends Apec meets but skips East Asia summits. Subscribe