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Russia turns its gaze eastward with APEC economic summit

Russia hopes to transform Vladivostok, the host city for this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, into a gateway for commercial trade with East Asia.

By Correspondent / September 4, 2012

A police officer stands guard outside the media center of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit at the Russian far eastern port of Vladivostok on Sept 4. The APEC summit will be held from Sept. 5 to 9.

Vincent Yu/AP

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Moscow

The far eastern port of Vladivostok, where Russia is hosting this year's summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, is set to become the pivot for a massive Russian effort to integrate economically and politically with the dynamic and increasingly important nations of East Asia.

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The Kremlin has invested $21 billion in preparing for the week-long event, far more than most countries spend to hold the Olympic Games, mostly to reinforce sagging infrastructure in Vladivostok – a city of 600,000 seven time zones ahead of Moscow – and to turn the city's once almost inaccessible Russky Island into a world-class conference venue. Russian President Vladimir Putin will address the summit this weekend, and is expected to lay out ambitious Russian plans for pipelines, roads, and rail links through Russia that could soon directly link the booming economies of the far east with the markets of western Europe.

Mr. Putin is also expected to at least subtly oppose US initiatives in the region, particularly the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership plan, a Pacific-area free-trade arrangement that some Asian countries have been invited to join but not Russia or China.

"In the 20th century. the heart of superpower confrontation was Eastern Europe, but in the future the center will be East Asia," says Anastasia Mitrofanova, a professor at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy in Moscow.

"The competition will be between many powers, not just Russia and the US, and it will take new forms," she says. "At the APEC summit we can expect new initiatives from Putin aimed at countering efforts to exclude Russia from the Asia-Pacific zone. We know the US is trying to reserve this region for itself."

President Obama, busy with the Democratic convention this week, will not be attending. In his place will be Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who's completing a swing through the Pacific region to reassure allies of ongoing US support. The Russians insist they scheduled the meeting in September, even though they knew no US president was going to be able to attend in that time frame only because it's the most pleasant season in Vladivostok.

"In early September Vladivostok is sunny and warm; that changes even by the second half of the month. It's all about the weather," says Gleb Ivanshevtsov, deputy director of the Russian Center for APEC Studies, a governmental think tank. "It's no big deal. There are lots of precedents where top leaders have been unable to attend an APEC summit."

But presidents and prime ministers of most member countries will be on hand to view the transformation of Vladivostok, formerly a major Soviet naval base that was closed to foreigners, and hear the Russian pitch for greater trade, investment, and political dialogue.

"Vladivostok used to be mainly a military center, but now we're going to turn it into a major economic and commercial hub," says Mr. Ivanshevtsov.

"Russia is still at the periphery of Asia, and it accounts for just about a fifth of our total trade. That's got to change. Two-thirds of our territory is in Asia and we have the longest Pacific coastline of any country. We have a border with the US out here, but none in the West. This is the fastest-growing economic region in the world, and we aim to be part of it," he says.

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