Australia: East meets west in Vladivostok: Russian redirection towards Asia?

More than twenty years ago I lived and worked in Moscow as a junior diplomat at the Australian Embassy. We dreamed of travelling freely through Russia, but were forbidden to travel to Vladivostok.

For that reason Vladivostok became a city of absolute obsession - a city that I simply had to visit. We wrote about it from a distance and romanticised about it endlessly. This year I finally made it there.

Vladivostok – the ruler of the East - in 2012 finally asserted its place in the East by hosting this month's APEC Summit on Russky Island – separated from the mainland by what early sailors termed 'The Eastern Bosporus'.

While many were sceptical of the possibilities presented by Russia's host year, not least the United States after President Obama's planned electoral absence – this only increased the Kremlin's motivation to deliver a 'block buster'.

What we saw was, perhaps, a Russian 'pivot' to the East. Always the changeling at the door of APEC, Russia surprised and delivered a strong agenda. The region left Vladivostok with an impressive agreement to reduce environmental tariffs, thumbing their nose at the WTO, which has tried for years to effect a similar outcome.

Leaders also agreed on a range of educational initiatives that will make the operation of campuses overseas easier for universities such as Monash and Deakin in Australia with their own regional presences. It will also make life easier for a range of Australian universities with collaboration arrangements with Russian counterparts, including Moscow State University, Tomsk Polytechnic University and Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok itself.

And the unprecedented investment of more than US$21 billion by President Putin into the Asian portal city known as the San Francisco of the East, has also cemented into the minds of the hundreds of business leaders, diplomats and politicians who attended the gathering a strong message. That Russia is not only in Asia, but that the Russian Far East is open for Asian engagement.

For its part, Australia has long recognised the importance of Russia.

This year not only represents the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Canberra and Moscow but also the 250th anniversary of a much longer friendship.

In 1807, the Russian ship Neva, with Captain Ludwig von Hagemeister at the helm, visited Port Jackson on the site of present day Sydney during its circumnavigation of the globe.

Today, Russia has an embassy in Canberra, a consulate-general in Sydney and offices in both Brisbane and Adelaide. In addition to its embassy in Moscow, Australia has consulates in both Vladivostok and St. Petersburg.

According to the 2006 census, more than 67,000 Russians live in Australia and two-way trade reached more than US$1.5 billion in 2011 (an enormous 64 percent increase on the previous year) largely thanks to exchanges in meat and petroleum.

In 2007, then Western Australian Premier Alan Carpenter led the first Australian state government trade delegation to Russia – something that has now taken place countless times.

But of course to most Australians, it is hard to go past the Russian ballerina Anna Pavolva, who gave inspiration to our staple national meringue dessert, The Pavlova, during her visit in 1926!

Eighty years later, President Putin was the first Russian leader to visit Australia – indeed for APEC at the time – and earlier this year both Foreign Minister Lavrov and First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov made the long journey separately.

While Prime Minister Gillard's visit to this year's APEC Summit was unfortunately cut short due to the death of her father, President Putin has invited her to return shortly for a bilateral visit; a similar sentiment extended by President Medvedev shortly before leaving office. APEC also provided the opportunity in its meeting to launch the Australia/Russia leadership dialogue, an initiative borne of discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd when the former visited Australia earlier this year.

And in 2014, President Putin looks set to return to Australia for the G20 Summit in Brisbane. This, together with the Russia-hosted 2013 gathering in St. Petersburg, presents newfound opportunities for collaboration within the organising troika.

With Russia's emergence into the East Asian Summit last year, Australia will become used to sharing a place with Moscow at many of the world's most important tables. Canberra is bidding for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2013-14 (of which Russia is a permanent member) and later this year Russia will finalise its accession to the WTO (of which Australia was a key protagonist). All this will help forge even more opportunities for the relationship between our two countries to expand, including on issues such as North Korea with Russia a member of the Six Party process.

But perhaps most importantly to sports mad Australians, Russia is entering a self-described "golden decade" hosting major international fixtures including the Winter Olympics, the FIFA World Cup and the Grand Prix sure to turn our gaze firmly north.

Russia was always considered to be on the edge of Asia, never in it. Her challenge now is to cement her newfound role in the region. That is why the establishment of the Ministry for the Development of the Far East earlier this year holds profound prospects under the leadership of Victor Ishaev.

A further opportunity lies in the proposal to cement Russia's role as the East-West transport corridor, with only 1.5 percent of cargo between Asia and Europe currently passing through the country. The proposal is costed by PricewaterhouseCoopers at an estimated US$20 billion but promises to deliver savings to APEC economies of US$600 billion by 2020.

Another idea to establish a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, leading into a broader Eurasia Economic Union, ultimately makes the Trans-Pacific Partnership relaunched by the United States at APEC last year look like a private tea party according to at least one commentator.

If Peter the Great opened Russia to the West, it might just be APEC that facilitated the opening of Russia to the East.

And when Russia does, Australia will be there welcoming.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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