Medvedev heads to Asia amid Japan island spat
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday embarks on a trip to Korea and Japan in a drive to expand Moscow's clout in Asia, amid a bitter flare-up with Tokyo over disputed territory.
Medvedev will visit Seoul for a state visit and a Group of Twenty (G20) summit and then fly on to an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Yokohama in a major four-day tour.
His visit to Japan comes after he infuriated Tokyo this month by making the first trip by a Russian leader to one of four Pacific Kuril Islands at the heart of a territorial dispute that has prevented the signing of a post-war peace treaty.
Medvedev -- who stayed on Kunashir Island for less than four hours -- caused the worst diplomatic spat between the two countries in years amid fragile attempts to expand economic contacts.
But the twin trips to Korea and Japan will be Medvedev's third state visit to Asia in as many months and are clearly aimed at expanding foreign policy priorities beyond Europe and the United States, analysts say.
"A reorientation is certainly obvious," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs. "This is a policy of trying to make up for the monstrously lost time."
"These are all signs which say that indeed the authorities are beginning to turn towards Asia," added Dmitry Mosyakov, head of the Centre of Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies.
During the Cold War, Asia, like Africa and Latin America, was a key battleground between the Soviet Union and the West, with Communists and pro-Western forces fighting proxy wars for ideological influence in the region.
After the Soviet collapse, ties with countries like Vietnam have long remained only a shadow of Cold War levels.
Medvedev's recent visits to Asia -- to China in September, to Vietnam in October and the upcoming Korea visit -- come as the Kremlin seeks to expand its global footprint and follows Medvedev's trips to Africa in 2009 and Latin America last spring.
On his visit to Hanoi, where Medvedev oversaw a deal to build the Southeast Asian country's first nuclear power plant, he admitted Moscow was rediscovering Asia.
"I believe that when it comes to Southeast Asia our situation is even more obvious compared to Africa and Latin America. We actually never left," Medvedev told reporters.
"We do not need to revive something, we rather need to just elevate these ties to a higher level."
Analysts say that Russian companies will in many ways be returning to familiar territory in countries like Vietnam, whose leaders were schooled in the Soviet Union and where Lenin monuments still adorn streets.
Moscow's problem is that Europe and the United States have been at the forefront of the Kremlin's foreign policy for so long that Russia hardly has any coherent Asia policy, even if Moscow has significantly ramped up its ties with Beijing, analysts said.
"We need some kind of articulate strategy. It is not there yet," said Lukyanov.
The Kuril trip, analysts say, should serve as an an unambiguous signal to Japan that decades-long negotiations are at a stalemate and Moscow is in no hurry to give up disputed territory.
"This is a dead end," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and Kremlin advisor, calling the talks "an eternal landscape of our diplomacy" with Japan.
Japan has baulked at suggestions Russia could hand over two of the islands or the nations could develop them jointly, insisting on the return of all four.
Medvedev's foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko said Medvedev was willing to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the sidelines of the summit.
"The key message will be 'let's be friends, let's trade, let's get engaged in exchanges and put this problem on the back burner,'" Mosyakov said.
© 2010 AFP