Hongkong: President Vladimir Putin's just concluded official visits to Vietnam and South Korea have underlined the increasing complexity of relationships in east Asia as Russia again becomes an active player. Coming on the heels of visits to Japan and North Korea, Mr Putin is no danger of ignoring this region. President Bush will start grappling with this complexity this week with the visit to Washington of President Kim Dae Jung.

The US will have to conduct some singularly skilful diplomacy as balances its missile defense initiative with its relations with China, Japan, Korea, Russia and Taiwan. That is made more difficult by the absence of leadership in Japan able to present it with clear strategic options.

In Seoul, Mr Putin succeeded in driving a small wedge between South Korea and its principal ally, the US. His visit to Hanoi was a reminder to China that the US is not the only power in the world unwilling to see the South China Sea turned into a Chinese lake. Coming on the heels of visits to Japan and North Korea, Mr Putin is no danger of ignoring east Asia.

Seoul has denied that the Putin/Kim statement describing the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as the "cornerstone of strategic stability" was in effect a criticism of Mr Bush's missile shield proposal. But it certainly read that way to most observers. It drew as much applause in Beijing as Moscow.

President Kim has been eager to please China as well as Russia as he endeavors to use them to pressure North Korea to a more positive response to his "sunshine" diplomacy towards Pyongyang. South Korea is anyway skeptical that the missile shield would be of much use defending it against North Korea. It may be that Mr Kim hopes to strike a bargain whereby the US will be more supportive of his overtures to the North in return for Seoul appearing less critical of the missile plans.

The problem for the US is the threat posed by North Korea, and similar states, is being used as the main justification for the missile shield. Some supporters of the shield argue it would be best for the US to drop the Pyongyang emphasis in favor of the broader argument that the missile shield would be a use of superior US technology to maintain the strategic status quo in east Asia, as in other theaters. It would reinforce existing reality rather than create new instability.

The fiercest opponent of the shield is not Russia but China, which sees it as a threat to its goal of strategic supremacy over Japan, and a barrier to its use of force for a final solution of the Taiwan issue. Differing views of the shield are a sticking point in Russia's attempt to improve relations with Japan. So too is the vexed issue of the northern islands.

However Japan and Korea have mutual interests in developing Russia's Far East oil and gas resources, Russia wants Korean investment and to develop physical links to Korea via road and rail system through the North. Russians and Japan both need to ensure that the united Korea which will eventually emerge will not be too close to China.

There is a danger that both Russia and the US revert to cold war era analyses of rivalry in Asia, mistaking tactical plays for strategic moves. Russian pride may push it towards closer ties with China just to spite the US, and let the Kuriles dispute overshadow its needs for closer ties with Japan. The US may overreact against legitimate Russian attempts to build relations with important countries on its periphery, from Iran to Korea.

But whilst the US worries about Mr Putin's maneuvering in northeast Asia, only China is likely to be much bothered by the reaffirmation of Russia's links with Vietnam. Its access to Cam Ranh Bay naval facilities is likely to be extended, albeit it at a price, when the current agreement expires in 2004. Russia is also to provide Vietnam with new weapons. This may not mean much in terms of the regional power equation. Russia's presence is minimal and Vietnam's forces no longer much of a match for China. But it is symbolically significant and a reminder of how many major nations' interests overlap in east Asia. ends  







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