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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Reassures Asians, Invites Bush to Siberia

Presidential Press ServicePutin gesturing as he stands with Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and Bush in Drizabone jackets for a photo Saturday at the Sydney Opera House.
SYDNEY, Australia -- President Vladimir Putin told the leaders of China and Japan on Saturday that Russia's policy toward key partners in Asia would not change after he leaves office next year.

A day earlier, in a meeting ahead of the weekend's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney, Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush came up with nothing more concrete than a Siberian fishing invitation.

On the sidelines of the APEC summit Saturday, Putin reminded Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that it was their last meeting before the presidential election in March.

"It is unlikely we will meet again," Putin told Hu.

"You and I have achieved the highest level of Russian-Chinese relations," Putin added. "I have no doubt that Russia's policy as far as China is concerned will not be changed."

Putin will leave to his successor an increasingly assertive Russia with a growing economy, and his popularity and grip on political power make a victory for one of his allies in the polls almost certain.

But whether all of Putin's legacy will stay intact remains one of the hottest discussion points for Russia-watchers.

Putin has made relations with China a strong element of his diplomacy, but it has sparked suspicion in the West that the country is trying to extend its influence in the region.

Will Burgess / Reuters
Putin meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at a bilateral session Saturday on the sidelines of the APEC summit.

The Russia-China ties, described by both leaders as "a strategic partnership," have grown even stronger in the past few years, fed by a common desire to maintain the leading role in ex-Soviet Central Asia, whose rich mineral resources are jealously eyed in the United States and Western Europe.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional group dominated by Russia and China and also including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, claims the role of a security guarantor in Central Asia.

Last month, Putin and Hu attended large-scale military exercises that the organization held in the Ural Mountains.

Despite warm ties, influential Russian nationalists warn that ambitious China, which has a history of territorial conflicts with Moscow, could become an uncomfortable neighbor for the country's vast but rapidly depopulating eastern territories.

Photographers and TV cameramen jostling for position behind Putin at the start of a meeting Saturday in Sydney.
Russian liberals warn from an opposite flank that close ties with China could distance the country from Western democracies.

In another message of foreign policy continuity, Putin told Abe that the next president would not stop efforts to find a negotiated solution to a territorial disagreement that has soured bilateral cooperation since the end of World War II.

Tokyo refuses to sign a formal peace treaty with Moscow, saying Russia should first return four small islands seized by the Red Army in the final days of the war.

Moscow refuses to return the islands, known as the Kuril Islands in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. The unresolved conflict puts limits on bilateral economic cooperation.

Opinion polls show that Russians generally back Putin's tough stance regarding the territorial issue with Japan. But some critics say returning the islands, one of the country's least developed territories, could be a good solution.

Putin greeting newlyweds he met by chance Saturday in a Sydney hotel.
"We will be looking for decisions that would be suitable for Russia and our Japanese partners," Putin told Abe, adding that the Sydney summit was their last meeting before his departure. "Russia will continue this work ... after the presidential elections."

Following the Friday meeting with Bush, Putin said the two had discussed a broad range of issues on the bilateral agenda, including U.S. anti-missile defense plans, Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization and the Iranian nuclear issue.

But Putin provided no indication that any breakthrough had been achieved on these issues, stressing that work would continue in each of the areas, according to comments from a news conference carried on the Kremlin's web site.

He did announce, however, that he had invited Bush on a fishing trip to repay him for the deep-sea fishing trip Bush treated him to while Putin visited his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, in July.

"We agreed that we would go fishing not only in the United States, but also somewhere in Siberia," Putin said.

Reuters, MT