Perhaps the most telling images at this year's Apec summit were television pictures of the long line of aircraft landing at Vladivostok airport on Friday night.

At past Apecs, the planes would have come in the night before. Friday at Apec has traditionally been "bilateral day", when member economies meet and quietly engage in solving problems in their political relationship.

John Key arrived on Thursday night. He will "bilateral" with anyone - even the Canadians, whose relevance to New Zealand's interests has been marginal for years but who will be more important as they knock on the Trans Pacific Partnership free-trade door. Or at least knock tentatively.

With Barack Obama on re-election duty back home, Hong Kong pulling out of this year's conference and Julia Gillard having to head home as soon as she arrived because of the death of her father, Key - and the conference as a whole - were bilateral-deficient.


The late arrivals and the no-shows said a lot about the continuing value or otherwise of the annual get-together which Vladimir Putin's chairing of the summit could not eradicate.

So Apec's trade liberalisation agenda rumbles along - outside Apec rather than within it.

The rivalry between the United States and China is starting to play out in competing free-trade platforms - with Russia mooting a third "Eurasian" variant.

Whether that was to give Putin something on his home patch or signals his willingness to push forward and make progress on a free-trade agreement with New Zealand is an open question.

Putin told Key he would work through the final details. But - as Key said - there were no guarantees from the Russian leader.

They are scheduled to talk again at the East Asia summit in Cambodia in late November. So Vladivostok might have seen progress. Or not.

Saturday, 5pm. Journalists gather at a security checkpoint in the media centre. There are still two hours until the 7pm meeting.

6pm. Putin is still in the conference - and shows no sign of leaving.


6.30pm. The volume of phone traffic between the NZ delegation and Putin's staff is rising. Key is scheduled to get 30 minutes with Putin. At the forefront of everybody's minds is that Putin has to be elsewhere at 8pm for dinner.

7pm. Putin looks to be leaving. Journalists are marshalled into another holding room.

7.40pm. Another hike to the actual meeting room. It has been nearly three hours since media first gathered to cover the meeting.

7.45pm. Finally an announcement - the dinner will begin an hour late.

8.05pm. The media are ushered into the room. Putin arrives with his Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. Putin emits a large sigh and looks tired. Key enters. Putin strides across the carpet to shake hands. He has a smile to charm his worst enemy. There's an apology for being late and then it's down to business.