It has been an eventful year for Russian foreign policy as far as the multilateral institutions in the Asia Pacific are concerned. On November 13–15, 2018, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin made a state visit to Singapore and attended the 13 th East Asia Summit (EAS). It was the first such visit since Russia was made a member in 2010. At the same time, President Putin represented Russia at the 3 rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Russian Federation Summit on Strategic Partnership. Two days later, in Port Moresby, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that had previously enjoyed priority attention of the President of the Russian Federation compared to other regional mechanisms.
Russia has stepped up its participation in multilateral mechanisms in the Asia Pacific at a time when contradictions between the United States and China in the region have exacerbated, competition has once again intensified between the macro-regional projects proposed by these players in Asia, and emotions are running high around American trade protectionism. On the one hand, this situation is not conducive to bolstering these multilateral institutions themselves. It does, however, create a window of opportunity for Russia to offer the regional countries a more cooperative agenda, even if it is not on the same scale as U.S. or Chinese projects.
Strategic Partnership with ASEAN
Russia and Multilateral Diplomacy in East Asia
The dialogue-based partnership that Russia and ASEAN enjoy was established in 1996, at a time when post-Soviet Russia was moving towards a more diversified foreign policy that did not focus exclusively on the West. Gradually, Russia joined all the principal multilateral formats clustered “around” ASEAN. In 2010, Russia became a member of both the Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the EAS, bringing together the ASEAN countries and their eight dialogue partners (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, the United States and Russia). The ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus, involving the ASEAN countries and their dialogue partners) was launched that same year, with Russia a participant. The ADMM-Plus was intended to make the discussions of security matters more practicable, since it was stalling within the ASEAN Regional Forum (the ARF).
Twenty-two years after the Russia–ASEAN dialogue was created, Russia is again becoming more active in multilateral cooperation formats in Asia Pacific in order to demonstrate to the West that it has places to turn to politically and economically. The strategic partnership with ASEAN is apparently intended to be a symbol of such a turn, with a joint statement on the partnership being adopted at the 3rd ASEAN–Russian Federation Summit on Strategic Partnership in Singapore in November 2018.
Progress towards the strategic partnership was far from smooth. From the outset, Russia was different from ASEAN’s other dialogue partners (Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, etc.), as it was less economically involved in the region’s affairs. Rather, Russia was considered an additional partner that, to use an expression coined by the famous Russian international relations expert Aleksey Bogaturov, would “condense” the regional space. That is, Russia was more of a “background” participant in regional processes, whose presence, as far as the ASEAN countries were concerned, should, to a certain degree contain the growing regional ambitions of major powers, primarily the strategic military ones.
Russia partially fulfilled this function by maintaining a high level of military technical cooperation with Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia and eventually becoming an alternative (to the United States and China) partner for political and military-technical cooperation for such Southeast Asian countries as Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar, when their domestic problems complicated their international political position. Such was the case with Thailand following the military coup of 2014. It was also the case with the Philippines, which, after President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, attempted to move away from its unilateral orientation to a military political alliance with the United States. When the terrorist threat exacerbated in May 2017, President Duterte was forced to appeal directly to President Putin concerning the purchase cutting-edge weapons from Russia. However, Russia has preferred to take a neutral position on the key conflict for Southeast Asian countries – namely, the conflict with China over the disputed islands in the South China Sea – striving not to exacerbate relations with either party to the confrontation.
Just five years after the EAS was established, China’s rapid economic rise resulted in ASEAN countries becoming concerned that this format would become an arena of China’s domination. Involving Russia and the United States in the EAS was a way to address those concerns.
The economic component in Russia–ASEAN relations traditionally lagged behind the dynamics of political and military political collaboration. When the dialogue partnership was established with ASEAN, Russia lagged seriously behind the ASEAN’s other external partners in terms of the scale of trade and investment cooperation. Moreover, increasing Russia’s role in the economies of Southeast Asian countries was and still is hampered by serious structural restrictions. De facto, Russia was not part of the regional integration processes that were based on specialization and cooperation within the production chains established by transnational corporations in Southeast Asia. Unlike Japan and China, Russia could not offer the region large-scale investment or building infrastructure projects. And unlike the United States, it could not offer access to the world’s largest market. Unfortunately, such regional projects failed to appear in Russia following the successful 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok. Nor did they materialize after 2014, when the pressure of sanctions imposed by the West forced Russia’s political and economic elite to take a closer look at the economic processes in Asia. Rosatom’s flagship project of building a nuclear power plant in Vietnam, which was announced in 2010, was frozen only six years later. The official reason was that it was due to economic considerations, although it was most likely for political reasons.
Previous Russia–ASEAN summits were held in 2005 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), 2010 (Hanoi, Vietnam) and 2016 (Sochi, Russia). The Sochi summit was not held in an ASEAN country, so was thus described as “commemorative” and did not officially count towards the general “team score.” On the whole, the dynamics of summits was formally behind the rhythm of ASEAN’s collaboration with China, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Nonetheless, over the previous period, Russia and ASEAN did achieve mutual understanding on both parties being geared towards building a strategic partnership. Let us attempt to delineate the logic that made moving toward this partnership possible.
Strategically, as actors with a collaborative, rather than an offensive, agenda in Asia Pacific, Russia and ASEAN are united in their common desire for a multi-centric regional order based on mutually acceptable rules of the game. From ASEAN’s point of view, such an agenda would be advanced by the continuing role of the Association as the central venue for macro-regional dialogue and consensus-based decision-making that takes ASEAN’s opinion into account on key regional affairs (something that is missing from the U.S. concept of the Indo-Pacific). In Russia’s opinion, this agenda could be advanced by a discussion of the general principles of the security architecture in the region, a discussion that can and should be held in an ASEAN-cantered format of the East Asia Summit (more on that summit below).
Both Russia and ASEAN advocate a discussion of regional initiatives being connective instead of mutually exclusive or mutually restrictive. Thailand plans to focus on searching for a mechanism that would connect various broadly understood infrastructure and integration projects (connecting the connectivities) when it chairs ASEAN in 2019.
Indo-Pacific or Community of Common Destiny?
Russia is primarily interested in developing the principles of collaboration between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and ASEAN. Two separate items in the joint statement of the ASEAN–Russian Federation Summit on Strategic Partnership focus on this matter. However, if Russia and ASEAN do succeed in advancing collaboration between integration unions in the near future, it will be an institutional novelty of a significance that goes far beyond EAEU–ASEAN relations.
Economically, despite the structural limitations mentioned earlier, Russia and ASEAN have still managed to gradually increase trade and economic cooperation, demonstrating that the 2015–2016 drop was a temporary phenomenon rather than the start of Russia’s long-term economic weakening in the region. Speaking at the plenary session of the 3rd ASEAN-Russian Federation Summit on Strategic Partnership, Vladimir Putin noted that trade turnover grew by 35 per cent in 2017, and mutual accumulated investment exceeded USD 25 billion. Even though the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union had some consequences for Russia’s relations with the countries of Southeast Asia (in banking in particular), the fundamental approach of ASEAN countries was that pressure through sanctions cannot be an effective means of resolving international problems.
On the whole, we may state that the Russia–ASEAN dialogue is gradually evolving its own unique agenda that includes cybersecurity, food security, the fight against terrorism, military medicine and emergency response. The parties have indeed stepped up cooperation in many areas, including a separate track of collaboration between the defence ministers of Russia and ASEAN countries as part of the Moscow Conference on International Security, as well as a business dialogue, cooperation in education and research via university forums held on the side-lines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia–ASEAN youth summits and the Network of ASEAN-Russia Think Tanks (NARTT).
The EAS: President Vladimir Putin’s Debut
Compared to the successes Russia achieved in developing its relations with ASEAN, the recent East Asia Summit appears to have been a less productive event. The reason, however, lies not so much in the fact that the much-anticipated participation of the President of the Russian Federation was delayed by eight years, but in the format of the summit itself.
The East Asia Summit was created in 2005 and included ASEAN and six of its dialog partners (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India). Initially, it was conceived as a regional format that could bring together all the principal regional actors, but would not be as multipartite as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). By the that time, of all the regional institutions, the ARF had the broadest span (27 participants, including the European Union and North Korea); however, this also became a burden, since the wide range of opinions did not allow its participants to arrive at a consensus on matters of any significance for regional security. The ASEAN+6 format (especially given expected participation of heads of state) was expected to provide for quicker and more effective discussion of those issues.
While the ASEAN and EAS summits this year have gone as planned, the APEC Forum, on the contrary, became a visible reflection of the contradictions between China and the United States.
However, the EAS developed in a different vein. Just five years after the EAS was established, China’s rapid economic rise resulted in ASEAN countries becoming concerned that this format would become an arena of China’s domination. Involving Russia and the United States in the EAS was a way to address those concerns. Their involvement, however, resulted in competing and even opposite summit agendas shaping up. While China stressed connectedness of the infrastructure and strove at all costs to avoid discussing the South China Sea problem in a multilateral format, the United States, on the contrary, emphasized the issues of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and discussions of “hard-line” security. Against this background, Russia’s desire to view the EAS as the most suitable platform for a broad discussion of general principles and a “new architecture of security and cooperation” encountered covert opposition and was relegated to the periphery of the growing U.S.–China contradictions in the region and within the EAS.
Ultimately, the EAS that had originally been conceived as an inclusive venue for effective dialog was reduced to discussing important, yet still secondary issues that would not result in revising the structure of regional security that is still characterized by U.S.-centred alliances that exclude China and Russia. A cursory glance at the agenda of all past meetings, and of the latest EAS summit in particular, confirms this fact. For instance, the past East Asian Summit discussed such matters as counteracting the threat of foreign terrorist militants and returnees, urbanization and the creation of “smart cities,” cooperation in information and communications technology (ICT) and the digital economy, the safe storage of nuclear and other radioactive waste and fighting plastic waste in the ocean.
In this context, the participation of the President of the Russian Federation in the latest summit needs to be assessed from the point of view of symbolic gestures and reputational matters. On the part of Russia, it is a long-awaited gesture of attention to its partners in Asia; for ASEAN, it is a signal that Russia is indeed prepared to support regional institutions marginalized by the competition of the macro-regional projects proposed by China and the United States, namely, China’s Belt and Road Initiative that has been under way since 2013, and the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy that the Trump Administration adopted in 2017. Moreover, a few years ago, Russia’s more active stance in multilateral mechanisms caused concerns in the region countries due to the rapid deterioration of U.S.–Russia relations and its possible negative impact on regional institutions. Today, Russia’s actions are not at all perceived as potentially capable of polarizing these alliances.
APEC as a Reflection of Regional Contradictions
While the ASEAN and EAS summits this year have gone as planned, the APEC Forum, on the contrary, became a visible reflection of the above-mentioned contradictions between China and the United States. For the first time since the inception of the APEC Summit inception in 1993, the meeting concluded without a full-fledged joint declaration. This fact demonstrated serious contradictions between the countries in the region concerning the future of trade and economic liberalization in the Asia Pacific. Even in calmer times, the Bogor Goals, which entailed complete trade and investment liberalization in APEC’s developed economies by 2010 and in developing economies by 2020, appeared to be a difficult task. Now their implementation has been significantly slowed down due to the trade wars launched by the United States, primarily against China, but which have also had major consequences for other export-oriented economies in the region. Let us not forget that one of Donald Trump’s first steps as president was to open an investigation into those Asian countries that had a surplus in their trade with the United States.
Ultimately, the 2018 APEC summit concluded with an abridged version of the declaration that did not contain articles related to the World Trade Organization and the issues of the Bogor Goals. Previously, a similar situation occurred in ASEAN in 2012, when the summit concluded without a communique due to differences on the issue of the South China Sea.
The central event of the latest APEC Summit was the openly “duelling speeches” of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and President of the People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping concerning the actions of China and the United States in the Asia Pacific. In particular, Mike Pence accused China of enslaving those countries that, through their large debt to China, are forced to compromise their sovereignty. China, in its turn, argues that it is the United States that hampers trade and economic liberalization in Asia today, while all APEC participants were initially oriented toward achieving such liberalization.
Thus, the multilateral institutions in the Asia Pacific have not proven capable of reducing the U.S.–China disputes on the most acute regional problems to a common denominator and have once again demonstrated their functional dependence on the stance of large actors. Against this background of the latest APEC Forum, Russia had quite a favourable opportunity to be an observer of the unfolding disputes.
Instead of a Conclusion
The series of ASEAN, EAS and APEC summits was interesting not only from the point of view of assessing Russia’s achievements within those multilateral formats, but also in terms of the interesting dynamics of bilateral meetings held on the side-lines of the forums. For instance, President Putin’s visit to Singapore was marked by a series of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between Russia and Singapore. Both countries noted significant progress in economic cooperation that translated into the trade turnover nearly quadrupling over the last 10 years (from USD 1.9 billion in 2007 to USD 7.4 billion in 2017) and a general increase in mutual economic activity (690 Russian companies operate in Singapore, and 20 Singaporean companies operate in Russia).
Multilateral institutions in the Asia Pacific have not proven capable of reducing the U.S.–China disputes on the most acute regional problems to a common denominator and have once again demonstrated their functional dependence on the stance of large actors.
On the side-lines of the ASEAN and EAS summits, meetings were held with the presidents of Indonesia and South Korea, the Premier of the State Council of China and the prime ministers of Thailand, Malaysia and Japan. The latter meeting was noteworthy in that it continued the discussion started by Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe in September at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok and further fuelled expectations concerning a solution to the peace treaty problem.
At the same time, the fundamental question for Russia today remains open: will the dynamics of cooperation with multilateral institutions and a broad range of regional countries be taken further? Or will 2018 be followed by another period of “political neutrality,” to use politically correct terms, in multilateral formats and of selective cooperation with individual key partners?