Russia and the Asia-Pacific Region

Pushpa Thambipillai: Russia and ASEAN: Passage to Asia Pacific Engagement

June 7, 2013

Russia, Southeast Asia and ASEAN

Asia Pacific was in focus for Russia when it chaired APEC in 2012.  However, it did not necessarily turn Russia’s attention to the region, including Southeast Asia.  Domestic factors within Russia play an important role in determining Russian foreign policy; its policies towards Southeast Asia and in particular towards ASEAN are no exception.  Historical, cultural, geographical, economic and idiosyncratic factors have played significant influence.  Thus Russian policy is tilted towards Europe and the ‘near abroad’ around its fringes since the new Russia came into being after 1991.  In Northeast Asia, Russia’s relations with China have continued to dominate its Asia strategy, while Japan and South Korea provide an economic dimension to their relationship.   In Southeast Asia, the attraction is limited, curtailed by the distance, historical isolation, and poor connectivity.  Lack of knowledge and information, at the government and community levels have also been of hindrance, although government-to government links were officially established in accordance to international diplomacy.


Russian relations with Southeast Asia (SEA) are at two levels: the bilateral, state-to-state ties and the multilateral ASEAN-centred institutional relationship. Russia’s diplomatic relations with selected Southeast Asian states can be traced to post colonial SEA.   While most of the Southeast Asian states were non communist, they chose to establish ties with the then Soviet Union as it was a global power and one of the United Nation’s Permanent Five.  Russo-Thai relations go back to Czarist Russia that had links with the court of Siam since the nineteenth century.  That formed the basis of the formal ties established between the Soviet Union and Thailand in 1947.  Among the newly independent states, Burma (now Myanmar) was the first to establish diplomatic ties (1948) soon after its independence from Britain. This was followed by Indonesia (1950), Vietnam (1950), Laos (1955), Cambodia (1956), Malaysia (1967), Singapore (1968), Philippines (1976) and Brunei (1991).  Russia’s perception of potential political and economic benefits influenced the establishment of ties. From the Southeast Asian leaders’ point of view Marxism (communism) had an important influence; in cases where there was negative perception or where they were cautious in dealing with a Marxist power, there was a reluctance to rush into the relationship.  Even after diplomatic ties had been established, it was strictly at the governmental level as the leaders were apprehensive of the ideological influence on their societies.  Inter-state relations improved in the 1980s and by the 1990s (after the disintegration of the Soviet Union) there were more interactions with a wider cross section of the population, as trade, tourism and educational opportunities expanded.  Russia’s closest relationship has been with Vietnam, for political and economic reasons.  The other nine states of SEA have varying levels of interactions with Russia, but nothing as compared to their relations with their other partners like China, Japan and the United States.


With ASEAN (established in 1967 by five founding members) Russian relations began on a suspicious note.  The Soviet Union perceived the grouping as a pro West stooge (coming at the height of the Vietnam War that had pitted the Soviet Union and the US on opposite camps).  As global political environment improved, the relations also improved and by early 1990 Russia was one of the main actors in contributing to the ASEAN-led peaceful resolution of the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict.  Russian-ASEAN relations have since then moved forward, multilaterally and at the bilateral levels.


Room for more

Russia’s foreign policy focus can afford to pay more attention to ASEAN and its various structures if it is genuinely interested in making inroads into the larger Asia Pacific region.  ASEAN has been successful in engaging several actors across a wide array of political, security, economic and socio-cultural issues.  Thus Moscow and two thirds of its population that are Europe-oriented will be able to link to the Western Pacific and in the process promote development in its eastern provinces. The basic institutional framework is already in existence. In 1994, Russia was invited to the inaugural meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that promotes peace and security issues through Track I (government) and Track II (non government) participation.  By 1996, Russia was a full Dialogue Partner, one of ten of the special categories of ‘friends of ASEAN’ that are linked through political and economic ties.  Stressing on its positive relations with the grouping that had increased to ten by 1999, Russia (2004) acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), a cornerstone of ASEAN’s political and security guidelines for its members and other partners signalling its support for the concept. 


There have been two ASEAN-Russia summits: in 2005, President Putin met the ten leaders in Kuala Lumpur, while in 2010, President Medvedev attended the meeting in Hanoi.  Both events were significant as they laid down specific areas for cooperation under the dialogue partnership.   President Putin was also a guest at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2005, which at that time only included ASEAN and six of its Asia Pacific partners.  In 2011, Russia and the US were officially included in the EAS.  While President Obama has attended the 2011 (Bali) and 2012 (Phnom Penh) summits, presidents Medvedev and Putin have failed to appear at both occasions.  That was a diplomatic opportunity missed in Russia’s foreign policy.


While Russia only accounts for about three percent of ASEAN’s total trade, it is an important arms supplier to some of the partner countries and regularly participates in local defence exhibitions. Investments in the energy sector where Russia has vast engineering experiences have potentials. Educational opportunities have also increasingly attracted Southeast Asian students to its medical/dental facilities; unfortunately the flow is not yet reciprocal.  Thus there are vast opportunities to be tapped, assuming both Russia and ASEAN are serious in mutual engagement at the public and private sector levels.  And for Russia, it should take the opportunity of its APEC and SCO links that make it a regional player to become part of the Asia Pacific architecture; who else but President Putin, what else but Vladivostok could be the links to Southeast Asia and ASEAN.


In the year of Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship, it is hoped that Russia will surmount its obstacles and make a more prominent presence in the region for mutual gain.


Pushpa Thambipillai, Research Associate at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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