Guest Column

Putin’s Return Firms Russia’s Asean Grip

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 14 May 2012

Vladimir Putin’s return as the Russian president was not discussed seriously in this corner of the world. But like it or not, his third term will impact on the Asia-Pacific region, in particular Asean, more than ever before.

With the regional obsession of rising China and US pivot to Asia, it is imperative to dwell on what Russia has in store for Southeast Asia amid intensified power competition. For China and US, it is about rebalancing of their power while Russia is towards the redistributing of power.

For the past 12 years, Russia has been successfully in keeping the country together and staying afloat, thanked to the strong-will Putin’s vision of united Russia and gigantic amount of revenues from energy exports, especially the current high oil price.

Moscow also has maintained its active international profile, as a member of UN Security Council. Although the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, residues of its empire continue to pose security challenges throughout the world both Moscow and international communities have to manage.

Throughout Putin’s leadership, including under those years under the previous president of Dmitry Medvedev, the Middle East situation has dominated the country’s foreign policy agenda. The Arab Spring effect also has repercussions on Russia on its people directly or indirectly.

The crisis in Syria and the cool down of Iran’s nuclear ambition illustrate clearly Russia’s diplomatic weights—playing the good cop/bad cop dichotomy. Without Moscow’s acquiescence, important decisions concerning global peace and stability would be stalled. In Southeast Asia, there is no exception.

When former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced its first major foreign policy on the Asia Pacific in 1986 at Vladivostok, no Asean members predicted that it would subsequently lead to a dramatic Soviet pullout from the existing support from Indochinese countries.

A year later, during his visit to Bangkok, former Foreign Minister Eduard Shervardnaze reconfirmed the dwindling down of Soviet presence and economic assistance to region in order to concentrate on domestic reforms. That laid the groundwork for establishing the present Asean-Russia relations.

After the fall of Berlin Wall in 1990, a year later Russia was invited along with China as a guest of the Asean chair—Malaysia to attend the annual foreign minister meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Thanked to the strong backing from Malaysia, under prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, Russia intensified overall diplomatic engagement with Asean hoping it would attain a respectable status in the overall scheme of things in Asean.

In 1996, Russia became a full dialogue partner of Asean strengthen the bilateral relations further. The grouping’s desire to counter-balance the influence of US and China also came into play but not as intense and visible as it is now.

A decade later, Russian President Vladimir Putin was invited by Malaysia to attend the inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2005 in Kuala Lumpur as the only guest back-to-back to the first Asean-Russia summit. At that time, the US was very hostile to the EAS, assuming the new region-wide framework was an attempt to contain Washington’s sphere of influence.

Earlier, the US shot down Mahathir’s much heralded proposal of East Asian Economic Community. The host’s backing of Russia as a founding member of the EAS failed to materialize, leaving Putin in the cold. Other Asean members argued that Russia did not meet the criteria of the membership which called a substantive link.

But the truth was different—taking in Russia as a founding EAS member would break the balance of big powers in the region. That helped explain why even though Asean and Russia signed a ten-year comprehensive action plans (2005-2015) at that time—the only country to do so to promote their bilateral cooperation—the outcomes have been quite dismal due to lack of progress.

During the two-decade old relationship, Russia has been trying to forge all around ties, particularly on political and security cooperation, with Asean. But Moscow was not successful albeit enthusiasm in supporting Asean’s no-nuke zone of peace and security. It was also among the first to express the intention to sign the protocol to Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (1995).

In 2004, Russia became the second member of UN Security Council to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which the US followed in 2009. Russia also set up the Asean Center in 2010 at the Moscow State University of International Relations to promote Asean-Russia relation.

Interestingly, Moscow has been more enthusiastic than Washington in backing the region-initiated community building process initiated by Asean. But somehow, Russia’s key policy initiatives often lost out through bureaucratic red tapes and no follow-ups.

At the moment, almost all political and security dialogue and cooperation have been under the Asean-led frameworks such as the Asean Regional Forum, the Post Ministerial Meeting as well as the Asean Defense Ministerial Meeting Plus.

Throughout the 1990’s, Russia did come up with few ideas of collective security for the Asia-Pacific region with Asean as the center. On hindsight, without any follow-up and consultations, these proposals did not go very far. However, both sides managed to sign a joint Declaration on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism in 2004. But progress has been marginal.

Putin’s presidency also coincides with a series of summit. He will host the Asia Pacific Economic Leaders Meeting later this year in Vladivostok. At the upcoming ninth Asia Europe Meeting in Vientiane, Laos in October and the EAS in Phnom Penh in November, Putin is scheduled to attend both meetings and make his presence felt with a strong agenda that reflects the country’s Asia-Pacific links as well as future agenda.

At last year’s EAS in Bali, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov replaced the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev at the summit which was dominated by US President Barrack Obama’s participation and policy initiatives on Burma.

However, early this year Lavrov offered a glimpse of his country’s new approach to the regional security during his visit to Brunei. He reiterated that Russia was keen to take part in the going process to develop “a holistic concept of transformation of the regional order and establishing a new security architecture in East Asia.” With this, he meant Russia would intensify both economic and political including traditional and non-tradition security cooperation.

In addition, more focus would be on efforts to increase bilateral trade and investment. Russia can play a leading role in ensuring energy and food security in the region with its abundant oil and gas as agricultural products. Trade between Russia and Asean members are small in comparison with China and the US. In 2010, the overall Asean-Russia trade was a little bit over US $10 billion while investment in Asean up to last year was under $200 million.

It is an open secret that Russia would like to attract foreign investment, especially from Asean and its dialogue partners, to the country’s remote Siberia and the Far East region. Moscow is very interested in the expansion of the Master Plan of Asean Connectivity that would link South Asia through Southeast Asia and reach Northeast Asia via its northern vast frontier. Any improvement of transportation and other forms of connections would benefit Russia, which was its focus at the EAS in Bali.

Putin will have a strong message for the leaders from Asean, ASEM and APEC that Russia is here to stay. Like the US, Russia considered itself as an Asia-Pacific power with its own version of pivot on Asia. Putin knows Russia needs to be prudent in redistributing its powers and influence beyond its immediate neighboring countries, especially in the region it once reigned supreme.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.