The Future of ASEAN-Russian Relations

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Shane Preuss, Research Intern at the ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada

ASEAN’s strength is demonstrated by its ‘convening power’ and its ability to attract the courtship of the world’s great powers. However, these strengths also present challenges, as ASEAN must not only navigate its relations of these powers, but also the various relationships of its individual members with respective powers. In light of this, significant commentary has been dedicated to the threat of rising US-China tensions for ASEAN’s unity and coherence. These tensions, often centered on the South China Sea dispute, are set to amplify as President-Elect Trump establishes a firm, even aggressive position toward China.

There is, however, another great power in the region, whose increasingly eager courtship of ASEAN, combined with its complex and evolving relations with both China and the USA, is set to play a significant role in the region’s geopolitics; Russia.  

The Origins of ASEAN-Russian Cooperation

Russia became a full dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1996 and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) in 2004. It has since gained membership of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Post Ministerial Conferences (PMCs) 10+1, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus and the East Asia Summit. The First ASEAN-Russia summit was held in 2005, and the second in 2010. The third Russia-ASEAN summit to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their dialogue relations was held in Sochi, in 2016.

Despite these developments, Russia-ASEAN relations have remained relatively unfruitful and Putin has shown a lack of interest in the region. This has been evidenced by his lack of presence at the East Asia Summit, the modest level of achievement yielded by first ten years of the Russia-ASEAN action plan, and the relatively low level of trade with ASEAN, especially when compared to other major powers, China and the USA.

In 2016, however, there were clear indications that this trend is beginning to shift. Russia is now eagerly engaging with the regional body and its member states. Over the two days of the Third ASEAN-Russia Summit, from May 19-20, Russia held bi-lateral members with every ASEAN member. The summit culminated in the announcement of a ‘Comprehensive Plan of Action’ to promote a cooperation between ASEAN and Russia in the areas of political-security, economic, socio-cultural and development cooperation. This increase in diplomatic activity was followed on December 23, when the UN General Assembly approved, by consensus, a Russian co-authored resolution, for Cooperation between the UN and ASEAN.

At the 2016 Russian-ASEAN ministerial conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov outlined Russia’s approach to security, while recognizing, and supporting ASEAN’s centrality in the region. Russia, he said is building ‘a modern security architecture in Asia-Pacific,’ while ‘staunchly and consistently’ defending the role of ASEAN in regional affairs.

In the first week of 2017, two Russian warships Russia also made a visit to the Philippines. Eduard Mikhailov, deputy commander of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, signaled Russia’s desire to cooperate on military exercises in the South China Sea, with the Philippines, other ASEAN states, such as Malaysia, as well as China.  The expression of interest was well received and it was announced on Monday, 9th of January 2017, the Philippines and Russia and are in the process of finalizing a security deal, which allows the countries leaders to exchange of visits and observe military drills.

Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said the MOU between the countries opens the prospect for joint exercises. However, he also assured Washington the military agreements will not permit the rotational deployment of Russia troops and is not comparable to the Mutual Defence Treaty between the Philippines and the USA. Nevertheless. the development is significant on the back of President Duterte angry outbursts against President Obama and his decision to scale back military ties with his countries traditional ally while deepening engagement with China and Russia.

Russia has also begun developing regional economic agreements throughout Asia. The Russian-led, Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), compromised of several former Soviet states, was established in 2015 and has already signed a free trade agreement with Vietnam and memoranda of cooperation with Cambodia and Singapore. ASEAN and Russia also agreed to launch a joint feasibility study of a comprehensive free trade area between ASEAN and EAEU.

Great Power Relations and the Future of ASEAN

Russia approaches to ASEAN and ASEAN states are part of a broader pivot to Asia, which, while effectively announced several years ago, began to take shape in 2016.  In addition to the strengthening ties with ASEAN, Russia has also sought to deepen its partnership with China. In June 2016 the EAEU and China signed a joint declaration on the negotiation of a trade and economic cooperation agreement and reach an agreement to integrate activities of the EAEU with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt.

Russia’s decision to look East for new economic and security partnerships must be understood within the context of the Kremlin’s increasing estrangement from Western powers. While not necessarily, or causally, connected, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ensuing sanctions imposed by the West has marked a major rift in their international relations. This will considerably reshape Russia’s strategic posture and leanings for the coming years.

It remains to be seen what lasting effects recent will tensions between the US and Russia have on the relations between the two powers. These include allegations of Russian interference in 2016 US elections and Obama’s decision to retaliate by expelling 35 Russia diplomats. Putin received plaudits for his strategic nous for deciding not to retaliate, and, instead, express his intention to wait for the Trump Presidency to begin before making any decisions on the future of US-Russia relations.

However, while Trump and Putin appear to have shared warm relations over the election period, it is uncertain whether Trump will maintain this tone during his time in office. In light of these uncertainties, Russia’s increasing engagement with ASEAN and ASEAN members, coupled with its evolving and shifting relationships with other major powers, will be a major point of interest in the study of ASEAN geopolitics.