Russia and Southeast Asian States

As a follow-up for the debates that took place during the Russia-ASEAN Youth Summit and experts’ roundtable (13-15 May 2013) ASEAN Centre publishes a comment by Aaron Chee, currently an MA student in MGIMO and active participant of the Youth Summit. His ideas are important for the further discussion about ASEAN-Russia relations and for the search of optimal ways for both parties concerned to enhance this relationship.


1. Assessing the dialogue partnership: politics vs. economics

Russia-China relations have been said to be “politically hot but economically cold” (Cheng, 2012). It seems that the same can be said of its relations with ASEAN.

Politically, the two entities have plenty in common, for they share similar visions for the Asia-Pacific region. Russia has recognised that ASEAN constitutes the “backbone of regional order” (Lavrov, 2010) both within Southeast Asia and the larger Asia-Pacific region. On its part, ASEAN has affirmed its support for Russia’s participation in regional political and economic structures (Rangismaporn, 2009). Russian sources are also keen to emphasise that both Russia and ASEAN hold a vision of a polycentric regional and global order (Lavrov, 2010).

As regards economics, however, the Russia-ASEAN relationship is much weaker. Consider, for instance, how Russia’s trade with ASEAN in 2010 stood at only US$12.5 billion. That was one-fourteenth of China-ASEAN trade, one-thirteenth of Japan-ASEAN trade, and only slightly more than half of India-ASEAN trade (Len, 2012). Russian investment in Southeast Asia, while having grown considerably over the last few years, also remains modest. Indeed, weak economic relations were cited as a reason for delaying Russia’s accession to the EAS. 

Nevertheless, there has always been considerable potential for increased economic cooperation between Russia and ASEAN, particularly in such spheres as energy, high technology and military technology. I believe that Russia needs to step up such substantial forms of cooperation and exchange (and also those in such other spheres as education, tourism and disaster management) in order to give more weight to its political relations with ASEAN, and boost its credentials as an influential player in the Asia-Pacific region.

2. Modernisation and connectivity: Opportunities for cooperation?

During the Russia-ASEAN Youth Summit, much was said about Russia and ASEAN’s common priorities vis-à-vis modernisation and connectivity, and how these could be transformed into opportunities for cooperation. On hindsight, our treatment of these themes was rather positive – I would argue that while both Russia and ASEAN do indeed share these long-term priorities, it is difficult to argue that they constitute a natural imperative for both sides to support each other in their respective projects.

In his discussion on the prospects of Russia-China relations, Voskressenski (2012) cautions against Russia’s isolation from the West, arguing that Russia needs the West for its technology, know-how and impetus for social innovation, and emphasising that these things cannot be offered by China. This reflects a potential difficulty of building Russia-ASEAN relations on the basis of modernisation: what exactly can Southeast Asia offer to Russia in order to support the latter’s efforts?

In a limited sense, it is possible to conceive of some ASEAN countries providing capital and know-how: for instance, Singapore’s Changi Airport Group has invested in some projects in Russia. Nevertheless, we should be frank and admit that most of the cooperation on modernisation and connectivity would involve transfers of Russian capital and know-how to Southeast Asia. The Russia-ASEAN relationship is by no means a substitute for Russia’s other ‘modernisation partnerships’ with the West and some East Asian countries.

This presents us with another challenge: in order to develop relations with ASEAN on the basis of modernisation and connectivity, Russia must demonstrate its attractiveness as a partner, for the ASEAN countries have many alternatives to choose from. It is evident that ASEAN’s relations with other countries in the West or East Asia are also strong, and that these countries also have plenty of capital and expertise to offer to ASEAN. As such, I believe that the onus is, once again, on Russia to prove itself to be a reliable partner, and to reach out to ASEAN.

3. Concluding remarks

It is clearly important for both Russia and ASEAN to engage each other. At this point, however, I believe that the ball is in Russia’s court – it is easier for Russia to act to enhance Russia-ASEAN cooperation than it is for ASEAN to reach out to Russia.

However, I also believe that this notion that Russia should play a greater role in the Asia-Pacific region – that it should be an Asia-Pacific power – has not yet been widely accepted in policymaking circles. That much is evident from the Russian head of state/government’s absence from the EAS – an observation repeatedly highlighted during the Youth Summit and the experts’ roundtable. I would argue that Russian foreign policy is no longer Euro-centric – Russia now has little trouble conceiving of itself as a Eurasian power, with interests in the post-Soviet space; however, I believe that will take yet more time for Russia’s foreign policy horizons to expand further eastward.

Aaron CHEE


  • Cheng, W. (2012), ‘现代条件下的中俄关系’ [Sino-Russian Relations Under Contemporary Conditions], paper presented at the Международная научно-практическая конференция [International Scientific and Practical Conference], St Petersburg, 13-14 April 2012.
  • Lavrov, S. (2010), ‘Russia and ASEAN Can Achieve a Great Deal Together’, International Affairs, Special Issue, 7-16.
  • Len, C. (2012), ‘Russia and the ASEAN Member States: Political and Economic Cooperation in Progress’, in ASEAN-Russia: Foundations and Future Prospects (eds. Sumsky, V., Hong, M. and Lugg, A.), li-lx.
  • Rangismaporn, P. (2009), ‘Russia’s Search for Influence in Southeast Asia’, Asian Survey 49 (5), 786-808.
  • Voskressenski, A. (2012), ‘The Three Stages of Russo-Chinese Cooperation after the Collapse of the USSR and Prospects for the Emergence of a Fourth Stage’, Eurasian Review 5, 1-13.



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