All Quiet in Kuala Lumpur: Russia–ASEAN Talks

The annual conference of ASEAN foreign ministers is much more than just a meeting of the foreign policy chiefs of ten Southeast Asian countries. The event traditionally kicks off official dialogue between colleagues who speak on behalf of the Association’s Dialogue Partners (Australia, India, Canada, China, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, the United States, Japan and the European Union) and is followed by a meeting of 18 foreign ministers in the East Asia Summit format and a session of the ASEAN Regional Security Forum (27 participants). Bilateral contacts are also developed on the fringes of these multilateral events.

This diplomatic marathon took place on 4–6 August 2015 in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. According to the joint communiqué, the ten ministers are generally pleased with the progress achieved in building the ASEAN Community (its creation is expected to be announced at the end of 2015). In addition, they are satisfied with the positive dynamics of relations with the ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners and the signs that the organisation is gradually assuming the role of a global political and economic player. As for security issues, the main concerns are the widespread rise of terrorism and extremism, conflicts in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula, and the ongoing Iranian nuclear crisis. What is more worrying, however, is the impact of the disputes over the South China Sea Islands on the military-political situation in Asia.

As we have seen on numerous occasions in the past, those in favour of Russia’s «isolation» tried to use the landmark event attended by Russia to pursue their own ends. In late July 2015, when the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution that would establish an international tribunal to try those responsible for the Malaysian Boeing disaster, everyone knew in advance that Moscow would veto the motion. It was assumed that the Southeast Asian countries would then extend «a warm welcome» to the Russian envoys. It was necessary, of course, to secure Malaysia’s backing of this demarche, which the sponsors of the resolution duly achieved. However, Malaysia (which, like the other ASEAN members, is well aware of the West’s desire to rush to a conclusion) did not make the choice easily. Commenting on his bilateral meeting with the Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Anif Aman, Sergey Lavrov said: «I saw that he fully understood the Russian position, which is aimed at answering what is the key question for our Malaysian friends, and that is establishing the truth." (Link in Russian.)

The results of the Russia-ASEAN ministerial meeting on 5 August 2015 clearly show that the parties have no intention of curtailing relations. On the contrary, they seek to develop them in a steady and comprehensive manner. Two sides have agreed to hold a  Russia-ASEAN summit in 2016 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the ASEAN-Russia Dialogue Partnership, as well as the creation of a  Russia-ASEAN Eminent Persons Group to prepare a report on joint long-term initiatives. They have also decided to update and add specific projects to the road map of  ASEAN-Russia Trade and Investment Cooperation Work Programme and have concerts, exhibitions and festivals as part of the reciprocal Year of Russian and ASEAN Culture in 2016. Judging from the statements of Russian and ASEAN diplomats, their ideas of the principles on which the Asia-Pacific regional security architecture will be built are practically identical. They essentially boil down to this: universal and sustainable security in the Asia-Pacific Region is only possible on a  non-bloc basis and only if the «central role» of ASEAN is to be player that does not pose a threat to any state and cannot coerce any party into any particular action, yet commands moral authority thanks to its tolerance, negotiating prowess and the ability to find solutions and compromises.

To be fair, it should be noted that the central role of the ASEAN in regional cooperation is not directly challenged even by the United States, which is working hard to establish itself as the leader in the Asia-Pacific Region. In Kuala Lumpur, John Kerry went out of his way to demonstrate his adherence to this principle. One wonders, though, how that squares with the proposal of «cooperative patrolling» of the South China Sea by ASEAN naval fleets, presumably under the United States Pacific Command, an idea that the United States put forward in early 2015. According to American thinking, the ASEAN can play its central role if it is internally cohesive, the main sign of cohesion being the ability to «speak with one voice» in the territorial dispute with China. True, if it embarks on that path, the ASEAN would instantly lose its central role and become a junior partner of the United States.

Fortunately, this is not a realistic scenario for the Association today, or in the foreseeable future: the ASEAN is split about equally between those who would prefer closer ties with China, those who look more to Washington, and those who are trying to find middle ground. The «third line» is more in keeping with the centuries-old cultural preferences of Southeast Asia. Ultimately, this line prevails time and again at various forums where ASEAN representatives formulate their position on the South China Sea problem. The only exception to this rule was the 2012 ministerial conference in Phnom Penh, which failed to produce a final statement because of differences over this thorny issue. The episode served as a serious lesson for the ASEAN, forcing its members to rethink and adjust their behaviour towards one another, and towards the organisation’s external partners. There were times during the first half of 2015 when passions on the issue reached such a high pitch that there were fears that what happened three years earlier could be repeated in Kula Lumpur. It is to the ASEAN’s credit that this time around a balanced and reasonable approach prevailed over the tendency towards confrontation.

Victor SUMSKY,
Russian International Affairs Council



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