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Asean back on Russia's map as a region of interest

Russia is refocusing on Asean after years of inertia due to its domestic priorities and challenges. After Russia was invited to join the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2010, former President Dmitry Medvedev did not attend the inaugural meeting in Bali and last year President Vladimir Putin, fresh from his third-term presidential victory, also failed to show up at the premier strategic forum. However, after hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Leaders' Meeting in Vladivostok last October, Russia has zeroed in once more on the region where it used to have a strong presence. The objective is to link its vast underdeveloped Far East with the roadmap of "connectivity" in Asean and East Asia.

By contrast, US President Barack Obama attended both summits and managed to push forward a US re-balancing policy on Asia as well as highlighting Washington's strategic interest and its long-term commitment to the Asia-Pacific. He is attending for an historic third time the upcoming EAS in Bandar Seri Begawan in October. While the Moscow-based Asean diplomats are anxious whether Putin will join the summit, Russian officials and academics interviewed here by the author are confident Putin is definitely coming to Brunei. During the visit of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Russia last year, he also urged Putin not to miss the upcoming EAS.

At the first Asean-Russian Youth Summit held here last week, organised by the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (known in Russian as MGIMO University), Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov was sanguine and upbeat in his opening remarks that Russia places importance on its relations with Asean in terms of economic, social and security cooperation. In the near future, Russia wishes to discuss the Asean-Russia Free Trade Area. At the moment, he said, Vietnam has begun the free trade agreement negotiation with the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which Morgulov said could serve as a model for an Asean-Russia FTA.

Acknowledging that Asean-Russia relations are still behind other dialogue partners, leaders from academic and business communities are working hard to put substance to the 17-year-old friendship. Victor Tarusin, executive director, Russia-Asean Business Council, pointed out that better communication and information exchanges are urgently needed to generate trust and confidence among the business community. "Both sides are still afraid of each other," he stressed. He is organising a business summit between Asean and Russia in St Petersburg next month.

Increasing mutual confidence and better awareness has been the long-term objective of Dr Victor Sumsky, director of the Asean Centre within MGIMO University, the first of its kind in the world when it was first set up three years ago. Now, several universities around the world have set up similar centres such as the American University in Washington DC, Thammasat University in Bangkok, the Asean Studies Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, among others.

At the moment, there are an estimated 10,000 students or more from Asean studying in these various universities. The students come mainly from Vietnam and Malaysia with 5,000 and 3,000 students respectively. Myanmar has over 1,000 students. Indonesia and Cambodia each have 150 students while Thailand has 107. They study medicine, science and technology as well as social science. Although Russia provides hundreds of scholarships to Asean students annually, they have been under-utilised.

Sumsky said that Russia has problems in communicating with Asean. There is an urgent need to fill this information gap between the two sides. It is obvious that Western reports on Russia have helped shape its overall image and perceived roles in Southeast Asia. Russian media seldom report on Asean affairs while only a few Russian scholars specialise in the grouping. Although Russia and China were invited to join the Asean meeting in 1991 for the first time as guests of the Asean chair (Malaysia), their evolution in later years took a different turn. The Asean-China ties have progressed by leaps and bounds ever since. Now, bilateral relations have become a cornerstone of the grouping's external relations. Both sides have established 38 committees, a dozen of them at ministerial level. In contrast, after becoming a full dialogue partner in 1996, Russia's relations with Asean have moved forward at a snail's pace. Russia has proposed many initiatives, especially in energy and food security with Asean, but progress has been slow.

The overall statistics related to Asean-Russia relations were pretty embarrassing. Russia was not even among the top ten countries in the areas of trade, investment and tourism. In 2010, the two-way trade was at US$7 billion (Bt210 billion) while Asean-China reached $180 billion, Asean-Japan was at $160 billion and Asean-US at $150 billion.

Leaders from both sides only met twice in their 16 years of relationship. In 2005, Putin made a strong impression on Asean during his visit to Malaysia and pushed hard to join the inaugural EAS meeting. The effort failed due to a strong objection from some Asean members. Since then, Russia's interest in Asean has receded.

However, both Russian and Asean diplomats and academics believed that Putin's return to the region in October to attend the Apec leaders' meeting in Bali and the EAS will signal the reinvigoration of Russia's engagement with Asean. Recently, Moscow with the support of Beijing, tabled a proposal on collective security arrangements in the Asia-Pacific as part of the effort to cooperate with Asean in creating a regional security structure. Last week in Washington DC, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa proposed an Indo-Pacific Wide Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation to curb conflict in the region. Both proposals expanded on the principles found in TAC.

The new security plan comes at a time when Russia perceives Asean as an organisation under severe pressure emanating from the fierce competition between the US and China. By itself, Asean is in a weak position to bargain with major powers seeking to establish a sphere of influence. As such, Russia, as a major global player and stabiliser, ready to reassert itself in the Asean scheme of things. Russia often repeats the mantra that it does not seek any military alliance or to establish any military base in Asean, therefore, there are common grounds to establish closer relations.

Russia plans to raise the security proposal at the EAS in Bandar Seri Begawan. It remains to be seen what will be the collective Asean attitude. After all, Asean still thinks the regional code of conduct contained in the TAC is time-tested and sufficient as an instrument for peace building and conflict prevention.


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