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"A Mountain to Climb to Advance ASEAN-Russia Relations", by Tang Siew Mun

Commentary 2016/18, 19 May 2016

From 19 to 20 May 2016, ASEAN and Russian leaders will meet for the first time outside of Southeast Asia in Sochi, Russia to commemorate twenty years of dialogue relations. This relationship began in 1991 when Russia attended the 24th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Kuala Lumpur as a guest of the Chair. Five years later, Russia was elevated to full Dialogue Partner status.

The Sochi Summit will be only the third such ASEAN-Russia leaders meeting, following the first summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005 and the second in Hanoi in October 2010.  

As lingering questions of Russia’s seriousness in engaging ASEAN become increasingly pronounced, the summit could not have come at a more opportune moment. While other dialogue partners have seen their relations with ASEAN mature and progress from “partnership” to “enhanced partnership” and “strategic partnership,” Russia’s relations are stalled at the “partnership” level.  

Although Russia is keen to advance the partnership, ASEAN remains unconvinced of Moscow’s strategic commitment. Sceptics will point to the fact that, despite Russia being welcomed into the East Asia Summit in 2011, the Russian president has yet to participate in any of the past five summits. This glaring omission undermines Moscow’s purported seriousness to engage ASEAN.

In 2010, Russia inaugurated the “Turn to the East” strategy to reinvigorate relations with Asia, but this has achieved limited success in Southeast Asia. Two-way trade in 2014 was US$22.5 billion, placing it as ASEAN’s top 13th trading partner. Australia does three times more trade with ASEAN than Russia. Its 0.9% share of total ASEAN trade shows on one hand the limits of the relationship and on another highlights the opportunities for growth.  

Russia’s footprint is similarly light in two other important indicators – foreign direct investment (FDI) and tourist arrivals. Russia contributed only 0.2% of ASEAN’s net FDI inflows from 2012-2014. Its share of ASEAN inbound tourists is only 2.3%, and 75% of the 2.37 million Russian tourists choose to visit Thailand and Vietnam.

The one bright spot is arms transfers. Russia remains an important partner for ASEAN states who are interested to upgrade and modernize their militaries. In recent times, Vietnam has procured six Kilo-class submarines, and Malaysia and Indonesia operates Sukhoi fighter planes.  However, Russia has not invested in nurturing strategic relations with ASEAN militaries – with the notable exception of Vietnam –  to the level that the US have done for it to stake a claim as a serious player in Southeast Asian regional security.

Likewise, ASEAN-Russia relations have been hamstrung in the past by Moscow’s inability to connect and feed into ASEAN community-building in a visible and tangible manner. The two proposals that have been bandied around by the Russian leadership in connecting ASEAN with the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) suggest a misreading of ASEAN priorities. ASEAN is focused on streamlining and deepening existing regional cooperative mechanisms, including those that are in the process of negotiation such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).  There is little interest and even less appetite to overstretch ASEAN’s strategic footprint beyond East Asia.  

It is also telling that the commemorative year has been designated as the “Russia-Asia Year of Culture,” which is not expected to deliver the much-needed push to elevate ASEAN-Russia relations to the next level. In this respect, the report from the ASEAN-Russia Eminent Persons Group (EPG) will be keenly scrutinized for ideas to further deepen and promote the relations.

In retrospect, the last twenty years of dialogue relations between ASEAN and Russia have been rather low-key. Unless Russia steps up its engagement with ASEAN states beyond seeing the region as a prime market for Russian arms, it runs the risk of strategic irrelevance in the region. As ASEAN leaders congregate in Sochi, they will ask the inevitable question, “What does Russia bring to the ASEAN table?”

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.