Russia-ASEAN: 20 Years of Difficult Partnership and Troublesome Expectations

Security is a prospective area of Russia-ASEAN cooperation. Consultations were recently held between defense ministries of Russia and all of ASEAN member-states, including staunch US allies.

On May 19-20, a Russia-ASEAN summit will be held in Sochi, dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the ASEAN-Russia Dialogue Partnership. According to the Valdai Discussion Club expert Alexei Fenenko, the summit participants will concentrate on the Russia-China-ASEAN triangle in the context of the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Establishment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership opens a difficult period in ASEAN’s history, said Alexei Fenenko, associate professor of the Moscow State University Faculty of World Politics, in an interview to "Prior to this, ASEAN had a unique model of two-level consultations. Decisions were taken first in closed meetings, and then collectively promoted on the international stage. Now, with the establishment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ASEAN countries received an alternative negotiating format. Moreover, the United States receives access to the closed-door decisions of the ASEAN countries and the opportunity to influence them," the expert said.

According to Fenenko, TPP is an obvious threat to the well-functioning ASEAN mechanisms. "ASEAN has its own special economic regulations. Good or bad - it is another question, but nevertheless they exist. TTP involves the use of double standards. That is, in case of a conflict each country chooses whether to adhere to the ASEAN standards or to the standards of the Trans-Pacific Partnership," Fenenko said.

TTP is able to ruin the system of privileged ASEAN consultations with China, because Beijing may refuse the ASEAN+1 format, the expert believes. That is why the upcoming summit will focus on the question of relations between Russia, the ASEAN countries on the one hand and China on the other, in the TTP environment. "ASEAN and Trans-Pacific Partnership issues are now the main nerve of the entire regional policy. The question is whether the TTP system is to blur the privileged relationship of China with ASEAN," he said.

Referring to the relations between Russia and ASEAN, Fenenko recalled that Moscow's ability to influence the situation in the region was extremely limited. He said that ASEAN always demonstrated caution when it came to raising the level of cooperation with Russia, be it the situation with the Russian admission to the East Asia Summit (Russia became member of this institution in 2010 together with the United States after five years of negotiations), or refusal to grant it a privileged ASEAN + 1 format for consultations.

Fenenko formulated the reasons for such caution on the part of ASEAN in the following way: "Usually, two things are said on the sidelines of ASEAN summits: first – for a long time you have been saying that you are a European country, so we consider you as such, and second – we have been told that you are China’s ally, and we perceive you as such".

Many experts consider security to be a prospective area of Russia-ASEAN cooperation. Consultations were recently held between defense ministries of Russia and all of ASEAN member-states, including staunch US allies. However, such contacts worry China, according to Fenenko.

“We have the 2001Treaty, according to which we must consult with China on all key problems tied to security issues,” he said. “And if we conduct them without consulting with China, China will be discontent. Right now, China’s relations with ASEAN are not at their best because of the conflict in the South China Sea. China is very worried that Russia will support Vietnam and the Philippines, its long-time rivals.”

Fenenko believes that potential disagreements between Russia and China can be used by the United States to their advantage.

“On the one hand, it’s good that this slightly erodes American influence, but I fear that Americans are simply playing good-cop-bad-cop in this situation, that is, they will use this factor to erode our relations with China in an attempt to torpedo the 2001 treaty,” he said.

Regarding how Russia should build a balanced relationship with ASEAN and China, Fenenko noted that Moscow must have a strategic partnership with China and a limited dialogue with ASEAN.

“It’s time for us to understand that if we have some sort of conflict, say with the United States or Japan, ASEAN will not say a word in our defense. With China, we have a long-time strategic partnership and a real treaty of 2001. And I don’t think that we should risk our real partnership with China for the sake of pretty looks from ASEAN,” he said.

“Russia, of course, is concerned that the Americans will put us before another difficult choice: China or ASEAN, but not both of them together. For us, this would be the most unpleasant scenario,” he added.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.