Policy Matters - Russia eyes more active role in Asean

23 Jun 2016 / 19:48 H.

    RUSSIA has long had an eye on Asean, although the intensity of interest may not have had the force it now has. In all probability the keenness may rise in the years to come.

    Interestingly, the first Asean-Russia Summit took place in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005. Malaysia invited Russian representatives to attend the Asean Ministerial Meeting in 1991. Subsequently, Russia was admitted as a full dialogue partner in 1996.
    The Asean-Russia Summit in Sochi in May, 2016 comes 20 years after Russia's inclusion as a dialogue partner of Asean.
    The enthusiasm and commitment that Vladimir Putin contributed to the summit indicates Russia's interest in playing a more active role in the region. His eagerness was reciprocated by Asean leaders.
    It is possible that we might witness a new era of Russia's participation in the growth and development of the region that goes beyond its traditional partners.
    Three important documents came out of the summit – The Sochi Declaration, the Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the Eminent Persons Report – all of which herald the kind of role that Russia wishes to play in Asean.
    The fact that geopolitical considerations were downplayed at the summit should be viewed positively. It suggests that Russia wants to support the economic growth and development of the region, and put that as a priority rather than geopolitical interests that serve its own ends.
    The Comprehensive Plan of Action covers a broad range of issues that includes political and security cooperation, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural cooperation.

    By and large the issues were realistic and focused on areas where Russia has considerable expertise.
    Asean, for its part, is keen on expanding its position on the global stage, and achieving more respectability and gravitas as a bloc. It has kept an open mind, choosing not to align itself to one power or another. These are useful pre-conditions that allow Asean to take advantage of Russia's offer to cooperate in various dimensions.
    The fact that some initiatives have already been agreed upon by Indonesia and Vietnam is a clear sign that Russia is serious in its purpose. Russia can, perhaps, help narrow the development gaps in Asean.

    Russia has had long-standing relations with Laos and Vietnam. It has also taken steps in recent times to improve relations with Cambodia.
    With regard to Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has responded warmly to Russian mega-investments in the country.
    The prospects for mutual cooperation and Russian investment in the region seem excellent. There are obviously many areas that Russia can explore in Malaysia, too.
    Russia has signed a free trade agreement with Vietnam; this could be followed with more bilateral agreements. These initiatives will help to spur trade and investment between Russia and Asean. Of course, the prospects of an Asean-Eurasian Economic Union should be investigated and pursued.
    Russia's active participation in the region could pave the way for its inclusion in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
    With China being a significant player in Asean, it is not hard to visualise China laying the groundwork that would lead to Russia being invited into the RCEP.
    One would do well to keep in mind that China has Russia's broad support on the South China Sea dispute.
    Russia and China may not see eye to eye on all problems, but a strategic agreement between the two could give RCEP tremendous vitality. This might be a long-shot, but one that cannot be discounted.
    Should this happen, the painfully missing cog would be the US, assuming the US does not find its way into the RCEP by that time.
    All this is a long way down the path. Of more immediate relevance to Malaysia is how Russia's interest in the region can be leveraged to Malaysia's benefit.
    Dr Shankaran Nambiar is a senior research fellow at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research. The views expressed in this article are his personal views. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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