BANGKOK, May 27 (Reporting ASEAN) – When the ASEAN chair, Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, delivered his speech on ASEAN’s behalf in Russia, he impressed President Vladimir Putin, the host of ASEAN-Russia Summit held in Sochi earlier this month. This kind of comfort level, coming as their relations enter a third decade, clearly set a new benchmark in their cooperation.
After the historic meeting held on May 19-20, both sides are upbeat about the prospect of rejuvenated relations. Russia became a dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1996. Putin expressed the hope that the bilateral ties are moving towards a strategic partnership. Russia, currently a major dialogue partner of ASEAN, is still not a strategic partner of the regional organization.
Indeed, this objective of upgrading ties was the key message in the Sochi Declaration, titled ‘Moving Towards a Strategic Partnership for Mutual Benefit’. The 12-page document outlined in detail numerous action plans that both sides committed to implement under the three pillars of ASEAN Community – economic, politics and security, and socio-cultural.
Compared to the Sunnylands Declaration between ASEAN and the United States in February, the Sochi Declaration covered more areas of cooperation and was far more ambitious.
In his opening speech, Putin proposed that the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and ASEAN conclude a free trade agreement to promote mutual trade and investment. At Sochi, both sides agreed to conduct a feasibility study to kick off the process.
Vietnam joined the EAEU in 2015, the first ASEAN member to do so. Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Laos have also expressed interest in negotiating with the Russia-led economic bloc, which began in 2015 and includes Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha told reporters recently that Thailand has conducted a study about the pros and cons of joining EAEU and will soon inform Moscow about its decision. Thailand is Russia’s biggest trading partner in ASEAN.
Putin pointed out that Russia’s trade with ASEAN countries stood at 13.7 billion US dollars in 2015. The volume of two-way investments is around 11 billion dollars. But these figures are marginal when compared to the trade and investment linkages between ASEAN and its other dialogue partners such as China, the US and Japan.
That was why Putin lamented the current economic indicators, saying they do not match the potential of the ASEAN-Russia partnership. “That is why the partners supported Russia’s proposals to build up trade, investment and technological exchanges and are determined to improve the infrastructure of Russia-ASEAN cooperation,” Putin emphasized.
Looking back, the Sochi summit was the first time Putin engaged with all ASEAN leaders in an exclusive meeting. In Sochi, he also held several bilateral talks with individual ASEAN leaders. Russia has been trying to promote all-around relations with ASEAN due to unfavorable regional and international environments it finds itself in, but both sides have not quite been able to do this.
Given this context, the Sochi summit indeed managed to herald a new era of cooperation between ASEAN and Russia.
This year, ASEAN will host three special summits with the US, Russia and China. The first two meetings have been accomplished – the ASEAN-US Summit in Sunnylands, California and the Sochi meeting. The third, the ASEAN-China summit, commemorating the 25th anniversary of their relations, will be held in Vientiane alongside the ASEAN Summit in early September.
To promote multi-dimensional cooperation between ASEAN and Russia, several new mechanisms in agriculture and education have been created, according to the Russian president. In addition, the first arts festival to promote bilateral cooperation will be held both in Russia and in ASEAN capitals.
Beyond trade and investment, Russia is ready to accelerate security ties with ASEAN, especially those under ASEAN-led frameworks such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit (EAS) and emerging regional architecture. Moscow has made it clear that it wants to be part of the new security setup in the future. In 2010, Russia and the US were admitted into the EAS, which is emerging as the region’s most important leaders-only security forum.
Russia also wants to promote arms sales to the members of ASEAN. Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia have already purchased military hardware from Russia. Of late, Thailand too had plans to purchase Russian tanks and helicopters.
In Sochi, the five-year action plans (2016-2020) to boost Russia-ASEAN ties were approved. The framework will complement the Sochi Declaration to strengthen further cooperation, especially in non-traditional areas of security. ASEAN leaders know full well the important role Russia plays in shaping the international environment. As a member of United Nations Security Council, Russia’s intervention can change the course of any political event in promoting peace, security and stability.
Notably too, Russia was first the country to establish a Center for ASEAN Studies back in 2010. Furthermore, Moscow has already held two ASEAN youth summits – one in Moscow in 2015 and the other in Kuala Lumpur last year. A series of youth summits will soon take place in Cambodia and Vladivostok, Russia respectively. (END/Reporting ASEAN – Edited by Johanna Son)
*Kavi Chongkittavorn is a columnist with ‘The Nation’ newspaper, and senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.