“Our country is fully open to an extensive dialogue on pressing issues on the regional agenda, intends to continue to actively participate in efforts to build a system of interstate relations in the Asia-Pacific region based on equality, mutual benefit and respect for each other’s legitimate interests” – Russian President Vladimir Putin told the participants of the Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok, the Primorsky Krai capital, last September, once again designating such a complex and diverse region as the Asia-Pacific as one of the priority frontiers of the country’s modern foreign policy.
However, the President’s speech is not the only thing that tells us about the importance of the aforementioned region for Russia. The updated Foreign Policy Concept approved last March mentions the Asia-Pacific region about five times. Moreover, a separate paragraph is devoted to it. Its provisions, in particular, assert the region’s great “potential” with all its “multidimensional nature”: we are talking about co-operation of the region’s states within the framework of non-aligned relations, as well as in the work of the APEC international forum, a format that is fundamentally important for the Pacific Ocean countries. According to this concept, Russia is ready to use all political and non-political resources of the Greater Eurasian Partnership to create security and favourable conditions for cooperation in the region.
The first clause of the APR part of the Concept states that Russia is ready to give “priority attention” to dialogue in the spheres of economy and security, as well as humanitarian issues with the countries in the region. It is worth noting that this paragraph singles out ASEAN, an organisation that unites all the countries of Southeast Asia. Russia has a declared developed and comprehensive partnership with this association, one of the fundamentally important “players” in the Asia-Pacific region, and interstate comprehensive dialogue continues today.
For example, 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of the official establishment of relations between Russia and ASEAN: at that time, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the common position of the country and the organization on issues of equal dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation in the APR. The Russian leader also noted that the ASEAN factor is key in building a security system in the Asia-Pacific region. Similar formulations can be found in the second and fourth provisions of the updated Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation affecting the Asia-Pacific region: they note Russia’s assistance in the formation of the Asia-Pacific security architecture on “non-aligned principles” and state that Russia will counter attempts to destroy the regional security and development system already established around ASEAN.
These provisions can be confirmed in practice: Russia and ASEAN are strengthening political and security cooperation through Russia-ASEAN summits, meetings, the work of the Russia-ASEAN Joint Cooperation Committee and other dialogue partnership mechanisms. In addition, it is worth noting the intensification of joint work between Russian and ASEAN military contingents, both in the areas of maritime and cybersecurity, as well as joint counter-terrorism efforts and co-operative peacekeeping operations. This part of the overall Russia-ASEAN Comprehensive Plan is being progressively implemented. For example, in September 2023, joint exercises of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and member countries of the above-mentioned association began in the Far East: such military activities are possible within the framework of the “ADDM-Plus” mechanism – the Meeting of Defence Ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Dialogue Partners. The exercises are of an anti-terrorist nature: military contingents of the Russian Federation, ASEAN and China (which is not a member of ASEAN) practise joint operational actions.
Thus, the development of security partnership in the Asia-Pacific region continues, in particular with the assistance of ASEAN. New forms of cooperation are emerging that contribute to building a regional security architecture: and Russia, implementing its foreign policy, is directly involved in this.
Trade turnover between the Russian Federation and the organisation is also continuing to grow: this is especially noticeable after an obvious and understandable decline in 2022. Representatives of the Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation at the Eastern Economic Forum said that they expect to reach the figure of $20 billion by the end of 2023, that is, to return to the figures for 2021, which will be considered in the work. It is worth noting that at that time, ASEAN exports to Russia dominated: they reached a figure of $12.6 billion. If we consider specific areas of trade turnover, it is worth highlighting the following: electrical equipment ($3.4 billion), animal fats and vegetable oils ($1.4 billion), machinery and mechanical appliances ($1.3 billion) and rubber ($676 million) dominated ASEAN exports to Russia.
It is necessary to highlight the following ASEAN member countries with which Russia had the most successful trade relations at the end of 2021: both in terms of imports and exports.
Republic of Indonesia. In 2021, Russia imported goods from Indonesia worth about $2.6 billion. Palm oil ($1.4 billion) is particularly noteworthy, as Indonesia is the largest exporter of this commodity in the world. Other imports to Russia include the following goods: electrical machinery and equipment ($173 million), rubber ($150 million), footwear ($140 million), cocoa and its semi-finished products ($112 million).
The main Russian exports to Indonesia were fertilisers ($239 million), mineral fuels ($156 million), iron and steel ($113 million) and aluminium ($44 million).
Malaysia. Most of Malaysia’s exports to Russia in 2021 were electrical machinery and equipment, totalling $718 million, according to some estimates. This was followed by rubber ($308 million), machinery and aggregate equipment ($219 million) and medical equipment ($118 million).
Russian exports to Malaysia were mainly mineral fuels – $1.1 billion. In addition, the Russian Federation supplied fertilizers ($113 million) and aluminium ($24 million) to the country.
Socialist Republic of Vietnam. That’s an important partner of the Russian Federation in the Asia-Pacific region, as this state has signed an agreement on the creation of a free trade zone with the EAEU, in which Russia is a key participant. Bilateral trade turnover between Vietnam and Russia exceeded $6 billion in 2021: thus, it increased by 20 percent compared to 2020. During this period, Vietnam exported goods worth about $4.5 billion to Russia.
In addition, trade turnover with the Republic of the Philippines and the Kingdom of Thailand is increasing. The Philippines enjoys favourable tariff status when exporting its products to EAEU member countries. Moreover, the country is a beneficiary of the unified system of preferences of the above-mentioned union. The Thai authorities, in turn, have repeatedly expressed interest in concluding a free trade area agreement with the EAEU countries.
Thus, the Russian Federation, as stated in the above-mentioned provisions of the Concept, is increasing cooperation in the spheres of economy and security with the member countries of the ASEAN organisation, which, having a key role in many mechanisms of interaction in the Asia-Pacific region, is also strengthening its partnership with Russia.
The fly in the ointment
However, it is not only Russia that is interested in strengthening cooperation with the countries of the organisation. Efforts are being made in Washington to pressure the business circles of a number of association countries to curtail economic co-operation with Russia under the threat of sanctions. However, as practice shows, these efforts have proved futile. Despite the pressure, many countries do not recognise the legitimacy of Washington’s unilateral sanctions, thus ensuring their independence, freedom of choice and multipolarity. Malaysia and Vietnam have already issued a joint statement against the West’s aggressive actions against Russia. The countries of the region remain neutral and do not support unilateral US restrictions, believing that such decisions cannot be taken bypassing the UN Security Council.
The policy of neutrality is also visible with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: countries in the region issued a joint communiqué calling for the opening of humanitarian corridors in the Middle East and the peaceful coexistence of Arab and Jewish states, effectively refusing to take sides in the conflict. Last November 7, for example, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said his government would not recognise any unilateral sanctions contained in a draft US bill proposing restraints on foreign supporters of Hamas. The Malaysian leader noted that Washington has repeatedly pressured Kuala Lumpur since the start of the war in Palestine. He emphasised the unilateral and illegitimate nature of the US actions and his state’s commitment as a UN member only to decisions taken by the UN Security Council.
For the ASEAN countries, which defend their own independent policies, joining the US sanctions carries risks of negative consequences associated with the cooling of relations with Russia and China. Supporting Western policies inevitably puts some countries in the position of Japan, which has a reputation of “betraying the interests of Asia”.
The second part of the article, on APEC and Russia’s resistance to drawing dividing lines in the region, will appear in the New Eastern Outlook shortly.
Alexey BOLSHAKOV, international journalist, especially for “New Eastern Outlook”