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A second chance for Russia and ASEAN

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President Dmitry Medvedev will attend the second Russia-ASEAN summit on Sunday in Hanoi.

President Dmitry Medvedev will attend the second Russia-ASEAN summit on Sunday in Hanoi. The first summit was held in Kuala Lumpur five years ago, and in the long pause between the two, Moscow has come to fully appreciate the challenges it must overcome in its Southeast Asia policy.

ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, consists of ten relatively small nations to the south of China and east of India, among them Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Laos. ASEAN brings together a diverse group of nations, and yet it is a successful example of integration in today's globalized world - even more successful, perhaps, than the European Union. It is the political center of the Pacific region, home to big fish like the United States, China and Japan. And with its artful policy of equidistance from the other big regional players, ASEAN's meetings are increasingly becoming a political venue where regional policy is formulated.

At the 17th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi (asean2010.vn), first 48 leaders of the member countries will sit down for talks among themselves, then they will invite for talks one partner at a time. In addition to China, Japan, and Russia, this time the honor will be bestowed on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well.

The process is short, usually lasting an hour, and strictly controlled. It begins with a short address by a partner (Medvedev in our case), followed by a response from an ASEAN representative. The sides speak about the current state of cooperation and express wishes for the future. Then they exchange brief remarks and make a joint statement. That's it. Numerous bilateral meetings are also held on the sidelines of the summit.

Sources within ASEAN say the ten member states are looking to readjust the balance in the region. China is becoming too strong. It is, in effect, the leading nation in the region. When George W. Bush was president, the United States did not quarrel with China; under Bill Clinton, it tried to keep China in check; and under Barack Obama, Washington has rushed from one extreme to the other, before finally reverting to the Clinton-era posture. Now Republicans are poised to regain considerable power in the U.S. government. Regardless of what Washington does in the future, other ASEAN partners, including Russia, must feel strong and important. No country will gain a monopoly, but Russia has been invited to become a closer partner.

Moscow is in a very good position and may achieve almost everything it wants. However, general geopolitical talk is one thing; specific promises are quite another. Russia's long-standing goal in this region since the very beginning (that is, since the mid 1990s) has been more than just maintain balance in the region.

Russia's pipelines cannot extend all the way to Southeast Asia, and so it needs high-tech businesses there - or, in other words, a partnership in modernization. To date, its results have been mediocre, and this explains the long pause between the first and the second summits.

Russia's trade with all ten ASEAN member countries amounted to miniscule $10 billion before the crisis, and now it is even less. Some minor arms deals have gone through. But why have so many projects gone down the drain since the late 1990s? We proposed regional consortiums that would manufacture and sell top-notch hardware that the region obviously needed - the Be-200 aircraft, a floating nuclear power plant, and much more. There has been some success with individual countries, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, but ASEAN as a whole has never offered Russia a means of promoting its interests in the region. As a result, Russia's disdain of European bureaucracy in Brussels started migrating to ASEAN. Whenever Moscow dealt with an individual ASEAN country, all was well; but when it dealt with the whole of ASEAN, nothing concrete was achieved, just empty resolutions and plans for future summits.

Russia may need to completely reevaluate its plans in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region, with the focus entirely on commercial and technological ventures. This could greatly benefit our modernization plans, but for the time being all we hear is the familiar list of our policy aims in the region - cooperation on natural disasters prevention and response (and we do cooperate), counter-terrorism, biotech... All this sounds good, but Russia's activity in the region lacks momentum. These ideas are brought up again and again, year after year, at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings and other Pacific forums.

The best result of the Hanoi summit would be approval of a meaningful program of action in the economy and high-tech sphere (the groundwork has already been laid). Hopefully, the program will be a step up from the empty resolutions these meetings produced in the late 1990s.

However, we have already achieved at least one success. The litmus test in Russia's relations with Europe is visa-free travel, which won't happen anytime soon. But these ten Southeast Asian countries have long welcomed Russians with nothing more than a plane ticket.

Russian tourism to ASEAN countries is growing at an incredible rate (tourism to China is growing even faster), and the number of Russian expats is also on the rise. Some 15,000 Russian expats permanently reside in Thailand alone, and in today's world this is a very important resource for developing relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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