By Timothy Misir, in Moscow
For ASEAN Today
One of the foreign policy challenges facing Philippine’s incoming president Rodrigo Duterte is balancing the country’s security relations with the US, while maintaining bilateral relations with China. It is currently waiting for the arbitration court in The Hague to rule on its maritime rights in the region and the legality of China’s nine-dash line claim, filed in 2013, though China has said it will not recognise the ruling. Duterte has said he favours negotiating with China over the South China Sea dispute through multiparty talks involving the US, or bilaterally if that fails, and has indicated he will adopt a more conciliatory stance to Beijing, saying he is willing to give up its claims in exchange for certain economic concessions.
But now that Russia is beginning to comment on the South China Sea conflict, Duterte and the Philippines he will lead would have yet another major actor to contend with. This has additional implications as the Philippines prepares to assume the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017.
Official statements from Russia regarding its views on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are carefully worded. Moscow knows there will be costs to its potential future with ASEAN or its relationship with China if it crosses a red line, so it cannot simply choose sides in this case. However, it now has an opportunity to capitalise on the dispute by appearing or acting as an honest broker, unlike the US, which has ambitions of its own in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with ASEAN leaders on 19 to 20 May at the ASEAN-Russia summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, and is part of the country’s push to step up its engagement with the region to stem its declining economic prospects by diversifying its economic and commercial partners, and to expand its security presence in Asia-Pacific. While Russia’s importance to peace and stability in Asia-Pacific cannot be understated, there are still doubts over its long-term commitment to ASEAN and concerns that Russia’s pivot to Asia is too focused on China.
Between a rock and a hard place
Russia’s recent flurry of activity with regard to the Asia-Pacific is recognition that it sees it as an important economic region the coming decades. Everyone expects this to be the Asian century, so it is understandable that Russia wants a piece of the pie, and it certainly needs this boost, given its economic outlook.
However, in engaging the region, there are fears among ASEAN observers that Russia will support China’s expansive moves in the South China Sea, which is why Russia has found itself between rock and a hard place: on one hand China is an important partner – it is Russia’s largest trading partner and biggest buyer of its energy resources, and a strategic ally geopolitically – but Russia also has high hopes for a deeper and more comprehensive relationship with ASEAN.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia’s position on the territorial disputes there is that it would like to see a diplomatic resolution. However, in a 14 April interview, he spoke out against “interference from third parties or any attempts to internationalise these disputes”, such as in international forums like the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit or Asia-Europe Meeting – a position held by China too.
Understandably, the statement upset Vietnam which, among ASEAN nations, has one of the strongest economic ties with Russia, particularly in the areas of arms and energy. Russia and China have compatible foreign policy goals: more multipolarity and less US influence in global affairs. But there are high stakes if Russia leans too much either way.
Far East reorientation
Russia’s increased orientation towards Asia and Southeast Asia in particular has been taking place alongside its falling out with the West. At the Sochi summit, a declaration was adopted, which will lay the basis for an action plan of Russia-ASEAN cooperation in the security, political, economic and cultural spheres. For Russia, it hopes this will help it diversify its exports and commercial partners and to expand its pool of foreign investors, particularly in Siberia and the Far East to refurbish its ageing and inadequate infrastructure, what Moscow refers to as its “window to Asia”, while integrating the region into Asia-Pacific in the long-term.
Ultimately, the South China Sea is unlikely to be high on Moscow’s agenda, given Russia’s poor economic outlook, compounded by Western sanctions and international disputes it is involved in closer to home. But supporting ASEAN sovereignty (and helping a move away from the US-China security architecture that shapes the region) is essential if Russia wants to realise its vision of a multipolar future.
Stronger ties with Russia would allow ASEAN to leverage more from the US and dilute Western domination globally, benefitting both ASEAN and Russia. Right now Russia has to leverage on its export potential for energy resources, weapons and military technology, but it remains to be seen if this can be a basis for deeper, long-term relationship.