Russia’s Foreign Minister To Meet With ASEAN Leaders: Analysis

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As Moscow and Washington prepare to face off over ASEAN, the stakes are high for both. 

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will take part in several meetings with ASEAN which will be held in Cambodia from Thursday (August 4). The annual ASEAN summit is being held a week later.

Despite US pressure on ASEAN to isolate Russia, the Southeast Asian bloc has generally reasoned that exclusion of Moscow from participation in ASEAN would be a missed opportunity for peaceful dialogue. Despite concerns, ASEAN still considers it important to cooperate with Moscow on the problems of global food and fuel shortages. There is also some consensus that Russia stands for some stability – as does ASEAN partnership with China.

Russia became a full dialogue partner with ASEAN in 1996. Since then, Moscow’s relations with the bloc have often coincided as concerns key global and regional issues and ties have developed. However, the Ukraine conflict has raised issues. Initially, ASEAN member countries expressed divergent views on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but have managed to develop a common position on the conflict. In three bloc statements on the topic, they advocated an immediate ceasefire, peace talks, humanitarian aid, and an investigation into reported crimes. In addition, ASEAN expressed its readiness to contribute to any peace efforts.

Cambodia, hosting the meeting with Lavrov with Prime Minister Hun Sen, has turned out to be one of the most critical Asian leaders towards Moscow apart from Singapore, the only ASEAN member that supported Russian sanctions. Despite noting in March that “Russia is a friend of Cambodia who has helped our country more than once.” Hun Sen condemned Moscow because of the special operation in Ukraine and instructed his diplomats to choose Kiev when voting in international organizations. However, having joined the West by condemning Russia’s actions, Phnom Penh did not support the policy of isolating Moscow in the international arena.

Although attempts to pressurize ASEAN’s leaders have been made, the Philippine’s Foreign Ministerial spokesman Daniel Espiritu has acknowledged that rather than exclude Russia, ASEAN decided to become a platform for dialogue. This is why Phnom Penh has invited Lavrov to take part in the regular meetings of the heads of foreign affairs agencies in the formats of the Russian Federation-ASEAN, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum on Security.

It is a position also expressed by Kin Phea, the General Director of the Institute of International Relations at the Royal Academy in Phnom Penh, who stated in Russia’s Izvestia newspaper that “Excluding Russia from the forum or other ASEAN mechanisms would be a missed opportunity for peaceful dialogue. Cambodia’s position is that it supports the peaceful use of diplomacy to resolve conflicts. ASEAN can deliver clear messages from Russia to Ukraine and vice versa and should also ask its external partners to consider Russia’s concerns. Only if Moscow’s fears are heard, peace talks are held and seaports are opened, will we be able to solve such problems as the global shortage of food and fuel.”

Dmitry Mosyakov, head of the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia, and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, noted that, despite small trade with the ASEAN countries, Russia’s role has always been wide ranging in areas such as security and military-technical cooperation. According to him, energy cooperation has been going well for years. However, the main advantage of relations with Russia in the eyes of ASEAN is its role in balancing the US-Chinese contradictions and their attempts to divide the bloc.

Mosyakov also mentioned that Russia has always supported the unity of ASEAN and their unifying efforts, especially now, when the United States are making efforts to reformat the Indo-Pacific region, are looking for new allies and are trying to push some ASEAN countries into their political sphere, which could introduce an ASEAN collapse into pro-American and pro-Chinese factions.

This agenda will resonate with China. Both Moscow and Beijing have repeatedly expressed their misgivings about Washington’s attempts to contain objectionable countries (primarily China) via the new US-Indo Pacific strategy by strengthening ties between the military-industrial complexes of the States and countries of the region and reorienting the supply chains of critical products. At the same time, attracting ASEAN members into the US orbit, such as Singapore, with whom US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has just been holding meetings, are becoming a new normal. The United States is now injecting itself into Southeast Asian affairs and has negotiated for seven ASEAN states to participate in the US Indo-Pacific economic structure.

This is seen in some quarters as a mobilization of collective efforts to contain, block and encircle China. The downside is that this is not intended to unite ASEAN members but will effectively divide them. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, as current Chairman of ASEAN, has already made it clear that participation in any framework or initiative aimed at containing another country or region would not be welcome.

Cambodia is unlikely to follow the US lead at the upcoming ASEAN summit, which will be attended by the Foreign Ministers and officials of 39 countries, including US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Cambodia does not wish to see ASEAN become a hostage to two opposing factions in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and has expressed strong opinions on attempts to make it so.

In May, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand, which currently chairs APEC, issued a joint statement on the importance of international meetings, and called on the countries on opposite sides of the barricades not to rock the boat and let others promote dialogue, cooperation, and peace. There has been limited success. Both Jakarta and Bangkok have already witnessed diplomatic arguments and a lack of cooperation at their hosting of the recent G20 foreign and economic ministers’ meetings, as well as at the APEC trade ministers’ meeting, which ended without the traditional joint statements due to the Western countries’ boycott of Russia.

It remains to be seen how the Asian adage of ‘losing face’ if one becomes irate – and especially in someone else’s country – will play with the West over Russia’s involvement in Southeast Asia. It is also true that when Western cultures deal with the East, what they may think in their eyes is a deal – is anything but.  With Sergey Lavrov having begun his political career in Southeast Asia it will be a fascinating glimpse into which faction understands Asia more – Russia, itself part-Asian – or the United States. With Washington prepared to do battle with promises and threats to get its way over Southeast Asia dumping Moscow, and Russia pleading for understanding and patience, Sergey Lavrov’s diplomatic skills will be to the fore as he discusses Russia’s relationship with ASEAN. Whatever happens will be a game changer.

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Russia Briefing is written by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm has 28 offices throughout Eurasia, including China, Russia, India, and the ASEAN nations, assisting foreign investors into the Eurasian region. Please contact us at russia@dezshira.com for Russian investment advisory or assistance with market intelligence, legal, tax and compliance issues throughout Asia.

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