During a series of meetings this week in Laos, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continued to push for an umbrella structure for the region.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (center) poses for a group photograph with participants of the ASEAN-Russia Foreign Ministers' Meeting. Photo: Alexander Shcherbak/TASS
On July 25-26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took part in three multilateral diplomatic forums organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, which this year holds the rotating presidency of ASEAN. Although last year trade turnover between Russia and the ASEAN nations amounted to only $13.7 billion, the organization is a “systematically important element” for Russian diplomacy, given the current geopolitical architecture of east Asia.
While attending the Russia-ASEAN ministerial meeting, Lavrov noted that decisions made during the Russia-ASEAN Summit in Sochi in May “have given a powerful impetus to the development of multilateral Russian-ASEAN cooperation, opening the way for our relations to move on to the level of a strategic partnership.”
During the meeting in Vientiane, the ministers discussed the progress made in fulfilling the political and economic agreements reached this year. Russia is interested in cooperation with the ASEAN nations primarily in the areas of trade, investment, energy and agriculture.
According to Dmitry Mosiaakov, director of the Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania Center at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the ASEAN nations, for their part, “are in favor of engaging in bilateral cooperation with Russia,” but are skeptical about Moscow’s plans to organize “systemic” cooperation between ASEAN and its other partners in the region — the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Asia is a critical area of interest for Russia, and engaging with ASEAN is only one of the forums Moscow uses for building relationships in the region. Six years ago, Russia joined the East Asia Summit (EAS), which was launched in 2005 as a forum for discussion between ASEAN members and their non-regional partners on a broad range of strategic, political and economic issues of mutual interest. At present, the EAS includes all 10 ASEAN members plus Russia, Australia, India, China, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States and Japan.
From Moscow’s perspective, it is important that topics on the agenda at EAS meetings include cooperation in the financial sector, international trade, energy, health and education. The most critical subject from a political point of view, however, is the formation of a regional security architecture in east Asia with the contribution of multiple stakeholders.
Towards a new security architecture
On the eve of the EAS meeting in Vientiane, the Russian Foreign Ministry clearly stated that Russia’s long-term goal in this direction is the signing of a comprehensive inter-country document on security for the Asia-Pacific Region.
Often the EAS Foreign Ministers’ Meeting is used by senior diplomats as an opportunity to engage in informal meetings and consultations, and during this meeting in Vientiane, Lavrov held useful meetings with his counterparts from China, New Zealand and Canada. Nevertheless, Lavrov’s most important conversation at the EAS Foreign Minister’s Meeting was with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Their talks focused on the situation in Syria, the prospect of cooperation between Russia and the United States there, and the chance that the Syrian government and the “moderate opposition” in Syria could confront and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
The threat posed by ISIS is also relevant for the countries of East Asia. Violence caused by adherents of radical forms of Islam has occurred in China, the Philippines and Thailand. However, the EAS participants chose to focus their discussions more on the need to resolve territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific Region than combatting international terrorism. Just before the opening of the summit, tensions again flared over a long-standing territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.
During the discussions, Moscow again raised the question of establishing an equal and open security architecture in the region. As Lavrov noted at the final press conference: “the region has no ‘umbrella structure’ that would unite all, without exception, the Asia-Pacific Region states, and develop, unified for all, rules of conduct, on a non-bloc basis, of an equal and indivisible security.”
Lavrov’s statement made it clear that Russia will continue to pursue this goal in partnership with the ASEAN countries and will raise it again in future meetings and discussions.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.