Friday, June 11, 2010

Russia wants in with ASEAN but the US plays hard to get

Asean wants the US and Russia to play a greater role in regional dialogue and security cooperation, but the US seems preoccupied with domestic issues
It is clear as the sun rises in the morning that Asean will need to involve the United States and Russia in the new regional architecture. Consensus among Asean members is that the two superpowers should be included in the existing mechanisms within the regional grouping. But Asean leaders have not yet decided which framework to choose in order to accommodate them. The Asean foreign ministers will have to come up with a recommendation next month when they meet in Hanoi. Then they have to put forward that recommendation to the Asean Summit in October.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was succinct in his speech in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday when he referred to the two countries, saying the US represents an integral part of the Asia-Pacific regional order, while Russia's expansive geography gives it an important role in the affairs of the wider region.

Other Asean leaders share identical views but they have not pronounced them. Prime Minister Razak believes that openness and inclusivity should be the guiding principles in the Asean effort to consolidate its regional integration. It is clear that he would prefer to have the two powers added to the East Asia Summit (EAS) forum.

Russia has made it clear it would like to join the EAS - the sooner the better. Since 2005, Moscow has expressed a desire to be part of the regional dialogue, and has often reminded Asean of its willingness to participate. Indeed, Russia is very active in promoting relations with Asean as a whole, and with individual members. In addition, in 2012, Russia will host the Apec leaders' meeting, which has been given top priority by the government. Preparations are already underway to ensure the meeting in Vladivostok is a successful one. It is also interesting to note that President Dmitry Medvedev is planning to invite Asean leaders to Russia for the future Asean-Russia summit.

The US is interested in the new regional architecture, but Washington still has not given any firm commitments about participation. It is playing hard to get. Despite the promises of renewed US interest in the region in the wake of President Barack Obama's election success, there are perhaps indications the US is not really that serious after all. The third postponement of President Obama's scheduled visit to Indonesia has not been taken very favourably in the region.

Indonesia's reputation and democracy does not depend on Obama's visit, and the postponements obviously demonstrate the supremacy of US domestic problems in determining overall US relations with the region. By contrast, Russia has repeatedly said its leadership has no problem attending summit meetings organised by Asean.

The idea of an expanded EAS has so far received greater support than that of an Asean+8 security forum, as proposed by Singapore at the April regional summit. This Asean+8 formula would give emphasis to a leading role for Asean in partnership with the US, Russia, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Supporters view this forum as a practical one that would allow Asean+3 and EAS to continue their separate status.

Whatever formula Asean prefers, both the US and Russia would be welcome. The question is what will be the US response, as the ball is now in Washington's court. Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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