Sunday, June 6, 2010

Russia's push for East Asian summit membership

LAST MONTH Russia's ambassadors to all Asean member countries sent a diplomatic note to their governments reiterating Moscow's desire to become a member of East Asian Summit (EAS). Moscow's unusual move, which came as the Asean leaders were discussing the future architecture of the region, demonstrated its unwavering intention to join the high-powered regional forum led by Asean.

When EAS was inaugurated in December 2005, former Russian President Vladimir Putin stole the limelight by being the first leader to attend the meeting as guest of the host, Malaysia. Truth be told, Russia could have been one of the founding members of EAS if it was not eventually sidelined in a last-minute manoeuvring within the grouping.

At that time, the official argument was that Russia did not meet the three criteria set forth by Aseansignatory of Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, full dialogue partner, and having extensive relations with Asean. But it was an open secret that admission of Russia at that time would have a far-reaching impact as it would break the balance of big powers in the region.

Since then, Russia has been intensifying multi-facet cooperation with all individual Asean members with emphasis on its closest ally in the region, Vietnam, and of late the grouping's biggest member, Indonesia. During numerous visits to the region, Russian officials and delegations would constantly remind Asean the world's rising stars are not only China and India but Russia as well.

Indeed, one of Moscow's great frustrations was to convince Asean of its importance in terms of economic power and technological prowess. During the Cold War, the former Soviet Union's strategic imperative to the region was self-evident. The collapse of the Soviet empire and consequent breakup two decades ago has dented its once formidable position. Currently, Russia is one of the world's top ten economies due to its rich energy sector. Its GDP growth rate average from 2000-2007 was 7 per cent annually, which raised its share in the global economy to 3 percent. Huge foreign exchange reserves, ranked third in the world, have been focused on technological renewal in key industries such as medical technology, energy technology, IT, development of space and telecommunication systems and energy efficiency.

Russia's new knowledge-based economy would benefit Asean as a whole. Moreover, Russian oil and gas will serve as the main pillar of the region's energy security an issue so pivotal for the grouping's continued prosperity. Now that the excitement over the US policy under the Obama Administration towards Asean has subsided, Moscow has reasserted itself, once more wanting to become an integral part of the region.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to travel to Hanoi at the end of October to attend the second Asean-Russian Summit. His earlier plan to visit Thailand and attend the summit last year was not realised due to the country's political turmoil. Unlike the US, since 2005 Russia has made it succinctly clear that EAS is its preferred forum to discuss global issues impacting on the region as a whole. On the contrary, the US has yet to make up its mind although it has expressed keen interest in the current effort of regional community building in Asean.

Asean leaders plan to announce later this year what would be the formula and criteria for the new framework. Singapore has proposed the so-called Asean plus eight, including the US and Russia together with Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. At the moment, senior Asean officials have yet to reach a consensus on the formula. Several Asean countries would like to have the US and Russia included in the EAS. Others maintain that the Asean plus eight (APE) would be a better forum to allow the global players to interact with Asean. Whatever form it would evolve in the future would not affect the ongoing effort on constructing regional architecture.

With the current arrangement, the EAS would act as a balancing wheel to the Asean plus three (APT). The grouping is well aware of the leading role played by China in APT. It will continue in the foreseeable future. That helps explain why some Asean members continue to back the EAS status quo for fear any additional members would in the long run alter the leader-led forum.

To show in tangible ways that Russia is serious in engaging with the grouping, the Asean Centre at Moscow Institute of International Relations, the first of its kind outside the region, would be open next week attended by senior Russian and Asean officials. The centre, which will be funded and run by Russian scholars and staffers, will raise public awareness and understanding of Asean among the Russian peoples. This is part of the roadmap on the Implementation of Comprehensive Programme of Action to Promote Cooperation between Asean and Russia (2005-2015).

Most importantly, at the Hanoi summit, Medvedev also plans to invite all the Asean leaders to Russia for the third summit meeting. Last November in Singapore, US President Barack Obama extended a similar invitation for them to come to Hawaii next year, when the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' meeting will be held. The Nation, Bangkok

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