The Golden Jubilee: What ASEAN Means for the World and Russia

Few significant things took place at the recent summit, apart from the usual statements about the desire to develop free trade and the discussion of common projects. In fact, the bilateral meetings on the sidelines eclipsed the multilateral ones, writes Valdai Club expert Georgy Toloraya.

The ASEAN summit, which has recently ended in the Philippine capital, had been planned as a special celebration of the 50th anniversary of the organization’s existence, as evidence of the leading role of ASEAN in the region and beyond. It is no coincidence that the leading world leaders were invited to the ASEAN anniversary summit and the East Asian summit which followed. However, Vladimir Putin did not go to the East Asian summit according to the already established tradition. The traditional non-participation of the first person causes discontent among our Asian partners, who consider this an indicator of Russia's inattention to Asian affairs. But notably, Donald Trump, who agreed, after long hesitation, to participate in the summit, slammed the door due to the delay in the opening ceremony and flew away, leaving Rex Tillerson in his place.

Apparently, this was not very pleasant for the organizers of the jubilee celebrations and confirmed fears that the leading world powers are less interested in the ASEAN forum. Trump’s constant statements about his reluctance to deal with multilateral organizations, about the need to follow the principle of commercial benefit in order to develop relations on a bilateral basis simply cross out the functions of such multilateral structures as ASEAN (a platform for harmonizing common approaches, searching progress towards a harmonious system of international relations).

Few significant things took place at the recent summit, apart from the usual statements about the desire to develop free trade and the discussion of common projects. In fact, the bilateral meetings on the sidelines eclipsed the multilateral ones. The ASEAN summit was the final chord of Trump’s tour and the Americans made it clear that the pragmatic course is unchanged, that the US does not intend not to give its partners “the upper hand,” that the US is in fact against free trade. And if the partners do not “dance to the American tune,” they will have to sing love songs, as the Philippine President Duterte did.

What does this mean for Asia? The United States is in fact ready to step back from regional affairs, shifting its relations to a strictly pragmatic bilateral agenda, while its policy in the region will still be characterized by anti-Chinese overtones. In particular, Trump’ statement about the new concept of the Indo-Pacific region rather than Asia-Pacific, drew attention to itself. It should be regarded as a desire to attract India to Trump’s idea of “the bloc of democracies”, consisting of Australia, Japan, South Korea in order to resist the growing Chinese influence.

The vacuum will be filled by China. On the eve of the summit, China managed to smooth out a number of contradictions, in particular, to fix relations with its neighbors over territorial disputes, to reduce tensions in relations with South Korea, Vietnam and other countries. An agreement was reached to begin negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. During the events, China stressed the importance of those structures which interact with China: in particular, the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership including China, ASEAN countries, South Korea, and Japan. According to China, this trade bloc should become the Asian complement to its Belt and Road project. However, participants in the Manila summit decided to postpone the negotiations and sign an agreement next year. The process will continue to include all the participants and there is no doubt that China will push it through.

There are more questions about the future of another international project – the TPP, which was initiated by the United States with the participation of almost the same countries except China. On the first days of his presidency, Trump demonstratively left the TPP. For the remaining 11 countries, it would seem that the TPP has lost all its meaning, since the access to the huge American market was the main impetus for making concessions in other areas. This model of interregional cooperation is at a much higher level than other free trade agreements; it affects not only the external relations, but even harmonization of the countries’ legislation. Galvanization of the TPP and the development of its main provisions with the remaining 11 countries were initiated by Japan. The so-called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the TPP (this will be the new name of this process) has been practically agreed upon. But its signing broke down due to the fact that the Prime Minister of Canada did not turn up because he considered that the parties did not take into account all of Ottawa’s wishes. However, observers agree that the format was saved and the negotiations will continue in the future.

Does this open up new opportunities for Russia? Will it find a place in the regional processes? Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke on specific economic projects, aimed at securing Russia’s role in the ASEAN markets, primarily in food and infrastructure, about Moscow’s interest in high-tech areas. Perhaps this is more appropriate than Napoleonic plans to create a system of collective security, to which the leading players, the United States and China, must first agree to. And neither Washington, nor Beijing expects an independent role of Russia in the region.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.