On November 21–22, 2018, the Valdai Discussion Club held its Ninth Asian Conference. This year the conference was organized in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in partnership with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS Malaysia), one of the leading think tanks of the ASEAN countries.
The opening ceremony was attended by YB Senator Dato’ Marzuki Yahya, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia, who addressed the conference participants with a keynote speech. He expressed confidence that the forum would serve dialogue between the two sides and set the development vector for the entire spectrum of relations between Russia and Southeast Asia. “I believe it is time for those of us here in Southeast Asia to additionally direct our collective gaze to the north: towards Russia and the countries of Central Asia,” the high-ranking guest said. “At the same time, we welcome our friends from Russia to look south and east, including towards Southeast Asia.”
Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Valdai Discussion Club Foundation for Development and Support, and Tatiana Naumova, Deputy Head of the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Media of the Russian Federation, also spoke at the opening ceremony. According to Bystritskiy, the crucial task of the conference was to discuss the changing power dynamics in Asia, while Naumova called to improve the quality of information exchange between the two sides.
The first session of the conference was dedicated to international security issues. The main subject was the changing balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. It was noted that today no one contests the new power dynamics: the region is moving from the US dominance to a new balance of power, where China will play a key role. The question is which course will be chosen by one or another country in response to the new reality. One thing is obvious: the policy of containing China is doomed to failure, multilateral cooperation is needed.
Most countries of Southeast Asia are concerned about China’s rise and possible US-China confrontation, which has so far taken the shape of a trade war. Scholars from these countries emphasized that they did not want to be an arena of confrontation between the two great powers, and expressed their hopes to strengthen the regional order on their own, primarily within the ASEAN framework. In turn, a Russian participant said that external actors, be that the United States, Russia or any others, should be rule-takers, not rule-makers in the region. An expert from China assured his colleagues that his country does not threaten anyone, appreciates good relations with the ASEAN states and relies on multilateral diplomacy.
The second session was focused on the global economy and the future of multilateral institutions of the world trade system, such as the WTO, in the face of increasing protectionism. The central question was whether the world economy has rules or we are now dealing with a game without rules. The participants agreed that the rules, no matter how imperfect, still work – and their existence is most beneficial for export-dependent economies.
According to experts, there is an increased interest in integration processes in Asia-Pacific today. However, the specificity of regional integration associations is that regional integration arrangements in Asia-Pacific are still very fragmented compared to those in the West. Perhaps one of the reasons is the lack of direct links between efforts taken at the regional and global levels. The session participants called for more connectivity between regional integration processes and global institutions.
Special attention was paid to the Chinese Belt and Road initiative and its impact on the economies of Eurasia. While some experts stressed the importance of this initiative for the landlocked countries of the region, others expressed the need to take into account the capabilities and demands of the participating states. Some experts pointed to the need of harmonizing East-West and North-South infrastructure projects (in particular, transport corridors).
The third session was devoted to prospects and limits of Russia-ASEAN and EEU-ASEAN dialogue. Both prospects and limits are largely connected to the geographical remoteness. The EAEU and ASEAN countries advocate a multipolar world, have a similar perception of threats (primarily the international terrorism), are similar in that they are trade crossroads. There are no fundamental contradictions or conflicts of interests between the two sides, there are areas of common interest, but at the same time a lot needs to be done to increase the level of interaction.
Russia has developed positive relations with the countries of Southeast Asia at bilateral and multilateral levels, the experts said. The policy of expansion of cooperation was set by the Sochi Declaration of 2016, following the Russia-ASEAN summit. However, the ASEAN countries have a request for greater presence of Russia in the region, which Moscow is not always able to satisfy.
The theme of the fourth session, held on Thursday, November 22, was the US-proposed concept of Indo-Pacific. The participants noted that its goal is quite transparent – to contain China. But neither the Southeast Asia countries, nor India intend to participate in the American-Chinese confrontation at any level, although they are interested in constraining Beijing’s influence in the region. According to experts, countries of Asia Pacific should turn their attention to organizations and institutions that promote cooperation and co-development.
Summing up the conference, Tan Sri Rastam Mohd Isa, Chairman and Chief Executive of ISIS Malaysia, and Andrey Bystritskiy said that the discussions were very constructive, allowing the parties to understand each other’s perspectives on various international issues. Despite the fact that Russia and the countries of South-East Asia are far from each other, contacts have been established and cooperation is strongly encouraged by both sides. “There are many contradictions, many problems, but globally Russia plays the role of a significant additive to the world puzzle, it forms a new configuration,” Bystritskiy said. In turn, Alexey Volin, Deputy Minister of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation, who took part in the conference closure, said that Russia and ASEAN countries are living through a period of renaissance in their relations. This is taking place amid changes in the world that lead to strengthening of regional power centres, and “mosaic of several regional powers is the best construction for the world stability” he concluded.