Vietnam’s Dy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh chairs a video meeting with ministers from member countries of Association of Southeast Nations, Hanoi, Sept 9, 2020.
The meeting between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow on September 11 took place at a particularly delicate juncture in regional politics. Russia is carefully ploughing a neutral line in the India-China standoff while also drawing closer to China to push back at US pressure.
The US policies are prompting Russia and China to further enhance their “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.” Summing up his meeting with Wang, Lavrov said the talks were held in “an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust and were very substantial.” He added, “We discussed the key international problems and reaffirmed the closeness of our views on effective solutions to them…We agreed to carry on our close collaboration.”
Significantly, the most striking part of Lavrov’s remarks pertained to the Asia-Pacific region. Lavrov frontally attacked the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy: “We (Russia and China) noted the destructive character of Washington’s actions that undermine global strategic stability. They are fuelling tensions in various parts of the world, including along the Russian and Chinese borders. Of course, we are worried about this and object to these attempts to escalate artificial tensions. In this context, we stated that the so-called “Indo-Pacific strategy” as it was planned by the initiators, only leads to the separation of the region’s states, and is therefore fraught with serious consequences for peace, security and stability in the Asia-Pacific Region.
“We spoke in favour of the ASEAN-centric regional security architecture with a view to promoting the unifying agenda, and the preservation of the consensus style of work and consensus-based decision-making in these mechanisms, as it has always been done in the framework of ASEAN and the associated entities. We are seeing attempts to split the ranks of ASEAN members with the same aims: to abandon consensus-based methods of work and fuel confrontation in this region that is common for all of us.”
The Chinese state media highlighted Lavrov’s remarks. Wang said in response that China-Russia relations have become “key forces of stability in a turbulent world.” He stressed that the China-Russia alliance has shown “strong resilience” against the backdrop of the “profound changes unseen in a century” in world politics.
The Lavrov-Wang meeting took place in the backdrop of the turmoil in Belarus, for which Russia has blamed the US. On the eve of the meeting in Moscow, a senior Russian lawmaker openly alleged that the US has a master plan to create political tensions within Russia, where regional elections are due to take place on Sept 13. Social media and the Internet, once again, are playing a major role in orchestrating the protests in Belarus.
Interestingly, during the meeting with Lavrov, Wang also called for “further Russia-China cooperation in the area of international information security, against the backdrop that some countries are politicising information technology and cyber security and containing other countries under the pretext of safeguarding its own national security.”
Lavrov’s remarks on Indo-Pacific strategy coincided with the 53rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and related meetings (including the 10th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting) in Hanoi on Sept 8-11. The ASEAN faces growing pressure from the US to join hands with it against China, but has refused to take sides. The joint communique adopted at the meeting in Hanoi reflects this stance.
Last week, Reuters quoted Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi as saying that ASEAN must remain steadfastly neutral and united. “ASEAN, Indonesia, wants to show to all that we are ready to be a partner,” said Retno. “We don’t want to get trapped by this rivalry.” Indonesia’s stance becomes important at a time when the US is attempting to split the ASEAN consensus on neutrality by playing on the interests of individual member countries.
The US is pinning hopes that some ASEAN countries may be in a quandary about how to balance ties to get the best out of both of the big players, while some others may feel tempted to use the US-China rivalry as an opportunity to extract leverage for economic or military advantage. Retno alluded to it when she told Reuters, “(ASEAN has) a good culture, but we have to nurture it. We can’t take it for granted that these values will live forever.”
Significantly, Vietnam and Indonesia, two influential ASEAN countries, are also Russia’s major partners. Lavrov’s remarks, therefore, can be seen as signifying a new level of commitment in Russia’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific, while also reinforcing the partnership with China, and going beyond a mere reflexive response to events (principally, the current crisis in Russia’s relations with the West.)
It is interesting that Moscow is unequivocal in subscribing to the description “Asia-Pacific region” and has no truck with the concept of “Indo-Pacific”, which Lavrov derisively regarded as a politically loaded term. Arguably, Indo-Pacific would be somewhat misleading also in the context of Russian policy. Russia is far more interested in the Asia-Pacific than it is in the Indian Ocean or the Indian subcontinent — considering its engagement with not only China but also with Japan, the two Koreas, the US (as a Pacific power) and with the security of the Far East.
Of course, India figures in the larger geopolitical context, but in the Russian perception, India remains a supernumerary member of the Asia-Pacific community. Where Russia has a difference of opinion with India is in its perception of the American security presence in Asia-Pacific as of an extra-regional power who is intrusive and increasingly destabilising.
Fundamentally, Russia approaches the Asia-Pacific from a global perspective whereas India’s vision narrows down to concerns over rising China. From the Russian perspective, Asia-Pacific is a theatre central to the world order in the 21st century where intense geopolitical struggles are erupting, where a battle of ideas, norms and institutions is already under way. Being a resurgent global power, Russia is obliged to position itself at the centre stage in the region.
Indeed, Beijing is well aware of the shift in the ASEAN regional attitudes towards Russia in the recent years. Unlike in the Soviet era, no ASEAN country (Philippines included) tends to identify Russia as a threat or a malign actor anymore. On the other hand, Russia’s relations with nearly all ASEAN states are comfortable. Thus, a more active Russian involvement in Asia-Pacific affairs works well for China.
Simply put, it suits Moscow and Beijing to make common cause in the Asia-Pacific when their respective relations with the US are so difficult, and when both have come under heavy US pressure. It won’t come as a surprise to see a surge in Russian diplomatic efforts in the period ahead to expand relations across the ASEAN region.