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ASEAN role vital for China, Russia

By Kavi Chongkittavorn | China Daily | Updated: 2013-08-23 08:30

Unlike the United States, China and Russia do not have a "pivot to Asia" policy. Nonetheless, both countries know how to cooperate to meet their common security goals in the region. Apart from holding the much-heralded month-long joint naval exercise recently, the two countries have also held an increasing number of diplomatic consultations on ways to strengthen mutual relations with Jakarta-based Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Gone are the days when China and Russia pursued their respective regional diplomacy in isolation with little or no bilateral exchanges. At ASEAN's annual meeting in June in Brunei's capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, Russia submitted a new collective security framework for consideration of ASEAN member states' foreign ministers.

The Draft Declaration on the Framework Principles of Strengthening Security and Developing Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region was well received and adopted for further studies by ASEAN. Before Russia submitted the framework, China - with the experience of longer engagement with ASEAN - helped sharpen the security ideas to align with the regional thinking.

The proposal contained not only familiar regional and international security guidelines and codes of conduct, but also offered ambitious ideas that resonated with ASEAN strategists. Since the end of 2011, ASEAN strategists have been searching for ways to deal with the US rebalancing policy and, at same time, preserve the grouping's bargaining power. In other words, ASEAN too is looking for a rebalancing policy.

In 2010, Hu Jintao and Dmitry Medvedev, then Chinese and Russian presidents, emphasized that a new security structure was needed to ensure peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. President Xi Jinping has maintained this policy direction by urging major powers and neighbors to seek foreign policy innovations to avoid conflicts and build peace.

Under their new leaderships, China and Russia have become more engaged in Asia, where the US' rebalancing strategy is gathering momentum by supporting ASEAN's common positions on the South China Sea. After Washington acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 2009, its voice and profile in the region have gained more traction.

It is especially in this regional context that Russia's proposed collective security framework indicates its growing interest in helping establish a new regional structure. After becoming Russia's president for the third time, Vladimir Putin has been trying to build a security framework for this part of the world. Besides, he wants Russia to emulate China and become a strategic partner of ASEAN.

At the East Asia Summit in Brunei in October, China and Russia are expected to work together and fine-tune their plans to boost their profiles and solicit further support from ASEAN members. Both countries support ASEAN's leading role in the EAS agenda that has six priority areas: the environment and energy, education, finance, global health issues and pandemic diseases, natural disaster mitigation, and ASEAN connectivity.

Since the expansion of the premier leader-only forum in 2011 to include the US and Russia, Washington has pushed for a stronger security agenda. In October, the US-ASEAN leaders meeting will be transformed into a summit, meaning their leaders will be committed to meeting every year. Russia is also contemplating holding a similar kind of meeting with ASEAN leaders. Until now, leaders from the two sides have met only twice, in 2005 and 2010.

What has brought China and Russia together is their common objective to mitigate what they perceive as US hegemony. Beijing and Moscow also want to ensure that Washington's revitalized security alliances and rebalancing strategy don't weaken their presence and influence in Asia.

Given the existing tension over maritime disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, China and Russia have realized the need to strengthen their maritime security cooperation. The recent China-Russia naval exercise, the largest ever, was conducted along China's coastline and the Chinese media hailed the neighbors' "comprehensive strategic partnership".

Without having any military alliance in the region, China and Russia are eager to participate in the building of regional architecture under the auspices of ASEAN. Today, trans-boundary security issues cannot be effectively tackled through "block approach" because of their complex nature. Collaborative diplomatic efforts are more effective and thus a better deterrence.

Beijing and Moscow have identified the EAS as the most appropriate platform, along with the existing guidelines and codes of conduct in the region, for building a new regional structure. This is a far cry from the past when Russia was used to pushing its version of collective security without considering regional concerns. Today Russia is more willing to work with ASEAN and other regional and international groupings.

China and Russia - also pivotal dialogue partners of ASEAN - want to be on par with ASEAN in setting the agenda and shaping the future security landscape of the region. And that is a welcome and refreshing change for regional economic development and security.

The author is assistant group editor of The Nation in Thailand.

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