Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders at the Russia-Asean Summit in Sochi last year. AFP PIC

Russia-Asean relations are likely to develop in a slow, incremental fashion over the next few years. There are reasons for adopting a doubting Thomas approach. To begin with, unlike China and the United States, Russia has had no tradition of strong relations with Southeast Asia. Except with Vietnam and Indonesia in the 1960s, Moscow’s links with the region had been little to speak of.

Secondly, without meaningful economic or trade ties, no mutually beneficial relationship can develop. According to the Asean Secretariat, as of November last year, Asean’s total trade with Russia amounted to a mere US$13.3 billion (RM55.61 billion), in contrast with China (US$345 billion) and the US (US$212 billion). Even President Vladimir Putin noted this “modest figure compared to trade with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region” during his speech at the Russia-Asean Summit in Sochi in May last year.

Thirdly, the necessary time, energy and resources have not been fully devoted to developing the relationship with Asean. Russia’s leaders and top businessmen were, are and will remain Euro- and US-centric; the “Asia-Pacific” that matters to them is really China, Japan and South Korea.

Finally, managing the current tensions in Russia’s relations with the US and the European Union, the Ukraine and Syrian crises, as well as relations with China, will occupy most of Russia’s attention for the next few years.

Putin is expected to emerge the victor in the 2018 elections. His energy, attention and focus for the six years after that will be concentrated on consolidating his legacy, being the longest-serving Russian leader, apart from Stalin.

If he devotes any time to foreign affairs, it would be focused on the areas critical to Russia’s foreign policy, such as the US, Ukraine and Syria. Asean cannot hope to be on his foreign policy agenda.

The most important challenge is to realise the economic potential in the relationship. The Overview of Asean-Russia Dialogue Relations, dated October 2017, provides a guide to the direction of the relationship. While socio-cultural and politico-security cooperation has been moving forward, it is the economic aspect that will drive the overall relationship into the future.

In his Sochi speech, Putin highlighted cooperation in projects in agriculture; oil and gas production; joint technology and innovation alliances; fuel and energy; mining; railway construction; and Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system. It remains to be seen whether the projects will bear fruit.

Given Russia’s role as top energy exporter worldwide, Putin argued that Russia could satisfy Asean’s growing electricity needs by supplying energy on a long-term basis, and also offered Asean Russia’s new-generation nuclear power plant projects. Indeed, the Overview also noted that “energy is viewed as a promising area for cooperation between Asean and Russia”, including civilian nuclear energy.

However, here one encounters some reservations.

Firstly, some Asean countries themselves are energy producers and exporters (Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei).

Secondly, nuclear power, as a real alternative to fossil fuels and renewable energy, has yet to take firm root in Asean.

Indeed, Dr Sanjay Kuttan, programme director at the Energy Research Institute of Nanyang Technological University, rightly pointed out that given the high cost and safety concerns, “nuclear power will not feature soon in Asean’s energy mix for at least the next 20 years”.

Thirdly, with respect to cooperation in promoting renewable energy, there have been conflicting signals from Moscow. Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, a leading Russian oil producer, said in an interview with Russian daily Izvestia in June that “the renewable sources of energy are yet unable to provide the necessary volume to substitute the traditional energy resources and sustainable energy supply.

Finally, an energy expert at the recent Singapore International Energy Week forecasted that within the next 10 years, gas and hydro-electric power would meet most electricity needs with solar contributing as well; in the longer term, coal and gas consumption would decline, resulting in massive growth in solar, hydro, onshore and off-shore wind sectors and two-thirds non-fossil fuels making up the energy mix.

If this forecast can be relied upon, then one must cast doubt on assumptions that Russo-Asean energy cooperation would be feasible in the long term.

The one bright spot in Russia’s economic links with Asean is weapons sales. According to a March 2017 Chatham House report, “Asia is by far the most important export market for Russian arms”.

However, weapons sales cannot become a strong foundation of Asean’s relationship with Russia, given its one-dimensional nature. Moreover, the US remains a major source for Asean.

To raise the level of economic interaction requires more high-level commitment of the political and business leadership of both sides. Asean must pose this question: what role does, or should, Russia play in Asean’s overall development in the political, economic and strategic spheres?

Russia too might pose the same question; a bird’s-eye view of its place in Asean’s development would help it formulate the strategic dimensions of its relationship with Asean and devote the necessary attention and resources to raise the economic aspect of its links. Russia cannot lose as Asean is a fast-growing region.

The experienced and committed Asean experts in Russian foreign policymaking and academia are likely to continue pushing for a more meaningful relationship based on substance, particularly in the economic/trade field. It remains, however, an open question whether they would be able to exercise enough influence on their top political and business leaders to make the necessary decisions.

The writer is senior fellow with
the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, Nanyang
Technological University, Singapore. He served three tours in the
Singapore embassy in Moscow
between 1994 and 2013

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