Sochi ASEAN summit: Russia eyes economic expansion in SE Asia

MOSCOW–Russia moved to forge stronger ties with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last week, pledging to focus on economy rather than geopolitical alliances.

Local observers preferred to highlight geopolitical aspects of the rapprochement between Russia and Southeast Asia. Russian media outlets, including Sputnik International, noted that Russia looked to the East, seeking new allies among US partners in Asia.

The Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi hosted the Russia-ASEAN summit on May 19-20. The confab marked the 20th anniversary of the partnership. Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Southeast Asian leaders amid Moscow’s continued disagreements with the West.

However, ASEAN top officials remained reluctant to concede that the Sochi summit had a geopolitical dimension. Lao leader Thongloun Sisoulith told a press briefing after the meeting that no western pressure was applied to discourage ASEAN leaders from attending the meeting.

No look East?

Likewise, Russian officials also refrained from geopolitical discussions. Ahead of the Sochi summit, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed talk about Russia’s strategic drift toward the East as “incorrect.”

Moscow’s official denials of the country’s perceived shift toward East Asia may not be in line with the current political realities. High-profile and top-level gatherings in Russia are serving the Kremlin’s goal of breaking what’s described in the West as Moscow’s international isolation. The Sochi summit also came as a convenient confirmation of the Kremlin’s arguments that Russia was too big to be isolated.

In the meantime, Russia seems to view ASEAN as an opportunity for economic expansion. Moscow apparently sought economic benefits from expanded ties with ASEAN — one of the largest international groupings — with a combined population of more than 600 million people.

Vietnam project announced

China: The elephant in the room

The Sochi summit’s agenda didn’t touch on relations with China. But the issue inevitably surfaced in connection with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Putin told a press briefing after the meeting that the possibility of closer economic ties between EEU, ASEAN and the SCO had been discussed. As SCO is dominated by China, Putin conceded that the idea required further discussions with Beijing. But he voiced expectations of a positive response.

During the Sochi summit, Russia and the ASEAN member states reportedly supported the idea of adopting a code of conduct in the South China Sea. The notion was regarded as a sign that Russia was becoming part of the South China Sea dispute. However, as Russia has repeatedly pledged to develop a “strategic partnership” with China, the Kremlin apparently has no interest in meddling in the issue.

Full article: Sochi ASEAN summit: Russia eyes economic expansion in SE Asia (Asia Times)

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