China, Russia respond to US pivot to Asia

At first, it was seen as an old stratagem.

When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov presented a draft declaration on the framework principles of strengthening security and developing cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region at the East Asia Summit (EAS) foreign ministers' meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan early this month, it was initially seen as a rehashing of an archaic proposal on collective security - something ASEAN had repeatedly rejected more than 2½ decades ago.

As things turned out, however, it was different. The draft contained fresh and ambitious ideas that resonated well in the minds of ASEAN strategists. Since the end of 2011, South-east Asian diplomats have been searching for ways to engage with the United States' rebalancing policy, officially known as the US pivot to Asia.

In 2010, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and then Chinese President Hu Jintao began stressing the need for a new security architecture to ensure peace and security in the Asia- Pacific region. Since then, the two countries have quietly worked on the idea.

Meanwhile, the US' new Asia policy was gathering momentum, thanks to its strong support for ASEAN's common positions on the South China Sea. The US profile had been augmented earlier after Washington's accession to the 1976 ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in South-east Asia in July 2009.

Beijing's strong backing

At the EAS ministerial meeting, ASEAN responded positively to the Russian proposal, which was strongly backed by Beijing.

When it was first drafted, Russia planned to present it as a binding code of conduct. But Beijing encouraged Moscow to lower the benchmark to a mere declaration, arguing that it would fly better with the grouping. China was apparently trying to avoid any confusion while negotiations on the code of conduct for the South China Sea were going on.

The Russian draft was first circulated among the senior ASEAN officials in Brunei in January. Diplomats then agreed that the proposal deserved further scrutiny. From ASEAN's perspective, the draft also indicated growing Russian interest in a new regional architecture which has been gradually taking shape.

With Mr Vladimir Putin beginning his third term as President, Russia wants to be part of the evolving security framework in this region. Like China, Russia also wants to become a strategic partner of ASEAN.

In the run-up to the forthcoming EAS in October, China and Russia are for the first time developing a common approach to key issues that would seek to raise their profiles and draw backing from ASEAN members.

Both countries support ASEAN's leading role in the EAS agenda, which includes six priority areas: environment and energy, education, finance, global health issues and pandemic disease, natural disaster mitigation and ASEAN connectivity.

Since the EAS' expansion in 2011 to include the US and Russia, the former has weighed in heavily on security issues on the EAS agenda.

For the first time as well, the US-ASEAN leaders' meeting in Brunei will be transformed into a summit. This means that the leaders will be committed to meet annually, back to back, at the year-end ASEAN summit. Russia is also contemplating a similar summit meeting with ASEAN.

What has drawn China and Russia together is their common desire to counter what they perceive to be US hegemony. They also want to ensure that the US revitalisation of security alliances and the new rebalancing strategies would not in any way weaken their presence and influence in Asia.

Given current tensions in the maritime areas in the East and South China Seas, both sides also see the need to strengthen maritime security cooperation.

The recently concluded Joint Sea 2013 exercise between China's and Russia's navies - the biggest in their naval history, taking place off their coastal areas from Hainan to Vladivostok in the Japan Sea - is an important reminder that these two powers share similar maritime security concerns.

They have also vowed to strengthen and diversify the joint exercises. Throughout the week-long drill, Chinese media hailed it as part of their "comprehensive strategic partnership" and gave it extensive reports and analysis.

Without military alliances in the region of their own, China and Russia are eager to partake in the evolving regional architecture under the auspices of ASEAN. Given the complexity and nature of today's transboundary security issues, a bloc approach is no longer an effective way to tackle them. Collaborative diplomatic efforts are more effective. They may also serve as a better deterrence.

With such thoughts in mind, Beijing and Moscow have identified the EAS as the most appropriate forum to build a new regional architecture. It is a far cry from the past when the former Soviet Union tried to ram through its own version of collective security that included an overtly anti-US platform without considering regional concerns and voices.

Jakarta has a proposal too

But although the current Russian draft has incorporated key ASEAN norms and principles on the political and security arenas, there are still some unclear concepts that will need clarification.

At the same meeting earlier this month, diplomats also considered the merits of the Indo-Pacific Wide Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

The proposal, first announced in Washington in May by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, aims to increase trust among players in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Jakarta's proposal extrapolated on the principles enshrined in the TAC and the Declaration of the EAS Summit on the Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations. Unlike the Russian draft, Indonesia's made full use of the ASEAN security frameworks and its concerns.

In Jakarta's view, these norms could promote and maintain peace and prosperity in the region despite fierce competition between the major powers. However, it remains to be seen how these two security proposals will play out in practice.

It is obvious that the dialogue partners of ASEAN are no longer passive. They want to be on a par with ASEAN and others in setting the agenda and shaping the future security landscape. They also see opportunities to renew their engagement and sustain their presence in the region.

Halfway through its ASEAN chairmanship, Brunei has also become a formidable player, bringing together its ASEAN colleagues once again after last year's hiccup - when the grouping failed to issue the annual joint communique - temporarily damaged its centrality. Kudos must go to Brunei - small but truly ASEAN - for quickly restoring the grouping's credibility and respectability.

- Kavi ChongKittavorn

The writer is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group in Thailand, which publishes the English language daily The Nation.