May 2016 – SOUTH CHINA SEA – Russia is set to finalize an agreement with ASEAN countries including controversial references to maritime navigation and militarization of the South China Sea, a draft of the accord obtained by VOA Khmer shows. According to a draft of the Sochi Declaration, dated May 7 and marked as the agreed text, Russia is moving toward a “strategic partnership for mutual benefit” covering security, trade, social, health and environmental issues. The engagement with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is seen as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to expand Moscow’s influence in the region. It comes as President Barack Obama is due to visit Vietnam.
The U.S. leader is expected to arrive less than two weeks after the USS William Lawrence conducted freedom of navigation exercises in disputed waters, sailing within 12 nautical miles of the China-occupied Fiery Cross Reef. China’s Foreign Ministry called the warship’s actions a threat to regional peace and stability. The agreement, due to be adopted Friday, states that ASEAN and Russia agree to deepen political, security, counter-terrorism and economic cooperation “based on principles of equality, mutual benefit and shared responsibility to promote peace … development and social progress in the Asia-Pacific region with a view to working towards a strategic partnership.”
Several ASEAN states have overlapping claims to the sea – notably China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Many in the regional group have advocated a multi-party solution to the problem, but Beijing has said it will only engage in bilateral talks over territorial disputes. Cambodia, a close ally of China in the region, has previously rejected calls for the disputes to be resolved through ASEAN, echoing China’s call for bilateral talks.
Cambodia and neighboring Laos, which have received large amounts of financial aid from China in recent years, could find themselves in a tricky position if asked to commit to the principles in the Sochi Declaration. But some observers expressed doubt that the accord will carry much weight. John Ciorciari, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan who specializes in Southeast Asia, said Putin’s Russia was “looking for ways to regain some of its past global presence and stature.”
“Russian defense firms are also looking for export markets. Russia is thus an eligible partner for ASEAN states trying to diversify their great power ties in a period of waxing Chinese influence,” he said. “Ties to major powers like India and Russia help ASEAN states boost their capabilities, enmeshes more players in the multilateral regional framework, and helps ASEAN members avoid having to pick sides in the midst of rising Sino-U.S. competition,” he added.
According to the text, Russia is also proposing a “comprehensive” free trade agreement between ASEAN and the Eurasian Economic Union, a single market with a gross domestic product of about $4 trillion. ASEAN countries said they would consider the proposal. Chheang Vannarith, head of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, said that while the Sochi Declaration is a sign of growing Russian cooperation in the region, it does not necessarily mean that Russia will become a strategic partner with ASEAN.
“Russia in recent years has focused on Asia as it faces diplomatic and economic pressures from the U.S. and E.U., so Asia is a key gateway for Russia to continue its economic development and … diplomatic campaign in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said, adding that several ASEAN nations wanted Russia to remain neutral over the South China Sea. “Russia should strengthen its stance to be neutral in the South China Sea and should not take sides,” he said. –Voice of America