One of the most important agendas of the ASEAN-Russia Summit held in Sochi, Russia, on May 19 and 20, 2016 was reconstructing the Asia-Pacific security architecture. The comprehensive plan of action signed by ASEAN and Russia stated that both parties will enhance ASEAN and Russia’s role in the regional architecture by emphasizing international norms, mutual respect for sovereignty and integrity, non-interference, and non-use of force. In addition, the declaration also stresses constructive dialogue and cooperation based on the principles of openness, inclusivity, and transparency.
This agreement would present a considerable challenge to Western domination in the region. The United States has been conducting its “rebalance to Asia” strategy, most notably by enhancing its role in maintaining the security order. Despite statements to the contrary from Washington, many in the region believe this policy, coined by the Obama administration, was intended to contain China’s growing power in Asia. The rivalry between the two great powers is undoubtedly shaping the security order in the Asia-Pacific. As an example, today the South China Sea disputes cannot be separated from the shadow of Sino-U.S. rivalry.
Talking about the security architecture in the Asia-Pacific is not new. There are abundant concepts proposing how to manage inter-state relations in the region. Indonesia is one country that has paid a great deal of attention to the prospect of stable peace. This is due to its geographic position as well as its traditional role as a regional power. For example, during Yudhoyono’s presidency Indonesia proposed the concept of “dynamic equilibrium,” stating that the domination of a single power is unallowable. The idea was that all parties should engage in multisectoral issues instead of increasing their relative power, which can lead to conflict.
Another alternative idea came from Australia. In the 2008 Shangri-La Dialogue, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed the idea of an “Asia-Pacific Community.” He imagined an institution that will facilitate all countries within the region to engage in broad issue areas with a full-fledged dialogue and non-use of force. This idea might be good in concept, yet it is very difficult – if not impossible – to implement it in reality. Although Rudd was very optimistic about his vision, he also recognized that the greatest challenge is the absence of a sense of community or “we-feeling” among Asia Pacific countries. Thus we can consider that his idea is a sort of wishful thinking.
With regard to the South China Sea disputes, ASEAN has been split over China’s aggressive policy. Although ASEAN has enacted or proposed several norms such as the 2002 Declaration of Conduct and a 2012 draft version of a Code of Conduct, it is unable to make China obey. Instead, China has succeeded in dividing ASEAN. For example, Vietnam and the Philippines tend to balance against China while Malaysia and Brunei prefer a bandwagoning strategy to balancing. This is understandable since ASEAN has little bargaining power over China. When it comes to military spending, for example, all 10 ASEAN members’ military budgets combined are still much lower than China’s. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2016 China announced a national defense budget of $146 billion. This number is more than three times the combined military budget of ASEAN members in 2015, which amounted to $39.7 billion.
Realizing its failure, ASEAN has been broadening its security strategy by engaging other powers such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, the European Union, and Russia in order to build a robust security architecture. ASEAN believes that the future of regional security cannot depend upon two great powers. The bipolar moment had ended while many developing countries have risen. In this multipolar world order, the regional security architecture should become the responsibility of all countries.
That is why the ASEAN initiative to invite Russia is reasonable. Accommodating Russia in the managing Asia-Pacific security would split the concentration of power in the region. The more major powers involved, the more difficult for one country to dominate. This argument challenges the classic balance-of-power logic, which assumes that the concentration of power in the hand of two great powers – bipolarity – is more stable than multipolarity. But letting China and the United States act freely in the region risks repeating the situation in the Cold War era, when many countries were forced to choose among three options: being an ally, enemy, or neutral. The third option is obviously difficult for certain countries, for instance, claimant states in the South China Sea disputes.
In order to prevent this “back to the future” scenario in the Asia-Pacific, ASEAN needs Russia and other rising powers to prevent both China and the United States from dominating the region as they wish. Aside from being a major power, Russia could also play a crucial role in establishing the security architecture due to its foreign policy agenda in the region. According to Anton Tsvetov of the Russian International Affairs Council, the Asia-Pacific in general, and the South China Sea in particular, are not priorities for Russian foreign policy. The major concern of Russian policy in the region is its bilateral relationships with Vietnam and China. Vietnam is one of largest recipients of Russian arms while China is the largest trading partner in terms of investment and trade. Thus, Russian involvement in the Asia-Pacific security architecture might challenge the existing relationship among the three countries.
Yet a larger security role for Russia in the region should be regarded as a common rather than narrow interest. The security challenges in the 21st century are quite complex. To combat these challenges, the Asia-Pacific should not be dominated by the Western conception placing the United States as a single hegemonic power. Likewise, the region should not be ruled by a Chinese foreign policy agenda that treats other countries as its servant. And the Asia-Pacific should never again fall under the Cold War shadow.
ASEAN itself is too weak to handle the stability of the region, but the grouping could act as a “power broker” to unite pivotal states (including Russia) at the table. All countries should work hand-in-hand to maintain peace using constructive engagement rather than coercive diplomacy.
Mohamad Rosyidin is Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Universitas Diponegoro, Semarang. He is the author of the book The Power of Ideas: Konstruktivisme dalam Studi Hubungan Internasional.