Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev shares his views on Russia’s evolving relationship with the regional bloc, during the 35th Asean Summit and Related Summits being held in Bangkok and Nonthaburi, in an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post.
What is Russia’s view of the “Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” document?
To begin with, I would like to say that the Asia-Pacific region’s strategic importance for the entire world cannot be overestimated. It is no coincidence the major powerhouses, such as Russia, China, the EU and the United States, focus on it so much.
Recently, we have seen US attempts to strengthen its influence in Southeast Asia, including by way of promoting the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. According to their plan, this strategy should replace Asia-Pacific cooperation as we know it.
We are in favour of maintaining the effective system of state-to-state relations which was formed on the basis of Asean and has shown a good track record over the years. In this regard, we believe the US initiative is a serious challenge for Asean countries, since it can weaken the Association’s position and strip it of its status as a key player in addressing regional security problems. Furthermore, it is at odds with Asean fundamental principles, such as non-alignment and non-aligned status.
Asean has made known its stance regarding the US concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific and reaffirmed its commitment to the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and other fundamental documents underlying the work of the East Asian Summits. The 10 Asean member countries have demonstrated their commitment to create an inclusive space and mutually beneficial economic cooperation.
In turn, Russia plans to develop cooperation in a variety of areas with all its prospective partners, both in bilateral formats and within interstate associations, based on national interests, mutual benefit, equality and the rule of international law.
What role does Russia, a leading global power, want to play in Southeast Asia as other countries seek to boost their presence in the region?
Russia is a Eurasian nation and an integral part of the Asian community, both due to its geographical location and its historically close political, economic and cultural ties with the countries of this large region.
We are playing an active and constructive role in Asia. We are not trying to put pressure on anyone, we are not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, not threatening with the use of force, or coming up with ultimatums. On the contrary, we are building constructive relations with our Asian partners based on mutual trust and respect. We stand for fair competition and respect the right of states to independently choose their future based on their traditions and civilisational background.
Importantly, this policy is mutual. The vast majority of Asian states are building mutually beneficial cooperation with us. Recent examples include the Russia-Asean Summit in Singapore, where our relations reached a new level of strategic partnership.
Asia offers unique opportunities. Russia will continue to work here in all areas and various formats, including bilateral and multilateral, and also at the venue of the Eurasian Economic Union. We’ve been doing well so far. A cooperation programme between the Eurasian Economic Commission and Asean for 2019-2020 is being implemented.
Asean is also interested in cooperating with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Our goals overlap and include mutually beneficial cooperation, stability and security of the region, and fighting global challenges and threats. International terrorism tops that list. To achieve maximum effect in this area, it is necessary to establish close cooperation between law enforcement agencies and special services, as is happening at the level of the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (Rats) and the Asean Member National Police Association (Aseanapol).
Of course, we need to expand our cultural and people-to-people ties. Our cooperation has great prospects in this regard, since the Southeast Asian countries boast significant scientific and intellectual potential. The unique culture of the region is attracting more and more Russian tourists. Resorts in Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia are some of our tourists’ favourite holiday spots.
The importance of Asia and Russia for each other will continue to grow. Our cooperation will continue to be mutually beneficial and multifaceted.
Trade between Russia and Asean is only modest. How do we increase trade, and where do you see potential for promoting economic cooperation?
Indeed, our trade does not yet match the potential of our economies. There are objective reasons for this. By tradition, Russian businesses have paid more attention to Europe and Asian markets that are near our borders.
The export infrastructure that makes it possible to step up trade in the east of the country began to be developed relatively recently.
Nevertheless, looking back we can see fairly important changes. In just a few years – from 2009 to 2013 — Russia’s trade with the Asean countries doubled to $17.5 billion.
A temporary lull after such a jump forward occurred against the backdrop of complicated processes in the global economy and anti-Russia sanctions. Nevertheless, even these negative factors have not changed the long-term trend. In 2018, trade already approached $20 billion.
We would like to maintain this dynamic, especially given that the potential for business cooperation is far from realised.
We see prospects in many areas, not only in the exchange of low-VAT goods but also in high technology trade.
For instance, talks are underway with some Asean countries on the construction of new centres for nuclear science and technology. In particular, Rosatom subsidiaries are carrying out a project to design and build a cyclotron radiochemical complex in Thailand. We know that our partners are interested in building floating nuclear stations. This is a large and very promising area. In particular, it helps develop remote territories.
Creation of a transnational smart city network may open vast opportunities, primarily for bridging the digital gap between countries and regions. At a recent industry-specific exhibition in Singapore in 2018, Russian companies showed what they can offer their Asian partners.
Last March, our Asean partners participated in the international forum “Smart City. Instructions for Use” held in Kaluga. They expressed special interest in Russian developments in online government services, the digitalisation of an urban economy and the upgrading of the housing and transport infrastructure.
This is not a complete list of promising projects. Modern technological developments allow us to talk not so much about geographical spaces but about functional spaces.
They may be based on our common information, energy and other technological solutions, and artificial intelligence projects. This is why business cooperation based on such an approach will not be impeded by long distances, because it isn’t necessary to send programs or solutions by sea or rail.
Consolidation of inter-regional cooperation can make a large contribution to trade expansion. We actively encourage our regions and regional businesses to enter foreign markets, especially with a view to developing the Russian Far East.
These efforts are already bearing fruit. The fifth Eastern Economic Forum, held in Vladivostok in September, set a new record for the number of participants — over 8,500 people from 65 countries — and for the total amounts of allocated investment — $52 billion for the implementation of different economic modernisation projects in the Asian part of Russia.
Another opportunity is offered by the launch of joint investment projects. Russia is continuously improving the terms for doing business, which has substantially affected its position in the Doing Business rankings. Russia has moved up three positions to 28th place.
Russia is opening modern industrial and technology parks with a favourable environment for innovation companies; it has established priority development territories.
We are drafting new legislation to enhance guarantees of stability for business when launching new major projects.
In parallel, the market for the sale of commodities and services is expanding due to the development of the Eurasian Economic Union.
Finances are yet another area with strong potential for promoting trade.
Importantly, this includes not only traditional instruments of support for trade transactions (loan facilities, letters of credit, etc) but in general the transition to settlements between our countries in national currencies.
This step will allow us to reduce costs and risks from currency fluctuations, which will increase the revenues of companies and the scale of trade in general.
Do you think Russia can help to enhance Asean’s maritime security capabilities?
Russia is already working on this. Russian Navy ships make friendly calls at ports in Southeast Asia every year. Such visits to Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have become a tradition. Last year, Russian sailors visited Cambodia, Myanmar and Brunei; this year, the Philippines. Vietnamese and Thai sailors have visited Vladivostok.
We hold joint naval exercises with a number of Asean states. Exercises like this with Thailand are provided for under the memorandum on maritime defence cooperation signed with that country a few days ago. The first-ever joint exercises with Brunei are also being planned.
Naval manoeuvres as part of the ADMM-Plus — Asean Defence Ministers Meeting with dialogue partners — have become common. The last one took place in Singapore in April-May 2019. It might be a good idea to launch such exercises in the Russian-Asean format. Asean has this practice with other major powers. I am sure that this would increase the Association’s maritime security.
We have several platforms where we discuss these possibilities, including the East Asian Summit, the Asean Regional Forum, the Expanded Asean Maritime Forum, and the ADMM-Plus I just mentioned.
We are also ready to help with the management of fish resources and in the efforts against pollution of the oceans, including with plastic waste. This is one of the most acute problems in the Asia-Pacific region today.
The relevant Russian departments are already involved in working out a package of practical measures to ensure maritime security and safety in a broader sense. This involves the efforts against piracy and illegal fishing, the protection of ports and infrastructure, search and rescue operations at sea, and natural disaster relief.
So, Russia is not just capable of assisting Asean countries in ensuring maritime security and safety — it is already doing a lot for this. And we are ready to enhance cooperation in this field.
Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) cooperation is going from strength to strength. What benefits can individual Asean members gain from joining the EAEU?
Interest in cooperating with the EAEU in any format is increasing for obvious reasons as Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have created a major common market with almost 184 million consumers and aggregate GDP of about $2 trillion. The Eurasian Five countries are showing an increase in the manufacturing industry and agriculture, and the volume of cargo trade is up as well.
We continue to expand cooperation in almost all areas. We are working to create a common financial market, coordinating our efforts as we fight counterfeiting, and also cooperation on digital projects.
Another major EAEU advantage is its flexible approach to cooperation with other countries and inter-regional associations. We’ve been acting extremely pragmatically from the outset of this integration project. In the EAEU, no one is exerting pressure on individuals, companies or states. There are no ideology-driven issues on our agenda. We do not use trade wars, as we understand that closed markets are a thing of the past, and protectionism is bad for competition.
Things are simple, open and straightforward. The Eurasian Economic Union offers mutually beneficial partnerships. I think this is one of the reasons the Eurasian Economic Union is not just causing interest, but is becoming popular at almost all levels of international cooperation, including supranational organisations. As you may recall, the course on strategic rapprochement with the EAEU is among the priorities of the 2025 Asean Consolidated Strategic Action Plan.
In addition, we are promoting cooperation with individual countries, including in formats such as free trade agreements. We have adopted a thoughtful approach to this decision. Vietnam was the first such country in 2015. It has worked out very well for both of us. Our trade continues to grow and was up 10% by the end of 2018 to about $6.7 billion now. Most recently, on October 27, an interim free trade zone agreement with Iran entered into force. Agreements have been signed with Singapore and Serbia. Talks are underway with India, Israel and Egypt.
The Eurasian Economic Union is also expanding relations with a number of other countries. In 2019, documents on cooperation in various formats were signed with Indonesia and the African Union. Brunei, Cambodia and the Philippines have expressed their interest as well. Of course, we want to expand relations with our Thai partners, all the more so as a memorandum of cooperation with the EAEU was signed with Thailand last year as well.
That is, each country decides for itself on the terms of cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union. Ultimately, formal accession to the EAEU is not that important. We have a different vision of what the Greater Eurasian Partnership is. It is about creating an entire economic and cultural space where people can freely communicate, trade, travel and discover new opportunities for themselves. Their rights and property will be protected by clear legal guarantees that are binding on all partners.
Russia and Thailand have maintained close ties for 122 years now. That said, most people think of tourism when it comes to our cooperation. In what other areas can we cooperate as effectively?
Indeed, Thailand is most often discussed as a tourist destination. Russians love to spend their holidays in your hospitable country. About 1.5 million Russians visited Thailand last year alone. But, of course, our relations are not limited to tourism.
Thailand is one of Russia’s leading trade partners in Southeast Asia. We are working together to bring our trade to $10 billion a year. With this aim in view, we plan to promote high technology cooperation in energy, civil aviation, space exploration, pharmaceuticals and transport equipment manufacturing.
We have good prospects for cooperation in information and communications technology. I am referring to the joint development of software, including mobile platforms, as well as e-government and smart city cooperation.
We have a high potential for developing financial and interbank cooperation, including the use of MIR payment cards in Thailand. This would be also convenient for Russian citizens who come to the kingdom and for your entrepreneurs who work with Russian partners.
There are many Russian and Thai companies that are developing new markets. Thailand offers interesting opportunities for joint transport ventures in the framework of the Eastern Economic Corridor megaproject. For its part, Russia is willing to create attractive conditions for investors in the Russian Far East that is the closest region to Thailand. This applies, in part, to the agricultural sector.
Humanitarian and cultural cooperation is also important. We are increasing the number of state-funded scholarships that your citizens can apply for to study in Russian universities.
Russians are increasingly interested in Thai culture, in part, owing to those who visited Thailand. They bring back memories of the hospitality and kindness of the Thai people and of your beautiful country. This spurs a desire to return, followed by ideas of new projects that they want to carry out with people they understand.
This atmosphere of trust and understanding is very important for a successful dialogue. Russia and Thailand have special relations that should be preserved and developed further. I am always happy to visit Thailand again.