From the End of the Cold War into a New Era of Relations
No. 4 2011 October/December
Simon Tay

Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide from America, published in 2010 by John Wiley & Sons.

Aaron Choo

Aaron Choo is a Research Analyst at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Building Ties Between Russia and ASEAN

The collapse of the USSR twenty years ago changed not only Russia and the states that made up the Soviet Union, but also the world. The Asia-Pacific and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were no exception. Of the many changes since the end of the Cold War, three bear specific mention.

First, the freeze in relationships amongst the nations of the region thawed, allowing ASEAN to be reshaped and enlarged. Secondly, the sharp decline of the former Soviet Union freed its erstwhile Cold War opponent, the United States, to reprioritize the protection of human rights and democracy in the region. Thirdly, the difficulties faced by Russia and other East European countries during the early post-Soviet Union years have been taken as an important lesson in how to navigate transitions in economics and politics.


The Cold War shaped Southeast Asia’s politics as clearly as across continental Europe. Alliances with the Soviet Union and the Communist cause drew a sharp division between Vietnam – an ally of the USSR – and the then six members of ASEAN. The ASEAN member states – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – were staunchly non-Communist, whatever their differences inter se and with the Western democracies. Fear of the “domino effect” of countries falling to Communism gave shape to the Association as a central concern and rallying cause, especially after Vietnam’s “invasion” of Cambodia.

The fall of the USSR and its inability to back the Vietnamese changed these calculations. By 1995, Vietnam was admitted into the group. In 1997, at the 40th anniversary of ASEAN, Laos and Myanmar also became members. The admission of Cambodia, also slated for 1997, was postponed to 1999 because of violent infighting among its coalition members. But ASEAN played a role in throughout the Cambodian transition, from the 1993 Paris Peace Accords and the UN mandate to bring elections. The inclusion of these four new members was a milestone that reshaped the region and the Association.

To some, the creation of ASEAN-10 was a historical prerogative. Even at ASEAN’s founding, leaders hoped to one day include the entire region. As Singapore’s then Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam put it, ASEAN’s founders always wanted “a stable Southeast Asia, not a balkanized Southeast Asia”.

But to others, the enlargement brought new and difficult issues, including the question of a two-tier ASEAN in which the older members were more developed and able to economically integrate more quickly than Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The new members also brought into focus a number of political and security concerns, including the issue of human rights. ASEAN is pursuing the goal of integrating as an Economic Community by 2015 and has completed its first ever Charter, but the pace and nature of these efforts continue to be colored by its expansion to 10 member-states. In this respect, both the strengths of ASEAN and the continuing challenges in the group reflect the legacy of the end of the Cold War and its speedy reshaping of regional politics.



During the Cold War, the U.S. by and large pursued Realpolitik with its allies in the region and across the world: so long as they were anti-Communist, they were not quizzed about democracy or human rights. Whether it was Thailand’s coups, Marcos in Manila, Suharto’s New Order in Indonesia, or the so-called “soft authoritarian” states of Malaysia and Singapore, they were either U.S. allies – like the Philippines and Thailand – or else determinedly non-Communist, and therefore friends.

With the end of the Soviet Union and the Communist threat, this position was reconsidered. The end of the Cold War reinforced the U.S. position as the sole superpower and led some Americans to believe that their brand of liberal democracy and markets represented Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” With this newly augmented sense of power and destiny, Americans encouraged and indeed pushed Asians to adopt democratic values and become more liberal, in politics as well as in opening their markets – as they also did in the new and weakened Russia.

Amid this push towards American liberalism from the 1990s, several Asian leaders, including former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the then Malaysian Premier Dr Mahathir Mohammed, argued that Western values could not be imposed on Asia. These arguments centered on cultural and developmental differences, suggesting that Western societies were rights-based and individualistic, while Asian societies were instead duty-based and community-oriented. This East-West divide over two definitions of human rights and politics echoed the earlier division between East and West, in which the “East” had been the former Soviet Union and allies.

This Asian values discourse was always controversial, even among Asians, and it has fallen to one side since the 1997 Asian crisis when it was summarily devalued alongside the region’s currencies. But the debate’s very existence underscores the rise to dominance of American thinking in the post-Cold War period and the instinct of Asians to look for alternatives in the absence of alternative ideologies.

This continues to the present. The U.S. and the European Union (especially Western Europe) remain the most influential players in global politics and central to most, if not all, global institutions. However, others have begun to assert their own identity: China, Russia and the emerging economies. In this group is ASEAN, acting as the hub of a wider Asian regionalism and the host of the East Asian Summit, which from 2011 has expanded to include both the U.S. and Russia. This trend towards pursuing other paths is likely to continue, given the economic weakness and underlying questions about governance in the European Union and America. The pre-eminence of American power and ideas in the immediate post-Cold War period has now given way to another phase in which there are multiple influences and multipolar pulls-and-sways.



Even as ASEAN has challenged the American model of governance and development, they have not been immune to forces for change. ASEAN, both as a group and as individual member-states, has been transformed in the past two decades. Many of these changes show the mark of the end of the Cold War and the imprint of a U.S.-centric globalization.

ASEAN’s largest two members show these changes most clearly and profoundly. Vietnam embarked on the process of opening or doi moi shortly after the end of the USSR. It has not only staved off economic collapse but emerged – notwithstanding a number of economic issues – as a proto-emerging market. While its system remains socialist and centered on the Communist party, the creation of wealth has combined with foreign investment and new opportunities for private sector entrepreneurship to transform the country. Indonesia has also been transformed, even though changes were not centrally planned and the political system has not been maintained. Suharto’s New Order regime has given way to a tumultuous democracy that has stabilized and become more and more workable over the past decade. In the process, despite some ups and downs, Indonesia has also emerged as an increasingly favored destination for trade and investment, with rapid growth rates and a stable macro-economic environment.

In this period of rapid and fundamental change, many in ASEAN have taken lessons from the former Soviet Union’s traumatic experiences with its transition from socialist to free market economies. Most have sought to manage and oversee gradual and staged reforms. This is especially clear in Vietnam and Laos, which remain socialist states, but also can be seen in Myanmar’s “roadmap to democracy”. The consistency, pace and commitment to change in each of these countries may be questioned. But underlying this is a sense – most often unsaid – that they wish to avoid the dangers of “shock therapy” and overly rapid liberalization, as experienced in the former Soviet Union’s transition.

For better or worse, accurately or otherwise, many ASEAN states have taken the lesson that while change cannot be resisted, it is best managed, and moving too slow is better than running too fast.



While the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War has had profound implications for ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific in the last two decades, the same period has witnessed a withering away of ties between the region and Russia. In recent years, as Russia has reclaimed its position on the global stage, its focus has remained more on Europe and the United States, as well as on the larger emerging economies, especially China. In contrast, relations with Southeast Asia remain underdeveloped.

This may be set to change. Through the East Asia Summit, Russia has sought and now received the chance to join a leaders’ dialogue on critical issues facing the region. Russia is also taking a leading role in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) process, as host for the grouping’s meetings and summit in 2012. It has moreover decided to stage the summit in Vladivostok, strategically and symbolically positioning itself to look to Asia and the Pacific, rather than to Europe. Russians talk of a historic undertaking to develop the country’s Asian and Pacific-facing territories, engaging with the region. With Asia and many in ASEAN continuing to rise even as Europe and the U.S. face uncertainty and years of slow growth, forging closer links between Russia and the region is becoming a priority.

Relations between Russia and ASEAN, despite considerable goodwill, are only growing at a slow pace. Russian engagement is too often centered on a small range of issues like energy and the sale of arms. Historically, Russia has maintained friendly ties with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. These bilateral partnerships serve as a basis for links with ASEAN. However, connections with the older and core ASEAN member states need to grow.

Russia is not one of ASEAN’s top trading partners, and investment across borders is not sizeable. According to some estimates, Russian-ASEAN trade is worth only about U.S. $7 billion. In contrast, ASEAN trade with China approaches U.S. $180 billion. ASEAN trade with the European Union is at similar levels to that with China, while trade with the United States and Japan is not far behind. Likewise, tourism from Russia to ASEAN and vice versa has improved, but remains low.

Some official efforts to map ways to re-engage and grow links have been outlined. To date there have been some promising initiatives. At the first ASEAN-Russia Summit in December 2005, ASEAN and Russian officials adopted a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) to promote cooperation between 2005 and 2015, covering a wide range of security, economic, and development issues. These include combating terrorism and transnational crime, trade and economy, energy, agriculture and food security, tourism, science and technology, disaster management, culture, and education.

In June 2007, an ASEAN-Russian Dialogue Partnership Financial Fund (DPFF) was established to support joint development projects, with an initial contribution of U.S. $500,000. Going forward, Russia has expressed the intention to contribute U.S. $1.5 million annually to the fund. At the second ASEAN-Russia Summit in October 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev also proposed drafting a detailed road map for trade, economic, and investment cooperation.

Russia participates in security dialogue mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific region, and there is considerable room for growth in this area. Russia is part of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and has joined the newly created ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus 8 (ADMM+8).

There has been a great deal of goodwill expressed at the highest level. But leaders can only give policy direction. As it grows, cooperation and exchange between Russia and ASEAN must also address the challenge of perception in the public eye.

Unfortunately, at present there is little publicity and sustained exchange. Most citizens in Russia and ASEAN would be hard-pressed to name what their governments are doing with each other.

If closer ties are to be achieved between ASEAN and Russia, a more inclusive approach is required. The business community must be involved, and interest must be created among citizens on both sides by think tanks and institutions of learning. Cultural and media exchanges could serve to extend Russian soft power to Asia, while simultaneously encouraging Russians to think more about Asia beyond China and India, recognizing the current role and future potential of ASEAN.

Twenty years ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War set off a series of changes that profoundly impacted Southeast Asia and ASEAN. Given the crisis in the U.S. and European Union, the continued health of Asia and emerging markets, and Russia’s effort to look East, it is not unimaginable that twenty years hence the world will see the rise of Russia and the beginning of an Asia-Pacific century, potentially impacting Russia, ASEAN and their mutual relations.