Russia’s Role in Asia-Pacific Security Architecture
No. 3 2016 July/September
Kevin Rudd

The inaugural President of the Asia Society Policy Institute. He was Prime Minister of Australia 2006-2010 and 2013.

Towards an Asia-Pacific Security Community

In June, at a diplomatic gathering in Bangkok, the question was asked whether the OSCE was an appropriate model for security cooperation in Asia. The OSCE Asian conference, attended by Russian, Western and Asian diplomats, was a rare occasion to consider the future of Asian security architecture, drawing on European experience.

European history reminds us never to take peace for granted. Had a nascent pan-European security institution existed in July 1914, it might have made a decisive difference in leaders’ assumptions about one another and the fateful choices they made. Without any form of regional security institution, or even a mature security dialogue, there was no political shock-absorber between contending nationalisms. And we should never forget that Europe’s advanced state of economic interdependence at the dawn of the 20th century was not enough to prevent the “war to end all wars.”

By contrast, international institutions did play some role in reducing security tensions in post-war Europe. The UN provided a global forum. And in Europe, military transparency and confidence-building measures of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE/OSCE) helped prevent Cold War frictions from escalating to war. The CSCE didn’t resolve the Cold War. It couldn’t prevent crises. But it was often able to create breathing space for pragmatic leaders on both sides, as well as negotiate a framework to improve regional security—such as the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

There are some parallels between the experiences of 19th and 20th century Europe and current security tensions across Asia. The Asia-Pacific region is witnessing a bifurcation between a 21st century economic order geared towards economic globalization and integration, and a regional security order with an increasingly sharp, nationalist and almost 19th century edge. Some have called this the “Asian Paradox.”

There are, of course, fundamental differences between European and Asian realities. Europe evolved the notion of the modern nation-state steadily since the 15th century, whereas this was less formal across Asia. Moreover, despite its division into often competing nation-states, and despite the wars of religion, Europe evolved from a common Judeo-Christian and earlier Greco-Roman culture, whereas that is not the case with the vastly different civilizational histories and trajectories of Asia. Furthermore, the history of 20th century Asia has primarily been a colonial and post-colonial history. Europeans, over the same period, were in fact the colonizers.

This should, nevertheless, not prevent Asian political leaders from drawing a number of policy lessons from Europe’s recent history. Despite cultural differences, societies and individuals still tend to have similar security needs, wherever they are located in the world. This does not imply that a one-size-fits-all model should be copied and pasted from European history onto contemporary Asia. Such an approach will not work. Rather, to make a tangible difference to simmering tensions in Asia, we must adapt and, where necessary, transform diplomatic models to regional realities.


Since the Second World War, and certainly since the end of the Cold War, security architecture in Asia has been based on a network of U.S. bilateral security alliances in East Asia, the forward deployment of U.S. forces in the region, and the capacity of the U.S. to project military power and strategic influence when it chooses to do so. The United States argues that this has formed the strategic basis for the long-term stability of great power relations over the last forty years, since the fall of Saigon, which has underpinned what is generally called the East Asian economic miracle.

Since the late 1970s, there has been no significant conflict in East Asia. At the same time, East Asian economies have grown dramatically. In 1990, Asia’s share in world GDP in real US$ purchasing power parity (PPP) was 23.2 percent. By 2014, this went up to 38.8 percent. By 2025, Oxford Economics projects Asia’s share to be around 45 percent. By 2050, some predict it will exceed 50 percent of the global economy. This will return Asia to the dominant economic place it held in 1700.

China, of course, has a different strategic perspective on the retention of U.S. strategic presence in East Asia in the future, particularly its persistent objection to U.S. surveillance flights along its coastline. China also objects to what it describes as U.S. interference in the South China Sea in support of “third parties.” And China remains deeply concerned about any change in the political status quo in cross-Strait relations concerning the future of Taiwan.

Russia has also expressed its concern in relation to the strategic rationale for the retention of post-Cold War U.S. alliance structures, both in the Atlantic and in the Pacific. Furthermore, both Russia and China have expressed deep reservations about the deployment of U.S. BMD systems in Europe and Asia, and the impact these deployments will have on the future of their nuclear deterrence capabilities.

These debates will continue. But underlying these debates is a more fundamental reality arising from a multitude of unresolved territorial disputes which cover the map of the Asia-Pacific region. In the sorry history of international relations, the vast majority of international crises and wars, since the emergence of the modern nation-state, have been consequences of conflicting territorial claims, both continental and maritime.

In the Asia-Pacific region, there is an oversupply of such unresolved territorial disputes: between North and South Korea; Russia and Japan; China and South Korea; South Korea and Japan; China and Japan; the unique case of Taiwan; India and Pakistan over Kashmir; the Sino-Indian border; and, of course, between the six claimant-states in the South China Sea disputes. The latter is further compounded by the bilateral defense treaty between the Philippines and the U.S., and Washington’s position on “freedom of navigation” through waterways which carry 40 percent of global trade and 90 percent of seaborne trade.

In fact, the only part of the region that is not at present destabilized by unresolved territorial disputes is Southeast Asia. We should ask ourselves why. Southeast Asia, through ASEAN, has successfully built up overlapping regional security institutions over the past 35 years, and has gradually crafted a culture of security policy cooperation, underpinned by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

As a consequence, ASEAN has managed to add a thin—and, so far, the only—buffer to absorb strategic tensions in Asia since the Cold War. But beyond Southeast Asia, as we look to the wider Asia-Pacific region, disputes and tensions remain, and in fact continue to increase.

The strategic concern for all of us is the capacity of any one of these disputes to result in a wider regional crisis, conflict, or even war. Political nationalism is a strong factor in the foreign policy discourse of much of the region. And it is a force constantly contending with the more positive forces driving countries in the direction of greater economic integration.

If there is a key lesson to be drawn from the history of international relations, it is that, in extremis, political and security considerations almost inevitably triumph over economic considerations. The July 1914 crisis bears this out. We should never assume that rational economic self-interest will inevitably triumph over the white heat of political passions in any future geopolitical crisis in Asia. Nothing is less certain.


This raises a core question: Is it possible through additional, pan-regional institutional arrangements to better manage or even reduce the strategic tensions which arise from these underlying territorial disputes? I do not approach this question from any idealistic, let alone Utopian point of view. I do not believe that governments can magically declare that strategic trust shall exist as of next Monday, and pretend to wave away political tensions which have existed for decades and, in some cases, centuries. Nonetheless, history is not determinist. Human agency matters. Political leadership matters. Creative diplomacy matters.

There is, therefore, a more practical question which we should consider: What minimal cooperative security arrangements might we be able to evolve over time between the various states of the wider Asian region, which could better manage disputes in the future and limit crisis escalation?

Such practical institutional arrangements could be designed to “soften the edges” around existing security dynamics. It would not seek to solve the underpinning disputes which give rise to these dynamics. Even less could such institutional innovation wish away these problems of Realpolitik, which are the natural preoccupations of the foreign, defense and intelligence communities of every country within the region.

So what might such minimal security cooperation look like across this diverse region? Back in 2008, as Prime Minister of Australia, I launched a proposal for an Asia-Pacific Community (APC), a pan-regional institution capable of managing regional economic and security policy issues. I did not see an APC as emerging overnight, but as the end point of a process of institutional development of the East Asia Summit (EAS) until 2020. I was proud to play a part in the evolution of the EAS towards such a goal, joining hands with Southeast Asian colleagues to lobby for Russia and the U.S. to join the EAS. This finally occurred in 2010.

It was, in part, the world’s and the region’s tragic history of competing nationalisms that led me, as Prime Minister of Australia, to propose an Asia-Pacific Community (APC). When I launched this initiative back in 2008, I stressed that although the great powers of the Asia-Pacific region may live in harmony today, history should remind us not to assume that “peace in our time” can ever be guaranteed. That was seven years ago. And as we all know, security tensions in the region have now become much sharper.

An APC could foster deeper security policy interdependence over time, together with new habits of transparency, trust and cooperative norms. Such mechanisms could help Asia cope with crises by managing them peacefully and reducing the strategic polarization we are beginning to see emerge between Washington and Beijing. The concept of an APC could begin with basic confidence and security-building measures.

Throughout 2009, I outlined my vision of an APC to senior officials and heads of state at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the East Asia Summit and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. In an effort to open a regional discussion, the Australian government hosted a conference on the APC that year, and appointed a senior official to travel to 21 countries to consult with more than 300 officials, 30 ministers and eight national leaders. Five points of consensus emerged. Back then, there was:

  • A high level of regional interest in the APC proposal;
  • A recognition that existing institutions could not adequately manage the region’s full range of economic, security and political challenges;
  • A limited appetite for the creation of new institutions in addition to existing ones;
  • An agreement that ASEAN must be at the core of any future APC;
  • There was strong interest in giving more substance to the APC proposal.

The Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, which I joined as inaugural President last year, has launched a Policy Commission to consider the future of Asia-Pacific regional architecture, including the possibility of an APC. Our ongoing work aims to advance consensus on the reform of regional architecture, and to elaborate the details of what an Asia-Pacific Community might look like in practice.

Early critiques of the APC proposal argued that an EU-type institution was an appropriate model for the Asia-Pacific region. As acknowledged above, the EU is by no means a one-size-fits-all model which Asian leaders should simply impose on the region. The challenge for Asia-Pacific leaders is to square the circle by recognizing the uniqueness of Asia’s regionalism, without mindlessly repeating centuries of European mistakes, nor mindlessly copying European templates. We in Asia simply need to draw pertinent lessons from Europe’s history.

A possible roadmap towards a future Asia-Pacific Community is as follows:

  • Transforming the East Asia Summit into an APC by 2020 based on the existing Kuala Lumpur Declaration of the EAS in 2005;
  • Bringing the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ meeting under the umbrella of the EAS/APC;
  • Establishing a permanent EAS/APC secretariat in an ASEAN capital—Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta being the most likely candidates. In time, the region will need its own equivalent of a Brussels-type institution, although without the European model’s pooling of sovereignty;
  • Annual meetings at heads of state and government level to ensure high-level political direction and buy-in. This should be held in the first half of the year as a stand-alone summit, not as a “tack on” to other regional summits like APEC;
  • Its first task should be to elaborate a comprehensive set of regional confidence and security-building measures, including military hotlines, transparency measures and pan-regional protocols to handle military incidents at sea and in the air. A second priority is developing a fully integrated natural disaster response mechanism across the region, under an integrated virtual command, in the event of a major environmental, climatological or other incident of regional scale. Other priorities will follow as trust begins to build over time.

None of the above will happen magically in an Asia that is now the subject of increasing polarization. Setting the region on autopilot would steer us along a certain path—but not necessarily a path of our long-term choosing. And this would be in no regional state’s interest, neither China’s, nor Russia’s, nor America’s.


Russia is a significant power in the Asia-Pacific. This is obvious to anyone with an elementary understanding of geography. It should be equally self-evident to any unbiased student of history. Since the end of the Cold War, Western analysts have tended to downplay or dismiss Russia’s importance to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Moscow’s own “pivot to Asia” has its own strategic significance, not least with rapid improvements in Russia-China relations.

By the early 1990s, however, Western analysts began dismissing Moscow’s role in Asia. One analyst predicted that, in the Asia-Pacific, an economically-weakened Soviet Union would “become an Australia with nuclear weapons.” Just as, in the West, the USSR was being labeled an “Upper Volta with missiles.” The West’s wholesale dismissal of Russia’s place in the world as a significant global power continued into the 1990s, as Russians struggled with one of the largest peacetime economic, social and political collapses in its history. By 1996, Western analysts began arguing that Russia was merely a “terrier at the feet of Asia’s great powers.” Twenty years later, the Western tendency to dismiss Russia’s role in Asian security is still preponderant, although that is now beginning to change slowly.

Russia, for as long as it has been Russia, has been characterized by its unique geopolitical presence astride the European and Eurasian continents. This fundamental geostrategic fact has fueled enduring debates within the Russian political, policy and intellectual elite, between so-called Europeanizers and Eurasianists, who argue over which region Russia should seek to integrate with. A third group of Russian policymakers have argued that it is not a zero-sum choice, but that Russia could deploy the unique advantage of its geography and history by linking it with both the European and Asia-Pacific security and economic orders.

The enthusiasm of the OSCE’s goal of creating a security community from Vancouver to Vladivostok has begun to ebb. Instead, Russian and Western analysts now point to Russia’s “pivot to Asia” and the growing Sino-Russian partnership as potentially heralding “a greater Asia from Shanghai to St. Petersburg.” The implications of any such strategic realignment are too early to predict. Whatever the impact of Moscow’s growing strategic, diplomatic and economic engagement in Asia, it would be unwise for the West or, for that matter, for Asia to ignore it.

Moscow’s “pivot to Asia” may mark something of a milestone in Russian diplomatic and security engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. It remains to be seen, however, whether it will be translated into reality. Nonetheless, the Russian government has made the East Asia Summit (EAS) a significant component of its regional foreign policy agenda. At Russia’s inaugural EAS meeting in 2011, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that strategic discussions at the summit “should focus on improving the architecture of security and cooperation in the region.” The foreign minister reiterated, as early as 2011, Russia’s intention to integrate into the Asia-Pacific security and economic architecture.

At the 2013 EAS meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated: “We believe that the new regional architecture must be of an open and equal nature, must be based on principles of indivisibility of security, respect for norms of international law and peaceful settlement of disputes. We are convinced that such an approach to the build-up of the system of interstate relations would help in our practical work to settle different crises.” This represents a clear statement of the importance Russia attaches to the EAS.


The East Asia Summit may become a significant part of the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region, if member-states so choose. At the conclusion of the 2015 EAS meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the heads of state decided to establish an EAS Unit with the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. This was a modest step in the direction of enhancing the EAS’ capacity to manage common security and economic challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia could play a constructive voice role on this question. Indeed, the most recent ASEAN-Russia summit in Sochi demonstrated both parties’ clear, joint determination “to strengthen the EAS, with ASEAN as the driving force, as a Leaders-led forum for dialogue and cooperation on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest and concern with the aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in the region.” Of course, the future evolution of the EAS into a stronger component of the regional security architecture is a matter for all its member-states, Russia included.

There is much to gain and little to lose if states begin to build a more robust regional institution, anchored in the principles of common security. It will not of itself replace existing alliance structures. But it can assist, over time, in ameliorating a number of underlying strategic and territorial tensions which underlie these alliances, as well as managing any future crises as they arise.