Asean, Russia can do more to build on links, leaders say at summit to mark 20 years of ties

SOCHI - Asean leaders on Friday gathered in the resort city of Sochi to mark 20 years of cooperation and dialogue with Russia.

At the closed-door Asean-Russia Commemorative Summit, the leaders of 10 South-east Asian countries and Russian President Vladimir Putin took stock of their relations and discussed strategies to work even closer on ensuring peace and prosperity for their regions.

Russia supports a stable, prosperous Asean, Mr Putin stressed.

At an earlier reception for Asean leaders, he noted that trade and investment links were far below their potential, and pledged his country's support to boost them.

"It is important that both Russia and the Asean countries support stronger integration and links between the big economic projects under way in the Asia-Pacific region," he said.

He also told business leaders he would discuss the idea of a free trade zone between Asean and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with other members Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, whose country is Asean chair this year, said: "Russia and many Asean countries have much deeper ties that go back to the more distant past. This is a very good framework for developing relations on a modern footing."

Addressing the commemorative summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set out the significant role Russia can play in the Asia-Pacific.

"To fully harness the potential of our region, we should strive for a region which is characterised by, firstly, peace and stability. Secondly, building on that, growth and prosperity," he said.

But peace and stability requires management of specific issues.

"In the South China Sea, we see a significant and worrying escalation of tensions... This bodes ill for a region that is highly dependent on maritime trade and commerce and on freedom of navigation," he said.

"On the Korean peninsula, the deliberate and provocative actions by (North Korea) can trigger its neighbours also to go nuclear and destabilise the whole region."

There is also the challenge of terrorism, with groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria recruiting many citizens in Asean and elsewhere to fight in Syria, and radicalising them to violent acts.

Mr Lee called on leaders to work together to tackle these issues. This means adhering to international law and peaceful resolution of disputes - including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes - and exercising self-restraint, and sharing intelligence and combating the spread of radical ideology.

"At the strategic level, it means we need to build an open and inclusive architecture, where regional players and major powers can constructively engage each other," he said, pointing to Asean-centric mechanisms for cooperation.

These include the East Asia Summit, the Asean Regional Forum, and the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM)-Plus for Asean and eight key partners - including the United States, China, India and Russia - to strengthen security and defence cooperation.

"That is why we welcome Russia as a dialogue partner, because Russia has a valuable role to play in upholding the region's peace and stability," said Mr Lee. Moscow, he noted, has been a valuable participant in ADMM-Plus, co-chairing its experts' working group on military medicine. It has also engaged Asean partners in non-traditional security matters like counter-terrorism and combating transnational crime.

With peace and stability, Asia-Pacific countries have a chance to establish a growing and prosperous region, Mr Lee added.

"Right now, we are experiencing anaemic global economic growth, volatile market fluctuations and low commodity prices," he said, adding that economic cooperation can be a "win-win approach to promote greater prosperity".

Asean is also heartened by the interest from Russia and the EAEU to deepen economic links, he added, saying an EAEU-Singapore free trade agreement (FTA) being studied can be a "useful pathfinder" towards an Asean-EAEU pact.

Mr Lee arrived in Sochi and met Mr Putin on Thursday. They affirmed the deepening bilateral ties and growing economic partnership. Mr Putin also expressed support for an EAEU-Singapore FTA, and both looked forward to further collaboration in new areas.

On Friday, Mr Lee met Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc for the first time since the former deputy prime minister became premier last month. Both affirmed the good relations between their countries and looked forward to developing closer links and expanding economic cooperation under their strategic partnership agreement.