The Russia-China Billateral Super-Rapprochement and the ASEAN Centrality Concept: Mutual Acceptance or Competitors?

The Russia-China Billateral Super-Rapprochement and  the ASEAN Centrality Concept:  Mutual Acceptance or Competitors?


Ambassador (p) Gheorghe Savuica*


The author would like to thank H.E. Ambassador M. Amhar Azeth, former Ambassador of Indonesia to Romania, also a Honorary Member of IRSEA, for his helpful advice and for generously sharing his time and ideas on the questions examined in this article. The author, however, bears full responsibility for the article.


It was unanimously predicted by national, regional and world analysts that Asia will be the continent of current Century. Indeed, extraordinary dynamics of bilateral and multilateral regional cooperation and partnerships, complex evolution, rivalry competition and just name anything ells are happening on this huge Continent.

From Washington, Ottawa to Canberra, Wellington as well as from the United Nations to the most distant regional organization is officially accepted that the Asia-Pacific architecture is based on the “ASEAN Centrality’’ concept.

These historical accomplishments by the initial 5 and later on 10 members of ASEAN (very soon 11 states) have been gained by maintaining its original course as economic regional organization lately turned into ASEAN Community and by strictly observing the principles of peaceful coexistence enshrined in the UN Charter.

Unfortunately, for quite some time and particularly after the illegal aggression of Russia on Ukraine it seems that the most vivid trend in Asia-Pacific is a dangerous rivalry competition and huge arming, which ultimately might change the very well known and long time tested peaceful Asia. We have to acknowledge that there are several sensitive spots in the region, which represent topic and reason of complications and aggravation of the security equation in Asia-Pacific.

The strategic architecture in this region was dominated by bilateral alliances and partnerships without having the security as the main or obvious targets. In 1994, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has been established, having 27 members - all 10 ASEAN member countries along Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, European Union, India, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and the United States.

Recently, alongside with the bilateral alliances and partnerships, AUKUS and Quad were concluded as separate minilateral formats aiming the Asian political, security and defense architecture.

The March Putin-Xi Summit in Moscow has been inviting speculations regarding inevitable political, security, defense and economic consequences likely to shake up Asia and even global geopolitical chessboard by further stimulating the polarization of a world already divided by great powers’ competition and rivalry, as it was stressed above. Rightfully, consequences of similar magnitude are expected from other alternative, if not competing, regional structures in Asia-Pacific.

In parallel, to the summit is attributed the possibility for China-Russian alliance to aim globally based on the common will for a geostrategic consolidation, be it in the shape of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Eurasian Economic Union, BRICS+ or the Belt and Road Initiative.

The official statements during the summit leads to another speculation that Russia and China see each other as being partners not only for the present, but also for their vision of the future.Russia and China are promoting their own version of multilateralism, with their own wording (such as “community with a shared future for mankind” or “New Era”), against “the consequences and risks of the trilateral security partnership - AUKUS and related nuclear-powered submarine cooperation programs among the United States, Britain and Australia on regional strategic stability” or “NATO's continuous strengthening of military security ties with Asian-Pacific countries and undermining regional peace and stability”, as mentioned in the Sino-Russian Joint Statement on Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era.

Certainly, such increasingly marked boundaries, coming from two permanent members of the UN Security Council, both nuclear powers, might pose incalculable dangers if mistreated or misinterpreted. In fact, one may assume that the larger the gap between constantly polarizing sides of the Security Council, the weaker the United Nations becomes. Certainly, UN has been and will always be a matter of collective responsibility. It is to be noted how the Sino-Russian partnership will evolve once the two countries respective tendencies and aims will start to diverge. This is equally applicable to AUKUS or Quad formats.

In terms of global aim for geostrategic consolidation, the expectations from the Russia-China Summit are at least double-folded: firstly, at least on a narrative level, the Russia-China meeting might be compared to a not entirely assumed yet de facto alliance, though apparently not one of a military nature, but one dictated by similar – hence not entirely identical – views and aims; secondly, such a tandem will clearly generate reactions, both at state level as well as in multilateral formats. It becomes obvious that regional associations, particularly in Asia, but not only, need to reassess their future agenda.

ASEAN, for instance, is one of the regional associations that maintains excellent relations, including the signature of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, with China and Russia, but also with Japan, South Korea, Australia, United States and European Union, inter alia. It is not unlikely that the regional organisation might view the 2023 Summit as, if not a competitor to ASEAN Centrality, at least a new and emerging pole of power consequential to Asia and Southeast Asia in particular. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine that, as the most clear expression of Southeast Asian unity, ASEAN will be courted by the two strategic competitors in the area, both at association level as well as bilaterally, through its member states.

Having established Dialogue Partnerships with Australia, China, European Union, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and the United States – among others – as well as regional cooperation mechanisms such as ASEAN Plus Three and East Asia Summit, one may expect that, the competition between the two main multipolar strategic competitors in the region, might influence the traditional ASEAN Consensualism. To put it bluntly, the more acute the global strategic competition grows, the harder it will become to find mutually accepted solutions to the most pressing regional dossiers: the Koreean Peninsula, Myanmar crisis, lines of navigation, South and East China Sea, for instance.

Of fundamental importance in this regard and especially to maintain and consolidate peace in Asia-Pacific is the perpetuation of the ASEAN Centrality and Unity. Certainly, some ASEAN members might be animated by the advantages of their bilateral relations with any of the strategic competitors or certain organisations, such as, for instance Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. On the other hand, the possibility of inter-regional agreements between ASEAN and other associations will positively contribute to the maintenance of the ASEAN Unity and Centrality and might bring regional, not only bilateral benefits.

Certainly, the new global developments, Russia-China Summit included, will test ASEAN’s ability to obtain strategic benefits resulting from the competition interplay between the actors interested to project their influence in the region. If so far ASEAN has been approached mostly on a bilateral or multilateral level and successfully maintained its balancing policy by calling for inclusiveness, it is not completely unrealistic that the regional association might be tempted to take a stronger stance, leaning toward the circles of power projected by one of the main global competitors. For sure, it will be an extreme and ultimate political step forward confronting a very serious danger. Neutrality is and will remain the essence of ASEAN solidity and unity.

While everyone may agree that in globally challenging times, one needs globally accepted solutions, it seems many tend to forget the truly global role and legitimacy of the United Nations: the only voice capable to urge global cooperation at the expense of geostrategic consolidation.

The presence of the ASEAN Secretary General, Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, at the Boao Forum for Asia Conference 2023, hosted by China, is the newest signals that ASEAN is maintaining its inclusive stance on all its dialogue partners.

According to H.E. M. AMHAR AZETH, former Ambassador of Indonesia to Romania and Honorary Member of IRSEA, “the ASEAN countries have been closely monitoring the China-Russia summit and its possible implications for regional dynamics. While ASEAN countries have maintained constructive relations with both China and Russia, they are also committed to upholding the principle of ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture.” Based on the opinions expressed by the Ambassador, “ASEAN countries recognize the importance of constructive engagement with both China and Russia, they also value the balance of power and the need for a rules-based order in the region.”

In a rather skeptical note, the Honorary Member of IRSEA noted that “ASEAN countries have been cautious in their response to the China-Russia summit, emphasizing the importance of maintaining ASEAN centrality and the need for all major powers to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of smaller states in the region.” However, the former Ambassador notes, the ASEAN countries have “continued to engage with China and Russia on issues of mutual concern, such as economic cooperation and regional security.”

Admitting that the “China-Russia summit may have implications for regional dynamics”, the Ambassador Azeth added that “ASEAN countries will continue to prioritize their commitment to ASEAN centrality and work towards a stable and prosperous Southeast Asia”.

In the Ambassador’s opinion, Indonesia, as the largest economy in ASEAN and a key regional power with a “significant role to play in shaping the region's response to this issue (…) has maintained good relations with both China and Russia, it has also been cautious in its approach towards the two countries.” However, stressed Ambassador Azeth, Indonesia “has expressed its support for a rules-based international order and has emphasized the importance of maintaining ASEAN centrality in the region.” To summarize, the former Ambassador concluded that “Indonesia has emphasized the need to maintain regional stability and ASEAN's unity in the face of external pressures, while also engaging with China and Russia on issues of mutual concern.”

It is very important to underline, as a final and confident conclusion, that, as an Observer at the United Nations General Assembly, a staunch supporter of the UN Charter and a promoter of peace, stability and security in the region, ASEAN could well make a wake up call for more cooperation, less external pressures and a truly collective stance that would equally benefit the big players as well as the smaller states.

* As a career diplomat with over four decades of diplomatic service, a specialist on Southeast Asia and ASEAN, speaker of Bahasa Indonesia, Russian and English, Ambassador (p) Gheorghe Savuica represented Romania as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Indonesia and Pakistan and Chief of Mission to Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cyprus, Finland and Estonia.

Ambassador (p) Savuica is a former Director of the Asia Pacific Division and former Director General of the Asia Pacific, Near and Middle East, Africa and Latin America Department of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He published multiple articles, thought-pieces and commentaries reflecting his views on current evolutions in International Affairs and the ongoing developments related to the greater scope of Europe-Asia relations. He authored several major chapters in edited volumes on Romania’s Foreign Policy, published by the Romanian Academy.

In 2011, Ambassador (p) Savuica has received the "Grigore Gafencu" Award on behalf of the Academy of Romanian Scholars (Academia Oamenilor de Ştiinţă din România). His Excellency is also a lifetime member of the Society of Asian Civilisations, Islamabad, and Institute for Maritime and Strategic Studies, Jakarta. He is the receiver of the prestigious Excellence Award on behalf of the Faculty of International Business and Economics, Bucharest University of Economic Studies.

Ambassador Savuica has established the Romania - Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2008. He is also the President and Founder of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies (IRSEA).

Ambassador (p) Savuica is a graduate of Moscow State Institute of International Relations. A former athlete, he received numerous national and regional accolades as handball player, skier and self-defence fighter. Ambassador Savuica is married and has two daughters, one granddaughter and one grandson.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.