Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions during the Russian-Vietnamese conference of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Ho Chi Minh City, February 25, 2019
Thank you for the invitation. The Valdai Club has earned a reputation as a respected platform. We support the interest of the Russian and Vietnamese expert communities in researching topical security issues in Asia.
These discussions are particularly relevant today when the world has entered the post-bipolar stage in its development. At this stage, a more just polycentric, stable and democratic system is being established. I am aware of the disputes regarding whether this is good or bad. A unipolar or bipolar world was far more reliable as everything was clear and there was no room for improvisation. Now the world is a mess with everybody protecting their own interests, and there is no new understanding of how to proceed from here. Still, I agree with those who say that this is a period of perturbation which will eventually end. It will be lengthy. It is the beginning of a new era. These stages are never short. I have no doubt that as a result, we will get a more reliable and secure system that allows countries to use its opportunities for their economic and social development. Although I do not know who will be around to check to see that it is so, since it will happen in several decades.
However, it appears to me that the most important thing now is to watch the re-configuration of the global geopolitical landscape, which is happening in two ways. One is natural as new centres of economic growth and financial power emerge, bringing political influence. These centres are starting to see the benefit in unifying based on the demands of the present and future, their people and countries. This is how the RIC association (Russia, India and China) started. The next RIC ministerial meeting will be held in China the day after tomorrow. BRICS also emerged naturally. The SCO was also created in response to demands of the time when, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was necessary to provide some understanding of border security in Central Asia, Russia and China. Subsequently, the SCO expanded to other forms of cooperation. But once again, it was a response to demands of the time. This is also how ASEAN was formed by ten countries (it started with less than ten) that realised their mutual interest was in working together and promoting economic and security cooperation.
Unlike these natural processes, there are attempts to reconfigure the geopolitical landscape in order to prevent the natural course of things and the emergence of new centres of growth. For example, the Middle East Strategic Alliance, the so-called Middle Eastern NATO which US President Donald Trump’s administration, working to overcome the serious doubts of potential participants, is trying to impose on the countries of the Persian Gulf, Jordan and Egypt. Of course, Israel is also guarding its interests when it comes to this initiative.
The Indo-Pacific region is another artificially imposed construct which I just discussed with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Vietnam. The United States, along with Japan and Australia, has begun to promote this within the far-reaching context of containing China. This is a clear attempt to get India involved in military-political and naval processes. This concept undermines the ASEAN-centricity of the formats that have been created in that region. So, ASEAN is now thinking about how to respond to these developments.
In this portion of my remarks, I would like to contradistinguish natural processes that integrate countries based on coinciding interests, from artificial ones which try to force countries into some kind of cooperation in the interest of one geopolitically driven power. We would like our respect for peoples’ determining their own future to manifest itself in our approaches to the processes unfolding in this region and the rest of the world.
So, we prefer to call it the Asia-Pacific Region (APR), which has become the driver of global growth. It is distinguished by unprecedented integration processes, accelerated economic growth and, of course, extensive experience, which, primarily, thanks to ASEAN, has been gained in cooperation and constructive partnerships between countries with different political and socioeconomic systems.
Russia is part of the APR. I believe there is no need to prove anything to anybody here. We have traditions of cooperation, friendship and alliance with the states of the region, like Vietnam, which go way back.
Clearly, the future of this region directly depends on our ability to take on multiplying challenges and threats, including the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula, which has seen positive shifts, but remains largely unresolved. I think professionals know what I am talking about. This also includes terrorism, drug trafficking, cybercrime and other types of cross-border crime, such as piracy, illegal migration and territorial disputes. So, a reliable architecture of equal and indivisible security here needs to be built by joint efforts, taking into account the balance of interests of all countries in that region and on the basis of the UN Charter and other principles of international law, including, of course, exclusively peaceful settlements for disputes and the non-use of force or threat of force.
ASEAN is a solid foundation for building such security and cooperation architecture, which has created many useful mechanisms around itself. Our Vietnamese friends initiated the creation of the ASEAN Council of Defence Ministers and Dialogue Partners (ADMM-Plus). A very useful format, indeed. In conjunction with Cambodia, we are now chairing the Mine Action Centre. We proposed to Vietnam jointly heading the ADMM-Plus working group on peacekeeping in 2020-2022. We hope that such a group will be created and help promote efficient and practical forms of cooperation.
I believe that the East Asian Summit is one of the most progressive decisions ever made by ASEAN, where key regional players are invited to participate in annual meetings and discussions, which, including at Russia’s initiative, have been used in recent years to discuss matters such as creating and forming an architecture of equal and indivisible security.
I mentioned the Indo-Pacific region concept, which clearly competes with the central role of ASEAN. We do not welcome these kinds of concepts, partly because we consider it wrong to undermine ASEAN’s pro-active role. Today, the Russia-ASEAN strategic cluster has become a key factor in ensuring regional security. Statements adopted at Russia’s initiative by leaders of the countries participating in the East Asian Summit on countering ideological challenges of terrorism (2017) and countering the threat of foreign terrorist fighters (2018) reiterated the commitment to work substantively and intensively in this critical anti-terrorist area. We run regular refresher courses on counter-terrorism and countering radicalisation and extremism for ASEAN law enforcement agencies.
We focus particularly on foreign terrorist fighters at the ASEAN Regional Security Forum as part of Intersessional Meetings on Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime, which we co-chair with Indonesia. We have invited ASEAN countries to join the Foreign Terrorist Fighter Databank created by Russia’s FSB, which contains corresponding information, and then use it to track these people as they move, say, from Syria or Iraq to Asia Minor, Indonesia, Central Asia or Russia. They were quite responsive to this idea. These are not just some paper decisions, but a series of solutions that are implemented and bring concrete results for all participants.
Another important area of our collaboration with ASEAN is cybersecurity, or international information security (IIS). We are launching the Russia-ASEAN dialogue on the safe use of ICT. We know that there is a growing understanding in ASEAN and the international community of the need to develop universal rules for responsible behaviour in cyberspace. In December last year, the UN General Assembly adopted a Russia-initiated resolution which moved the matter of IIS from conceptual definitions to the level of harmonising the rules of responsible behaviour in cyberspace. A working group is being created for this, open to all UN members.
Dealing with infectious diseases is another important sphere of cooperation with ASEAN. The East Asia Summit in Singapore last November supported Russia’s idea to organise a meeting of the heads of the respective agencies that deal with infectious diseases this year, and also, more importantly, to hold an exercise in EAS countries on how to respond to challenges of infectious diseases.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a good emerging ASEAN partner. This partnership is already anchored in the interaction between the two secretariats. It is one of the organisations that was developed based on reality, in a natural way. Its agenda is very broad. It all began, as I already said, before it was an Organisation yet (the Shanghai Agreement was signed), with border security cooperation. Now security issues are being interpreted more widely – a regional antiterrorist structure has been created. The agenda now includes economic, cultural, and education matters. But none of this makes the SCO a military bloc trying to bring anyone to heel, of course. The “Shanghai Spirit” philosophy, as we say, implies the same thing as the “ASEAN Way” – a path of cooperation, mutual benefit, balance of interests, equality, and respect for diversity.
In Northeast Asia, the situation is not simple, primarily due to the Korean Peninsula nuclear issues. But our goal is much broader, in the context of long-term stabilisation – to develop a mechanism of peace and security in Northeast Asia. This is one of the goals that was agreed upon during the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue, when they still worked. Now they are frozen, but their potential should certainly be kept in mind. I hope that if there is progress via bilateral channels between the United States and North Korea, the six-party format can become very useful, primarily when it comes to the subject of peace and security. This is exactly what the Russian-Chinese roadmap is about, the one we proposed in summer 2017 during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Russian Federation. We proposed a step-by-step movement – first build confidence and avoid provocative actions such as nuclear tests, missile launches from North Korea, or large-scale disproportionate naval and air exercises the US and South Korea resorted to. Then, as confidence grows, time will come to make contacts, put offers on the table, search for a balance of interests and act synchronously, action for action – your partner has met you halfway, now it’s your turn to take a step towards the partner. At the last stage, the Russian-Chinese roadmap should turn into a security mechanism for Northeast Asia so that all six countries in and around the region feel secure knowing there is a reliable agreement. This “action for action” logic is now beginning to catch on in Washington, at least, our Deputy Foreign Minister’s contacts with his American counterpart show that the Americans even ask us for advice or opinions on various scenarios of what will happen in a couple of days in Hanoi.
The regional security system is growing stronger thanks to the efforts taken by ASEAN and China to draft a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. As far as I know, they are working on it. We welcome these efforts. We believe that this is how concerned countries should address such problems, without interference from beyond.
We have said more than once that the notion of indivisibility should be applied not only to security but also to economic development if we want it to be inclusive and not to threaten security through poverty, misery and other problems. Russia and its partners in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) are advocating the idea of harmonising integration processes, and these efforts have already yielded fruit. As you know, the EAEU and Vietnam have signed a free trade agreement. A similar agreement is being drafted with Singapore, and discussions on this matter are being held with Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Brunei. ASEAN as an organisation has shown interest in the EAEU. Last year, ASEAN and the Eurasian Economic Commission signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Economic Cooperation.
One more step forward was taken in May 2018, when the EAEU and China signed an agreement on trade and economic cooperation in the context of efforts to align Eurasian economic integration and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The SCO, which is well placed to create transit economic corridors between the East and the West, is working to promote ASEAN’s vision of connectivity. As I have already said, the EAEU and the SCO are doing their best to expand cooperation with ASEAN.
President Vladimir Putin said at the Russia-ASEAN summit held in Sochi in 2016 that plans should be based on practical work and called for looking at the processes underway in the EAEU, the SCO and ASEAN, which have common aspects that can be fruitfully applied in collective work. He described it as a Greater Eurasian Partnership, to which all members of the EAEU, the SCO and ASEAN can contribute, as well as all the other states of this huge and highly competitive Eurasian space, which is our common continent.
We want to promote a common security and economic agenda in Asia Pacific that can bring nations together in the pursuit of such goals as peace, sustainable development and stronger foundations of interstate relations.
It is on these foundations that we are developing relations with Vietnam, strengthening our comprehensive strategic partnership that is working effectively in all spheres, from politics and the economy to military-technical cooperation, military interaction, education and tourism. Our strategic partnership is playing a major role in creating a multifaceted and effective architecture of regional cooperation.
Our positions on the key international topics coincide or are very close. We are committed to international law, the key role of the UN and the principles of the UN Charter. We are closely cooperating and coordinating our moves at the main multifaceted platforms such as the UN and the venues inspired by ASEAN, including APEC, the Asia-Europe Meeting and regional inter-parliamentary conferences.
In the context of unacceptable Western actions at the OPCW last year, Russia and Vietnam, together with many other countries, mounted resistance against the attempts to hold a vote on amendments to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which by definition is based on consensus, just as any amendments to it. Russia and Vietnam keep up their resistance to the efforts to give the OPCW Technical Secretariat new powers to identify the perpetrators [of chemical attacks]. This amounts to a direct gross violation of the UN Security Council prerogatives.
I know that our Vietnamese friends would like their country to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. The five permanent members have a “gentleman’s agreement,” even though there are no gentlemen there any more, under which we do not disclose our candidates for non-permanent seats at the council. We honour this agreement, and Vietnam is a good candidate.
Question: You have mentioned the Indo-Pacific idea and clearly outlined your attitude to it. This idea is very popular nowadays and I think there is no one in this room and elsewhere who does not understand why this is being done or that “balancing” China is, mildly speaking, a very important task. You have defined this format as unnatural. Why this definition? In the multipolar world we are speaking about, a counterbalance is formed to a rising state in order to achieve stability. This may be against someone’s interests – for example, those of China or Russia – but, as I see it, this is not unnatural. Why do you think this?
Sergey Lavrov: Given that in some countries things unnatural, at a certain moment, have become natural, this is perhaps indeed so (naturally, we are speaking about political phenomena).
There is the Russia-India-China format (RIC). The late Yevgeny Primakov suggested the idea of this “threesome” just to see what would come out of it. But it did work and now we are planning to hold the thirteenth meeting of foreign ministers. The heads of state met last year and agreed to hold meetings in this format every year. None of the states in this triple format suggested being against the US, Japan or anyone else. We simply see the mutually complementary potentials, including internationally. In the utilitarian and economic sense, these are three big neighbours.
In a situation where they say that a rising India is a good counterbalance to China and could be “taken in one’s embrace,” just like Japan that has no love lost with India but they are ready for everything, I can see an artificially imposed format.
Question: What is Russia’s role in settling the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula? What efforts are being made in this field?
Sergey Lavrov: In 2005, a concrete understanding was reached, under which the DPRK pledged to stop testing and launches. In exchange, North Korea was offered a programme of peaceful uses of its nuclear energy and economic things it was interested in. The parties also came to terms that there would be no more sanctions.
Many say that this understanding would have collapsed anyway, but it was eventually frozen by Pyongyang because after everything was agreed upon, including the non-imposition of new sanctions, the Americans did announce sanctions against a Macao bank that had undertaken something to do with handling North Korea’s transactions. This was in excess of what had been agreed. But the package that was formed at that time is very topical – perhaps not so much with regard to each of its concrete components as to its logic. This logic consisted in that it was impossible to unilaterally demand that Pyongyang fully implement everything and only later start to think whether or not to ease the pressure of sanctions and how to do it.
The Singapore summit has shown that this problem cannot be solved “at one fell swoop.” The preparations for the Hanoi summit are again demonstrating this as well. We insisted and continue to insist on starting to encourage Pyongyang to make further headway and do this right now. Pyongyang has announced and abides by a moratorium on nuclear testing and ballistic missile launches. We believe that the Security Council could at least make certain gestures by easing or lifting the sanctions where they impede the implementation of joint South Korean-North Korean projects. At their recent meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chairman of the DPRK State Council Kim Jong-un agreed to restore the railway link [between the two countries]. Why shouldn’t the Security Council analyse how the sanctions regime could be modified in such a way as to incentivise the railway reunification of the two Koreas?
As I said, China and Russia have drawn up a roadmap and are currently working to specify each of its stages. I will discuss this with PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi tomorrow.
Question: What is your assessment of the ongoing developments related to resolving the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula? How are they expected to unfold?
Sergey Lavrov: From the outset it was our firm belief that firmness and ultimatums with which Washington embarked on these talks would not yield results. Until recently the demand as articulated by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the following: eliminate everything related to the DPRK’s nuclear programme first, and the question of whether to ease sanctions will be considered only once the DPRK completes denuclearisation. Only then will all the economic benefits materialise. However, ultimatums of this kind do not work. I think that the US has already understood this. How can people be forced to disarm? And what will happen after that? They disarmed Saddam Hussein using con tricks, and it took 15 years before former British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged this. They disarmed Qaddafi, and we all know how it ended. All these examples are in full view, they are obvious.
Only a stage-by-stage approach will work, consisting of positive actions in response to positive moves made by the DPRK. Judging by our contacts with the US negotiating team, we get the impression that they understand this. Nevertheless, the US leadership continues to claim in public statements that only the DPRK’s full denuclearisation would bring about certain positive steps.
By the way, denuclearisation is quite a broad notion. There is no doubt that the DPRK interprets it as the denuclearisation of the entire Korean Peninsula with the US and South Korea assuming the corresponding commitments.
The process in itself and the fact that US President Donald Trump and DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un will meet for the second time are positive developments. The same goes for the meetings between the South and North Korean leaders, which are becoming regular. We very much wish that more attention is paid to the understandings reached at the North-South meetings, meaning more respect and taking them into consideration in the efforts by the US and DPRK that we all want to succeed.
Question: Could you comment on Russia’s position regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea?
Sergey Lavrov: We have commented on our position on numerous occasions, including at East Asia summits, as well as in other frameworks involving ASEAN and China. We proceed from the premise that all the disputes must be resolved by the countries involved. The situation is far from being hopeless. It is my understanding that ASEAN and China have agreed to hold talks based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. There is also a 2002 document (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) signed by ASEAN and China whereby the parties undertake to move toward resolving the matter through political means. Talks are currently underway to draft a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.
When our US colleagues use every opportunity to make public statements in the presence of China and ASEAN demanding that this dispute be resolved by China making concessions, this constitutes an overt attempt to once again drive a wedge between China and its neighbours. Division is in no short supply even without it. At the end of the day, what we need is to build bridges and find mutually acceptable solutions. Our Japanese neighbours also have territorial disputes with a number of countries, but for some reason they talk exclusively about the Russian Federation.
We are not parties to these disputes in any way.
As for the relations between Vietnam and China, we have explained on numerous occasions that Russian companies are working on the shelf. When we get inquiries from our Chinese friends, we say that we have been working on the shelf for forty years now, if not more, and have been doing so in strict compliance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, squarely within the continental shelf zone and within Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
As for finding final arrangements, there are many sayings that deal with advice-givers. After all, it is always better that matters of this kind are settled directly.
Question: You were right in saying it is time to update the roadmap for the Korean settlement. Today, South Korean representatives unexpectedly said that a bilateral peace declaration by North Korea and the US would suffice while all multilateral formats were only optional. This means they might have received some command from Washington. What is the role of our multilateral initiatives in these circumstances? What are we seeking to achieve? Is our objective a multilateral declaration, a treaty or a set of bilateral agreements?
Lifting economic sanctions on North Korea will primarily lead to American and South Korean companies being given a free hand in this country. I do not believe the Americans will be creating conditions for our trilateral projects involving the two Koreas. What formula could be recommended for what steps to take next?
Sergey Lavrov: It is very difficult to come up with formulas in this situation. There are many factors involved here, some of which you have named. Like any expert, you must know about such a factor as China, as this country is not indifferent to what will happen to North Korea. Nor are we indifferent, sharing as we do a border with North Korea.
Presumably, the Americans have warned South Korea against any multilateral agreements, meaning they would take decisions on their own. They have ignored China and have even further backtracked, having tried to turn North Korea into a sort of buffer against China. And everybody has shown their readiness to deliver. The same goes for trilateral electricity, gas, railways and many other projects. Then we are getting back to the matter which Sergey Afontsev has just elaborated on about the US simply forcing everyone to toe the line.
Should everyone be ready to comply, scenarios like the above might become quite realistic. However, I do not believe the People’s Republic of China will put up with this. China is keen to reach a trade agreement with the US – one can see this – but I doubt that China will tolerate anyone doing whatever one deems fit in its region and right on its border. Nor do I think we will be meeting US requirements without demur.
Sergey Afontsev mentioned the GATT and the WTO. Both mechanisms are part of international law. What the Americans are doing means new rules. It is not for nothing that today one can seldom come across the phrase “we support the supremacy of international law” during talks or the drafting of documents with the West’s involvement. They write that it is important to support the “rules-based order.” Incidentally, even some documents signed by China and the European Union contain this term. What does this mean? They say this is the same thing as international law. However, this zeal in preaching the virtues of “the same thing” while refusing to mention international law cannot but suggest something very definite.
I mentioned the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is part of international law. It was emasculated by vote, which is not acceptable in respect of such documents. This is how they apply their own rules instead of international law. They acted in the same way on the Iran nuclear deal, which was “blessed” by the relevant resolution of the UN Security Council and was made part of international law. The same happened to the Middle East settlement: instead of the UN Security Council’s resolutions, which the Americans have thrown away, Washington is “brokering” the “deal of the century” based on its own rules. It has been promising to present it for two years now but nobody has seen it so far, although we more or less understand that it will put paid to all UN decisions.
The same goes for Ukraine. The Minsk Agreements were approved by the UN Security Council and the sequence of steps was specified. But nothing is happening. The US special representative for the Ukraine settlement says that, first, UN occupation troops should be deployed to bring the entire perimeter [of the border] under control, the Donbass authorities and police be dismissed, international forces introduced and only then will they put things straight.
Everything depends on how long the Europeans will be put up with what they are being faced with when it comes to trade and economic cooperation. The same is true for the answer to your question. This is why there is no formula whatsoever.
I believe that at the end of the day, the multilateral format will prove to be indispensable. Safety guarantees that must be given to North Korea, should full denuclearisation take place, must be absolutely reliable, although this will not guarantee anything – excuse me for tautology. I have cited the examples of UN Security Council decisions being simply put aside and new rules, on which nobody had ever agreed with anyone, invented.
Question: We are now saying that the world is changing and the interdependence of states is growing. Do you think international regulation, for instance, in communications, can be radically improved in perspective? Because of fake news navigation in the sea of information leaves much to be desired. Is it possible to regulate a host of other things related to migration flows and capital management? Is it possible to raise international regulation to a new level or is this altogether impossible? Will countries continue to strike unstable alliances for shorter or longer periods of time or are there grounds to hope for an improvement of this situation?
Sergey Lavrov: This question is fairly controversial. In brief, currently this regulation that should be ideally based on universal principles of international law is being replaced with narrowly interpreted rules elaborated in a narrow circle of states.
As for fake news, France, for example, adopted a law that filters the media space the way it wants. The Russian media Russia Today and Sputnik are political outcasts. They are not allowed to visit the Elysee Palace or attend any special events. When we address French officials in this context, they tell us that everything is correct because in their view these are propaganda instruments rather than news agencies. This is what regulation is all about. When we suggest turning to universally approved OSCE documents that reject as unacceptable any obstacles standing in the way of the public or journalists getting access to information, we are told that this was the case in 1990 and should remain there.
There are other examples as well. When France failed to use the OPCW exclusively for passing remotely a verdict on who is guilty and who is not in violation of all conceivable norms of the Chemical Weapons Convention, it took the initiative to establish an International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons that was not linked with any international structures. A few months later the EU made a decision to the effect that if the new structure reveals violators, Brussels will impose sanctions on them. This is, of course, regulation but this regulation is based on the narrow interpretation of broad interests by an individual group of countries.
As for the internet, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been talking for years, if not decades, about the way the internet should function so as to not offend anyone. No results have been produced and there will not be any in the foreseeable future for obvious-to-all reasons. I have practically no doubts about this. Likewise, for the same reason virtually not a single Western country supported our proposals that were endorsed by the UN General Assembly at the onset of work on the rules of responsible conduct in cyberspace.
You mentioned migration. There is the Global Compact for Migration that was adopted last year. The West was fighting for it to include a provision on the equal and divided responsibility for the migration crisis. Russia and other countries objected. It wasn’t us that bombed Libya and turned it into a “black hole.” It still remains such and through it bandits, terrorists and arms traffickers travel to the Sahara-Sahel zone whereas migrants are heading to the north. Therefore, we leave it up to them to deal with those who are responsible for this.
We are now talking about the formation of the multipolar international order. Its development was preceded by a whole historical era. Apparently, the international legal space is being fragmented – the US is doing this all along the way while the EU is isolating itself when it comes to a number of issues. The processes that are taking place in Eurasia may also be interpreted as isolation at some point but in reality we want to launch something that will become all-embracing.
Maybe, there is a rational idea in everything that is taking place. As Vladimir Lenin used to say, “before uniting it is necessary resolutely to draw lines of demarcation.” Maybe, we should be fragmented to understand who the main global players are. Not those that established the UN in 1945 but those that are playing today, in the middle of the 21st century. Only after this we should think what to do next, for instance, with the UN. It is absolutely clear that the UN Security Council requires a reform because the world’s developing regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America are not properly represented in it. Today, up to one third of the UN Security Council is represented by EU countries. I don’t think that if more countries from the historical West are added to this structure, it will gain the diversity we want to see in it.