Russia is attempting to expand its influence in Southeast Asia through meetings and plans with Association of Southeast Asian Nations members, say analysts, but appears not to have the military or financial power to become a larger player in the region.
The effort includes Russian adoption of a five-year roadmap focused on trade and investment cooperation, the digital economy and sustainable development with the 10 ASEAN members.
Meanwhile, at the Sixth Eastern Economic Forum held last month in Vladivostok, Vietnam offered itself as a bridge to connect ASEAN to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union – an economic grouping including Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan -- with analysts forecasting Moscow would seek to shore up regional political ties in response to diplomatic shifts in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Russia wants to be seen as a global power for its own domestic audience,” said Bradley Murg, of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
“It wants to be seen as not just as a regional entity, and Southeast Asia is a relatively easy way to enter,” he said, adding that access to the Sputnik COVID-19 vaccine and the opening of trade corridors through China’s Belt and Road Initiative were providing additional incentives for Southeast Asian countries to improve ties with Russia.
“With the expansion of infrastructure, the expansion of Belt and Road and the connections to Southeast Asia to Central Asia to Europe through the Silk Road initiative, and as that’s connected to the economic corridors in Southeast Asia, there are arguments for increased trade,” Murg said.
Likes and dislikes
Another analyst said Russia was “privately outraged” by the AUKUS naval alliance – forged by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – and the rise of the Quad, which comprises Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Both were designed to counter Chinese influence.
“One of the most fashionable trends today is the so-called Indo-Pacific strategies that are invented by the United States,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the recent 29th Assembly of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow-based organization of high-level officials, executives and academics.
“All of this follows the line of eroding the universal formats in the Asia-Pacific region which existed for the past decades under the auspices of ASEAN,” he said.
His criticisms were delivered as the Russian government news agency Tass reported a detachment of ships and submarines had sailed into the Indian Ocean en route to a permanent deployment as part of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.
Lavrov also found support in Malaysia, where Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told parliament that AUKUS “could also provoke other powers to act more aggressively in this region, particularly the South China Sea.”
Hussein said the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting scheduled for Brunei next month was expected to strengthen regional defense cooperation in light of AUKUS, but analysts were unconvinced Russia has the firepower, money or trade deals to give it any influence in the region outside of Myanmar and Vietnam.
“Russia sees itself as a great power,” said Ian Storey, with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
He said Russia dominates the Eurasian Economic Union and has “strong influence and significant vested interests” in multi-national groups like the Arctic Council, a Norway-based intergovernmental organization aimed at promoting Arctic cooperation; BRICS – the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa; and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a multilateral security and development organization including China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
“It wants a seat at the table, it sees that as its birthright, it’s a sense of entitlement but it doesn’t like multilateral institutions unless it has an overwhelming influence in them,” Storey said, adding Moscow did not have that kind of “strong influence” in ASEAN or the East Asia Summit.
Hype versus reality
Russia’s traditional influence in ASEAN is limited to weapons sales to Myanmar and Vietnam and, as Murg said, “Vietnam has made clear it cooperates with Russia in a way it does not with any other state” – a legacy of their close ties during the Cold War.
Those sentiments were echoed by Storey, who noted Russia was a “very transactional player,” and that other countries, such as Britain, have much greater interests in Southeast Asia than does Russia.
For example, bilateral trade between Russia and ASEAN before the COVID pandemic was about $20 billion a year, while the bloc’s 2019 trade with Britain was $52 billion and it was $93 billion with Australia, $362 billion with the United States, and $644 billion with China.
“It’s a player in the region but it’s not a major player,” Storey said.
“Their military presence is paper thin. You know their closest partner is Vietnam and they haven’t actually conducted a military exercise with Vietnam, or maybe one, and that’s extraordinary for two countries that have had defense ties for decades,” he said.
That “maybe one” exercise was a reference to a 2019 joint training drill involving a single vessel designed to rescue distressed submarines. However, Russia has held joint military exercises with Laos in its far east Primorsky territory.
Murg also said that Russia remains too close to China to be considered an independent player in Southeast Asia, but on the economic front Singapore and Vietnam free trade agreements with the Eurasian Economic Union could provide prospects for future economic growth.
“But Russian investors have been relatively cautious,” Murg said.
“With Russia it’s yet again wonderful photo-ops, more meetings, more declarations of pathways to the future and that’s about it,” he said.