Russia moves with new swagger in Southeast Asia

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MTO AUNG HLAING can make a lonely figure on the international stage. Since taking power in a coup in February, the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces has been persona non grata in many places. But at least one country has remained steadfast: Russia. His friendship with Myanmar is “getting stronger and stronger,” the general boasted during a visit to Moscow in June. Myanmar is also not the only country in Southeast Asia with which Russia is partnering. In July, President Vladimir Putin presented Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen with a “friendship” medal, and sent his foreign minister on an official visit to Laos and Indonesia. Seven of the ten Member States of ASEAN, a club of Southeast Asian countries, have purchased or are considering purchasing the Russian government’s Sputnik V vaccine. Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have even signed agreements for its manufacture.

Russia’s Asian charm offensive is nothing new. Since Mr Putin took office two decades ago, Moscow has diligently cultivated ties there, eager to sell raw materials to its booming markets and develop the anemic economy of its Far Eastern territories. . But some analysts argue that this “pivot to Asia,” as Moscow calls it, is actually a pivot towards China, thirsty for Russian hydrocarbons and with which Russia shares a rival, America. And as fears grew that the Russian economy was becoming too dependent on China, the benefits of sharing love with the rest of Asia became more evident. Thus, over the past decade, Moscow has stressed the importance of stronger ties with ASEAN.

The most obvious proof of this budding friendship can be found on the parade ground. Russia is the region’s largest arms supplier. Between 2000 and 2019, it sold $ 10.7 billion worth of tanks, warships, fighter jets and other weapons to Southeast Asia, surpassing nearly a third of the America, the second largest supplier in the region. Over the past decade, the Russian Navy has made more frequent stops in the region. Its armed forces occasionally conduct joint exercises with its Southeast Asian counterparts. Over the past five years, those ties have been confirmed by a flurry of defense deals – with Indonesia and Myanmar, but also with Thailand and the Philippines, both officially allies of America.

Moscow completes military ties with comradeship. Mr. Putin has been keen for years to attend ASEAN summits, and in 2016 began to host an annual Russia-ASEAN fiesta. Years of happiness have paid off. When in 2014, the UN voted on a resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Vietnam, Brunei and Cambodia abstained, while Laos apparently forgot to vote. Russia returned the favor this year, torpedoing the maneuvers of other members of the UN Security Council to condemn the military coup in Myanmar.

Governments in Southeast Asia welcome Russia’s courtship. Its weaponry is more reliable than that of China, and cheaper and less tangled in bureaucracy than that of America. Additionally, as America’s rivalry with China intensifies, many countries in Southeast Asia feel compelled to choose sides. So they like ties with other powerful countries like Russia, explains Elizabeth Buchanan of Deakin University in Australia.

The problem is that apart from arms and oil, Russia has little to sell in the region. In 2019 ASEANthe EU’s bilateral trade with the US was $ 292 billion and with Japan $ 116 billion. With Russia, it amounted to $ 18 billion. Little has changed since 2010, when the Russian Foreign Minister lamented that economic ties with ASEAN were “for the most part on edge”.

Russia’s foreign policy approach is “short-term,” says Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. Strategists know the country should focus on the rest of Asia, but “every year we see Russia overtake China” because it remains concerned about the trade potential there. But when democracy takes a hit in Southeast Asia, Russia takes the opportunity to reward its attackers, notes Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington.. When the coup plotters in Myanmar and Thailand seized power and when the irascible President of the Philippines seemed inclined to tear up his alliance with America (he later gave in), he rushed to sell arms and promise a lasting friendship. Unable to add substance to these overtures, however, Russia is content to thumb its nose at America and pat the authoritarians on the back. It is not so much a great power as it is a great troublemaker.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Bears with them”


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