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27 December 2016

Russia's Southeast Asia dilemma

Militarizing Russia’s pivot to Southeast Asia: regional and international implications

Driven by declining prospects in Europe and a threatening American ‘pivot’ to Asia, Russia resolved to begin its own turn east in 2012. Assessments have not been kind, dubbing Russia’s eastward course “a pivot to nowhere” and “another opportunity lost.” Faced with growing evidence of its limited appeal as an economic partner, Russia is playing to its strengths, focusing on defense and security cooperation, and arms trade. Though it has gone unnoticed amid developments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the recent militarization of Russia’s struggle for influence in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, has great implications for regional and international security.

From exporting arms to establishing a permanent presence

Russia has most visibly undertaken an offensive aimed at establishing dominance in the regional arms market. From 2010 to 2015, arms sales to Southeast Asia alone “more than doubled to nearly $5 billion from the preceding five-year period.” At the same time, the region’s share of all Russian arms exports rose from six to fifteen percent. The drive appears to have succeeded: Russia now serves as the main supplier of arms for Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar, who have turned to Russia for the procurement of combat aircraft, missile systems, submarines, and tanks.

Beyond arms sales, Russia has sought to increase defense and security cooperation at the bilateral level, targeting terrorisma salient issue for Southeast Asia, where Islamic State has recruited hundreds of foreign fighters and has had terrorist attacks carried out in its name—as well as narcotics and cyber-crime. Details are sparse and increasingly classified, but intelligence sharing seems to be a principal feature of security cooperation.

Arms exports are an important and time-tested tool of influence for Russia—and not just in Southeast Asia. Engaging in cooperation similarly highlights Russia’s international involvement. However, Russia has recently taken the provocative step of pursuing the re-establishment of a military presence in Vietnam.

There are material reasons for Moscow to value its relations with Hanoi, from its status as the fourth-largest purchaser of Russian weaponry, to the fact that it accounts for almost a third of Russian exports to Southeast Asia. Vietnam is also the first—and so far only—non- Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country to sign a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. Yet, Moscow’s interest in a permanent return to Cam Ranh Bay, which it used from 1979 to 2002, appears to be a reaction to Washington’s recent decision to lift a Vietnam arms embargo begun in 1984.

Southeast Asia between Moscow and Washington

Moscow’s decision to renew that Cold War arrangement, an aim announced by Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov in October 2016, was impossible to mistake for anything but a challenge to Washington. First, in the same breath, Pankov also suggested re-opening the Lourdes signals intelligence facility in Cuba, which was used by Soviet/Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service from 1962 to 2001: a clear attempt to evoke American memories of the Soviet presence in Cuba during the Cold War.

Second, Pankov’s warning followed a year of anxious official commentary on Vietnam’s loyalties. For instance, that June, Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH), an English-language resource seconded to state-run newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, had declared a “battle for Vietnam’s arms market.” The previous October Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) had issued warnings about Vietnamese entanglement in an American “Great Game.”  But a Great Game takes two, and the use of that historically charged term speaks to Russia’s zero-sum outlook on Southeast Asia.

The situation developing in Southeast Asia is not a new Cold War. However, official commentary reflects a mind-set similar to that of Cold War statesmen, depicting countries as geopolitical prizes to be won over at the expense of the other superpower. By framing arms sales and instances of defense and security cooperation as victories over the United States, whom the Kremlin has called its “chief competitor in military-technical cooperation,” Russia’s strategic communications project a successful foreign policy yet discourage potential clients and partners who are reluctant to be labelled as aligned with Russia.

Sending mixed signals

However strong its bilateral ties, Moscow’s commitment to the region is in question because of inconsistent participation in regional initiatives. Part of the problem is Russia’s absence at key summits, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), which Russia has ignored since becoming a member in 2011, a year before the pivot began. Alexander Gabuev puts it best when he says that “Putin’s perpetual absence at the region’s key security summit says much more than any official statement about his country’s pivot to the East,” especially since “Putin is the only foreign policy decision-maker in Russia.” That American president Barack Obama has attended almost without fail only further highlights Russia’s apparent indifference.

When Putin’s subordinates attend in his place, the situation is not much better. For instance, although Russia has attended the past three editions of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), it has yet to adequately discuss the South China Sea dispute. Instead, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s face at SLD, tends to focus on exclusively Russian concerns—“fascism in Ukraine,” color revolutions—stubbornly attempting to frame these as relevant to the Asia-Pacific.

Rocking the boat in troubled waters

Chief among the issues neglected by Moscow is the aforementioned South China Sea dispute. Officially, Russia maintains neutrality in a clear attempt to avoid alienating either China, a key Asian partner, or smaller but equally important states such as Vietnam and the Philippines. However, Russia’s well-intentioned noncommittal position hurts its standing in the region.

By condemning the dispute’s internationalization—in other words, the involvement of the U.S., which is welcomed by some parties—and participating in joint naval drills in the South China Sea itself, Russia strikes observers as vaguely pro-Chinese, and in doing so generates a worrying level of uncertainty about its sympathies in this critical conflict. Similarly, Russia’s relative silence on the subject can also be interpreted as that of either a junior partner to Beijing or a country too weakened by Western sanctions to assert itself, images that undermine Russia’s narrative of a great power driving the U.S. out of Southeast Asia and may encourage more forceful behaviour on its part.

Looking ahead

With the South China Sea a potential cause of the next major war, there is little room for error. There is no guarantee that Russia will be able to successfully divorce the militarization of Russo-Vietnamese relations and its pivot to Southeast Asia from the South China Sea dispute. Should Russia select Vietnam—or even the Philippines, with whom China is also at odds—as its main strategic partner in the region, it will have to reckon with the implications for relations with China, especially in the event of armed conflict. Russia cannot expect to militarily entrench itself in Southeast Asia without incurring some sort of cost.

As the start of the Donald Trump presidency nears, a U.S. withdrawal from Asia—a development that would embolden China—seems more and more likely given the incoming president’s comments on proliferation in Asia, his apparent recognition of Taiwan, and his plan to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Speaking in London after the U.S. election, foreign policy commentators Lawrence Freedman and Jane Harman separately warned that in the absence of long-standing U.S. security guarantees, Asian states would seek to fend for themselves, a recipe for regional escalation.

If Russia sticks to its Southeast Asian strategy, militarizing its ties with states who are increasingly in conflict with one another, it is certain to add to, not detract from, the chances of a regional conflagration. Putin has long viewed himself as a peacemaker. In what is guaranteed to be a period of heightened tensions in Asia, it is imperative that Russia acts like one, striving to reduce insecurity, not exacerbate it. 

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