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Will Russia's new push in ASEAN be another failure?

November 5, 2021

Moscow is looking to play a stronger role in the Indo-Pacific area as the current epicenter of geopolitics is seeing an increasing push-and-pull from Washington and Beijing.

ASEAN leaders and Putin speak via video at ASEAN -Russia summit
'We now have real opportunities to intensify cooperation between Russia and ASEAN,' Putin said at the Russia-ASEAN summitImage: Brunei ASEAN Summit/AP/picture alliance

Speaking at the fourth Russia-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his country's eagerness to boost cooperation with Southeast Asian nations.

Moscow has made similar pledges almost annually since Putin announced a new eastward-looking foreign policy in 2010.

"Russian interest in its far eastern flank remains unchanged since Peter the Great: access to the region's development and prosperity," said Joshua Bernard Espena, a Manila-based defense analyst. "But its challenge remains the same as well: the presence of other great powers in the region."

Despite bold promises by all sides last week, analysts who spoke to DW said there is little optimism that Russia will boost cooperation on the economic front.

Focus on arms imports, military cooperation

Russia has free trade agreements (FTAs) via the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with Singapore and Vietnam. Some ASEAN countries, including Thailand and Indonesia, have recently expressed their interest in developing new bilateral FTAs.

Last month, both sides updated the ASEAN-Russia Trade and Investment Cooperation Roadmap.

Trade between Russia and ASEAN, however, was worth a paltry $20 billion (€17 billion) in 2019. By comparison, ASEAN trade with Britain and the US was worth $52 billion and $362 billion, respectively, before the onset of the COVID pandemic.

"Economic relations have never been the strongest side of ASEAN-Russia relations," said Ekaterina Koldunova, an associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations' Department of Asian and African Studies. 

Instead, Russia's influence comes through other means, Koldunova pointed out, adding that cultural interaction and people-to-people relations were one of the drivers of cooperation before the pandemic.

Russia has also received some praise for its "vaccine diplomacy" in the region, having donated COVID-19 vaccine doses to the Philippines, Vietnam and Laos since early 2021.

Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have all purchased or announced plans to purchase Russia's Sputnik V vaccines.

More importantly, however, "Russia has significantly expanded military technical cooperation with almost all Southeast Asian member states during the past five years," said Koldunova.

Russia supplied 26% of all Southeast Asia's arms imports between 1998-2018, compared with just 20% from second-placed US, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Almost every ASEAN member state also engages in joint-military operations with Russia, said Koldunova.

"In many cases, this kind of cooperation may help the region to have significant military and technological alternatives enabling them not to choose between the US and China," she added.

In the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's State of Southeast Asia report for 2020, only 6.1% of respondents said Russia would be their preferred "third-partner" to hedge between the US and China rivalry, a smaller percentage than for India, Australia, the EU and Japan.

Russia pushes for 'multipolar order'

Richard Heydarian, professor of history and political science at the Philippines' Polytechnic University, said Russia sees Southeast Asia, once a major area of operation for the Soviet Union, as "a platform for pushing for a more multipolar order."

"Russia is looking for ways to diminish the United States as a global superpower, but it doesn't necessarily want China to dominate vital regions, such as Southeast Asia," he said.

In most instances, Moscow has sided with Beijing, from opposing international rulings against China's territorial claims in the South China Sea to their joint-naval exercises in other maritime areas, Heydarian explained.

But at the same time, Russia is also improving its relations with China's nominal rivals, especially Vietnam.

Vietnam pledged itself as the gateway for Russia into the ASEAN bloc at the Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok in September. Vietnam, which was dependent on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, has maintained close cooperation with Moscow in recent decades, including on the economic and military fronts.

"Hanoi has always been Moscow's launchpad to improve relations with the region," Espena said.

Duterte 'cozying up with Moscow'

Since Rodrigo Duterte became Philippine president in 2016, he has on several occasions seemingly steered foreign policy towards China and Russia, and away from his country's traditional ally, the US. Defense attachés were deployed by Moscow and Manila for the first time in 2018.

However, in recent months, Duterte has swung back towards Washington after the Visiting Forces Agreement — which gives US military aircraft and vessels free entry into the Philippines — was fully restored earlier this year.

"Despite Duterte's desire about cozying up with Moscow, the latter could not penetrate Manila's institutions deep enough to influence the Philippines' strategic calibration away from the US," said Espena.

Putin's 'authoritarian appeal'

In March, Russian officials sparked controversy after attending the Armed Forces Day celebrations in Myanmar, a month after a military junta overthrew the country's democratically elected government.

While much of the international community, including China, have baulked at accepting the new status quo in Naypyidaw, Russia has emerged as a key backer and financier of Myanmar's military junta.

Heydarian said Russia has another source of strength in the Southeast Asian region: ideology.

"The politics that Putin represents is very appealing to some Southeast Asian leaders," he said, adding that some leaders look up to Putin as a model for the organization of society in the 21st century with his combination of "authoritarian, populist and nationalist" style of rule. 

In July, Putin awarded an Order of Friendship to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, now one of the world's longest-ruling leaders and who has strengthened his authoritarian command since dissolving his only real political opponent in 2017.