Moscow’s worries about India’s tilt towards a closer partnership with the US will complicate its relations with India and create an imbalance in its ties with China and other Asian countries as well
Russia's increasing sphere of influence in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries shows the importance of the regional grouping in today's world politics and has larger implications for global and regional security architecture. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's four-day visit to Southeast Asian countries Brunei, Indonesia, and Laos show the region's geopolitical and strategic importance to Moscow. In Jakarta's special ASEAN-Russia foreign minister's meeting on 6 July 2021, Lavrov stated that ASEAN is a 'strategic,' 'reliable,' and 'predictable' ally when instability has become a global issue because of exacerbation of traditional and new threats.
Lavrov also noted that 2021 is a special year for Russia and the ASEAN. Russia-ASEAN relations have completed 30 years, and it is the 25th anniversary of the full-scale Russia-ASEAN dialogue partnership, which in 2018 was elevated to the strategic partnership level.
The ASEAN region has seen dynamic economic growth for a few years now, and the trend is likely to continue. Russia's desire to align with Asia's growing economies has two strands --- the economic strand and the geopolitical strand. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the Sochi summit and met top ASEAN leaders for the first time in 2016 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of ASEAN–Russia relations. At this summit, the Sochi Declaration was adopted by both parties and the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) 2016–2020, was signed, aimed at the "Moving towards a Strategic Partnership for Mutual Benefit." The cooperation between ASEAN and Russia is expected to continue through a CPA 2021–2025.
The total trade between ASEAN and Russia increased by 17.9 percent, from USD 16.79 billion in 2017 to USD 19.8 billion in 2018, while the foreign direct investment (FDI) reached USD 58.03 million in 2018.
The participation of ASEAN countries in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) adds 600 million ASEAN consumers to Russian investors. Russia has already signed its own Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Singapore and Vietnam. Singapore is a gateway to the rest of ASEAN and the only member country to have a favorable tax system for businesses where 700 Russian companies are already based. Laos and Vietnams are also the key partners of Russia.
Lavrov also reaffirmed deepening economic and political ties with Indonesia, which will hold the G-20 presidency next year. Indonesia has charted impressive economic growth in the past decades and is the largest economy in Southeast Asia. Russia-Indonesia bilateral trade reached USD 1.93 billion in 2020. It is expected to see more developments in the region with Putin's scheduled visit to Indonesia later this year.
Russia has also enhanced its cooperation with ASEAN countries in other sectors including energy, science, technology innovation, research and development and culture. Russia's evolving relations with ASEAN showcases Putin's influence in Southeast Asia and is indicative of Russia's great power status in the region.
Russia has emerged as an increasingly important military player in Southeast Asia – it is the region's largest arms exporter. According to the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI), over the past 20 years, Russia has delivered USD 10.7 billion worth of military equipment to regional states. Russia is the second-largest arms supplier to Myanmar, constituting 15 percent of its arms imports. Russia has long been a major supplier of weapons and military hardware to Indonesia, which received 10 percent of Russia's arms export between 2000 and 2017. Russia has also had a successful strategic partnership with Vietnam and has security ties with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
The ASEAN countries' geographical location in the Indian Ocean is of strategic significance. Russia sees ASEAN's pivotal role in its Indo-Pacific construct due to ongoing US-China strategic competition in the region and globally as well.
The changing Indo-Pacific security nomenclature is equally crucial for India, now a part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with America, Australia, and Japan. On the other hand, Russia–India relationship has come under pressure and raised a question over the bilateral ties due to the formation of the Quad.
Moscow’s worries about India’s strategic tilt towards the US will complicate its relations with India and create an imbalance in its ties with China and other Asian countries. Also, Lavrov's criticism of Quad as "Asian NATO" goes against India's position on Quad.
On July 8, India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar stated in his address at Primakov institute in Moscow: “New developments have re-defined our understanding of the landscape, as also its risks and opportunities. India, with much of its trade eastwards, must look beyond anachronisms. A shared belief in the centrality of the ASEAN facilitates the ability to work together.”
It’s hard to assess the future of Russia-India collaboration and cooperation in ASEAN countries and Afghanistan when China and Pakistan are inching strategically closer to Russia.
Additionally, it's far easier for Russia to influence illiberal ASEAN states, as it itself is not too great an admirer of democracy and human rights. Russia has supported Myanmar's military regime by blocking a joint United Nations Security Council statement condemning the February 2021 coup. After the coup, in March, Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Colonel General Alexander Fomin attended Myanmar's Armed Forces Day event at Naypyidaw, an action that in effect legitimizes Myanmar's military junta and the coup as well. On his recent visit to Jakarta, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov showed support to ASEAN's five-point action plan to resolve the crisis and bring normalcy back in Myanmar.
Russia’s increasing involvement in ASEAN affairs is significant in the backdrop of the US-China strategic competition in the region. Russia's intention is to optimize the East Asian economies in the development of the Russian Far East for which it is also seeking Indian investment. In the era of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN countries can play an important role in Asia's rebalancing and can be the channel of economic prosperity, peace, and stability in the region.
(The author is Senior Writer at the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @Indu0109)