Russians are coming

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

The challenges posed by a rising China and India may dominate strategic thinking across East Asia, but the re-emergence of another power is starting to tax the minds of the analysts and diplomats eyeing the trends shaping our future - Russia. For much of the 16 years since the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war ended, Russia was viewed as something of a joke within the region, if it was considered at all.

The remnants of the once mighty Soviet Pacific fleet lay rusting in the eastern port of Vladivostok; a once influential Moscow presence in allied cities such as Hanoi, Cam Ranh Bay and Phnom Penh shrank as its operatives crept away. The Vietnamese described them as 'Americans without dollars' as they watched hulking Soviet-era oilmen sweat at the poolside at crumbling state hotels, drinking rusting tins of expired pineapple juice and vodka.

A Russia re-energised by President Vladimir Putin, high economic growth and soaring oil and gas prices has been steadily challenging such images - and the last year or so has provided ample evidence that Asia is embarking on a new era of engagement with Moscow, which in turn is retooling itself as a Pacific power.

The habitually prickly Sino-Soviet relationship is enjoying a period of sustained warmth, helped by military co-operation under the banner of the six-member Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. The grouping links the states of former Soviet Central Asia with Beijing and Moscow in what is seen as an unstated challenge to the dominance of the US. High-profile military exercises in August in the Russian Urals and Xinjiang were on an unprecedented scale, involving more than 6,000 members of the military.

In a host of less visible ways, however, an even broader picture is emerging. Events noted in the last year include:

Regular patrols of Russian strategic bombers and naval vessels surrounding the shipping lanes of both Northeast and Southeast Asia. Military analysts point to published Russian plans to restore the former glory of the Pacific fleet, making it the most important of Russia's four naval fleets. Over the next three decades, a rebuilding plan is geared to ensuring Russia still has the world's second-biggest navy behind the US, including aircraft carrier battle groups. New bases are close to completion on the Kamchatka Peninsula above Japan to house the latest Borey-class submarines with its state-of-the-art Bulava-M ballistic missiles.

Ongoing talks with South Korean officials about long-term co-operation to develop the neglected Russian far east, which has suffered from a shrinking population in recent years. Any reunification between North and South Korea could further boost this development in the long run.

Expanding sales of Russian military technology to Southeast Asian navies and air forces react to China's military expansion. US congressional studies noted Russian arms agreements totalling US$29.1 billion in the seven years before 1995 - making it Asia's largest arms dealer (worldwide it remains third behind the US and France). The past year has seen diplomatically strategic deals with Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Mr Putin visited Jakarta to seal a US$1 billion submarine deal that also involved co-operation on oil exploration and telecoms investment by Russian firms.

Deepening engagement with Myanmar. While warning against tighter sanctions following September's crackdown on protests, Moscow hosted a high-level military delegation from Myanmar. Russia sold Myanmar MiG-29 jet fighters in 2001 and is co-operating with scientists from the ruling junta to build a reactor for nuclear research. Exiled Myanmese activists warn that Russia is far more influential with their country's leaders than previously thought, despite more public attention being given to the roles of China and India.

Intensified efforts to enhance the long-running trade, oil and investment relationship with its former Soviet-era ally, Vietnam. Officials want to double trade to US$2 billion within two years. Mr Putin recently described Hanoi as 'our old, reliable and very promising partner in the Asia-Pacific region'. Veteran Vietnam scholar Carl Thayer believes Moscow is keen to help Vietnam develop nuclear energy but notes increasing competition means old ties mean less. 'Russia now has to compete for a niche market where its products are modern and competitive.'

Anecdotal evidence suggesting deepening private Russian investment in property and businesses in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand - a trend that appears to follow rising Russian tourist flows into the region. Private investment capital, favouring London in recent years, is also starting to flow to the region's financial centres, including Hong Kong.

Diplomatic and military efforts to shore up existing good relations beyond East Asia, particularly India - a traditional friend of Moscow. Russian vessels continue to exploit resupply facilities in India as they expand an Indian Ocean presence.

Surveying the raft of developments, Sergey Gritsay, Russian consul general in Hong Kong, is keen to offer context. Russia's national interests, he stresses repeatedly, have long ceased to be ideological and are now based around pragmatic economics. In that regard, Asia is the place to be. And if Russia was seen as turning away from the region during the tumultuous days of the early to mid-1990s, it was never intended as a policy. The old tsarist emblem of the two-headed eagle still adorns the state crest - a creature that scans both east and west, reflecting the sweep of the world's largest country.

'We look both ways, Europe and Asia ... Consider that half of Russian territory is in the far east, bordering with China and close to Japan, so it is natural for us to increase co-operation with countries of this region,' Mr Gritsay says. 'We have started being more interested in the far east as our resources allow [us] to increase our contacts and trade. I believe it could be mutually beneficial for Russia and for countries of this region.

'Simply if you want to be active, you should invest, you should go there, you should work there. If you don't have the economic resources, you cannot do that. Right now it is the time [for] us to be more active. The market economy demands it ... if we can compete, we should compete.'

If Russia's national interests are now economic, how does Moscow define its strategic interests? Mr Gritsay's response reflects pride and a determination to ensure Russia is correctly viewed as both a global and regional power, one with residual technological might and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. He talks of his 'sadness' at attempts to depict Mr Putin's Russia as a return to the Soviet era.

In this regard, he talks of the need to ensure Russia's interests are respected.

'Our interests are also that Russia be accepted with dignity and proper respect for its legitimate interests,' he explains. 'Sometimes it is, 'OK, Russia is not a power any more, so who cares?' We can't accept that. We will do what we can to prove those who think this way wrong. We cannot accept double standards.'

Mr Gritsay also seems happy to justify ongoing arms sales as a core part of Russia's economic interests in the region. The legacy of a Soviet system dominated by a military industrial complex, arms technology is now a 'comparative advantage'. The country is determined to expand hi-tech investment under market conditions and military advances remain important. 'The military-industrial complex is the same all over the world. It always provides the most advanced technology,' he says.

Insisting Russia sells only defensive weapons and upholds international agreements, Mr Gritsay stresses the importance of the market. 'When we can, and when someone is interested, we are willing to sell.'

Alexey Muraviev, a strategic security analyst at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia, says the string of recent Russian activities across the region is no accident, and can be expected to intensify.

'It reflects careful planning revolving around the need to develop friends and clients as long-term economic realities start to shift,' Mr Muraviev says. 'Russia's far-east coast was once viewed in Moscow as very much the rear window during the cold war. That has changed. Russia now realises it was a mistake to withdraw so much from the region and the Pacific must be a new focus. The Russian far east will become a front window.'

One way the trend may reveal itself is a fresh diplomatic push for a new offshore base somewhere in the region. The post-cold war drawdown of the Russian presence in the region saw Russia walk away from Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.

A glittering prize of the cold war, Cam Ranh Bay - Southeast Asia's best natural deep harbour - was built into a vast air base and port by US forces, only to fall into Moscow's grasp by the late 1970s. Cam Ranh became its biggest base outside the Soviet Union, with a sophisticated electronic surveillance station covering the southern hemisphere. Vietnam is converting the area to civilian use as it opens up new areas of coast to tourism.

'A new base somewhere would be a very natural development,' Mr Muraviev says. 'Russian activity in the past year is already signalling a determination to keep an eye on international maritime traffic. It reflects, of course, the need to promote and protect increasing economic interests.'

Despite such ambitions, Mr Muraviev says he detects no desire by Moscow to directly challenge the US - still the biggest military power in East Asia - or China. 'The Russians have learned hard lessons from the cold war. They don't want to ever stand alone again as a counterpoint to a power like the US. They see themselves as somewhere between a global power and a superpower in a multipolar world.'