Russia finds ready friends in a Southeast Asia battling terrorism
Matthew Abbey says Asean countries including Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are forging ever closer defence and trade links with Moscow, a willing arms supplier that asks few questions
In another bid to attract Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence, Russia has increased its arms exports to the largest nation in the region, Indonesia. The arms deal comes amid enhanced cooperation between Russia and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
High rates of economic growth in the region have allowed governments to enhance their military expenditure. At the same time, the growing terrorist threat has prompted governments to pursue arms exports from Russia, a trade partner that delivers unconditionally. The response to terrorism in the region has largely ignored human rights concerns, prompting criticism from Western nations and civil society organisations.
Indonesian defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu officially announced last month that the government had purchased 11 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets from Russia. The ministry had budgeted US$1.5 billion for the deal. Indonesia is the second state after China to purchase the Russian fighter jets.
The recent announcement mirrors similar efforts by Russia to integrate its defence economy with Asean members. Military spending in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand hit record highs in 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Between 2010 and 2015, Russian arms to the region doubled, to US$5 billion from the previous five-year period.
Asean members are grappling with the heightened terrorist threat. Islamic State and its affiliates have gained ground throughout the region, particularly since militant groups in Indonesia and the Philippines pledged their allegiance to an Islamic caliphate in 2014.
In May, a bomb blast struck a hospital in Bangkok and suicide bombers allegedly linked to IS attacked Jakarta. That same month in the Philippines, IS-linked militants seized Marawi, a city in the troubled southern province of Mindanao.
Over 1,000 foreign fighters from Southeast Asia have joined the ranks of IS in Iraq and Syria. Armed with new skills, the fighters could raise the terrorist threat upon returning home. In short, terrorism is thriving and governments are responding with force.
As a response, Indonesia and other Asean nations have looked to boost their relationships with Russia. In April, the Russian navy made its second visit to Manila. The next month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited Moscow. While there, he sealed several agreements, including one on defence cooperation.
In March, the Russian commander-in-chief of land forces, Colonel General Oleg Salyukov, visited Bangkok to meet Thai military officials, marking 120 years of bilateral relations. The two countries had previously agreed on military cooperation in 2016.
Vietnam, on the other hand, has long been an ally of Russia. Vietnam and the Eurasian Economic Union, which Russia informally leads, have had a free trade agreement since 2016. The relationship is bound to open the door for similar agreements with other Asean members over time.
Of course, states have a legitimate need to respond to acts of terrorism. But some of the counterterrorism operations occurring in the region have drawn criticism. Duterte, for one, has said that the armed forces should ignore civilian casualties in the fight against terrorism. Human Rights Watch has also called on the Indonesian parliament to scrap proposed counterterrorism legislative changes that infringe human rights. And the decline in human rights standards following the military coup in 2014 has challenged the relationship between Thailand and the US, its traditional ally.
The Russian charm in the region has the potential to grow. Perspectives of Russia in Southeast Asia are largely different from the West, enhancing Moscow’s ability to take advantage of popular sentiment. Russian weapons are less expensive, yet modern and reliable. In response to the growing threat of terrorism, Asean member states are seeking arms purchases without conditions, and Russia is gladly supplying.
Matthew Abbey is a freelance journalist and political commentator based in Bangkok