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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during his visit to Moscow, Russia. Photo: Reuters

Russia romances Southeast Asia with trade and arms, but it’s no match for China

  • Russian overtures have been welcomed by Southeast Asia amid trade war uncertainties and disputes in the South China Sea
  • But even in embracing Moscow, the countries realise the limits of this courtship, for Russia’s primary relationship in the region is still with China
Russians poked fun at Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ill-fitting suit and slightly askew tie when he met the comparatively dapper Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev last week. “Did he just leave the pub? Does he know what [state visit] protocol is?” a Russian journalist tweeted.
But for Moscow, Duterte’s five-day visit was no laughing matter. Duterte, 74, was the guest of honour at the Valdai Discussion Club – a global forum where Russian President Vladimir Putin airs his foreign policy ideas – in Sochi, taken on a tour of the Kremlin and awarded an honorary degree.
He and Putin agreed to boost defence and trade ties, and Duterte urged Russian firms to invest in railway and transport infrastructure as part of his “Build, Build, Build” programme to drive growth in the Philippines.

Duterte’s trip – his second since taking office in 2016 – was just one of many recent meetings between Russian and Southeast Asian heads of state that have come amid a drive by Moscow to strengthen ties with its eastern neighbours.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is courting Southeast Asia. Photo: AP
Russia has over the past two decades engaged with the region bilaterally and through various forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. But Putin’s first state visit to Singapore last November sent a clear signal of Moscow’s focus on the region.

He attended the 31st East Asia Summit – a meeting between Asean leaders and eight dialogue partners – for the first time and, after that, Asean signed a memo to boost trade with the executive body of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

This month, Singapore firmed up a free-trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union and, in May, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Moscow to mark 70 years of diplomatic ties.
Last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad headed to Vladivostok for the Eastern Economic Forum, an annual platform that Russia has used to woo investments to develop its far eastern reaches and the Arctic region.

Asian leaders have been warmly welcomed at this forum, with attendees in recent years including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japan’s leader Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Asean summit in Singapore last November. Photo: EPA

Analysts say Russia’s efforts to build links across the region are part of its policy of diversification, as it boosts trade and grows its economy, which is the world’s 12th-largest at US$1.6 trillion (US$21 trillion for the US and US$14 trillion for China), according to the International Monetary Fund.

Said researcher Sharana Rajiv of the New Delhi-based Carnegie India: “Russia’s focus on the east marks a shift from a focus on the European side of Russia’s borders. Moscow recognises it can’t just have an undeveloped hinterland on its border with Asia.”

But underlying Moscow’s activist posture on foreign policy is also a bid to push against Western initiatives to contain Russia through sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Chris Cheang, a former diplomat from Singapore in Moscow, in a commentary for Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, where he is a senior fellow, said the Eastern Economic Forum, for instance, “served to again underline that perceived Western attempts to isolate Russia have failed”.

While Russia may no longer have the superpower status of the United States, or more recently China, it still maintains ambitions of expanding its geopolitical influence.

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Moscow has been accused of meddling in the 2016 US election and, earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Western security officials had determined there was an elite group known as Unit 29155 inside the Russian intelligence system executing a coordinated campaign to destabilise Europe.

Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Centre, said Moscow had adopted a “zero-sum” view in its approach to relations with Southeast Asian nations.

“To the extent they can take one of the US’ closest allies and drive a wedge in that relationship, that’s a benefit,” Gorenburg said.


In 2010, Putin declared Russia would “turn to the east” and step up its engagement with Asia.

The policy had its roots in boosting growth in the face of Western sanctions, and was also a way of continuing to cooperate, not compete, with China. Sino-Russian ties represented “the greatest success of Putin’s foreign policy”, said Bobo Lo, a non-resident fellow at Australian think tank Lowy Institute, in a recently published paper, adding that “the current level of cooperation is unprecedented”.

Lo noted that Putin and Xi had met each other more frequently than any other two international leaders – citing a comment from Putin where he said he had met Xi almost 30 times in the past six years – while bilateral trade had crossed the US$100 billion mark, with military cooperation reaching new heights.

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But despite the Kremlin continuing to make common cause with Beijing, it was also ensuring that it was not trapped in the shadows of a “Beijing-first agenda”and this had fuelled a surge in diplomacy across Asia, Lo added.

Among other things, Moscow had continued discussions with Tokyo over the disputed Kuril Islands, reached out to both North and South Korea, stepped up ties with Central Asian republics and strengthened its economic relationship with India, he said.

“The Kremlin is not so naive as to think that better relations with Japan or India will help contain the rise of China, and it is especially careful to avoid giving Beijing this impression.

“Still, it understands the importance of expanding its options, while gently reminding Beijing not to take Russia for granted,” Lo wrote in the paper, titled Once More with Feeling: Russia and the Asia-Pacific.

Russia is even showing signs of compromising in its dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands. Photo: Alamy

Russia’s focus on Southeast Asia has yielded some results. Trade between Russia and Asean nations grew from US$18 billion in 2017 to US$19 billion last year and reached nearly US$10 billion in the first half of this year, a 30 per cent increase over the same period last year, according to official statistics.

Much of this comes from arms sales. Russia is the world’s second-largest arms exporter after the US, and Southeast Asia accounted for more than 12 per cent of its arms exports between 2013 and 2017 – nearly twice as much as a decade ago.

For the Asean countries, part of the attraction of buying from Moscow is that, having borrowed from China’s playbook, it has taken a stance of non-interference in the domestic affairs of partner nations. It promises trade, investment and arms sales without ideological strings attached.

Russian arms come with no strings attached. Photo: AFP

Said Cheang: “It’s obvious given the current situation in which the trade and political relationships between China and the US are tense, the Asean countries would look at other major powers to enhance their economic and political links.”

Naturally, they would be drawn to those major powers that did not interfere in their affairs, he added.


Asean nations have other motivations for strengthening ties, too, especially as they grapple with uncertainties caused by the US-China tariff war and ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.

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In its deepening relationship with Malaysia, Russia has been offering not only to strengthen economic ties but also to share expertise and aerospace technology. Mahathir has invited Russia to invest in Malaysia’s educational system, and at the Eastern Economic Forum last month warmly received a proposal by Russia to establish an aerospace university in Malaysia.

The Lan Tay gas platform in the South China Sea, operated by Rosneft Vietnam. Photo: Reuters
In the case of Vietnam, it has courted Russia as a partner in oil and gas exploration in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

In May, Hanoi drew Beijing’s ire by licensing the expansion of an oil drilling project to Russia’s state-owned energy firm Rosneft. Following the move, Hanoi claims that China has sent its ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 into its territorial waters on at least three occasions.

Rajiv at Carnegie India said Rosneft’s involvement in the project showed Moscow might be willing to stand up to Beijing in Southeast Asia if its own interests were affected.

“Even though it has a neutral stance on the South China Sea, Russia is showing that, where its own interest is being affected, it will still move forward on practical areas of cooperation,” Rajiv said.

“This might open up opportunities of how Russia might behave in the future.”

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Rosneft also has a deal with Indonesia’s state-owned oil company Pertamina to build an US$8.8 billion refinery in Indonesia, and is in talks on various projects with the Philippines.

Putin has expressed a desire to double bilateral trade with Indonesia, which stood at US$2.5 billion in 2017, by next year. From 2000 to 2017, Indonesia accounted for 10 per cent of Russia’s arms exports to the region.

In the Philippines, ties with Moscow have been a focal point of the “independent foreign policy” Duterte has pursued since taking office, steering his nation away from traditional partners such as the US to focus on better relations with others, including China.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia. Photo: AP

That shift has been welcomed by Putin, who is eager to draw away Washington’s allies.

This week, Duterte confirmed he and Putin had discussed energy exploration in waters claimed by the Philippines near the disputed Spratly Islands.


The Philippines – which together with Thailand are America’s only two defence treaty allies in Asean – risks US sanctions under a 2017 law if it goes ahead with weapons purchases from Russia’s main arms export entity Rosoboronexport.

Further risking Washington’s ire, during his trip to Moscow this week Duterte said the Philippines stood ready to cooperate on counterterrorism efforts with Russia, while agreements were also signed for information sharing between Russian and Philippine businesses.

Analysts warn that the US sanctions, which apply not just to treaty allies but also to any nation trading with Russia’s defence and intelligence sectors, are a consideration for Asean nations in drawing close to Moscow.

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“The current state of Russia-US relations must surely be a factor that any Asean country must take into account when considering the extent to which it ought or would like to go in further building links with Russia,” said Cheang at RSIS in Singapore.

Experts say Asean nations will continue to be pragmatic in their approach to Russia – willing to increase economic engagement and buy Russian arms, but wary of trusting Moscow as a counterweight to Beijing’s growing influence.

Gorenburg at Harvard said: “There is an important economic relationship [between Russia] and a number of countries, but it is largely transactional.

“It is in the interest of each nation to develop its bilateral relationship, but it may not have larger implications beyond trade.”

A Filipino fisherman sails past a Russian tanker off the coast of Manila. Photo: AFP

Despite the jump in trade and arms sales, analysts say Southeast Asian nations are unlikely to rely on Russia as a security partner because of doubts about Moscow’s ability to stand up to Beijing on the issues that matter most to them, such as territorial encroachment in the South China Sea.

Russia’s interest in Asia is focused first and foremost on China, analysts say, preventing Moscow from adopting any stance in Southeast Asia that might antagonise this relationship.

Embroiled in its own economic and defence challenges and seeking to cultivate its own relationship with Beijing, Russia lacks the resources, political will and interest to meaningfully compete for influence in Asean, they say.

As Cheang at RSIS in Singapore put it: “Russia’s energy resources and weapons sales can’t replace or compete with the wide variety of goods and services, technological and other products that China, the US and the major Western countries, Japan, South Korea and India provide to the Asean countries.”

Gorenburg said scepticism over Russia’s capacity to back them up meant Asean nations would be unwilling to rely too heavily on Moscow.

“There’s legitimate concern in these nations that when the chips are down they would not be able to depend on Russia to support them vis-à-vis China,” Gorenburg said.