To commemorate 20 years of relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, Russia on Thursday begins a two-day summit in Sochi, the same resort city on the Black Sea coast where just weeks ago President Vladimir Putin met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Moscow is signaling its own pivot to the east, and not just to China.
This Russian policy dates back to 2011, but is being bolstered because of Moscow’s growing rift with the West over Ukraine. Western economic sanctions and low oil prices have plunged Russia’s economy into crisis, so the Kremlin is looking for new partners and growth opportunities.
Russia is keen to increase arms sales to Southeast Asia, where defense budgets are rising. It is also seeking to market its expertise in the energy sector, especially oil and gas extraction and civilian nuclear technology.
There’s also immense propaganda value in showing the West that Moscow has other diplomatic and trade options, and that even within Asia it has options beside China.
Membership in Asean-led forums such as September’s East Asia Summit in Laos, which President Obama will attend, are meant to demonstrate to the world that Russia remains a global power.
But is it? Not in Southeast Asia. Not yet.
Russia’s economic interaction with the region is unimpressive. In 2015, Asean-Russia commerce was only $24 billion, or less than 1% of the member countries’ total trade. Russian investment barely registers in Asean statistics and is falling.
At Sochi, Mr. Putin may offer more details on a vague but grandiose transcontinental partnership between Asean and the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, a forum of ex-Soviet republics. But don’t expect Southeast Asian leaders to respond with much enthusiasm. Unlike the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, an economic partnership between Asean and the EEU is unlikely to lead to big trade gains in Southeast Asia.
Mr. Putin will be on surer ground pushing arms sales to countries rattled by rising Chinese assertiveness. Russia is already Vietnam’s main arms supplier. Russian-built fighter aircraft, submarines, missiles and warships have provided Hanoi with a credible war-fighting capacity should things turn ugly in the South China Sea. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are also eager for Russian arms, which are cheaper but often as good as their Western equivalents.
At the same time, Russia’s military footprint in Southeast Asia is modest but growing. Vietnam allows Russian warships and aircraft unfettered access to its military facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, a port Russia leased from 1979 to 2002. Much to America’s annoyance, Russian strategic bombers refuel there. Russian warships recently participated in two major multilateral exercises in Brunei and Indonesia. Yet compared to Europe and the Middle East, Southeast Asia remains a strategic sideshow for Moscow.
When it comes to the South China Sea dispute, Russia strives hard not to take a firm position. It can’t afford to offend Vietnam and China, both of which buy Russian weapons and are Russia’s “strategic partners.” But maintaining this balance could get more difficult as the dispute heats up.
Without naming the U.S. by name, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that nonparties to the dispute should stop interfering in the South China Sea, as the problem can only be resolved through negotiations between China and the other claimants.
This miffed Vietnam, but pleased Beijing ahead of a ruling at The Hague on the legality of Beijing’s expansive claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
One complication is that Russian state energy companies are active players in offshore projects in Vietnam’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. That may become a problem if Beijing chooses to forcefully assert its claims over these waters.
Such sensitivities can be expected to fester as long as Russia’s engagement with Asean remains superficial. It remains an underweight participant in Asean-related diplomacy and doesn’t have a formal diplomatic mission to Asean. It demands a seat at the Asean table, but pays little attention to forums in which it lacks the influence to promote its interests on par with the U.S. and China.
In the near future, Moscow’s Asian policies are likely to remain focused on China, with secondary interest in Japan and South Korea. Pivoting to those countries will be tough, given Russia’s focus on Europe and its “near abroad,” including engagements in Ukraine and Syria.
Russia’s interest in Southeast Asia has to balance with its interest in China, so Moscow is unlikely to get too close bilaterally with any individual Southeast Asian state.
We can expect more multilateral summitry like this week’s affair in Sochi—and the rhetoric will almost certainly outstrip the reality.
Mr. Storey is a senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Mr. Tsvetov specializes in Southeast Asian affairs at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow.