Russia is bigger in Southeast Asia than you might think

Moscow is just far enough from the region not to be threatening, but just close enough to have a stake

In the long years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the communist superpower with a global footprint – and that most certainly included Southeast Asia. The “domino effect” was feared by capitalist countries in the region, lest they fall, one-by-one, to the “red menace”, as Cambodia, Laos and then the whole of Vietnam did in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the USSR ploughed so many billions of dollars into supporting the three countries militarily and economically that it became a significant burden on its own finances.

And then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. No more arms and money flowed from Moscow to these client states. Russia withdrew from Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, which had once been its biggest forward-deployment naval base outside home territory. The “Cuba of Southeast Asia”, as some US strategists called the country, was effectively abandoned.

Some in the three communist states were bitter that they had been cut off so precipitously. But as Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington wrote in a recent essay for The Diplomat: “Russia had little to show for its investments in the region. Indochina was a black hole that Moscow shovelled roubles into, and its influence immediately dissipated.”

In time, acknowledgement of Russia’s influence or presence in Southeast Asia and the wider region disappeared almost completely. When Malaysia’s national think tank was planning its annual Asia-Pacific Roundtable a few years ago, I suggested one session at the conference might include Russia. I received incredulous looks in return, despite the fact that its Pacific coastline measures in the thousands of miles. Likewise when the Kremlin-linked Valdai Discussion Club held its Asian Regional Conference in Kuala Lumpur in 2018, there was a sense that it was very pleasant talking to these Russian visitors, but wasn’t it all a bit theoretical? Didn’t they live a long way away – and mostly in Europe?

After the February coup in Myanmar, however, Russia is back – and with a bang. Beijing may have joined Moscow in vetoing efforts at the UN to censure the Burmese military for its overthrow of democracy at that time, but it is Russia that has since proved itself a “friend forever”, as the coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing put it.

The generals are grateful for Chinese support but don’t want to be too reliant on Beijing for a variety of reasons, including fearing an erosion of their own independence and the fact that China has relations with some of the ethnic armed organisations that have been fighting against the central state for decades.

Russian help, on the other hand, comes without any risk of interference or unwanted strings attached. Neither is Moscow bothered by any criticism it receives for supporting the junta.

So it was that on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day in March, while the same military clashed with protesters, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defence Alexander Fomin was the top-ranking foreign official attending the ceremonial parade in the capital Naypyidaw.

During Min Aung Hlaing’s recent visit to Moscow, Mr Fomin’s boss, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, said: “We pay special attention to this meeting as we see Myanmar as a time-tested strategic partner and a reliable ally in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.”

“Time-tested” is the word. No one may have associated the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi with Moscow, but the generals had long-standing ties with their Russian counterparts. The veteran Myanmar-watcher Bertil Lintner reports that “on the day before the February 1 coup, a group of Russian and Myanmar military officers had a party” where they were “likely toasting the coup that was set to be launched the next day – and a new era in the strategic relationship between the two sides that is already recalibrating the region’s balance of power”.

Mr Linter thinks that Myanmar is Russia’s “strategic gateway” into the region, and there is no other country in which it could dream of having such influence. Although economically Moscow is not a big player in the region, despite hosting the 2012 Apec summit and announcing its own “turn to the East” in 2010, Russia still has cards; and this is not quite so sudden a return as it may seem on the surface.

Russia is the biggest supplier of weapons to Southeast Asia. It has sold fighter jets to Indonesia and Malaysia, helicopters to Thailand and the Philippines (even though both the latter are US treaty allies), battle tanks to Laos, and did so much business with Vietnam that from 2010-16 that alone accounted for 10 per cent of all of Russia's arms exports. Myanmar relied on Russia for around 40 per cent of its military procurement over the last 20 years and Moscow is sure to keep the generals supplied with the equipment they need to keep control.

This does not mean Russia is going to become a key part of great power contestation in the region. What it does mean, however, is that Russia is seeking to ensure it has a place at the table. Southeast Asian governments will not mind that if it is another actor that allows them to hedge between the US and China; that is entirely possible, as Russia’s closeness to China is not as deep as their leaders may sometimes make it appear, and their strategic interests do not always align. Further, Russia has no claims in the region, and shares the regional antipathy to being lectured by the US about democracy and human rights.

In the years to come, when the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic is going to become more and more viable, Russia will have an even bigger role in the Asia-Pacific. Geographical location and size – Russia is the largest country in the world by landmass – a sense of history, and a burning desire to be seen again as a major power: all combine to make it likely that once Moscow regains recognition as a player in Southeast Asia and the broader region, it will not cast it aside so easily again. And this time, many more may be happy for it to stay.

Published: July 7th 2021, 8:00 AM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National