Has Putin lost Asia too?

A number of countries in the East are reassessing their ties with Russia – albeit with notable exceptions

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an Asean-East Asia Summit last October. AP Photo
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"We are at a watershed moment," EU President Ursula von der Leyen declared not long after the Ukraine war began in February. "What is at stake is the stability of Europe and the whole international order, our peace order," she added, standing next to Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Council President Charles Michel.

By and large, the ongoing conflict has been dubbed as the greatest geopolitical crisis in post-war Europe, forcing millions of Ukrainians into mass exodus. While aiding Ukraine's resistance, Nato allies have been shoring up their defences among eastern-most members in anticipation of any potential showdown with Russian forces.

However, what initially seemed like an exclusively European crisis, a troubling denouement to longstanding Nato-Russia tensions, is now also upending Asian geopolitics. A little more than a month into the conflict, key regional powers have been recalibrating their strategic calculus in order to hedge against new uncertainties. The ensuing strategic realignments could radically reshape the future of Indo-Pacific security architecture on three levels.

First of all, Russia's once-promising pivot to Asia could now be in jeopardy. Facing a new wave of western sanctions, which have targeted the Russian Central Bank and the Kremlin, Moscow is scrambling for allies and markets in the East.

So far, China and India have indicated their willingness to maintain, if not expand, trade relations with Russia

Almost exactly a decade ago, Russia launched its own pivot to the East by hosting the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vladivostok. Eager to lessen its dependence on European markets and technology, Moscow sought new partnerships across Asia.

Offering mega-energy deals, advanced weaponries and offshore energy exploration projects, Russia presented itself as a potential "third force" in a region beset by festering Sino-American rivalry. In South-East Asia, Russia emerged as the biggest arms supplier, exporting close to $11 billion in weaponries and advanced military hardware over the past two decades.

Even US strategic allies and partners such as the Philippines and Singapore, not to mention non-aligned nations such as Indonesia and Vietnam, expanded strategic and trade relations with Russia. On their part, US allies Japan and South Korea, Asia's two most developed nations, also explored deeper energy co-operation with Russia.

Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict, however, has alienated some of Asia's most important players. For instance, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even Singapore have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, a majority of the South-East Asian nations backed a UN General Assembly resolution that "deplore[d] in the strongest terms" the ongoing war effort.

In recent weeks, even friendly nations such as Vietnam have struggled to conduct normal trade and investment-related transactions with a heavily sanctioned Russia. Neighbouring countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, in turn, have had to reconsider major defence deals with Russia lest they risk US sanctions. It's highly unlikely that Washington would grant waivers under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which targets Russia's defence industry and exports, to any regional partners anytime soon.

So far, China and India have indicated their willingness to maintain, if not expand, trade relations with Russia. While this provides some economic cushion, Russia will have to offer heavy discounts and favourable terms to its two major customers. And this brings us to the second major impact of the crisis on Asia.

India's refusal to condemn Russia's actions and, crucially, its decision to press ahead with major trade and defence deals with the Eurasian power has triggered a quiet yet consequential diplomatic crisis with the West. This is particularly important in the context of India's growing importance within the Quadrilateral Security Alliance, better known as Quad, along with the three allied nations of the US, Australia and Japan.

During the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, India's External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar confidently told me how his country sees the Quad as a "a natural" partnership among "four countries which have common interests, common values, and a great degree of [diplomatic] comfort". Less than a month later, India has been facing public criticism from its Quad partners.

Ahead of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to New Delhi this month, top US and Australian officials criticised India. US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo characterised India's continued support for Russia as "deeply disappointing”. Her Australian counterpart, Dan Tehan, called on India to co-operate with western partners in order "to keep the rules-based approach that we've had since the Second World War". The Biden administration has doubled down on its efforts to pry India away from Russia's embrace, most recently even deploying Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh, the architect of Washington's anti-Russia sanctions, to warn New Delhi against new trade deals with Moscow.

Dialogue has continued between the two countries during this period, including an online meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden on Monday, followed by talks between the foreign and defence ministers of both countries.

There are, however, few indications that historically non-aligned India would be willing to downgrade its warm ties with Russia, a major source of energy and defence technology throughout the decades. The upshot is the revival of long-simmering tensions between India and the West, thus potentially undercutting the burgeoning Quad alliance.

Finally, the Ukraine crisis has also affected the national security calculus of America's two most important Asian allies.

In Japan, which has territorial disputes with China, influential figures such as former prime minister Shinzo Abe have called for the development of nuclear deterrence, including by hosting US nuclear weapons. Over the next five years, Japan is expected to spend a record $264 billion to beef up its defensive capabilities.

South Korean President-elect Yoon Seok-youl, in turn, has also indicated his preference for stronger defence co-operation with US when he takes office next month, while signalling a tougher stance towards China and North Korea. As a global economic dynamo, and one of the world's largest arms-exporting nations, South Korea's foreign policy direction will have major ramifications for the region. Under a conservative leadership – which traditionally prefers close relations with Washington than the country’s liberals – Seoul might be further open to joining a broader "Quad-Plus" arrangement.

Overall, the ongoing conflict in Europe has spawned a new era of geopolitical uncertainty. What's clear is that Russia's latest actions on its western front have triggered strategic realignments on its eastern front with long-term implications for the Indo-Pacific security framework.

Published: April 11, 2022, 4:00 PM