Lecture “Russia in Southeast Asia” by Bilahari Kausikan
Russian expansion into the region raises concerns in the West
Russia is rapidly expanding arms sales around the world. On December 20, Deputy Defense Minister of the Russian Federation Alexander Fomin confirmed in an interview with the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper that over the past five years, Moscow has signed agreements on military cooperation with 39 countries, and many of these states are located in Southeast Asia..
This expansion by Moscow is surprising to Western observers and is taking place against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between Russia and NATO..
Factors driving Russian arms sales to Southeast Asia include Moscow’s longstanding Cold War alliances with countries such as Laos and potential access to major ports and trade routes along the coasts of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, analysts say. … The sale of weapons is one of the elements of Russia’s plan to strengthen ties with these countries.
“Moscow’s motives are a combination of commercial and probably subversive interests, in the sense that any undermining of US or European military interests is a de facto victory [for Moscow],” Gavin said in an interview with Voice of America. Greenwood, analyst at the Hong Kong security consultancy A2 Global Risk.
Russian SAM Tor-M1
According to him, since 2000, Russia’s share in large arms sales to Southeast Asia has been 25%. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2010 to 2017, Moscow sold arms to Southeast Asian countries worth $ 6.6 billion – the same amount as the US and China put together..
According to the institute, Russia supplied to Asia and Oceania about 60% of the total volume of arms sold from 2014 to 2018..
At the same time, Russia needs to compensate for the drop in military exports to India, and the MiG-29 and Su-30 fighters purchased by Malaysia in 1995 will soon need to be written off. Greenwood said replacements for these aircraft are unlikely to be found in Russia as Malaysians are considering deals with American and European suppliers..
Russia still dominates Southeast Asia
As a result of falling arms sales in India, Russia has lagged behind the United States in terms of global arms supplies, analysts say. However, Moscow still dominates the Southeast Asian market, where regional players need high-tech weapons due to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, terrorism and competition between the countries of the region..
According to Fomin of the Russian Defense Ministry, progress in developing military cooperation with traditional partners like China and India is combined with attempts to open new markets in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos..
Russia remains the main arms supplier to Vietnam, where Moscow holds 60% of the total arms sales market, supplying Hanoi, in particular, submarines, and is looking for new opportunities in the Philippines, while increasing sales to Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar.
Along with this, strategically important Laos, separating China from Southeast Asia, increased defense spending by purchasing Russian T-72V tanks, BRDM-2M armored personnel carriers, Yak-130 fighters and helicopters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lao Prime Minister Tonglon Sisulit on the sidelines of the Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi, Russia, May 19, 2016
In addition, last month, Russia and Laos held a nine-day exercise, LaRos 2019, the first ever Russian-Lao military exercise involving over 500 soldiers. During the exercise, Russian tanks recently acquired by Vientiane were used..
Analysts believe that new joint exercises with Laos will soon take place. In addition, Russia is going to supply this country with even more weapons and begin training Lao officers in Russian military academies..
The action could be linked to the construction of a Chinese railroad that will connect southwest China to Thailand, Greenwood said. In his opinion, this will provide all project participants with additional access to seaports..
The growth in sales of Russian weapons around the world may be associated with the annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea, which took place six years ago. Following this, the West imposed sanctions on Russia, which led to a collapse of the ruble and a financial crisis, from which the country could not get out for three years..
Karl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, says military technology is one of Russia’s most sought-after strengths..
“The annexation of Crimea was accompanied by very harsh sanctions from the United States, and Russia … tried to recover by developing the domestic market. It didn’t work, and they were forced to export, and one of the things that Russia has is military technology, ”Thayer said in an interview with Voice of America..
Along with this, one of the problems that South Asian countries face when buying weapons is the strict requirements from the United States. Washington gives other states access to high-tech weapons only on the condition that human rights are respected in those countries. Russia, on the other hand, does not make any demands, offering concessional and government loans, barter deals, supply of spare parts and maintenance..
Don Greenlees, a senior advisor at the University of Melbourne think tank Asialink, says the cost of US weapons and terms of sale, along with the sanctions, have made Russia a more convenient arms seller for many nations..
“If you need a truly high-class military technology and you are a country in the Southeast Asian region, you turn to either Moscow or Washington. In recent years, Washington has not eased the conditions for acquiring the best sets of weapons for many of these countries, “says Greenlees, adding that the price factor also plays against the United States – the cost of American weapons is higher than Russian.
“So Russia has become a preferred arms supplier for many of these countries,” says Greenlees..
China does not mind?
Thayer says Moscow has to oppose any sanctions-related isolation and strengthen its relationship with Vietnam – Russia’s long-standing strategic partner – to develop its relationship with the region as a whole. However, Laos, he said, is “just one small stroke in the big picture.”.
According to Greenlees, Russia’s strengthening in the region is still in its infancy, but from a geopolitical point of view, everyone is concerned about the relationship between Moscow and Beijing..
So far, China has not complained about Russian attempts to gain a foothold in Beijing’s traditional fiefdom. Moreover, China could benefit from potential arms sales to countries to which the US refuses to sell arms because of human rights violations. Analysts believe that this could lead to a strengthening of the alliance between Beijing and Moscow in Southeast Asia.
“If this leads to increased confrontation between East and West, it could become a problem for the region,” says Greenlees..