Throughout 2015, the Russian Federation engaged in a variety of initiatives in a region that often falls outside of the conventional analysis of Russia’s foreign policy- Southeast Asia. After a period of relative neglect, dating back to the late Soviet era in some cases, Russia has once again emerged as an external actor in this region.
Of course, Russia has been somewhat active in Vietnam lately, and has made some inroads with that country, such the re-opening of Cam Ranh to Russian naval vessels. Yet in addition to a revival of Russia-Vietnam ties, there are a few other states in the region that have generally been closer to either China or the United States with which Russia has begun to deepen relations. In particular, China’s longtime partners Cambodia and Myanmar have increased their bilateral cooperation with Russia, while even steadfast US ally Thailand has begun to develop a friendlier connection with Russia.
It is too soon yet to state that Russia has emerged as a major player in Southeast Asia. Nor is there substantive evidence that Russia will actually attain this status in the region. Nevertheless, Russian overtures to several Southeast Asian states give a clear indication that Russia’s policy of “pivot to the East” extends far beyond its relationship with China. In fact, the very fear that Russia’s Asian policy orientation may be limited to, or even subordinate to China is likely one of the biggest reasons why Moscow has begun to extend its hand of friendship to various countries in the region.
One country with which Russia has not had strong ties, but one which Russia has recently reached out to is Cambodia. Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, visited Cambodia in November 2015, where he and his Cambodian counterpart, Hun Sen reached a number of agreements. The various measures implemented included agreements on foreign investment as well as a memorandum of understanding and cooperation on money laundering. It was the first time since 1987 that Moscow had conducted an official-level visit to the country. Since that time, China has been Cambodia’s most important major partner, especially under the leadership of Hun Sen.
Similar with Cambodia, Myanmar has generally been under greater Chinese influence. Moscow’s relationship with the secretive government in Yangon, while growing, especially in terms of small-scale military cooperation, has also been rather limited. In the late summer of 2014, however, the Russian government signed an agreement with Myanmar to increase the volume of trade between the two countries from $117m to $500m, although trade figures indicate that Russia had not been able to significantly boost its exports to Myanmar going into 2015. Nevertheless, the two countries pledged at the end of 2015 to continue fortifying their bilateral relationship.
Yet another unlikely potential partner for Russia is the traditional US ally of Thailand. When Prime Minister Medvedev paid an official visit to that country in 2015, the Thai military government was in a slightly strained relationship with its allies in Washington. For Bangkok, the visit from the Russian Prime Minister offered a sense of legitimacy, especially in light of criticism from the UN. Furthermore, the governments in Bangkok and Moscow, as well as the Russian and Thai business communities have hoped for a deeper development in economic cooperation. This incudes an increase in Russian arms sales to Thailand as well as the possibility of conducting trade using the Russian ruble and Thai baht. Of course, such Russian overtures toward the Thai kingdom do not necessarily pose any strategic challenges to the United States and its relationship with its longtime ally.
With Russia experiencing some degree of economic and political isolation for its foreign policy adventures over the past two years, Russia has found itself in a favorable position to develop closer ties with other “isolated” countries. This may explain in particular Russia’s developing ties with Myanmar, as well as Russian overtures to the current Thai government, which has drawn some scorn from Washington.
Furthermore, conventional thinking about Russia’s recent overtures to various states in Southeast Asia seems to be that Russia is attempting to demonstrate to the US that it is a global power with far-reaching interests. While there is certainly merit to the position that Russia’s foreign policy activities in Southeast Asia have been taken primarily with the United States in mind, one must also consider the China aspect of Russia’s growing role in Southeast Asia.
In fact, there is a high likelihood that Russia is seeking not so much to undermine the United States in Southeast Asia, but rather is attempting to hedge against the rising power of China. With the US’s deep strategic presence in Southeast Asia firmly established, especially in places such as Thailand, it makes little sense that Russia would sincerely attempt to undercut the United States in the region, especially when Russia has so little influence or even historic legacy in Southeast Asia to begin with.
Rather, an increased Russian economic and, in limited terms, security presence in Southeast Asia provides an outlet whereby Russia can show that it is an Asian power independent of its relations with China. Furthermore, a stronger Russian presence in Southeast Asia allows for Russia to establish itself as a competitor in what has otherwise, in some respects, been part of a Chinese sphere of influence. This is especially true given the fact that many Russian policy elites perceive that China has been encroaching on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia.
Russia’s influence in Southeast Asia will likely remain dwarfed by that of China and the United States for the time being. Yet slowly and quietly, Russia is emerging as a player in the region once again. Its ability to increase and project influence in Southeast Asia, an area not traditionally part of its sphere of influence, may in fact be a metric by which to gauge the success of Russia’s “pivot to the East”.