Photo: Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF)

Photo: Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) - Photo: 2020

Russian Influence in Southeast Asia Will Struggle to Be More Than Marginal

Viewpoint by Joshua Bernard B Espeña, UP Diliman *

DILIMAN, Quezon City, Philippines (IDN) – The Russian people have voted in favour of constitutional reforms that give President Vladimir Putin the potential to stay in power until 2036 through a landslide victory in a national referendum on 2 July 2020. While critics complain about voting irregularities, the changes mean that Putin could become Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Peter the Great.

The referendum sends a clear message to the world — Russian bravado and the desire to revive the former glory of the Soviet Union are here to stay. Putin has made headlines since 2000, receiving applause and criticism from leaders and observers around the world for his foreign policy. His policies include the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, ‘grey zone’ operations in Ukraine, military intervention in Syria, interference in the 2016 US presidential election, regime support in Venezuela and increased strategic partnership with China against US influence. Forbes even dubbed Putin the most powerful man in the world in 2015.

But there are questions about Putin’s influence in Southeast Asia — Russia’s great power status is less empirical and more rhetorical in this area of the world, with limited military projection, trade or investment. With Putin seemingly secure in power, the Russian government will continue its long-standing agenda to developing relations in the region.

Russia became part of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1995, became a full-pledged ASEAN dialogue partner in 1996 and acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN in 2004. Yet ASEAN–Russia relations have only produced three high-profile summits in more than 20 years.

The first was in 2005, resulting in the adoption of the Comprehensive Programme of Action (CPA) 2005–2015. The second summit was in 2010, leading to Russia’s membership in the East Asia Summit in 2011. The third was in 2016 when Putin met top ASEAN leaders for the first time by hosting a summit in Sochi to celebrate the 20th anniversary of ASEAN–Russia relations. The parties adopted the Sochi Declaration and signed the CPA 2016–2020. ASEAN–Russia cooperation is expected to continue through a CPA 2021–2025.

Russia has worked modestly in developing its relationship with ASEAN. Trade increased from US$500 million in 2005 to US$4.3 billion in 2017 while foreign direct investment reached US$45 million in 2017. Russia has also tried to engage in cultural diplomacy. Russia’s desire to integrate into Asia’s growing economies is evident. Russia’s 2016 Foreign Policy Concept states that establishing a long-term dialogue partnership with ASEAN is a priority objective. This desire came at a time when ASEAN had just launched the ASEAN Economic Community.

For ASEAN, deepening ties with Russia is strategically wise to keep options open, especially as the Sino-US geopolitical competition evolves into the unknown. But perceptions of Russia vary among ASEAN states — Moscow has been far more successful at the bilateral level than the multilateral level. Laos and Vietnam are longstanding Russian partners while others have recently recalibrated their approach to Moscow. Thanks to Vietnam’s emerging ASEAN leadership, Russia has a bigger launch pad into Southeast Asia.

The change of the Russian constitution promises several implications for ASEAN.

First, Russia is likely to continue to project a multilateral attitude towards ASEAN. Russian Ambassador to ASEAN Alexander Ivanov stated that COVID-19 may push the ASEAN-Russia strategic partnership into action through ASEAN-institutions. Ivanov was reiterating Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s support for ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms. But, in a multipolar world, Russia still lags behind the United States and China in its ability to leverage political and economic influence in Southeast Asia.

Second, Russia will seek to build the legitimacy of its sharp power among ASEAN states. Russia has the potential to succeed in influencing illiberal ASEAN states in the information space. Malaysia and the Philippines have recently signed agreements with Russian state mouthpiece news outlets like Sputnik and TASS for training and information exchange with their government news personnel.

We have seen these state outlets announce ready Russian-made COVID-19 vaccines. Russian virologists question the lack of information and data about the vaccine’s development. Yet, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stated that he is willing to personally volunteer for the vaccine. With Putin staying in power, Russian disinformation is likely to intensify in Southeast Asia.

Third, Russia will continue refusing entanglement in regional disputes. The South China Sea issue is thorny for Russia, especially in its dealings with Vietnam. The 2019 ASEAN Regional Forum Security Outlook testifies that Russia upholds non-intervention and conflict-avoidance, and calls for parties in the South China Sea to abide by regional instruments.

Yet, they leave those parties confused about Russia’s ambitions in the area. The Chairman’s statement at the 36th ASEAN Summit in June 2020 disputes Chinese historic rights in the South China Sea, putting Russia in a more awkward position because its neutrality is tantamount to ambiguity.

These implications show that Russian influence in Southeast Asia will struggle to be more than marginal. Putin’s administration will likely continue to play on elements of multilateralism, disinformation and ambiguity to maintain a modest amount of relevance in ASEAN.

Joshua Bernard B Espeña is a defence analyst in the Office for Strategic Studies and Strategy Management of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He is also a graduate student in International Studies at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. All views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of any institution or organisation. It was first published in EastAsiaForum on 14 August. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 August 2020]

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong prepare for a group photo with ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN-Russia Summit in Singapore, 14 November 2018. Source: ASEAN

IDN is Flagship Agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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