Beyond the attention assigned to the arrival of Russian naval vessels in the Coral Sea coincident with the G20 meeting in Brisbane in November last year, there has been little public scrutiny of Russia’s recent activities in the Asia-Pacific, and particularly in Southeast Asia.
Russian engagement with Southeast Asia is certainly not a new phenomenon, with Presidents Putin and Medvedev clearly pursuing Asia-oriented foreign policies since the late 1990s. Recent efforts to expand relations with China have been teamed with attempts to expand links with Southeast Asia and promote investment in Russia’s Far East and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Over the last year or so Russian engagement with Southeast Asia has picked up markedly—in terms of overall economic cooperation, but notably in terms of strategic arrangements, nuclear energy discussions, and weapons sales.
Russian Prime Minister Medvedev visited both Vietnam and Thailand over 6-8 April. Vietnam is key to Russian strategies in Southeast Asia. Now involved in a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’, the two countries are economically tied across diverse fields including energy, finance and trade. The Vietnamese have recently agreed on an FTA with the EEU while, during his visit to Thailand, Medvedev also urged an FTA between Thailand and the EEU.
The importance of Cam Ranh Bay for Russian aspirations in the region needs no explication. To apparent US chagrin, Russia is now being allowed to operate tankers from the airbase there to refuel Russian bombers operating in the West Pacific. Last year, Russia and Vietnam also signed an agreement to simplify procedures for visits by Russian ships to Cam Ranh for servicing, repairs and crew rest. Cam Ranh Bay is now the base for three submarines (being equipped with cruise missiles) bought by Vietnam from Russia, with two more expected by early in 2016.
Thailand is a new agenda for the Russians and this nascent attention is a response to the advent of the new military administration of General Prayut Chan-ocha and Thailand’s movement away from traditional allies. Increased defence cooperation has been proposed, and a Russian battle group visited the Thai naval base at Sattahip in March this year. During the Medvedev visit, discussions centred on trade growth, defence cooperation and weapon sales, while several deals in areas including investment, energy and tourism were signed.
Russian ships also visited Myanmar in 2013, while a Myanmar military delegation travelled to Russia. The range of Russian visits in 2013 and 2014 highlights the various areas of cooperation. A joint Russia-Myanmar Military Technical Cooperation Joint Commission has been created, and some 150 Myanmar students and officers are currently studying at Russian military schools.
After a visit to Myanmar in March 2015, Nikolay Spassky, the deputy director of the Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom, claimed that Myanmar had agreed to cooperate with Russia in nuclear matters. The Myanmar Minister for Information U Ye Htut confirmed only that Myanmar was seeking to ‘use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes’. Russia and Thailand also signed an MOU on the peaceful use of nuclear energy in September 2014.
Late 2014 saw the Indonesian National Nuclear Energy Agency advising that it was working with Rosatom in order to develop a nuclear power plant in the country. It was announced in April 2015 that a Russian-Indonesian consortium had won a tender to design a multi-functional research reactor in Indonesia.
Golubev Aleksey Viktorovich, chairman of Rosatom, visited Vietnam (Ho Chih Minh City and Khanh Hoa) in October 2014, promoting Russia’s capacity to assist with nuclear energy production. Vietnam has had plans—now somewhat delayed—to establish two Russian reactors totalling 2000 MWe at Phuoc Dinh in southern Ninh Thuan province by 2020. To service these facilities, several hundred Vietnamese students have been trained or are now studying nuclear energy subjects in Rosatom’s closed cities.
Russia is promoting its military products across Southeast Asia and has been doing so for some time. Powerful efforts are now being put into selling Sukhoi Su-35 jet fighters to Indonesia to modernise its air force, with Russia promising to include technology transfers in the deal. Other weapon sales being discussed include electric submarines, amphibious armoured vehicles and helicopters.
Russia is also anxious to sell passenger aircraft in the region with Russia's Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Yuri Slyusar, who accompanied the Medvedev mission, seeking opportunities to sell Sukhoi Superjet 100 airplanes to Vietnamese carriers.
During the Medvedev visit, Russian Trade Minister Denis Manturov suggested that Russia could sell military aircraft and other defence equipment to Thailand to be offset by much increased Russian purchases of Thai rubber. After his return to Russia, Manturov revealed that deals on rail services, military aircraft, and the sale of three Sukhoi Superjet transport planes were also in train, while Thai military sources suggested that battle tanks might also be purchased. Thai Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has been spruiking the expansion of arms purchases from Russia.
Premier Medvedev noted during his visit to Vietnam that ‘cooperating with Vietnam also means extending Russia’s reach to the 10 ASEAN economies’. In this expanded endeavour, Russia will have to compete with a spectrum of other ardent suitors, including the US, China, Japan, India and Australia.