Confronting unprecedented isolation and economic punishment in the West, Russia has naturally looked East as a potential cushion. By all indications, however, Moscow is now facing massive geopolitical and economic fallout across much of the Indo-Pacific, including in Southeast Asia.
With the notable exceptions of North Korea and Myanmar, not a single regional state has backed Russia’s latest act of aggression.
Asia’s most advanced economies, namely Japan, South Korea and Singapore, have imposed unprecedented sanctions against Moscow in line with the West’s response. Meanwhile, Singapore and Cambodia, the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), co-sponsored a historic United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution, which unequivocally condemned the invasion of Ukraine.
While Vietnam and Laos abstained, the majority of ASEAN nations joined in the chorus of condemnation. Even China, Russia’s closest ally in Asia, has decided to walk a tightrope by repeatedly abstaining in major UN votes on the ongoing conflict, consistently emphasizing the need for de-escalating tensions and upholding the territorial integrity of all nations, including Ukraine.
China is expected to extract strategic dividends, including huge discounts on energy imports, from the expected expansion in its economic ties with an increasingly isolated and financially desperate Russia.
President Vladimir Putin’s violent attempt to forestall the West’s influence in Eastern Europe has torpedoed the Eurasian power’s once-promising pivot to the East, especially in Southeast Asia, where Russia has largely been seen as a potential “third force” amid festering Sino-American rivalry.
Almost exactly a decade ago, Russia announced its strategic reorientation towards Asia by spending up to US$21 billion to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in its easternmost urban hub, Vladivostok.
The following year, Russia hosted the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, where President Putin called for a rapid expansion in strategic and economic ties with Asia’s booming markets.
Not long after, Russia signed the “deal of the century” energy deal with China, namely the $400 billion, 30-year-long energy deal between Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Moscow noncommittally pursued similar deals with economic dynamos such as South Korea.
After its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia stepped up its pivot to Asia in order to cushion the impact of new Western sanctions, which wiped out up to $50 billion per year from the country’s economic output.
Facing economic stagnation, Russia scrambled for new export markets, especially in Southeast Asia, which in recent years has been in the midst of a massive arms buildup and strategic diversification.
Meanwhile, a host of authoritarian populist leaders consolidated control over key regional states in the past decade, from Cambodia to the Philippines to Thailand. Many have tried to emulate Putin’s distinct form of macho authoritarianism in their respective countries.
No less than Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has described Putin as his “favorite hero,” threatened to sever the Southeast Asian country’s defense alliance with the US in favor of China and Russia.
It didn’t take long before Russia dispatched warships and deployed a defense attaché to Manila for the first time in modern history, setting the stage for large-scale defense deals with America’s oldest ally in Asia. Neighboring Indonesia eyed the purchase of advanced Russian fighters, including squadrons of Su-35 fighter jets, to beef up its armed forces amid rising tensions in the region.
For its part, Vietnam remained a top Russian arms importer, purchasing $7.4 billion worth of Russian military hardware between 1995 to 2019, including submarines and fighter jets.
While the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia all explored large-scale Russian arms imports to arm up vis-à-vis a resurgent China, Myanmar beefed up its defense ties with Moscow to reduce its dependence on Beijing.
After its coup last year, Myanmar’s junta further stepped up its already extensive defense and strategic ties with Russia, a key source of armaments and training for the Southeast Asian country’s elite officers. Russian helicopters and artillery have been used in assaults on pro-democracy resistance forces that have targeted civilian populations.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader, has repeatedly visited Russia in recent years.
In line with those ties, in an outlier position, Myanmar junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said this week that Russia’s actions were “the right thing to do for Russia to consolidate its sovereignty” and that Moscow was “showing the world that it stands as a powerful nation in the global balance of world peace.”
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia further stepped up its regional charm offensive by offering vaccine co-production deals with key Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia.
Western sanctions, however, imposed structural limits on Russia’s economic engagement with the region. Russia’s bilateral trade with ASEAN stood at only $18.2 billion in 2019, a miserly amount compared with China’s $644 billion or the United States’ $292.4 billion. Fears of US sanctions, meanwhile, discouraged key Southeast Asian countries from making big-ticket arms purchases from Russia.
Just weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Indonesia decided to ditch its fighter-jet deals with Moscow in favor of Western suppliers, including France. The Philippines, a US treaty ally, also dragged its feet on purchasing Russian submarines, missile systems and fighter jets because of fears of potential countermeasures by the Pentagon, a top supplier and source of training for the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Singapore, a global financial hub, has led the punitive response in Southeast Asia by imposing sanctions of its own against Russia, including export controls on dual-use materials to Russia. It has also barred transactions with key Russian financial institutions.
In an emphatic statement, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared, “If international relations are based on ‘might is right,’ the world will be a dangerous place for small countries like Singapore,” thus his country “staunchly supports international law and the United Nations Charter, which prohibits acts of aggression against a sovereign state.”
Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a speech before the country’s parliament that the crisis is “an existential issue for us” and criticized Russia’s actions as “profoundly inimical to the security and survival of small states.”
“We cannot accept one country attacking another without justification, arguing that its independence was the result of ‘historical errors and crazy decisions.’ Such a rationale would go against the internationally recognized legitimacy and territorial integrity of many countries, including Singapore,” the top diplomat said.
Soon after, other key ASEAN states such as the Philippines and Thailand revised their more “neutral” stance by calling for the “cessation of hostilities” in line with a UN General Assembly resolution, which is not legally binding.
“The Philippines votes Yes to the UNGA resolution and expresses explicit condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine,” the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement this week, after its vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in an emergency session of the UNGA.
“We especially condemn the use of separatism and secession as a weapon of diplomacy for inviting and inflicting terrible cruelties and indiscriminate killings far in excess of that of any other kind of conflict,” said the DFA.
The Philippines also invoked the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes as a basis for resolving conflict among all states, signaling its clear opposition to Russia’s latest aggression.
Thailand, which likewise earlier stated it was “neutral” on the conflict, voted for the UN resolution, though it avoided mentioning Russia by name in its official statement released on Wednesday.
It said, “Thailand is gravely concerned with the worsening hostilities and violence as a result of the use of military forces in Ukraine, which has led to the loss of life, including of innocent civilians.”
Thailand has looked to Russia in recent years as a “third force” in balancing its relations with China and Russia. Coup-maker cum elected leader Prayut Chan-ocha, who has cultivated ties with Putin through multiple visits to Moscow, had earlier resisted pressure from 25 Bangkok-based ambassadors to condemn the Ukraine invasion.
The ASEAN co-sponsored UN resolution, which was supported by 141 out of 193 member states, made it clear that the vast majority of member states “deplore in the strongest terms the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine in violation of Article 2, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter” and “decides that the Russian Federation shall immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”
Although non-binding, the resolution saw only five countries, including Russia, in opposition. Key Russian partners such as China, India and Iran abstained, declining to fully back an isolated Moscow. Overall, Russia will likely double down on its energy exports to countries such as China in order to prevent a full economic meltdown after crashes of its ruble currency and stock market.
But Moscow’s hopes of becoming a major “third force” in Southeast Asia are likely dashed as key states line up behind Western sanctions and UN condemnation.