Despite being cut short by a crisis in Mindanao, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's visit to Russia in late May highlighted warming ties between Moscow and some Southeast Asian countries. In total, 10 government-level deals were signed between Russia and the Philippines, including agreements on nuclear energy, agriculture and tourism, as well as commercial agreements worth close to $1 billion. An eye-catching defense pact was also sealed, opening the way for military exchanges and for the Philippines to procure Russian arms.
The visit marked an important step forward in bilateral relations, and gave insights into Duterte's emerging independent foreign policy. Of broader significance, however, is the way these strengthening ties underscore a recent shift in Moscow's foreign policy that places much greater emphasis on Southeast Asia.
Russia's relationship with Thailand has also intensified, including a visit to Moscow by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in May 2016, the first such trip in more than a decade. This resulted in an agreement on military cooperation, as well as a commitment to boost bilateral trade to $10 billion a year from $3.98 billion in 2014. It is also anticipated that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Bangkok in 2017 to mark the 120th anniversary of bilateral relations.
Additionally, Russia's "comprehensive strategic partnership" with Vietnam was further deepened in 2016 with the implementation of a trade agreement between Hanoi and the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow hopes that this will serve as the template for a wider trade deal between the bloc and the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This prospect was raised at the May 2016 ASEAN-Russia Commemorative Summit in Sochi, Russia, which also saw agreement on a five-year plan to upgrade Russia's relations with ASEAN to the level of a strategic partnership.
Russia's renewed interest in Southeast Asia is undoubtedly shaped by economic factors, as Moscow seeks opportunities for arms and energy exports. It is also, however, a clear response to geopolitical pressures related to the U.S. and China.
Russia has in theory been committed to reorienting its foreign policy toward East Asia for many years. Yet, until recently, progress was labored. It was only with the introduction of Western sanctions against Russia in 2014, following Moscow's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, that the Russian political and commercial elite was given incentives to make this ambition a reality.
In seeking closer ties in Asia to compensate for isolation from the West, Russia was assisted by a military coup in Thailand in May 2014, as well as by the election of Duterte in 2016. Concerns about democracy and human rights in Thailand and the Philippines caused the U.S. and the European Union to downplay relations with Bangkok and Manila, providing Russia with a valuable opportunity.
Worries about China have also encouraged Moscow's turn to Southeast Asia. Overall, the main geopolitical consequence of the U.S. decision to introduce sanctions after Russia's annexation of Crimea was to drive Moscow closer to Beijing. However, for all the warm words about the unprecedentedly close nature of bilateral relations, Moscow is aware that excessive dependence on Beijing leaves it with little option but to accept China's terms in economic and political agreements. To maintain some leverage, Russia needs to demonstrate that it has alternatives in Asia.
One option for diversification is Japan, which explains Russia's enthusiasm for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's proposed "new approach" to bilateral relations. Ultimately, however, the Russian side remains skeptical about the prospect of close ties with Tokyo, given Washington's significant influence over its ally's foreign policy. In addition, there is an awareness of the limited growth prospects of the Japanese economy. These factors further strengthen the appeal of the fast-growing Southeast Asian economies.
Given the poisonous nature of contemporary relations between the U.S. and Russia, there is a tendency for Western commentators to regard any expansion of Russian influence as malign. In the case of Southeast Asia, the concern is that Moscow will assist China's efforts to assert control over the region. In particular, attention has been drawn to the countries' joint naval drills in the South China Sea in September 2016, as well as the Russian leadership's opposition to a July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that largely rejected China's claims to the South China Sea.
This nervousness, however, is unfounded. To begin with, the 2016 joint naval exercises took place off the coast of China's Guangdong province, far from contentious areas. Additionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin's objection to the July 2016 ruling owed more to hostility to third-party intervention in a regional dispute than to active support of China's position.
Indeed, Russia's involvement in Southeast Asia should help to prevent any single power from establishing dominance. Moscow has no such ambitions for itself since Russia's economic and military strength is limited, even following recent increases. For example, bilateral trade between the Philippines and Russia in 2016 was a mere $226 million.
Moscow is steadfastly against U.S. hegemony, and has persistently criticized what it regards as Washington's unwelcome and provocative efforts to involve itself in the South China Sea dispute. At the same time, however, Russia regards the prospect of Chinese dominance no more favorably. This is because an attempt to impose Chinese hegemony would restrict Russian room for maneuver in the region and have serious destabilizing effects if actively opposed by the U.S.
Instead, Russia's goal is to see Southeast Asia emerge as an independent pillar in a polycentric world order. This would certainly suit Moscow's desire for commercial access, as well as its ambition to expand its range of Asian partners. At the same time, closer economic and political ties with Russia will give Southeast Asian countries greater leverage when dealing with the U.S. and China. In this way, Russia's growing involvement in Southeast Asia can be judged to serve the interests of the region.
James D.J. Brown is an associate professor in political science at Temple University in Tokyo and a specialist on Russo-Japanese relations.