International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

24 September 2020

Russia appears to be cautiously building power in Southeast Asia, but until tensions between the United States and China subside, there may not be much room for yet more great power influence in the region, Joshua Espeña writes.

Russia’s quest for influence across the world is having its effects in Southeast Asia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On 11 August, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced its first ever COVID-19 vaccine candidate – Sputnik V – and declared that would soon be available to the public. Among other countries, the Southeast Asian nations of Philippines and Vietnam have already expressed intent to make use of it, despite credibility concerns cited by Russian virologists.

While this could be an example of Russia attempting to build soft power in the region, its emerging influence in Southeast Asia is much clearer in the context of the South China Sea disputes.

In terms of the regional security outlook, Russia rebuked the United States early this year, describing its Indo-Pacific Strategy as divisive and anti-Chinese. Even though India has attempted to convince Russia that the Indo-Pacific concept is not American-centric, Russia has doubled down on its criticism. Despite this seeming to indicate a closeness between Moscow and Beijing, the Russians are surely aware that China represents a geopolitical timebomb in the Russian Far East that cannot be ignored.

Russia’s cautious approach can be seen in its lack of commitment to carve an assertive role in Southeast Asia. In the 2019 ASEAN Regional Forum Security Outlook, Russia stated that it upholds principles non-intervention and conflict-avoidance, and called for parties in the South China Sea to abide by regional instruments.

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By not asserting its role in the South China Sea, it has so far avoided offending China and confronting the United States, but this does come at the cost of a greater role in Southeast Asia, something Russia may not wish to bear for much longer.

Vietnam, Russia’s closest regional partner, has provided a launch pad to increase its influence in Southeast Asia in recent years. At the ASEAN level, Moscow has produced a total of three summits in 20 years since 1996. In 2016, Putin met with ASEAN leaders for the first time, at which point the Russia-ASEAN relationship evolved into a strategic partnership.

Russia and ASEAN also recently expressed a desire to work together toward COVID-19 vaccine development, and in the past they have collaborated in other sectors like arms and energy trade.

Still, Russia has not made its voice truly heard on Southeast Asia’s most important geo-strategic issue – the South China Sea disputes – despite the fact ASEAN upheld the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea in its 36th Chairman Statement, essentially ruling that China’s ‘historic’ claims in the South China Sea are unrecognised by international law.

Only weeks later, the Philippines reaffirmed its claims in the South China Sea on the fourth anniversary of its 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Award. Washington followed suit by asserting that it will not allow Beijing to establish what it called a maritime empire in the South China Sea.

Vietnam may have supported that sentiment, but only did so by indirectly stating that it ‘welcomes other countries’ positions’ on the South China Sea. Its indirect support may be due to China’s relative power advantage as a neighbour and uncertainty about American policy given the upcoming 2020 presidential elections.

More on this: China-Russia: a pseudo-alliance in limbo

For Moscow’s part, it rejected the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Award used by Vietnam as a evidence against China’s historic claims. Given this, Russian and Vietnamese convergence in policy terms on the South China Sea seems unlikely.

Still, Russia is finding a way to influence the region. The Philippines’ foreign policy shift under President Rodrigo Duterte towards China and Russia resulted in an unprecedented scratch with its security alliance with the United States, for instance.

Duterte’s steps to reach Russia are well-known and its possible influence on the South China Sea disputes is clear.

In his second visit to Moscow in October 2019, Duterte met with Rosneft, a partly state-owned Russian oil company, and invited them to conduct oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.

This endeavour was followed by a productive exchange between Manila’s energy department and the company to work on the contract. Interestingly, Rosneft was also a contractor with Vietnam’s state oil company for joint exploration there.

Some claim that Rosneft’s entrance to the South China Sea complicates China’s desire to assert itself in the Sea without offending Russia. If this is true, it may embolden views that Duterte’s foreign policy is effective in its goal of hampering China’s assertiveness.

However, this is unlikely, because Russia’s relations with China seem to be more significant in economic and strategic terms to both countries than with the Philippines or Vietnam. Demonstrating this, China is pressuring Vietnam and Russia to drop Rosneft’s contract.

These choices indicate China wants both countries to know it would prefer Russia stay on the sidelines, and Russia may choose to respect this for diplomatic purposes. Or, it may decide the benefit it would gain from more influence in the region is worth the cost.

The completion of the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct could enhance Moscow’s influence in the South China Sea as a credible actor. However, with heightening geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, Russia’s quest for power in Southeast Asia will likely remain restrained.

For now, Russia’s strategic preference seems to be painting itself as a state with a lack of commitment in the South China Sea. But, if China gives it the space, it may see it as beneficial to amplify its cautious, if not dangerous, journey to up its power in the area, possibly with more ventures like Rosneft’s.

Most importantly, the countries of the region should remain aware of the way Russian power is flitting around the edges of their regional landscape, and do what they can to make the best of its growing influence.

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