“Where the enemy advances, we retreat. Where the enemy retreats, we pursue,” said Mao Zedong, China’s founding father, to emphasize the importance of strategic dynamism in times of crisis. having embarked on an all-out invasion of Ukraine, which unleashed a crippling wave of Western sanctions and left its economy in need of an urgent lifeline, Russia should now follow Mao’s playbook and seek new opportunities in the East.
The problem, however, is that Russia’s unprovoked aggression in Europe may have ruined its once exorbitant chances of making a successful pivot to the lucrative markets of Asia.
Indeed, while China has offered some diplomatic and economic support to Russia since the invasion, many other economic heavyweights in the region have made it clear that they are horrified by the brutal actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. .
Asia’s most industrialized economies – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia. The vast majority of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) supported the UN General Assembly resolution, which unequivocally condemned Russia’s armed aggression against a sovereign neighbor . Crucially, even traditionally pro-Moscow countries like Vietnam are struggling to trade with Russia amid sweeping international sanctions, which now extend to global shipping companies as well as financial institutions. So, having been completely squeezed out of Western markets, Moscow is unlikely to find a welcoming new home in Asia.
March to the East
For centuries, the double-headed eagle has been a symbol strongly associated with Russia, representing the mighty empire’s desire to expand its influence both west and east. Yet it wasn’t until the formation of the Soviet Union and the start of the Cold War that Russia – the beating heart of the union – really began to carve out spheres of influence across the Asia, including much of Indochina. In particular, Moscow served as a key ally to communist forces in Vietnam, which managed to defeat France, the United States and ultimately China.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, however, ushered in a prolonged era of Russia’s absence from strategic East Asian affairs. Hampered by economic crises at home and troubled by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) across Central and Eastern Europe, Russia has remained largely on the defensive – and indifferent to the East Asia – well into the first decade of the 21st century. But over the past decade, Eurasian power has begun to consciously shift its strategic focus. In 2012, for example, it spent $21 billion on its easternmost major city, Vladivostok, in preparation for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit to be held there. The following year, President Putin reiterated his country’s eastward pivot at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where he pledged to revitalize public infrastructure in the Siberian region and seek new opportunities. in Asian markets. Soon after, Russia finalized a massive 30-year energy deal with China worth $400 billion, ushering in a new era of economic cooperation with Asia’s major economic powers.
In 2016, Putin personally visited Japan to improve strategic and economic ties with the world’s third-largest economy. Russia has also offered space technology and energy resources through a Trans-Korean Pipeline project to neighboring South Korea, another Asian economic powerhouse.
In return for its efforts, Russia has welcomed consumer goods as well as manufacturing investments from Asia.
A golden opportunity
Especially since its annexation of Crimea in 2014, which triggered Western sanctions and a consequent recession, Russia has focused its attention on lucrative eastern markets. Not surprisingly, it is in Southeast Asia that Russia has found the most promising market opportunities. After all, the region is home to several of Russia’s traditional allies such as Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, which have historically relied on Russian weaponry and military training to bolster their national defenses.
Between 1995 and 2019, Vietnam alone bought $7.4 billion worth of Russian armaments, including submarines, amid growing territorial and maritime tensions with China. In 2019, the Southeast Asian country also signed a $350 million contract to acquire training aircraft from Moscow. Over the past two decades, Russia has exported up to $10.7 billion worth of military equipment to Southeast Asia, dwarfing the volume of exports from China ($2.6 billion) and the United States ($8.2 billion).
Crucially, the recent rise of strongman populists in Southeast Asia’s two largest nations, Indonesia and the Philippines, has presented a golden opportunity for Russia.
Soon after taking office, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte described the Russian president as his “favorite hero”, marking the start of a new era of bilateral defense cooperation between Manila and Moscow. Soon, Russia began regularly deploying warships to the country’s waters for goodwill visits. Moscow has also assigned a defense attaché to the Philippines – the first in the country’s history of relations – to expedite large-scale defense deals.
Meanwhile, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, a former general known for his macho Putin-esque antics, has begun striking massive arms deals with Russia to modernize the South Asian country’s defense forces. South East.
Many Southeast Asian countries have also invited major Russian energy companies to invest in their offshore energy resources across the South China Sea and the waters off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.
When the pandemic hit Asia, Russia also became the first major power to offer COVID-19 vaccines to Southeast Asia, and even entered into production joint ventures with Vietnam and Indonesia. Overall, Russia has successfully presented itself as an alternative “third force” amid heightened Sino-US competition in the region.
With its invasion of Ukraine, however, Russia has jeopardized its hard-earned strategic capital in Asia. So far, North Korea is the only state in the region to have consistently and publicly backed Moscow’s latest scheme, and among ASEAN countries only Laos and Vietnam abstained in the vote on the UNGA resolution condemning the invasion.
As former victims of colonialism, much of Asia was turned upside down by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of a sovereign neighbor. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan condemned Russia’s “act of war” and described it as an “existential” concern for her country. In a rare move, the city-state, which serves as a global financial hub, has joined the major regional economies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in imposing sweeping sanctions on Russia.
Even before its invasion of Ukraine, Russia was struggling to expand its trade and investment footprint in the region due to Western sanctions. In 2019, bilateral Russia-ASEAN trade amounted to just $18.2 billion, eclipsed by that of China ($644 billion) and the United States ($292.4 billion). Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have also made sure to be relatively less dependent on Russian oil and gas imports, preferring to deal with producers in the Middle East.
Amid a new round of even more punitive sanctions, which target key sectors of the Russian economy, it will become even more difficult, if not impossible, for Moscow to expand its energy exports to the most industrialized countries in the world. Asia or to fully implement its recent free trade agreements. with people like Singapore and Vietnam. Crucially, Moscow is also likely to suffer major setbacks in defense equipment exports. For years, the prospect of US sanctions has deterred major Southeast Asian states from procuring Russian weapons on a large scale. Following the events of the last two weeks, they will probably be even more reluctant to get involved in such transactions with Russia.
Earlier this year, Indonesia scrapped a multibillion-dollar defense deal with Moscow in favor of deals with France and the United States, in part due to concerns over Western sanctions. As Washington further tightens the noose around the Russian industrial and military complex in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, more regional states, especially US allies such as the Philippines, should reconsider any major purchases from Moscow. Already ostracized in Europe, a heavily sanctioned Russia could also struggle to find much love in Asia.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.