The Russian dilemma in Southeast Asia as the summits approach

SNIFF AND SEARCH Security personnel use a bomb-sniffing dog while inspecting a hotel as part of security measures for the Southeast Asia Association summit in the capital Phnom Penh Cambodia, Monday, November 7, 2022. PHOTO AFP

Bangkok: Southeast Asian countries appear poised to maintain ties with Russia as a trio of global summits loom, despite US-led efforts to isolate Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine and its repercussions – rising fuel, energy and food costs, and supply chain disruptions – will loom over back-to-back rallies in Phnom Penh, Bali and Bangkok.

The diplomatic whirlwind begins this week in the Cambodian capital with a gathering of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was largely muted during the invasion of Ukraine. An exception is Singapore, which has imposed sanctions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked to send a video message to the ASEAN summit and has been invited to attend the Group of 20 (G20) summit in the resort town of Bali, which follows him.

G20 host Indonesia has sought to carve out a role as a peacemaker, inviting both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy, although neither has confirmed attendance.

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At ASEAN, Ukraine will sign a “friendship and cooperation treaty”, the first step towards establishing formal relations.

Despite the moves, analysts expect ASEAN members to continue their longstanding policy of strategic closure.

“I think what the bloc is going to do is continue cooperation with Russia in a very usual way,” Joanne Lin of the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “Many Member States are very good at compartmentalizing issues.”

Putin signaled a pivot to Asia in September in the face of a deluge of Western sanctions, hailing the “colossal new opportunities” offered by the region.

Analysts say Russia hopes to curry favor with Southeast Asian countries struggling with rising energy bills by offering oil and gas, while cementing ties with longtime allies such as Myanmar and Vietnam.

As Europe tries to wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons, Moscow scrambles to find new markets and offers huge discounts.

Indonesia’s state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina is in talks to buy crude oil, while Myanmar and Laos are also hoping Moscow can ease fuel shortages.

“Russia will try to present itself as a neutral economic and political partner, respectful of the agency and independence of Asean,” Asia Society Australia chief Philipp Ivanov told AFP.

Abstentions at the UN

Over the past year, the Kremlin has stepped up contacts with longtime allies in the region, particularly Vietnam and military-ruled Myanmar, a major buyer of Russian weapons for its fight against militias. pro-democracy.

Putin welcomed junta leader Min Aung Hlaing as guest of honor at an economic forum in the city of Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East last month.

Overtures have also been made to Thailand, its top diplomat Don Pramudwinai visiting Moscow last month for trade-focused talks.

The Southeast Asian kingdom’s crucial tourism industry, which is struggling to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic, is turning to Russia as sanctions make travel to Europe more difficult for Russians.

Russian carrier Aeroflot resumed direct flights to the Thai holiday island of Phuket last month, more than six months after they were suspended following the invasion of Ukraine.

Thailand, along with Vietnam and Laos – another longtime Moscow ally – joined China and India in abstaining in a UN General Assembly vote last month. last to condemn Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine.

Against Moscow’s inducements, Southeast Asian countries will assess the risks of violating US sanctions or stoking Washington’s ire.

Earlier this year, Malaysia was forced into a hasty denial after its ambassador in Moscow appeared to suggest it was willing to sell semiconductors to Russia.

And the threat of US sanctions has frustrated two major Kremlin arms deals in the region.

In July, the Philippines canceled a $216 million deal to buy 16 Russian Mi-17 helicopters.

Last year, Indonesia said it had pulled out of a deal for 11 Russian Su-35 jets.

China, but not only

As Western sanctions and boycotts rage, Moscow needs to bolster its supplies of raw materials, vehicle parts, semiconductors as well as consumer goods such as electronics and clothing.

Russia – Southeast Asia’s largest arms supplier for the past 20 years – is also desperate to bolster its strained military export industry.

“Russian defense companies have been willing to accept partial payment in raw materials [and] continue joint production,” says a report from the Yusof Ishak Institute.

And while China has been warmer, calling for deeper ties and avoiding criticism over Ukraine’s invasion, Moscow is seen as hesitant to become too dependent on Beijing.

Ivanov, of the Asia Society, said the pivot to Asia “is no longer a political option, but a necessity” for Russia and that diversifying ties would help it avoid “becoming a vassal state Chinese”.

“Russia has a lot of work to do in Southeast Asia to strengthen its economic and diplomatic engagement, and we can expect to see more of Russia in the region,” he told AFP.

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