Stepping Up Activities in China’s Backyard Russia Wants to Become Third Force in Southeast Asia After U.S. and China

Russia has recently interacted closely with China’s main Southeast Asian neighbor. At a time when the U.S.-China game is intensifying, Moscow is actively entering the picture, trying to provide ASEAN countries with an alternative to the U.S. and China as an independent force that is not involved in the U.S.-China rivalry.

Focus on China’s Backyard Lavrov Visits Indonesia and Laos

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia and Laos from July 6 to 8. He met with the leaders and foreign ministers of both countries, as well as the ASEAN secretary general. Indonesia is the seat of the ASEAN Secretariat. Lavrov also held a videoconference with the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers in Indonesia. Lavrov had also originally planned to visit Brunei, the current rotating chair of ASEAN, but the trip to Brunei was temporarily canceled upon his arrival in Jakarta because of the epidemic.

In an interview with Indonesian media, Lavrov set the tone for the trip to Southeast Asia. He called relations with ASEAN countries one of the primary directions of Russia’s Asia-Pacific diplomacy, and Russia supports a more important role for ASEAN in Asia-Pacific affairs.

On the eve of Lavrov’s visit, Russian National Security Council Secretary General Patrushev held a video conference with corresponding officials from ASEAN countries on June 28. Following Russia’s constitutional changes last year, the National Security Council, headed by Patrushev, has been playing an increasingly important role in foreign affairs. On June 29, former Russian Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev, in his capacity as Deputy Secretary General of the National Security Council and leader of the ruling United Russia party, held an online meeting with leaders of the ruling parties of ASEAN countries. The video conference was attended by leaders of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as leaders of ruling parties of other ASEAN countries.

Many international strategic analysts in Russia have been advocating in recent years that Russia should avoid total dependence on China while drawing closer to it and use enhanced cooperation with China’s neighbors, including with Southeast Asian countries, to balance Russia-China relations.

The ASEAN countries are China’s backyard. China is trying to manage its relations with these countries at a time when U.S.-China relations are deteriorating. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a special telephone conversation with the foreign minister of Brunei, the rotating chair of ASEAN, in April. Wang Yi visited the four ASEAN countries of Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines earlier in the year. Last October, Wang Yi visited the other five ASEAN countries of Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and Singapore. In the three months from October last year to January this year, Wang visited all ASEAN countries except Vietnam. In addition, the foreign ministers of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines also visited China’s Fujian province in late March and early April.

Supporting Burma’s military head against the West

In addition to the backdrop of the Chinese factor, Russia’s strengthened ties with ASEAN come at a time when Russia’s relations with the West, especially with the United States, are still deteriorating and no improvement seems to be in sight for a long time to come. As a result, the Putin administration is also strongly supporting the military regime in Myanmar, which is seen as a deliberate attempt by the Kremlin to send tough signals to the Western world. During Lavrov’s visit to Southeast Asia, he also stated his support for ASEAN’s position on Burma.

Burma’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing visited Russia in late June, where he attended this year’s international security conference in Moscow. Although he did not meet Putin, Min Aung Hlaing met with National Security Council Secretary General Patrushev, Defense Minister Shoigu and others. He also visited a number of Russian military and weapons production facilities.

Many Russian media commented that Min Aung Hlaing’s high-profile visit to Russia was tantamount to the Kremlin legitimizing the Burmese military government in power. The Putin administration has thrown Min Aung Hlaing a lifeline at a time when the Burmese military authorities are under international sanctions and are highly isolated.

Joining Burma’s military chiefs to limit Beijing’s influence

Some Russian scholars of Southeast Asian issues say that while Burma is China’s main neighbor and China has great influence in the country, the Burmese military government does not want to be completely subjected to Beijing, so it has brought in Russian forces to actively cooperate with Moscow. Russia’s role as an alternative force to China that can influence the balance of power in the region provides an opportunity for Russia to expand its influence in Burma and Southeast Asia.

Min Aung Hlaing, who is considered pro-Russian, has always maintained close relations with Putin’s administration. Not only does he visit Russia frequently, but a large number of Burmese soldiers arrive in Russia each year for training. When these Burmese soldiers return home and gradually assume key positions, they become an important lobbying force for the purchase of Russian-made weapons and for stronger ties with Moscow.

Myanmar is currently the second largest buyer of Russian weapons in Southeast Asia, after Vietnam. New arms deals are expected after Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Russia.

Arms deals a key issue Escalating military cooperation with Laos

Arms sales to ASEAN countries are an important part of Russia’s push for Southeast Asian diplomacy and a topic of discussion during Lavrov’s trip to Southeast Asia. Russia is currently discussing with Indonesia the sale of Su-35 warplanes and other arms deals.

Upon his arrival in Vientiane, Lavrov also discussed arms deals with the Lao leader. The Lao army also uses a lot of Soviet and Russian-made weapons and equipment. In recent years, the Chinese neighbor has had frequent interactions with Russia, especially with the two countries’ militaries. During Russian Defense Minister Shoigu’s visit to Laos a few years ago, Laos gave Russia dozens of T-34 tanks produced in the 1950s that were in storage as a token of gratitude for Russia’s help. As a major Soviet tank during World War II, the T-34s have been frequently featured in World War II victory parades across Russia in recent years.

Russia has a long history of involvement with Laos. During the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union trained large numbers of officers for the Lao Communist guerrillas and provided much assistance to the Lao Communist Party via Burma. Many senior Laotian officials and leaders, including the current foreign minister, have had experience in the Soviet Union, and many of them speak Russian fluently. The Russian military has been helping Laos in recent years to clear mines and other explosives left over from the Vietnam War, training demining experts for Laos while continuing to train officers for Laos.

Cooperation between the two countries’ militaries is also escalating. The two militaries held their first joint military exercise in Laos two years ago. In the next month, Lao soldiers will arrive in Russia, and the two militaries will hold a second joint military exercise at Russia’s Primorsky Krai exercise site in neighboring China.

Russia is also trying to participate in infrastructure development in Laos, including upgrading the main airport there, which could facilitate future use by the Russian military. A report by a correspondent for the Russian newspaper “Kommersant” who accompanied Lavrov on his visit said that China is actively expanding in Laos, building infrastructure, including a railroad linking Kunming, China, and Vietnam to Laos. But this project will not bring economic dividends to Laos, but will instead trap the country in a Chinese debt trap, which China will use to expand its geopolitical influence there.

Wanting to play an important role after the US and China, but Russian influence should not be exaggerated

Commenting on Lavrov’s trip to Southeast Asia, another major Russian media outlet, The Independent, said ASEAN countries are looking to Russia as a counterweight to the U.S. and China. As the confrontation between the U.S. and China escalates, it becomes increasingly difficult for ASEAN countries, which are swayed between the U.S. and China, to continue to promote such strategies of the past, the report said. In turn, the region’s major powers, Japan and Australia, and India are seen as members of a quadripartite mechanism to confront China and include the United States. Therefore, Russia, as the only other major power not involved in these conflicting confrontations, could enter the picture as an independent balancing force to exert influence.

But Streltsov, a Russian scholar on Southeast Asia, said that while Russia can play an important role, Moscow’s influence should not be counted on too much.

Russia will exert influence, and Russia may have an important part to some extent, but in any case, the key players in the region are still the United States and China,” Streltsov said. How the main rules of the game are determined on the ground will ultimately depend on both the U.S. and China.”

During Lavrov’s visit to Indonesia and Laos, cooperation between Russia and ASEAN in the fight against epidemics was also discussed, including topics such as the provision of Russian vaccines and the production of Russian satellite vaccines in Indonesia.