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Russia's pivot east ignores South-east Asia

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country's "turn to the east" in 2010, his policy has been criticised as focusing too much on China and not enough on South-east Asia. Last week, Russia's Asian diplomacy proved the critics right.

While Mr Putin clearly relished being in the limelight at the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China, he decided it wasn't worth the effort to travel to Vientiane, Laos, to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS). Since Russia became a member of the EAS in 2011, Mr Putin has declined to attend Asean's flagship international event, preferring instead to send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

As Moscow has edged closer to Beijing, South-east Asia, and Asean in particular, has moved to the periphery of Russian foreign policy.

Why has the Russia-China embrace tightened over the past several years?

Personal chemistry is one factor. Mr Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping clearly enjoy a close personal rapport and meet each other on a regular basis. In contrast, Mr Putin's relationship with US President Barack Obama is downright frosty, while Mr Xi's relationship with Mr Obama appears less than warm.

A second factor is a convergence of interests. Western-imposed sanctions following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, together with falling oil prices, have hit the Russian economy hard, pushing Moscow to look to Asia, and especially China, to bolster trade and investment ties. Meanwhile, China is keen to buy Russia's advanced defence technology.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Hangzhou earlier this month. As more unites Beijing and Moscow than divides them, both have agreed to tactically cooperate on a range of issues that touch on
Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Hangzhou earlier this month. As more unites Beijing and Moscow than divides them, both have agreed to tactically cooperate on a range of issues that touch on their respective core interests. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The third reason is that Russian and Chinese world views are increasingly in alignment.

Both countries view America as their primary adversary, and they chafe at US global hegemony. Moscow and Beijing both conceive that they are the targets of a US-led containment strategy: that Nato's expansion in Europe is aimed at containing Russia, while America's Asian pivot is aimed at containing China. America promotes democracy, they believe, in an effort to topple the Russian and Chinese regimes.

Personal chemistry is one factor. Mr Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping clearly enjoy a close personal rapport and meet each other on a regular basis. In contrast, Mr Putin's relationship with US President Barack Obama is downright frosty, while Mr Xi's relationship with Mr Obama appears less than warm.

A shared sense of victimhood at the hands of the West also brings China and Russia together. Both countries feel that historically the West has taken advantage of their weakness to deprive them of territory and influence: for China in the South and East China seas during the 19th and 20th centuries, and for Russia in the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fired by nationalism, and in the face of perceived US opposition, Moscow and Beijing are now intent on reclaiming what they see as rightfully theirs.

A Sino-Russian alliance is not, however, on the cards just yet. Deep-seated mutual concerns - especially in Russia which frets over Chinese influence in its far eastern territories and in Central Asia - rules out a grand alliance. But as more unites Beijing and Moscow than divides them, the two countries have agreed to tactically cooperate on a range of international issues that touch on their respective core interests.

For Beijing, one such core interest is the South China Sea, and as Sino-Russian relations have strengthened, Russia has upped its support for China.

Previously, Russia had adopted a neutral stance, careful not to offend its two closest partners in Asia, China and Vietnam, which have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

But prior to the ruling by the arbitral tribunal in the Philippines versus China case over the South China Sea, Beijing leaned on Moscow to endorse its position that the tribunal's role in the dispute was illegitimate. Although Moscow's response to the July 12 ruling was relatively balanced, in Hangzhou, Mr Putin came down firmly on China's side when he said Russia supported Beijing's decision to reject the ruling. Russia's position is at odds with that of America, Japan and Australia, which have called on both parties to abide by the decision.

China will have been immensely grateful for Russia's show of solidarity on the South China Sea. It has also been very pleased with Mr Putin's decision to resume major arms transfers to China, including the sale of submarines, fighter jets, air defence systems and anti-submarine warfare and cruise missile technologies, all of which will widen the gap in military capabilities between China and the South-east Asian claimants. Starting this week, and in another show of support for China, Russian and Chinese warships will hold naval exercises in the South China Sea.

None of this is good news for Vietnam, which benefited from the tribunal's decision to reject China's historic rights claims in the South China Sea. Hanoi will also be alarmed at the burgeoning defence ties between Moscow and Beijing, and this will accelerate its efforts to purchase weapons from non-Russian sources, including the United States.

And what does the flourishing Sino-Russian nexus mean for South-east Asia as a whole?

While Russia clearly wants to do more business in the region, diplomatically it remains focused on the West, and in Asia on China. And although Russia sees itself as a Great Power and demands a seat at the table, it has little time for multilateral institutions in which it lacks significant influence, including Asean-led forums such as the EAS.

At the Asean-Russia summit in Sochi in May, the two sides agreed to work towards a strategic partnership and consolidate the EAS as the "key platform for a leaders-led dialogue" on the major political, economic and strategic issues facing the region.

Mr Putin's attendance at the EAS was seen by many as a key test of the Kremlin's genuine commitment to South-east Asia and regional stability.

Russia has failed that test, proving once again that Mr Putin's turn to the east is a pivot to China only.

•The writer is senior fellow at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2016, with the headline 'Russia's pivot east ignores South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe