A breakthrough year for Russia in South-east Asia?

This year is likely to be an eventful one for South-east Asia. Elections in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and, hopefully, Thailand will define the broader direction of where the region is going. But geopolitics will not lag behind domestic politics in significance, especially as the United States appears increasingly unable to counter China's growing economic and political assertiveness.

Could the stars be aligning for Russia to finally recapture some of its regional influence?

Observers have defined Russia's post-2012 "Asia pivot" as something between a roaring success and an empty shell of a policy. China and, more recently Japan, have certainly been at the centre of Russia's efforts to craft a viable "Look East" policy, while Moscow has paid less attention to South-east Asia.

A commemorative Russia-Asean summit in 2016 was more about commemoration than anything else, and the Kremlin's attempt to push for a free-trade agreement (FTA) between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Asean was basically met with the latter's benevolent inaction.

Still, a foundation has been laid. First, an FTA with Vietnam has shown Russia's interest in opening up at least parts of its market to South-east Asian countries. The agreement came into force in late 2016 and, in the first 10 months of last year, Russia-Vietnam trade grew 36 per cent.

Second, Russia has shown a readiness to build relations with unlikely regional partners such as the Philippines. In October last year, it donated 5,000 assault rifles to the Philippine military when Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attended the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus in Manila.

Regular port calls to Vietnam by the Russian Navy and a recent visit by Russian strategic bombers to Papua also show Moscow's intent to project power throughout the Pacific.

In addition, one important element of Moscow's current policy that gives hope to Asean is the bloc's presence in Russia's latest geo-economic mega project - the Greater Eurasian Partnership. This is a vague but ambitious initiative that is designed to tie together economies ranging from Serbia to Thailand through agreed rules and standards, joint projects and trade facilitation.

Asean as an economic community, as well as its individual members, figure prominently in Moscow's plans and the willingness of South-east Asian states to join will greatly increase the Greater Eurasian Partnership's viability.

But what makes 2018 so special? Domestically, in March Russia will hold presidential elections, which Mr Vladimir Putin is almost certain to win. As this may be his last term in office, he might introduce a raft of economic reforms to demonstrate that he is still a potent and energetic leader of a country in dire need of new dynamism.

In foreign policy, Mr Putin will continue his "pivot to Asia", balancing China and Japan, although relations with Tokyo are still strained by a territorial dispute that remains no closer to a resolution.

The low-hanging fruit in Russia's cooperation with North-east Asian states has been picked, so achieving quick and visible progress in South-east Asia may become more cost-effective.

Perhaps more impactful will be Singapore's chairmanship of Asean this year. Russia and Singapore will also mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations, and this may see the signing of an FTA between Singapore and the EEU.

Such an agreement will signal that the Eurasian Union can make deals with advanced economies such as Singapore, more so if both sides are able to strike a deal on services and investment and not just reduce tariffs for trade in goods, which is not of significant volume.

Singapore's Asean chairmanship is also crucial because 2018 may be the year Russia finally attends the East Asia Summit (EAS). Russia has long been criticised for not once attending the EAS at the presidential level.

Asean diplomats have hinted that Mr Putin's participation would be an important signal that Russia takes Asean centrality seriously and is ready to promote its vision of an East Asian security architecture at the highest levels.

One of the reasons why Mr Putin has not attended the EAS is that he has always attended Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summits which usually occur back to back with the EAS and thus require almost a week-long stay in a region far from Moscow.

The 2018 Apec summit will take place in Papua New Guinea, not a priority partner in Russia's Asia policy and even a more distant location. This means that this year may well be the one when it would make most sense to trade presidential attendance of the Apec summit for one at the EAS.

Russia has a lot to offer South-east Asia, including partnerships in technology, counter-terrorism, arms trade and energy. But the key risks of deeper Russian engagement in South-east Asia remain the same - doubts about Russia's long-term commitment to the region, the limits of Moscow's close relationship with China and Russia's lack of financial clout.

But if Moscow sends the right signals at the right moments, 2018 may well become the year when South-east Asia starts taking Russia seriously.

• The writer is a researcher on South-east Asian affairs at the Moscow-based Centre for Strategic Research. The views expressed here are his own.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2018, with the headline A breakthrough year for Russia in South-east Asia?. Subscribe