Justified emphasis on the current Ukraine crisis should not lead us to make the mistake of overlooking Russia’s policies in East Asia. Normally Russia’s policies in Southeast Asia do not get much attention. But they reveal important motifs and themes in Russia’s overall foreign policy and its response to China’s rising power and to trends in Asian security. Examination of those policies reveals much about Russian policy in Asia and in general. In particular they demonstrate Moscow’s quest for total independence and tactical flexibility as well as its habitual reliance on energy and arms sales in strife-torn areas as the instruments by which it seeks to gain leverage on regional security agendas. Moreover, they also demonstrate that like other powers, Russia is pursuing what may be called a hedging strategy against China in Asia. On the one hand it supports China against the US and on the other works to constrain Chinese power in Asia.
Southeast Asia’s importance to Russia has steadily risen due to Russia’s own pivot to Asia.[i] As part of that pivot, Moscow recently proclaimed its intention to pursue negotiations for naval bases in the Seychelles and Singapore.[ii] This is on top of Russia’s previously overt efforts to attain basing at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.[iii] Not surprisingly, these moves will not be welcome in China and they may be seen as representing (along with Moscow’s parallel rapprochement with Japan) Russia’s response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent invitation to join China “in guaranteeing security and stability in the Asia-Pacific Region.”[iv] In other words, even as Russo-Chinese cooperation against US power, interests and values continues on global issues and in areas of unimportance to China like Syria, Russia strives for geopolitical independence in Asia. Were Moscow to accept Xi’s offer, it would be admitting that it has become China’s “junior brother” in Asia; a role that Russia bridles at accepting.
Therefore Moscow is making these “chess moves” to Southeast Asia to demonstrate its true independence and great power status. While those attributes of Russia’ standing in Asia are debatable, there is no doubt that Vietnam, for one, has fully embraced Russia in an effort to get allies to restrain China even as it continues on its own accord to pursue a diplomatic resolution of outstanding issues with China. Indeed, Vietnam’s partnerships with Moscow and Washington strengthen its leverage vis-à-vis Beijing, thereby enabling it to pursue both military and economic enhancement and diplomatic resolution of disputed issues. Thus, despite the allegedly deepening Sino-Russian friendship (at least against the US), in fact Russia has quietly but openly resisted Chinese encroachments in Southeast Asia and is forging a deeper military-political relationship with Vietnam.
Beijing has repeatedly demanded that Moscow terminate energy explorations in the South China Sea, clearly responding to Russia’s visibly enhanced interests in Southeast Asia. In 2012 Russia announced its interest in regaining a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, a step probably connected to joint Russo-Vietnamese energy projects off Vietnam’s coast, and a means of checking China in the South China Sea. Gazprom also signed a deal to explore two licensed blocks in Vietnam’s continental shelf in the South China Sea, taking a 49 percent stake in the offshore blocks, which hold an estimated 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and more than twenty-five million tons of gas condensate. Those actions precipitated Beijing’s demand that Moscow leave the area. However, despite its silence, presumably to avoid antagonizing China, Moscow stayed put. Russia has subsequently increased support for Vietnam regarding energy exploration in the South China Sea and, perhaps more ominously from China’s standpoint, in arms sales and defense cooperation.[v]
Vietnam, clearly aiming to deter Chinese threats, has become a major customer for Russian weapons, primarily submarines and planes. Russia and Vietnam have been “strategic partners” since 2001 and they upgraded the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2012.[vi] Bilateral trade and scientific-cultural exchanges are growing and Russia ranks 18th among 101 foreign investors in Vietnam focusing on mining, processing, and manufacturing industries (particularly energy). In addition, Russia is helping Vietnam build a nuclear power plant.[vii]
The most striking and consequential forms of cooperation are in the military sphere. Vietnam’s defense minister, General Phung Quang Thanh, called Russia “Vietnam’s primary strategic military partner in the sphere of military and technical cooperation.”[viii] Beyond Russia’s interest in Cam Ranh Bay, Russia is helping Vietnam build a submarine base and repair dockyard to provide maintenance support for other naval platforms. The submarine base will host the Kilo-class subs that Vietnam has bought from Russia to protect Vietnamese interests in the South China Sea.[ix] More recently, both sides have begun discussing a document allowing for regular Russian port visits to Vietnam for maintenance and rest and relaxation, although Cam Ranh Bay will not become a Russian base.[x]
Vietnam and Russia announced a third tranche of the sale of twelve new SU-30MK2 fighter aircraft that can target ships, aerial and ground targets. Vietnam has also ordered six new Varshavyanka-class submarines that represent an improvement on its existing Kilo-class submarines and which can conduct anti-submarine, anti-ship, general reconnaissance, and patrol missions in relatively shallow waters like the South China Sea.[xi] These sales display Vietnam’s defense modernization to defend against threats to its offshore energy interests, defend Vietnamese claims in the South China Sea, and deter growing Chinese aggressiveness. In these respects, it is emulating other Southeast Asian states’ defense-modernization programs to defend against new threats.[xii]
Perhaps the most striking aspect of these recent arms sales and ministerial talks between both states’ defense ministers is the fact that Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev approved a draft Russo-Vietnamese military cooperation pact to formalize the two governments’ defense cooperation. Medvedev’s approval orders the Russian Ministry of Defense to discuss the planned accord with the Vietnamese government and authorizes the Russian ministry to sign the agreement on Russia’s behalf. The planned accord would stipulate exchanges of opinions and information, confidence-building measures, and cooperation to enhance international security and ensure more effective action against terrorism and better arms control.[xiii] And, of course, allegedly nothing in the bilateral relationship is intended to target a third country.[xiv]
However, it is clear that this relationship, whose high points are the new agreement and these arms sales, aims to counter China’s aggressive intentions and behavior in the South China Sea. It is noteworthy that most of these announcements come from the Vietnamese side that clearly has every reason to display publicly to China its ability to garner support for its military buildup and political resistance to Chinese claims. Thus Vietnam not only enjoys strong U.S., Russian, and Indian diplomatic and military support, it is buying weapons from Russia, Sweden, and Israel, among others. Indeed, to strengthen its C4ISR capabilities, Vietnam is also investing in powerful foreign C4ISR systems and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to protect its offshore interests and installations.[xv]
Vietnam’s efforts to weave together a series of partnerships to counter Chinese power are probably not surprising. There are ample precedents for Vietnam’s activity. But Russia’s activities clearly surprised and even dismayed China. Perhaps China should not have been surprised as those policies are clearly part of Moscow’s overall “pivot” to Asia that actually preceded the US “rebalancing” program in Asia and aims to invigorate Moscow’s economic-military-political position as an independent major Asian power in its own right. Indeed, Russia’s moves in the Pacific visibly confirm Edward Luttwak’s observation that given the logic of strategy, China’s increasingly aggressive policies will lead its neighbors and other Asian states, including Russia, to find new ways of collaborating together to check Beijing’s policies.[xvi] Still, China is clearly not happy with the Kremlin’s policies. In 2012, its media called them “unrighteous” and warned Russia that it prefers cooperation with “ill-doers” over cooperation with China, though it professes an identity of interests with Beijing. Chinese media stressed that Russo-Vietnamese military and energy cooperation allows Vietnam to extend energy exploration into contested areas. These articles even charged that Vietnam depends on this cooperation with Russia, so in some sense Russia is culpable. China also correctly accused Russia at that time of seeking a return to Cam Ranh Bay.[xvii] Thus Russia’s “chess moves” suggest that Sino-Russian amity, at least in regard to the Asian regional security agenda, is something of a facade. [xviii]
If this is indeed the case, Russo-Chinese ties may not be as dangerous for the US as some have feared, although there is no reason for complacency since the two governments will clearly collude to block numerous American initiatives globally. But in Asia, we might see added jockeying and competition for support and influence by both major actors like Russia and China and by increasingly capable middle powers like Vietnam that can only add a further dimension of complexity to Asia’s already tangled and complex security agendas.