Putin uses arms sales to ASEAN to increase Russian standing in Southeast Asia

ASEAN nations are buying more weapons than ever before. In doing so, they are helping Putin improve Russia’s international standing.


Air Marshall Yuyu Sutisna was sworn in as Indonesia’s new Air Force Chief of Staff on 17 January 2018. As soon as he took the position,  he announced the purchase of 11 new SU-35 jet fighters. This is not surprising. He is continuing the ASEAN trend of stockpiling arms in recent years.

From 2006 to 2015, military expenditure across Southeast Asia rose by an average of 57%. Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia more than doubled their military spending. Thailand spent five times more money on its military from 2011 to 2016 than it had between 2006 and 2011. But is there an arms race spreading across ASEAN?

Can we call it an arms race?

Undeniably, there has been an increase in military spending in absolute dollar terms. However, military spending as a percentage of GDP has remained consistent. Calling it an arms race may be presumptive.

Vietnam is the only exception. It has dramatically increased its arms procurement activities. Hanoi has increased spending on weapons by 700% from 2006 to 2016. It is now the eighth biggest arms importer globally.

Source: World Bank

It is difficult to argue for the existence of an arms race in ASEAN. But there are emerging trends. Nations are channelling spending to address specific national security concerns.

Countries are channelling spending to combat national security concerns

ASEAN’s weapons procurement is a balanced response to specific national security threats. Vietnam is channelling spending on naval weaponry. Hanoi has accepted the delivery of six fast-attack submarines. It also procured components for new RV-02 medium-range radar systems in 2017. This increase in spending is a direct response to China’s posturing in the South China Sea.

In Thailand, the demand for weaponry has centred around land-based arms. In February the Royal Thai Armed Forces placed an order for new AK rifles. The Thai government is dealing with an insurgency in the South of the country.

Last year, the Philippines had to deal with a terrorist insurgency in Marawi. In response, Duterte’s government is looking to buy light tanks to equip three tank companies. The purchases will cost around PHP9.5 billion (US$185 million).

One country stands to benefit most from ASEAN’s increased military spending

ASEAN nations are increasingly turning to Russia to meet their arms procurement needs. Russia now sells 43.1% of its weapons to Asia. Between 2000 and 2016, Vietnam imported more than 80% of its arms from Russia. Both Myanmar and Laos bought between 60% and 80% of their weapons from Russia.

Source: The Asean Post

Russia is taking over from the US as the go-to source for ASEAN arms purchases. In 2016, the Philippines placed an order for 26,000 weapons from the US. The weapons never came. Congress refused to approve the sale. It believed that Duterte would use the weapons against his own people in the war on drugs. In the end, the Russian government supplied the Philippines with 5,000 AK-74M rifles, one million items of ammunition and 20 trucks.

Countries must meet strict human rights criteria before the US Congress approves the sale. On the other hand, Russian weapons come with no such demands. In 2017, the Philippines turned to Russia. Weapons from the US are also more expensive than their Russian counterparts.

It is no surprise ASEAN countries are turning to Russia. Russia will also provide the 11 SU-35 jets for Yuyu Sutisna’s fleet in Indonesia. As part of the deal, Russia will buy palm oil, coffee and tea from Indonesia.

Arms deals are Moscow’s attempt to position itself as a power in Southeast Asia

Russia has previously overlooked Asia in favour of Europe. Trade with ASEAN nations is still very low. In 2016, ASEAN-Russia trade stood at US$13.3 billion. By contrast, ASEAN-China trade was US$212 billion.

Source: OEC

But the Kremlin wants to change this. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov toured Southeast Asia in 2017. During his visit to Thailand, he pledged to increase Thai-Russian trade by 500%. He also promised to provide “significant favourable conditions” for Indonesian exports to Russia.

Weapons sales to the region provide a platform from which trade can expand. Russia will want ASEAN nations to sign free trade agreements with its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). But first, it must show ASEAN that Russian manufactured goods are competitive. Cheap, good-quality Russian weapons are very competitive.

It forces China and the US to respect Russian power

Trading weapons with ASEAN also aligns with Putin’s foreign policy objectives. He wants the other global powers to take Russia seriously as a superpower. Putin is selling weapons to rival South China Sea claimants. It gives Russia some leverage and puts Russia in the South China Sea picture. This is where Putin wants to be, front and centre of an international crisis.

ASEAN represents an opportunity for Russia to increase its international standing. Putin has a long-term vision for Russian-ASEAN relations. His arms deals provide a platform to build a thriving trade relationship with the bloc. Then, he will push ASEAN nations to sign trade agreements with his EEU.

For now, Russia’s goals align well with ASEAN’s. ASEAN nations want to buy weapons to deal with threats to their security. Russia wants to sell them. All parties want to offset China’s economic and military dominance in the region. The relationship benefits both parties. While it continues to do so, Putin will find willing buyers in ASEAN for Russian weapons.